Distant Tropicality

By focusing on the iconic representation of mid-twentieth-century works of architecture, Enoc Pérez invites us to reflect on the multiple ways in which the built environment and cultural memory are interrelated. The hotel pictured in Hotel La Concha (2005), designed by the firm of Osvaldo Toro and Miguel Ferrer and inaugurated in 1958, was at the center of a tourism-fueled building boom in San Juan, Puerto Rico, the city where Pérez is originally from, which took place shortly after the island had problematically become a U.S. Commonwealth domain. Pérez's etching casts the iconic view of the hotel as it would have appeared in myriad popular reproductions of the building, particularly in postcards and other ephemera, in a nostalgic light. Prominently displayed in the image is the modernist language of the hotel's architecture. Adapting modernism's universalizing forms to the tropical climate of San Juan, the hotel employed such features as sun-breakers, louvers intended to partially block sunlight from hitting the transparent, glass sections of the building's skin. Also significant in this hotel was the use of thin concrete shells to create the vaulting seen in the bottom of Pérez's image, as well as the centerpiece of the whole complex, a conch-shaped restaurant and ballroom, which provides the hotel with its name and has long served as its primary attraction. In revealing its mass-mediated origins, Pérez's image also showcases its own artificiality, and by extension, compels one to consider the artificiality of this hotel's scenography. An architectural complex designed to fulfill the expectations of sensuousness and pleasure that 'foreigners' often associate with the tropics, this hotel is simultaneously rooted in its 'real' geographical setting (which includes its carefully planted palm trees and rigorously selected beachfront site), and in an imagined geography of the mind. Adding to the image's complexity is the hotel's condition as an iconic marker of Puerto Rico's modern history, a history defined by uneasy relationships between the island and the United States, and within which tourism's cultural and economic effects, negative and positive, have played a preeminent role. Beyond these specific associations, the image powerfully reminds us that the affective ties between iconic artworks, buildings, and places -real as well as imagined- are always mediated by multiple layers of representation.