San José, Costa Rica, since 1956
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Architect defends controversial design for new Legislative Assembly building

Architect Javier Salinas’ plan for a looming, concrete tower to house Costa Rica’s Legislative Assembly in downtown San José seems to get more criticism the closer the project gets to breaking ground.

In January 2013, Salinas won a contest to design a replacement for the current building, which health officials have ordered closed on numerous occasions. His first design had to be scrapped because the cost to build it was too high. The new plan — for a 17-story “concrete monolith,” as Salinas calls it — has come under a storm of criticism since its unveiling in March 2015.

San José residents and fellow architects have expressed doubts regarding the building’s design and functionality, singling out potentially sky-high energy costs and interrupted views for neighboring buildings.

Writing for the Costa Rican newspaper El País, Marité Valenzuela, a city councilwoman from San José’s Carmen district, offered up a harsh critique of the building design.

“This building, which looks more like one of those concrete trash cans you see here in the parks, projects images of rejection, separation and inaccessibility to people that isn’t in accordance with the high-reaching, democratic aspirations of our country,” Valenzuela wrote.

Architect Javier Salinas took part in a conversation over his plans to build the new Legislative Assembly building at Veritas University in Zaptoe on Thursday, April 14, 2016.

(Courtesy of Mauricio Campos Díaz)

At a roundtable conversation at San José’s Véritas University last Thursday, Salinas defended his project while fielding questions from fellow architects and students at the university’s architecture school. After scrolling through a slideshow that included pictures of the Eiffel Tower and the Great Pyramid of Giza, Salinas came to a slide with an image of one of Costa Rica’s iconic stone spheres with the word “Solidarity” over it. Salinas said his building is a symbolic ode to Costa Rica’s democratic solidarity.

“Roots are another symbol that are expressed in this building,” he said. “For such a small country we have great pride …. This new Assembly is meant to represent all the citizens of this country.”

In local news stories and on social media (there’s even a “NO to the new Legislative Assembly building” Facebook group), many have said that the windowless building does not evoke democracy. Critics also say natural light and ventilation in the building will likely be minimal.

Salinas said Thursday that the patio on the top floor will receive plenty of sunlight, and opens downward like a well dropping 70 vertical meters. He also showed photos of angled divots in the new design, which he released in March 2015, which he said would provide air circulation.

“Everything is calculated in regards to sunlight and ventilation coming into the building,” he said. “We worked with a team of specialists to do all the scientific steps required to make sure there would be enough natural light and air.”

Salinas’ original design was to be made mostly of glass, but the high cost and lack of needed permits sent him back to the drawing board at the beginning of 2015.

In the redesign, the exterior would be made entirely of concrete walls, which Salinas said is a much cheaper alternative.

Julio Cedeño, an engineer whose company Novatecnia is supervising the construction project, defended Salinas at Thursday’s event, saying he has limited resources to work with.

“There’s an economic limitation here,” Cedeño said. “It’s not like Salinas and his team have a blank check to work on the design.”

The new building would be near the Legislative Assembly’s current location.

(Javier Salinas Arquitectos e Ingenieros Consultores Asociados S.A.)

Bruno Stagno, founder of the Tropical Architecture Institute and a former professor of Salinas, took part in the roundtable discussion Thursday. He said his doubts stemming from photos he saw in the media were reaffirmed during Salinas’ slideshow presentation. Stagno said a building made entirely of concrete is a bad match for Costa Rica’s tropical climate.

“Concrete is not going to work for you,” Stagno told Salinas. “In climates where we don’t have much variation like in the Central Valley, buildings don’t need more insulation. What they need is shade to make sure the sun’s radiation doesn’t bear down on them. In this, the sun is going to heat up the walls and this heat is going to always be transmitted inside.”

He added that the “well” that allows sunlight into the building will remain dark for most of the day.

Veritas University in Zapote hosted a discussion between building designer Javier Salinas and fellow architects from Costa Rica.

(Courtesy of Mauricio Campos Díaz)

The project, which is being primarily financed by the Bank of Costa Rica, is set to cost ₡52 billion, or $97.3 million, according to a Legislative Assembly press release. In terms of layout, the 50,000-square-meter building consisting of 17 floors, in addition to four basement floors. It will house offices for the country’s 57 lawmakers, an assembly room, and offices for each political faction.

