Design Talks | Stark tropical modernism

09 Nov 2017
4 min read
When Simon Baeyertz decided to quit the music industry in New York and build a hotel in Puerto Rico, the result was a brilliant example of stark tropical modernism, writes Kerry Spencer for FOUR Architecture & Design.
Modernist Architecture

“The idea behind El Blok was very simple,” explains first-time hotelier Simon Baeyertz, as we discuss his modernist hotel in Puerto Rico. “My partners and I were in love with Vieques, the relaxed but slightly edgy vibe of Esperanza and the whole island.”

Vieques is an island off (and part of) Puerto Rico once inhabited by the US Navy, who used some ofthe island as an exercise range.

Baeyertz first travelled to this Caribbean island, which lies between the Dominican Republic to the west and the British Virgin Islands to the east, in 2005.

Having acquired a patch of land in 2008, Baeyertz set about creating the concept for El Blok with local San Juan-architect Fuster + Architects, with Nataniel Fúster working as the principle architect on the project. “In terms of design, what makes El Blok unique is its particular approach in response to its program, the place, its construction, the owners aspirations and to its local cultural and natural environment,” Fúster explains.

Perhaps the biggest triumph of the hotel’s design is the use of natural light, which funnels into the building. Baeyertz praises his architectural collaborator, saying: “[Fuster + Architects’] understanding of light, movement and ultimately the form of the building had an enormous impact on the finished hotel.”

Fuster + Architects were responsible for the light wells that illuminate the middle floor balconies and the manifestation of a traditional central courtyard to naturally ventilate the building. “And, of course, [they were also responsible for] a deep respect and understanding of tropical modernism that informs the look of El Blok in the context of modernist Puerto Rican architecture,” Baeyertz adds.

Fúster admits that the design techniques used to maximise natural light in the building is what he is most proud of on this project. Particularly, he says “the way light enters through the prefabricated panels on the façade and filters to the balconies and the rooms. This forms light compositions that, when it plays against the coloured hydraulic tiles, constantly changes in pattern, location and colouring. It’s like an ‘ornament of light’ that complements the building spaces and forms. Conversely, an interesting filigree effect is created at night when light from the inside of the building shines outward.”

El Blok has a striking finish, with a sea of concrete washing over the building. It’s stark, but the building also remains true to nature. “Ultimately, the [inspiration] is that of a block of coral; protective on the outside, beautiful on the inside. Equally nourishing, supportive and fragmentary, penetrated by light and the currents of the outside world,” explains Baeyertz.

As well as the size of the space itself, wider Caribbean influences were also incorporated into the design and build, says Fúster. “Although the design was mainly inspired by the density, permeability and compactness of the coral reef, there are other references to the Caribbean colonial vernacular such as the use of patios, hydraulic tiles and balconies contained by building membranes. Other influences are some of the fluid spaces in the 1950s modern architecture in tropical locations that were very suitable to reinterpret in open spaces like the restaurant area.”

The building is compact, but makes good use of space, including 21 rooms, a rooftop terrace, restaurant and public spaces. One of the most unique aspects of the building is the use of Hidrolico (encaustic cement) tiles throughout, which were manufactured in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, specifically for El Blok. “These are a traditional coloured concrete tile used throughout countries of Spanish heritage, usually with beautiful old patterns, but we used them both with mono-colours, custom design and sometimes laid them with random patterns, [thus] highlighting an old material used in a new way,” Baeyertz explains.

The 160-plus-perforated panels surrounding the building’s façade were designed by Arq Fuster and made with glass-fibre reinforced concrete by Arq Oscar Marti in Santo Domingo. Baeyertz reveals: “Each one weighs about 140 pounds and has a three-dimensional pattern in hand polished terrazzo on the outside, giving a beautiful play on shadows as the sun moves across the building. Some of them open as well, [which is] no small feat of engineering.”

Interestingly, Baeyertz explains that there are hardly any straight walls within the building, with “the structural cantilevering of the two floors of rooms above the restaurant allowing enormous design freedom”.

The interior and its furnishings have been equally well designed, with most pieces custom made or locally sourced before being modified for the building. Jorge Iglesias, a local artisan, has created the restaurant’s tables and leaning bar, which are made from Puerto Rican hardwoods that were felled in the 1950s, but held in a family-owned sawmill in Ciales (in the mountains on the Puerto Rican mainland).

The bar is the centrepiece of the public space and is based on a surfboard, created in Corian by Reynold Rodriguez for La Factoria. The Hans Wegner-influenced chairs were hand-stained and oiled onsite, while the bar stools and chairs in the guest rooms are made by Muebles Villabos, a family-owned artisanal furniture maker in Ciales.

In addition to the handcrafted furniture, each piece with its own story to tell, there is an abundance of unique artwork and sculptures displayed throughout El Blok, too.

Baeyertz describes one particular standout piece by Puerto Rican twin brothers Jaimee and Javier Suárez. “The Nichos installation by Jaimee and Javier is a stunning piece that is the centre point to the hotel. It is a manmade but natural intervention in the building’s public space, simultaneously playful, a sexualised but slightly ominous reference to the surroundings. There is also a beautiful Wifredo Lam piece in the restaurant, [that] I [bought] years ago in Cuba, that I love.”

With glowing reviews since opening the hotel in late 2014, Baeyertz’s transition from music manager to hotelier is complete. And while the project has been a big learning curve for him, Baeyertz is undeterred from expanding the brand to open more hotels. “When we opened El Blok the thought of doing that marathon of insanity again was incomprehensible, but now, with a little distance, a lot of learning and a new lease on life, I’m itching to create another one, either in Vieques, Puerto Rico or further afield,” he admits.

“El Blok was intended as an anchor point [for guests] to explore and enjoy—a haven of a comfortable bed, great food and cocktails and a social environment to enjoy after a hard day [of] doing nothing,” Baeyertz finishes.