Decaying Utopia and the Symbolism of Puerto Rico’s Tropical Modernism: the paintings of Rogelio Báez Vega

I recently spent two months in San Juan, Puerto Rico. I was there for work, advising student research. I enjoyed my experience and also feel I didn’t scratch the surface of what Puerto Rico is and offers, with such a depth of identity.

What was easily noticeable on the streets, however, was the abundance of modernist hotels and apartments in the areas of Santurce, Condado, and Miramar. I couldn’t ignore the details, the contrast in white vs shadow, and the pairing of palms against concrete brise-soleil.

white concrete modernist structure in San Juan with open texture wall.
brise-soleil, pattered shade wall on a modernist hotel, San Juan
Photos: Melissa Belz

In my down time, I explored San Juan’s museums. In multiple museum collections and one solo exhibit, I was struck by the poignant work of Rogelio Báez Vega. Báez’ work, as explained for his solo show Tropical Decay at Museo de Arte y Diseño de Miramar, portrays Puerto Rico’s mid-century modernist architecture as a symbol of a colonial project that aimed to redefine Puerto Rico with its own “myth of progress and abundance.”

Through beeswax and gold dust, varying from smooth, almost scraped paint applications, to thick impasto, Báez depicts the iconic buildings abandoned, devoid of humans, taken over by the abundance of the island’s vegetation.

Rogelio Baez Vega painting from Tropical Decay
Rogelio Baez Vega @ Tropical Decay MADMi

The modernist buildings in Puerto Rico were designed through a master plan to symbolize progress and improved quality of life, the shift from an agrarian society to a modern, tropical destination.

The iconic buildings that best signaled this transition were the privately operated hotels, built with public funds. Tourism was seen as the best form of economic development. But investment left the island debt-burdened and with a precarious economy that is evident today.

The Iconic Tropical Modern Hotels

The Hotel La Concha, for example was constructed in 1958, in Condado, now a busy tourist area. La Concha was considered groundbreaking as a model of modern tropical architecture. Its open lobby, cross ventilation, use of shading devices, its connection of indoors and outdoors, all illustrate Tropical Modernism.

But the symbolism of mid-century modern architecture goes much deeper. John Hertz, (UT San Antonio and UPR) argued that modernism in Puerto Rico had the intention of representing an image of progress and industrialization within a tropical context. “Employing the vocabulary of modernism became the means of realizing radical social change through the construction of significant projects..”.

Earlier plans for Puerto Rico’s development, from mainland architects, emphasized the Spanish Revival style or California Mission, but both met with resistance from local populations as styles of colonizing powers (Hertz 2002). Tropical Modernism offered a way to break with the past, not only in Puerto Rico but across the globe.

The international style, most say, was born in France from Le Corbuier. However, it had no history to a place or culture. It was relatively placeless and therefore didn’t bring the baggage associated with other styles imposed through colonization.

Furthermore, La Concha’s modernist style was also rooted in local traditions, references to the ocean, and indigenous central meeting spaces. The cultural autonomy invoked in La Concha’s design, however, contradicted its purpose as a luxury hotel for outsiders, with funding from foreign and mainland capital.

As planners sought a progressive and autonomous Puerto Rico, they continued to operate under a colonial framework, which would burden the island with insurmountable debt into the future.

Báez’ Content on Puerto Rico’s Decaying Modernist Utopia

These are the paradoxes Báez confronts in his work. In Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico, the exhibit Puerto Rico Plural, I saw Báez’ piece, Social Interest or Walmart at Santurce (2013), which speaks to gentrification, superficial modernity, and social disparity evident throughout Puerto Rico. He questions what progress is if it displaces communities and leads to social disparity.

Rogelio Baez Vega @ Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico

In the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo, Báez’ largescale paintings from his De Memoria series depict modern architectural landscapes, taken over by nature. But here he uses reference to human figures and memory, as he reflects on the landscapes of his childhood that have changed and disappeared. He explains the series here for a different piece held by the Whitney, which I saw in 2023 in a collective show of Puerto Rican artists. It is of Báez’ childhood elementary school, now closed, along with more than 600 others due to budget cuts and emigration. (See Photo of the 1986, Santurce, Puerto Rico, 2022, – can’t seem to embed anymore.)

In Tropical Decay at Museo de Arte y Diseño de Miramar, Báez’ 22 paintings depict the decline of the modernization project of Puerto Rico. Portraying dystopian modern landscapes through the best-maintained and well-respected buildings, he depicts them covered in vines and plants, nature taking over.

The buildings of the movement are meant to symbolize progress and glory, but instead portray neglect – some through artistic interpretation, others reflecting reality, such as the University of Puerto Rico.

Curator, Marilú Purcell, explains that Báez’ work is free from nostalgia, offering a critical view of Puerto Rico’s current reality, including lack of development vision, mismanagement, and disillusionment. These paintings express the inevitable decay of a project conceived and implemented by a colonial government to portray Puerto Rico as an American capitalist success story.

Architecture in its vernacular form reflects culture and embodies the identity and values of any society. In Topical Modernism, emphasis is placed on adaptations that help buildings relate to place in the tropics. However, that is not enough to pacify the reality of corruption and neglect.

Unfortunately, the Modernist movement in Puerto Rico and the era of large-scale development in the mid-20th century, were at the expense of long-term vision for the economy and the livelihoods of Puerto Ricans, as depicted through Báez’ compelling work.

Other post of interest:

Some sources

John B. Hertz (2002) Authenticity, Colonialism, and the Struggle with Modernity, Journal of Architectural Education, 55:4, 220-227  

Hertz, John B., Architecture as Transformation: Puerto Rican Modernism. ACSA

Modernizing the Colonial City: Operation Bootstrap and Urbanization in San Juan, Puerto Rico By Angelo Pis-Dudot TC ’17 Written for “Latin American Cities” Professor Andra Chastain Faculty Advisor: Professor Anne Eller

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