Now that the checklist of permissions from a litany of state institutions is nearly complete, construction is supposed to begin in the next few weeks and is expected to conclude in 2018.

The only approval that is still up in the air is that of the National Technical Secretariat of the Environment Ministry (SETENA). Cedeño said at Thursday’s debate that developers expect SETENA to sign off on everything in the very near future, possibly as soon as this week.

Residents like Valenzuela have accused Salinas’ firm of being overly secretive about the project. She said no one really knows if certain permissions, like those required by the Health Ministry, are still pending because both the government and the developers are staying quiet.

“The public still has no idea what is going on with this building,” Valenzuela told The Tico Times. “The developers have been keeping information back and that’s unconstitutional.”

Architect Salinas said Thursday that contractual details restrict what information he can release to the public.

“I can’t give all the information because now is not the time to divulge all of that,” Salinas said. “Soon everything about the project will be out in the public but right now we’re limited in giving out information.”

An artist’s rendering of the street view of the new Legislative Assembly building planned for downtown at the intersection of Calle 15 and Central Avenue.

(Courtesy of Mauricio Campos Díaz)

Cedeño from Novatecnia said his company is working with Salinas to be more efficient in providing updates about the project’s development, saying they had begun putting an emphasis on transparency.

Fellow architect Álvaro Rojas, who presided over the jury that ultimately selected Salinas to do the project, also expressed his concerns with Salinas’ plan on Thursday. Like Stagno, Rojas taught Salinas at Véritas. He said he has told his former pupil that he worries about the lack of shade and the building’s massive size that could block views.

“Javier chose the symbolism of solidarity and democracy, but this sacrifices other symbols important to our country and ends up blocking the view,” Rojas said.

Rojas poked fun at Salinas’ allusions to some of the world’s greatest monuments in his slideshow presentation, saying that philosophical and theoretical emphases like solidarity and democracy can lead to oversights in more practical purposes.

Despite his doubts, Rojas appeared to lend his support to his former student.

“Even the pyramids of Egypt and the Eiffel Tower were under scrutiny when they were being built,” Rojas said. “Hundreds of years later people worship them. I’m sure the same thing will happen with Javier’s building.”

Contact Michael Krumholtz at

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Mauricio Lizano

It’s interesting how we don’t have money to fix a stupid bridge, yet we have money for this. Or even worse, we don’t have it, we are just willing to take out a loan for it.

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Ron Huybrechts

I visited San José last winter and was appalled by the terrible “modern” architecture. This monstrosity will only add to this. It is so bad on so many levels. Shame.

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Brian Donovan

Dude, San Jose is a revolting city. Don’t ever go up or work in a high rise because they have no clue as to earthquake technology.

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Adrián León

Actually, in Costa Rica we have a Seismic Building Code far stricter than in several US States. The loads that any building taller than 2 storeys must resist are 3 times the loads calculated. So basically, you’re wrong, “dude.”

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Normally I would not way in on an individuals criticism, but in this case I will. “Adrian Leon you sound like a two year old, saying mine is better.”

Secondly, 90+percent of buildings in the U.S. are not in quake zones.

Thirdly, the standards for the ones that are in quake zones rival those of any other.

Now back to the two year old, there are many great things about Costa Rica though architecture is not one of them.

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Marco G. Vega

It is hideous thing… And someone please teach History to those architects, as their analogies are terrible… No body said nothing against the Pyramids because their design was not subject to discussion. And while many criticize the Eiffel Tower, it was not originally designed to be permanent… comparing its original purpose and design with the ugly concrete box… well, it is naive…

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That will probably be the worst Legislative building on the face of the Earth.

It is so ugly and grim, it will make anyone who works there start suffering from depression.

That depression will make its way into the laws, and ultimately into the lives of everyone in Costa Rica.

Mr. President, tear down this wall!

Ugh… just don’t build it.

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That monstrosity is without any doubt the ugliest building proposal I have ever seen. Period Exclamation point! For such a beautiful country to build this ugly and evil looking government building is almost beyond comprehension. The symbolism is striking…legislators completely walled off and insulated from those they are intended to serve. It looks like something out of a post-apocalyptic horror movie. Surely, they cannot be serious in considering this design…

After reading the article again, the panel reminds me of then Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi incredibly said that they ‘had to pass the Obamacare bill to see what was in it.” That turned out to be a disaster from which even those in her political party have distanced themselves. The idea of “learning to like it” is insane if not arrogantly corrupt.

