Una temprana visión sobre los inicios de la vanguardia arquitectónica en República Dominicana.
"WHO DESIGNED this hotel?” I asked Tony Vaughn, the manager of the Jaragua, when he joined me one morning at seven o’clock breakfast. Seven is the pleasantest hour of the day in Trujillo when the sun is not yet too hot and the breeze comes in from the sea. "Sr. Antonio,” who is Irish and young and late of the U. S. Navy, answered any question about the Jaragua with the alacrity of a doting father who is talking about his only child.
"William Gonzalez,” he said. "He’s a Dominican architect who has won prizes all over the map. He’s around every day. We’re building sixty new rooms and some cottages over behind the pool.”
It was not difficult to pick out Mr. Gonzalez among the men who frequented the lobby, for I was looking for somebody moderately young, crisp and compact and free of mannerisms, as modern as tomorrow, tempered with a certain expansive graciousness. He was all of these, a moderately tall, well-built man of forty-six with a squarely modelled face, a shade of a moustache, close- cropped greying hair, a smartness that suggested military training and warm, friendly, brown eyes.
As we walked around the front of the Jaragua looking for the breeze—he of all people should know best where to find it—he told me something about the practice of architecture in the Republic. Here the architect does everything from the ground up, "cooking the meal and serving it too.” He doesn’t live in an ivory tower with draftsmen turning out drawings in his office and contractors carrying out his plans. In the firm of Gonzalez, for instance, he does the designing, the detailing and the supervising of the job, while his brother does the contracting and the buying.
For this reason he has developed a system by which he solves many details as the building progresses and these spontaneous solutions arrived at by working with the actual materials are often much better than those which he works out in the remoter atmosphere of his office. Of course, this method wouldn’t be practicable in the United States where plans are sent out to contractors for bids, but in this small country where everyone knows everybody else and no one can get away with dishonesty, it works very satisfactorily. Then too, it is more fun than following a plan in which every nail and screw has been inserted. It seems to him more like the principle of sculpture to do it as you go along.
He likes this part of the business, the physical activity, the moving about from place to place, and he likes the actual handling of materials, tile and glass and hardware; even the sound of a cement mixer is music to him. It is as well because public building in the Republic is chiefly building-block construction with reinforced concrete simple to use and cool; or entirely reinforced concrete. Masonry is impractical since the rock of the island is coral and good only for decoration. The Spaniards used it but their walls were four or five feet thick; a method of construction that is neither economical nor practical today. The brick (there is very little of it) is not used because it is unfaced. Even if there were a wider choice, Mr. Gonzalez would like concrete because it is more flexible than brick or masonry.
I asked him if the architects use color in concrete, or if not, how did these buildings like the Jaragua keep their startling whiteness.
"Just plain lime-water, whitewash, you call it. This gives a soft finish and is inexpensive,” Mr. Gonzalez told me. "The Jaragua gets a coat twice a year.”
"Of course,” he added, "we couldn’t use it in New York.” We both laughed, thinking of the finger marks and soot smudges that would trace murals on such a building after one day in Manhattan.
We were interrupted by a rice buyer from Havana who had extricated himself from the deep chair in which he had been consuming "a long one,” and wanted to know what he could find to take his wife. This gesture of Pan-American friendship accomplished, we turned back to our contemplation of the Caribbean and the golden brown back of a girl sitting on the edge of the pool.
Was the Jaragua, I asked Mr. Gonzalez, European in inspiration? It looked to me like some of the Scandinavian buildings I had seen in architectural magazines.
Mr. Gonzalez gave me the smile of a man with a slightly guilty conscience. He is a great admirer of Finnish and Swedish architecture and says he may have picked up an idea or two—architects always take the best features they see, regardless of their origin—but in its functional design he considers the Jaragua purely United States. However, as it was designed for the tropics, he had an unusual opportunity to make it beautiful as well as practical.
‘'It’s like dressing an attractive woman. You add a touch of lip stick, a little rouge, perhaps a stroke of an eyebrow pencil, never too much, and an accent of color here and there. After all,” he concluded, "I am a Latin.”
