Exploring the Intersection Between Climate and Colonial Architecture in Colombia: An Interview with Alberto Martinez Garcia
In this interview with CLAIS, Master of Environmental Design candidate at the Yale School of Architecture Alberto Martinez Garcia spoke about his summer experience in Colombia with support of the Council on Latin American and Iberian Studies (CLAIS.) In Colombia, Martinez Garcia researched on the relation between sustainability, climate, and colonial architecture.
How did you become interested in examining Spanish colonial architecture in the Americas from a climatic perspective?
I studied architecture in Madrid and, a few years after graduating went to New York City. I worked for a while there, and in 2021, I decided to go back to school to pursue the work I am currently doing, which is an independent research project. I became interested in colonial architecture when I went to Latin America for the first time. The idea about Latin America from the outside is “all Latin America is tropical,” but once I was there, I saw how much it resembles Spanish architecture. I wondered about the effects that climate might have had on the Spanish colonization of America, especially on the architecture, and decided to investigate whether there was an adaptation to the climate. My initial assumption was that Spanish architecture adapted to the climate, but my research showed it did not adapt at all. Certain architectural models used in the Mediterranean area were taken to Latin America and imposed on the existing ecologies and local models. With this idea in mind, I applied to the Master of Environmental Design program at the Yale School of Architecture. I started developing interests that connect environmental history, coloniality and decoloniality theories, and the extraction of resources. Important themes are exhibited in this architectural process, like power relations, racism, and environmental declaration, to name a few, and it soon became evident how architecture and climate could be combined and explain the history of Latin America.
Why did you choose Colombia for this project?
When I started the program, I started investigating various case studies I was interested in, mainly in Mexico, Peru, Colombia, and the Philippines. In Peru, for example, Spanish architecture is literally built right on top of the Inca architecture. Once they had conquered the area, they would destroy what we can call a “first base” or the second floor of the Inca architecture, and the colony was built on top. However, since the duration of the program itself is not very long, I decided to center on tropical climates. I specifically chose to focus on two case studies in Colombia –which I pursued thanks to CLAIS support– and in Manila, in the Philippines. I connected both cases to theories of coloniality, in which certain imaginaries are maintained even centuries after colonization. I thought that the cases of Mompox and Cartagena were really interesting. These theories helped me understand that the architecture built at the start of the 17th century, as well as the end of the 16th century and the early 18th century, the use of bricks persists (and until this day). I could see how this use is completely misaligned with the environmental conditions of the place and also how all indigenous knowledge and modes of building that were pervasive in all the region were erased.
I wondered about the effects that climate might have had on the Spanish colonization of America, especially on the architecture, and decided to investigate whether there was an adaptation to the climate. My initial assumption was that Spanish architecture adapted to the climate, but my research showed it did not adapt at all”
In the September 2023 issue of “NOTESBOOK,” you published a sketch of your master’s thesis. Could you talk more about it? What your initial objectives were, what steps you took to pursue them, and what results you ultimately achieved?
The NOTESBOOK issue is a side project I have with a friend. They contacted us to interview us and asked if we could share a piece of writing. Since I had just returned from Colombia, I thought I could send them a sketch of my own project in Colombia – it is a very small part of my thesis project. So, I used my research project in Colombia, titled “Thermal (dis)Comfort in Spanish Colonial Architecture.” In Colombia, I wanted to visit national libraries and archives that had published various projects on colonial houses and historical architecture restorations in books from the 50s and the 60s. Such documents are impossible to find at Yale, so once again, I wanted to extend my gratitude to CLAIS for having made this possible.
Moreover, being physically present at the site of many of these case studies on colonial architecture was crucial, given that there are few readily available historical sources on the domestic life of this colonial period. So I started in Bogotá, where I was able to visit the National Library and the National Archives. After that, I went along the Magdalena River, going to Mompox and then ending in Cartagena. A notable element of this journey was actually experiencing the climate: one can read a lot on this and use quantitative data on temperatures and variations, but once you are physically present there, you realize how hot it is. It is really hot, and you realize that even inside the house, it is incredibly hot –especially in Mompox– and your body starts to react to being kept indoors. I was also able to do some oral history by visiting some houses in Mompox and talking to the residents. As you can see, having been able to visit these places in person was an invaluable contribution to the development of my project, and it wouldn’t have been possible without the help of CLAIS. But to talk more specifically about the project “Thermal (dis)Comfort in Spanish Colonial Architecture” itself, what led me to develop it in the way I did was my initial assumption that in this type of [colonial] architecture, there had been a process of hybridization or mixture between the colonial and the indigenous, but I was soon proven wrong, at least in the Colombian case.
[…] Having been able to visit these places in person was an invaluable contribution to the development of my project, and it wouldn’t have been possible without the help of CLAIS”
How was the process of planning your summer experience? What were the main challenges encountered during the preparation stage and once you were in Colombia?
The main challenge was working with the archives. For example, if you send one email, you may get a response in four months, or you might never even get one. It’s not the Beinecke [laughs]; most historical archives are state or municipal archives, so any paperwork involves many steps and a lot of bureaucracy. I’d say that would be the most difficult part of the process. So, for working on any project that requires archival access outside the United States, I’d say it is essential to allocate extra time to get access to the documents one needs. It is important to research the archive in advance before actually getting there – that makes things much easier.
Can you say more about the “horizontal stratification” process you mentioned that the Mompox colonial houses followed?
It contrasts the “vertical stratification” that houses in Cartagena follow. In Cartagena, there are casas patio, or patio houses, of two and a half floors with a very strong vertical stratification with a lot to do, in my opinion, with the power relations in the colonies. On the lower floor, the owner would entertain his guests. The colonial houses in Cartagena have a sort of mezzanine with very low ceilings, which was where enslaved people lived. Lastly, on the second floor –with very tall ceilings– the private, family life took place. This is what we talk about when we say “vertical stratification.” In Mompox, however, the opposite happened. Since it is an island and there were no problems of space, the stratification that occurs in colonial houses is horizontal. So, at the front of the house, there would be a sort of living room, a more public space where guests would be received. The domestic, private part of the house would be right in the middle, and the serfdom, the enslaved people would be at the very back. In this way, we can observe the hierarchical gradient of power. So, that’s part of it. This summer project was full of important learning experiences that will be fundamental for the ongoing development of my master’s thesis at the Yale School of Architecture.
And lastly, would you like to note anything about the support you’ve received from the Council of Latin American and Iberian Studies at the Yale MacMillan Center?
My gratitude to CLAIS will be eternal; they were incredibly generous with their support for my summer experience. As I noted, their support was fundamental for the development of my project, and I would not have been able to travel through the Magdalena River and understand some aspects of my thesis that were not possible to do from New Haven. Thank you very much!
By Leda Blaires Ciotti, CLAIS Student Programming Assistant, email@example.com