The bogus idea of claiming “transparency” when details of the design have not been released just weeks before groundbreaking parallels Obama’s trillion dollar claim of “shovel ready jobs” that never materialized.

Wake up, Ticos! Demand that this waste of money on a hideous design be stopped!

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A lot of architects participated in the contest to construct the Asamblea Legislativa. Obviously, like anything offered by the public service in this country, it’s believed that the contest that this was rigged.

Always building something in this country is too expensive so they always cut down costs to be able to pay everyone involved their “fair” share. It’s disgusting to know that it’s Costarrican citizens who work there the ones that consider that they should get an extra bonus just for being involved in such a project.

Why can the private sector get loans to build as many fancy buildings as they want and the public sector must scavenge and cut costs to be able to build such a terrible looking building.

This proposition just shows how much is being robbed and how none of us can do anything about it. People never understand that once built we’ll have to withstand that monstrosity probably for the rest of our lives in our skyline. The government has the money to pay $60.000 for every brand new police pick-up truck and $120.000 for every Toyota Land Cruiser every high standing member of the public sector to use. Have you seen them all ride Limited Edition cars – the most expensive model possible? So why can the government spend so much money in extra payments for their members and fancy cars for all?

I know nothing will change, money is always going to be stolen but if anyone reading this is one of this public sector employees who’s stealing all of our country’s money… Remember your also a Costarrican and that your just making everything worse for all of us. Stop giving concessions to your friends and give it to whom the country who should be unbiased would give it to. Your from the public sector, not a private entrepreneur that found a gold mine.

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Isn’t this a done deal no matter what the public outcry? Contract is signed and sealed , right? The cement company windfall for this huge cement box.

No windows exterior that I can see. Nothing about future Solar energy. Nothing pleasing to the eye externally. Millions upon millions for a broke country borrowing money from China. How about building a prison , improving the roads, bridges updating the water quality….. Something for all of us not just contractors and a nice office space.

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Woww, San Jose is moving up in the world, with a seventeen story outhouse(port-a-can).

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Horrendously ugly, and that is an understatement. Looks like a bunker in Iraq! What about air, light, ambience….things like that? It is hideous, will cost a fortune to air condition and illuminate, and it looks stupid. This designer is a shame to the art of architecture…..

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Brian Donovan

This looks like something out of East Berlin during the cold war. Extraordinarily unattractive and unimpressive building … And, no doubt, overly expensive.

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Ken Morris

I don’t put any stock in the criticism that the building will block the views of others, since imo San José desperately needs to start building up rather than out. If someone leads the way, others will follow, and this will be for the good of all.

However, the concrete block design with a silly garden on top doesn’t work for me. I can appreciate that the architect is working with limited funds and reaching for a symbolism that may appeal to some people, but I’m not sure that Costa Rica is so broke that it has to construct public buildings with concrete blocks and to me the design smacks of a prison or fortress more so than a symbol of democracy, regardless of the achitect’s intent. Also, I really don’t buy this windowless style that is so common nowadays, although I supposed if the lawmakers were all given cubicles rather than offices in the windowless building, they might learn a little about democracy, since that’s how so many ordinary jonholders have to spend their workdays.

I say don’t crucify the guy, since he plainly tried and has a creative idea, but tell him that this idea isn’t working for us and ask him to come up with another one. Actually, I don’t understand why he wasn’t asked to submit two or three ideas from the start in order solicit comment before he ran with only one unknown an idea. A good architect is capable of multiple ideas, and I’m sure he’s got other ideas. Let’s just ask him for another idea.

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Peter Parsons

The proposed structure appears to be a 17 story basement rising up from the surrounding area.

Costa Rica was never graced with the beautiful colonial buildings visited upon other Latin American countries. Why not start now.

Do we expect the legislature to be inspired by such a building? Does it speak to carbon neutrality? The beauty that brings wells from every quarter of Costa Rica? Or, the creativity and artistry of its people. I think not.

Why not take a page from Germany and build an environmentally beautiful and responsible building that might inspire both those inside and out? The Bullitt Center in sun-challenged Seattle is throughly commercial, but actually produces more energy than it uses. You do not have to hire Frank Gehry for creative genius. Surely, this is an opportunity to begin an architectural legacy worth Costa Rica.

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