When envisioning the environmental context of Costa Rica, images of lush green rainforests, breathtaking waterfalls & gorgeous beaches may come to mind. The built world constituting Costa Rica’s cities and towns is generally overlooked and given little more than a passing glance. I wouldn’t blame anybody for this though as even the inhabitants of Costa Rica’s largest city, San Jose, admit that the city is in a state of disrepair or to put it in layman terms, “ugly.” The natural world here is so beautiful and at first impression, the cities tend to end up on the opposite end of the spectrum. Granted, if one simply strolls through San Jose, they are likely to rattle off a long list of maladies before ever arriving at a single compliment. Perhaps it’s the shear captivation of the world around the Ticos that lead them to disregard the roads and sidewalks that often serve only to transport people from one view of the surrounding mountain range to another.
Yet, there is a level of beauty hidden under the dirt, grim and rubble of San Jose that lays dormant, waiting for someone to discover it. Coincidentally, the reason for the utterly unloved state of most of the streets, sidewalks and buildings was revealed to me by Senor Roberto Artavia to be a product of the Costa Rican government investing heavily in human capital while viewing infrastructure as something to be attended to later. But for all the havoc this stance has caused the streetscapes, there still exists some charm in the historical and cultural progression evident in San Jose’s buildings. The centers of many of the cities seem as if European architecture has been imported here long ago and left to weather in the tropical climate. It’s not far from the truth; the colonial occupation by Spain lives on through a handful of aged classical edifices.
I came upon some of these buildings in San Jose with a group of the other students in the INEX group after classes on Monday and was caught off guard at first. It’s not so much the fact that these buildings exist here, but rather their abrupt existence alongside such a variety of other architectural styles from across time. Rusting corrugated metal roofing buts up next to a 70’s brutalist concrete fortress, which is planted beside a contemporary commercial bank clad in zinc plating with strips of backlit plexi-glass signage. The ordered mentality of European cities’ architectural groupings seems to have fallen on deaf ears hear. It’s much more closely tied to the capitalist notions of free-market expansion, which if not closely regulated tends to foster an amalgamation of buildings to sprout up wherever they wish.However, I have to confess my admiration for the central market in San Jose. It’s far from being an architectural marvel; in fact it’s housed inside a sort of warehouse. Regardless, I was enamored with the maze of narrow passageways with a variety of wares displayed on every square inch. I felt like I was in a bizarre from a sci-fi show! Where else can I find a pile of machetes right next to petite pink dresses!? Of course all that windowshopping and getting all turned around within the maze of alleyways makes a fellow build up a healthy appetite, but oh wait, they’ve got that covered as well. So it was that we ended our excursion into the belly of San Jose with a meal served on a plastic tablecloth under fluorescent lights with various catholic statuettes and such adorning the walls. Mmmmm, I simply love to gobble up deliciously different culture, even if it may seem a little rough around the edges.
by Daniel Nowell