San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

The Tropical Architecture Institute: Saving the Planet, One Blueprint at a Time

Sometimes, a house is more than just a house. With a little extra thought and consideration regarding building materials, design and landscaping, a structure and its grounds can become a powerful tool that can reduce world energy consumption and help protect the planet.

That s the vision Bruno Stagno and Jimena Ugarte, the husband-and-wife team that runs San José s Tropical Architecture Institute, seek to encourage in the rest of the world. For Stagno, the institute s director and a renowned architect, taking the environment into consideration is especially appropriate in tropical climates, which differ from the rest of the world in more than just temperature and humidity.

The theory and concepts for architecture, landscaping and urban design have always originated, to date, in Europe, the United States and Japan countries of other latitudes, he told The Tico Times during a recent interview. We feel that the tropics are a way of life, a way of thinking, a state of spirit, and should therefore produce their own theory.

Promoting a unique tropical approach to design and encouraging sustainable architecture blend together to form the institute s mission.

Stagno, 62, and Ugarte, 56, also an architect, first came here from their native Chile in 1971, looking for paradise, and decided to call the country home and become naturalized Costa Rican citizens; they founded the institute in 1994. The nonprofit organization is housed in Stagno s spacious, airy offices in western San José, in a room lined with what Ugarte, the institute s adjunct director, says is the largest architectural library in the country. On the floor below, architects labor at drafting tables; images of completed projects, as well as family pictures, hang in the institute s office.

The institute s offerings include the library, a multilingual collection that architects, students and others can consult free of charge; international conferences on tropical architecture held every three years; studies and publications in the field; and an informational Web site,

The Web site has become a sort of database for architects all over the world, Stagno said, laughing as he remembered a query the institute received from a person in Brazil seeking contact information for a Brazilian architect. With more than 10,000 hits per week and an average of more than eight minutes per consultation, it s become a valuable resource.

In addition, the institute has played a central role in the San José Posible project, an urban renewal plan designed to attract developers and bring people back to the capital to live. The project involves building six new pedestrian boulevards, improving potable water, sewage and drainage systems, and improving traffic flow, among other measures (TT, Aug. 5). The institute designed this plan, which focuses on 53 blocks in the city center (TT, Aug. 12).

Another room of the office houses the San José Posible plans, hanging on walls and stacked in rolls. The project is quickly becoming a reality and should receive the necessary approval soon, Stagno said.

Building à la Costa Rica

Through their work, the couple seeks to promote ideas about architecture that, according to Stagno, Costa Rica helped inspire. As a young architect trained in Chile and France, Stagno s early experiences in Costa Rica caused him to consider the interdependence of architecture and environment in a new way. The country s pre-Columbian architecture showed acute awareness of its surroundings, and so did the non-indigenous architecture that followed, including Spanish colonial buildings, Victorian houses popular in the late 1800s, and the banana company housing of the 20th century, he said.

I realized they were all different: a pre-Columbian hut, a Spanish-style house, a Victorian house and the banana company housing, but they all had something in common: they adapted to their climate, he said.

This wisdom existed before, and we ve lost it, even because of architects themselves because for an architect it s much easier to design a glass box than to design windows, mechanisms.

We have to learn again from traditional architecture, he added. One has to take advantage of climate as a design resource.

Often, the difference between a wasteful building and an environmentally friendly one comes down to small features, he said. Especially in areas that experience extreme temperatures, details such as adding an overhang to reduce sunlight on a glass surface, or adding windows to allow for greater air circulation, can save thousands of dollars in energy bills.

In the United States in particular, where buildings account for 50% of the nation s energy costs, these changes make a big difference.

Part of the secret is creating buildings with very little impact on their environment, but giving people the power to have an impact on their buildings by controlling airflow or other factors, according to Stagno.

We call it passive buildings, active people, he said.

The Power of Architecture

Ugarte said she sees growing awareness of the power of architecture to affect energy consumption, particularly among young people.

It s in North America where they understand this problem the least, she said. In the rest of the world there s a great deal of concern. Young architects in general begin with that basis, which our generation never did.

Definitions of luxury have also changed, making natural materials and a fresh, airy feel the new standard of opulence.

The concept of luxury now is natural, not artificial or fake, Stagno said. When you look for an exclusive hotel, you ll find that the most expensive, the most exclusive, are small, with few people The sheets are linen, the woods are natural, and you control your own environment.

The institute s latest project focused on what Stagno said is relatively new ground: tropical landscaping and its environmental consequences.

A study of the 30-year-old garden at a Costa Rican farm,Hacienda Navarro, resulted in La Biodiversidad en el Diseño del Paisaje (Biodiversity in Landscape Design). By examining the flora and fauna present in the garden, researchers gained insight into the way the choice, placement and maintenance of plants, not only on the ground but also on trees and in the canopy, can affect wildlife.

Landscaping has always been considered aesthetic, Stagno said of the project. We ve realized that it s important to include the concept of biodiversity in landscape design.

Uniquely Tropical

As it does with architecture, the institute also aims to highlight the ways in which tropical landscaping differs from landscaping in other parts of the world.

When you talk about landscaping, it s normally an empty space where you add vegetation and trees, Ugarte said. In the tropics, it s the reverse landscaping is taking things out, because of the quantity of elements that are already there It s fascinating, and it s totally different than what happens in the United States or Europe.

The uniqueness of the tropics affects all aspects of life, Stagno added.

I think, therefore I am, said (French philosopher René) Descartes, but here it s different, Stagno explained. Here, it s Estoy, luego soy (which roughly translates to I am here, therefore I am ). The relationship with the environment is extremely important.

Stagno and Ugarte said the institute s library, and of course its Web site, are available to anyone interested in tropical architecture or landscaping, including those building or remodeling homes in Costa Rica.

The institute publishes works in both English and Spanish, and its latest publication on landscaping includes both languages.

Contacting the Institute

Telephone: 256-4749


Location: 75 meters north of the KFC on Paseo Colón, San José


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