San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Meet architecture’s young Costa Rican stars

Diego Van der Laat, soft-spoken and gangly, came away from his speech with a sense of exhilaration.

“I didn’t want to do it,” Van der Laat, 32, said. “But now I would hope to speak again.”

The Costa Rican talked to hundreds of young architects about his firm’s winning contemporary designs and his ideas behind them. 

The guests listened – because van der Laat is a rising star in architecture. His firm, sanjosereves, recently won a contract to design the new building for the Jade Museum, a popular attraction in downtown San José. The triumph comes three years after his group won the rights to create Parque de la Libertad, a huge recreational area in the southern San José suburb of Desamparados. 

Van der Laat represents a class of young, ambitious Costa Rican architects who gained local and international recognition in past years. Costa Rica’s recent prominence earned it the right to host the 24th Latin American Conference of Schools and Faculty of Architecture. 

The five-day event, held at the Antigua Aduana in San José and running through Friday, brought in leading minds in the region to host talks and workshops on the future of architecture. More than 800 students from around Latin America attended the conference to listen to guest speakers from distinguished architecture firms in the United States, Mexico and Brazil, among others.

Event organizer Juan Carlos Sanabria believes that in Latin America, a conversation with international weight is arising. Sanabria, director of the School of Architecture at Universidad Veritas, said Costa Ricans remain in the middle of that discussion.

He pointed to Costa Ricans already reaching international success, such as Benjamín García, who won global recognition for a bamboo home he built his mother in the northwestern province of Guanacaste; Einat Rosencrantz, a top architecture student at Harvard’s prestigious architecture program; and María Araya, who works for the eminent British-Iraqi architect Zada Hadid and has participated in projects in Barcelona, Spain, and Cairo, Egypt. 

Latin America is conducive to architectural problem-solving due to challenges with infrastructure, climate and population density. As a result, regional architects practice a more pragmatic and artful type of architecture, Sanabria said, and with Latin America’s strengthening economy those styles could expand worldwide. 

“What architecture will be in five to 10 years will have its basis point or its origin in some of the ideas that are discussed now in Latin America,” Sanabria said.

Diego Ricalde, of the Mexican firm MMX, said he moved back to Mexico City from London to join what he calls a “very optimistic, very naïve” movement of young, Latin American architects keen to take advantage of the potential they see in the region.

The 33-year-old thinks Costa Rica will benefit from that potential because of the diverse landscapes in the country. 

Ricalde rejects the idea that Costa Rica should specialize in buzzwords like eco-architecture and sustainable construction. He instead is fascinated by urban buildings are influenced by nature or  weather, yet can be practical and contemporary.

Costa Rica’s reputation has been impressive enough that he said a leading architecture professor at the University of Liechtenstein has been telling students to spend a semester abroad at a Costa Rican university.

That high praise is what gave van der Laat anxiety before his presentation. He’s grateful to have the opportunities that a developing country like Costa Rica offers to young architects. Van der Laat said he works on projects that in other places he might not have the chance to do until his mid-40s. 

Still, he wasn’t sure how his moxie would translate to the realm of public speaking. He spoke to eager students and high-ranking professionals. From upon a stage, he watched them match his enthusiasm with their own approval.

“They were always on my side,” Van der Laat said. “I don’t feel that between people of our generation there is a rivalry. It’s very healthy here.”

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