I wondered if he was a hyphenated Dominican as we North Americans so often are, or if his family went back to the caballeros of Columbus the way we trace ours to the Mayflower. He was purely Dominican, he told me. His father’s family had been Dominican for many generations, they had always lived in old Santo Domingo although his father had studied dentistry in Philadelphia. His mother was a Cuban, and her father a Spanish-American from St. Augustine.
William or Guillermo Gonzalez Sanchez as he writes his name in his home country where the mother’s name is used as well as the father’s, came to the United States when he was twenty and after six years of working in architects’ offices and studying at Columbia, he entered the Yale School of Architecture. That is, he was accepted on probation because his credits weren’t very regular, but at least he was in, and he trusted to luck and his ability to stick. When he won the first prize he knew that he was secure. The next year he won the Fontainebleau prize given yearly by the French government, a great honor even if he couldn’t spend the summer in France because the prize was limited to American citizens. A year later—he did four years in three—Gonzalez graduated among the top three in his class and won honorable mention for a coveted travelling fellowship.
"Then,” said Gonzalez, "a wonderful thing happened to me.” Every one had expected him to win the scholarship but instead, it was awarded to his dearest friend, the late Theodore Lamb of Chicago. Lamb, who was an outstanding young architect, belonged to a wealthy family. When he learned that he, not his friend, had won the prize, he was so disappointed that he gave an equal amount for a second scholarship. The two friends started together but Gonzalez stretched his scholarship farther; by travelling steerage and third class and living in attic rooms he was able to stay abroad eight months and see all of Europe except Russia and the Balkans.
"Then I came back to New York to fight. See those Negroes on the steps chopping out the grass between the flagstones with their machetes?” Down on the wide approach that descended a step every few yards to the avenue, I saw the two men he indicated, squatting on their knees and hacking away with their long knives. "They call that 'fighting.’ Instead of saying 'I’m going to work’ they say 'I’m going to fight’. Well, I returned to fight in New York for several years, most of them with Francis Keally and Edward Stone. Then I came home and began to fight here.”
It was a good fight for soon he won two prizes, one a competitive design for Ramfis Park, the children’s playground in the middle of Ciudad Trujillo. I knew the place for I had stopped there several times, attracted by the rose pillars of the arcade between the halls of the building, one a playroom with low bookcases full of children’s stories, the other a large hall for indoor sports. The patio for roller skating, the swimming pool, even the bird cage and the aquarium, fitted into a simple and very charming design. In the late afternoon the grown people seemed to be enjoying the park even more than the children for there were groups of young men playing chess on the verandah and ballet dancers practicing in the hall.
With the prize money for the design of the Ramfis, Mr. Gonzalez returned to the land he loved most, Spain, and there he met the second most wonderful thing that ever happened to him, a girl in Malaga. In spite of his crispness and modernity he is a romantic for whom life always holds the promise of something glorious. Maybe he didn’t know about the advice of the sociologists that your chances of being happy are heightened if you marry the girl around the block whom you have known all your life, or maybe he just thumbed his nose at it, for he married the girl after being engaged to her for four years during which he saw her only four times, and they shot the law of averages so full of holes that you could use it for a sieve.
They were in Spain during the revolution, a period of shattered nerves and overwrought sympathies from which they were rescued by a cable from the Dominican government asking Gonzalez to supervise the Dominican Pavilion at the World’s Fair in New York. This was the turning point for which all the other years had been preparation. In New York he met President Trujillo who commissioned him to design the Jaragua. The order was an architect’s dream for he had a free hand limited only by the money he was given to spend, a limitation that made him design exceedingly carefully both from the practical and the aesthetic point of view.
For the most part Mr. Gonzalez was obliged to use what he called primitive materials. There was no luxurious or expensive finish with the exception of several things that came from the United States, such as the elevators, and the Herculite doors—the beautiful solid glass entrance doors. Most of the material was brought from America except the tile. The Republic makes beautiful tile. The war complicated matters so much that Mr. Gonzalez resorted to many expedients that in the end were aesthetically a success; for example the massive and unusual baroque carved wood chandelier in the ballroom which he designed and ordered from the United States. However, he told me, there are wood carvers in the Republic who could have done it.
