Architecture students in Puerto Rico have responded with a counter-proposal to Governor Andrew Cuomo’s recent request for architects to submit ideas for a Hurricane Maria memorial in New York.

Francisco J. Rodríguez-Suarez, architect, professor, and former dean of the University of Puerto Rico School of Architecture (UPR-RP), posted a series of photomontages by his third-year students on Twitter (@paco-rsvp) last week—a competition project inspired by a class discussion during the first week of the semester. Some 16 pieces were made public on his feed, each depicting American and Puerto Rican symbols overlayed with contradictory images. One of the most scroll-stopping images features a group of construction workers raising an electric poll atop a pile of rubble. It mimics the famous photograph taken in 1945 of six Marines raising the U.S. flag at Iwo Jima.

UPR-RP student Manuel Torregrosa-Cueto visualized the lifting of Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria in September 2017 “as if it were our Iwo Jima,” he told AN in an email. (Courtesy University of Puerto Rico School of Architecture/Manuel E. Torregrosa-Cueto)

Rodríguez-Suarez told David Begnaud, CBS This Morning’s lead national correspondent, that his students talked about the possibility of participating in Cuomo’s request for proposals, but ultimately decided to pursue making the anti-memorial imagery instead. They “unanimously felt the wounds had not healed enough and also questioned the appropriateness of the politics behind a memorial in New York,” Rodríguez-Saurez said in a quote on Begnaud’s Twitter. The journalist called the students’ ideas “protest work” and an “academic critique” of Cuomo’s RFP.

In an email, Rodríguez-Suarez explained to AN that the project was part of a larger competition studio where emerging designers learn how to present strategy and develop critical thinking skills. They typically engage in four or five competitions per semester, he said, and the Hurricane Maria memorial was the first one they talked about doing. After debating the pros and cons, the students didn’t submit work on an official submission but rather ended up experimenting with the photomontages as a set of counter-proposals.

“Pedagogically, [the class] highlights the importance of architectural competitions as a means to provide society with better quality buildings and spaces,” said Rodríguez-Suarez, “especially in the U.S. and Puerto Rico, where they are not the norm.”

A damaged house sinks into the promenade at Battery Park City.

In place of a statue monument, one student imagined a damaged house sinking into the promenade at Battery Park City. (Courtesy University of Puerto Rico School of Architecture/Pablo Torrens)

It’s unclear yet whether Cuomo’s memorial competition is gaining traction among professional architects or artists already, but given the support of the many New York-based Puerto Ricans who make up the 10-person commission to get it built, it seems the project will move forward despite criticism—even if it comes from the Puerto Rican government itself. 

Photomontage of capitol building in U.S. covered in blue tarp

Some students saw the blue FEMA tarps and lost water bottles as symbols of a still-suffering country and sought to integrate those textures into their designs. (Courtesy University of Puerto Rico School of Architecture/Pablo Torrens)

Regardless of the final chosen design, the UPR-RP students believe it’s too soon for a memorial and that the American government doesn’t understand their plight. “How does it occur to someone to make a memorial of something that’s not finishing happening?” wrote Lourdes Sofia Jimenez-Rodriguez in an email to AN. “Much less in New York City, where I know there is a large population of Puerto Ricans who moved there after Maria and said they have done everything they can to help. But we’re still living here every day.”

Jimenez-Rodriguez said the blue FEMA tarps that still cover homes around the country remind her of how far this disaster is from being over. It’s a motif she focused on in her project. “For me, these represent the mismanagement of resources and aid after the hurricane,” she said. “I wanted to make a photomontage of the capitol with broken roof and blue awnings because it is very easy to say that everything is fine when the one who is saying it did not really go through the situation.”

Another envisioned the New York monument as a giant gasoline container with Puerto Ricans lining up to fill their own tanks. (Courtesy University of Puerto Rico School of Architecture/Bryan Cruz López)

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