By Margarita Gonzalez, Assoc. AIA | Member of the Equity, Diversity and Inclusiveness Committee
According to the most recent census, the Hispanic population in Colorado accounts for 21.8 percent, although only 2 percent of AIA Colorado license holders are from that ethnicity. This percentage can look small, but the number of Hispanic architecture students currently enrolled in Colorado schools of architecture is promising to change AIA’s DNA for years to come. The AIA Colorado Equity, Diversity and Inclusiveness Committee honors Hispanic Heritage Month by highlighting our Hispanic members’ commonalities and by extending an invitation to the next generations of architects to embrace their heritage.
It is extremely difficult to either extract the specificities of Hispanic architects in the Colorado context or to connect a minority to a specific way of doing architecture. Robert Adam’s survey of early Colorado Hispanic heritage architecture is now part of our past. Cultural assimilation shaped many of our Hispanic architects’ ideas, and yet some parallels are visible in their inherited multiculturalism, their altruistic desire to build communities, the strengths developed thanks to their family bonds and their bilingualism.
As a country, we’ve started acknowledging the inaccuracy to consider Hispanics under a single ethnic umbrella. Neither force nor constitution ever united the Hispanic population. Hispanics from Latin America and Europe can refer to multiple ancestors at the same time thanks to the combination of native and colonialist pasts. If America’s indigenous architecture has many forms and levels of development, the architectural cradle for many Latinos remains in the colonialist neighborhoods, the neoclassical governmental landmarks, and the 1950s metropolises. European Hispanics will complete the mental landscape by adding influences from the Roman Empire, the medieval times, or the Arab culture, among others. It is under this global imagery that Hispanic heritage becomes so inherently diverse. For a Hispanic born in the U.S. or abroad, the sense of belonging to a wider culture, and therefore to represent and use such information in architecture is a part of his/her life experience. As Juan Gabriel Luna principal of Rogue Architecture explains, “The thought of ‘leaving’ roots and family, the thought of ‘finding and making’ a new identity, these are formative processes that have changed my views. That affects how I see the world as a malleable, pulsating, organic environment, that I have control over.”
The ability to dig down into collective and individual memories is a skill practiced by many architects. The Brazilian 2006 Pritzker Price Paulo Mendes Da Rocha condensed this idea in the book Maquetes de Papel: “Our ideas are generated by sophisticated dialogues with our sophisticated universe of interlocutors either if they are dead or alive.” Such ability to communicate in different dimensions, including time, is a skill Hispanics seem to transcend perhaps as a result of their lineage tradition and their inherent bilingualism.
Our interviewees shared a natural desire to serve their communities, a practice in which the respect to family bonds goes beyond their household to reach the borders of duty. AIA Colorado Denver Director Ignacio Correa-Ortiz, AIA, and Senior Architect and Urban Designer at RTD, describes this idea at the center of his work, as it “involves interpreting a community’s aspirations, and therefore community input is at the center of it.” Definitively, strong social ties are resilient skills to function better in the world, as Ely Merheb, Principal of Verso, describes what sets her apart: “The way I interact with everyone—from clients to consultants, from staff to GCs—is heavily influenced by the warmth and familiarity of Hispanic culture. I’ve been able to balance establishing very professional, yet joyous and familial working relationships, where every member of a project is empowered. Valuing and treating people with respect becomes more important to me every day.”
Good relationships are the key to a better more comprehensive and tolerant architecture, a skill popularly connected to bilingualism. According to the Harvard Graduate School of Education, bilingualism is often seen as a brain-sharpening benefit that allows for more exploratory actions, increasing conceptual originality, and enhancing flexible problem solving. If we think of architecture as a universal language, a bilingual mind can relate to wider concepts and therefore reach a larger circle within that universe. A fluent bilingual Hispanic carries the soul of her or his culture, casting a greater impactful shadow wherever she or he goes.
Although there is a common belief that every architect develops an autobiographical architecture, our AIA Hispanic members share the notion that their intangible heritage makes them unique, and therefore, the more we understand who we are, the better we can service people and understand them, the better the architecture we can provide. In today’s world, Hispanics can perceive their heritage as a handful of broken mirrors, and yet our call for the new generations is to reflect on them, and embrace their culture, appreciate its value and share their views, because there is great richness and creativity in diversity.