"One of the best is Mr. Palacios,” he said. "You must look him up. Almost any day you drop into his shop opposite the cemetery you’ll see a fine altar that he is making for some convent or an intricately carved Renaissance chair. He does excellent inlay and will make you anything from a cigarette box to a dining room set.”
We stepped through the open glass doors of the ballroom to look at the bold and graceful branches of the chandelier. Another detail I thought particularly attractive was the rose and blue draperies at the entrance, so I asked who had been the interior decorator.
"I,” said Mr. Gonzalez. He hadn’t intended to do it, in fact, he had hoped to leave that part to Dorothy Draper whose work he admires, but what with the war and one thing and another, he ended by doing everything, selecting the furniture, the chintzes, planning the landscaping. He saw it through from the first trial sketch to the last hibiscus bush against the front wall and petunia around the fountain.
With all this experience in making people comfortable in a decorative setting I wondered what sort of home Mr. Gonzalez had designed for his Spanish wife and their young son and daughter. When I asked him about this ideal house, he chuckled.
"That’s a paradox,” he answered. "We still haven’t built our own home. It’s the hardest thing in the world for an architect to do, he has so many ideas that he can’t possibly get them all into one house, so I keep on living in one that I built to camp in temporarily and now I don’t know when I’ll ever get around to building a proper one. Sometimes I think I’ll open an architectural competition and pick the best design. Anyway,” he added, "I’d rather do public buildings than residences.” I suggested this might be because he had found a board of directors easier to deal with than one changeable housewife, but he gave me a noncommittal smile.
Since the construction of the Jaragua Mr. Gonzalez has more work than he can manage. One of his structures that he likes best is the club the President gave to the workers of Ciudad Trujillo. It had attracted me when I stopped to look at it several days earlier and wandered into the spacious open hall with its roof supported by four massive black concrete pillars. The design is bold and simple; game rooms, an illuminated handball court, a broad stairway across one entire end of the hall leading to a dance floor and balconies above.
Several men were playing billiards in the game room. One of them, a tall, grey man with a courtly manner and a face of the type we would like to think of as belonging to a U. S. Senator, left the game and showed me over the building, making me, a total stranger from the street, feel as though I were a distinguished guest. He was the president, Mr. Gonzalez told me. The club was given to the workers completely equipped and since then they have maintained it themselves.
Now Mr. Gonzalez is chugging from one job to another in his little German car that goes sixty miles to a gallon and can be picked up and put anywhere by four strong men—"the kind they exchanged in Germany for a pound of coffee.” Sometimes the spark plugs give out or he has a flat, but he avers he has never known a car that gave such service.
At the moment he is designing two new resort hotels— he likes hotels best of all and wishes he could keep right on doing them forever—and the School of Engineering that will be built next year. He is one of the board of four architects who are responsible for the creation of University City. The engineering school he considers the most advanced work he has designed thus far in regard to modern functionalism, appropriateness in form and layout. Indeed, efficiency is his chief concern; he believes if the planning is sound he can take care of the aesthetics easily, in fact, they will be dictated by the design itself.
This was an opportunity to ask him about the slim concrete wedges like the slats of shutters set on end, that form a colonnade along the open side of the corridors in the School of Medicine and shade them without cutting off the air. As some of these slabs were lying in a pile in front of the half-finished building in the rear, I guessed that they were an integral part of the design for all the buildings. They were exceedingly decorative from the exterior, and I wondered if they were new in tropical architecture.
Not new, Mr. Gonzalez said, but good; they had been borrowed from Brazil.
When the engineering building is completed, Mr. Gonzalez will move into some of the classrooms for he is the Professor of Architecture. He has a lively class, and three of his boys hope to go to Yale this year.
For relaxation from this complicated life, Mr. Gonzalez swims, otherwise he is completely involved in architecture. He thinks it, plans it, speaks in terms of it, not only what he is doing today but what he envisions when restrictions on building material are lifted in the United States, and the Dominican Republic enters the period of expansion that he foresees.
A bellboy came around one of the palms in the rose pottery jars and called Mr. Gonzalez to the telephone. He excused himself and crossed the verandah, crisp and trim, very U. S. and Yale, yet with something plus, a certain tropical graciousness, for, as he says of his architecture, "After all, I am a Latin.”