Some very good friends of mine are on vacation and sent me the picture pasted into this blog post. Isn’t it nice of them to provide me with a daily reminder that they are sailing in the British Virgin Islands while we are shivering through our annual Denver December cold snap? Yes, I thought so too… Anyway, the caption that accompanied the photo was short and sweet; “One way to budget construction. Floor by floor.”
While this explanation makes sense on the face of it, this reminded me of many residential and commercial structures I have seen in Guatemala, El Salvador and Belize. Future expansion is of course made easier by leaving rebar and half a column height sticking up above the roof, but the main reason the buildings are left “unfinished” is to save on taxes. In many Latin American countries (and island nations, apparently), taxes are lower if the structure is “in construction” so many stay that way in perpetuity, as a tax break.
Leaving aside the obvious and sensitive discussion of taxes in our current economic climate, seeing an image like this again resurrected trains of thought I had while traveling in Latin America. Before I learned the real reason for the unfinished construction, it was interesting to consider what characteristics a structure might take on were it allowed to literally “grow.” As architects, we tend to think of buildings as pure objects. The building is “finished” once construction is complete and rarely do we have the opportunity to understand how it is used, or how its use requires it to change. We render or photograph our buildings in rather static ways and always with the strictest of control, be it in reality or with Photoshop.
Granted, there is always the building expansion project that we might find ourselves working on. I myself have just finished one of these in which it was a contractual requirement that the expansion be a seamless extension of the original structure. But to me, these “unfinished” structures are an all together different animal. It’s hard to imagine that any of these structures were ever envisioned as the shiny constructs we see in our marketing brochures, but does that make them any less successful? These are more of an architectural armature, free (within their inherent structural constraints) to become whatever they need to become. Sure, a certain amount of design thought and structural calculation goes into their initial construction, but the ultimate finished state is left up to the influences of people, time, or available money and materials.
Admittedly, it is problematic to critique these structures through the biased lens of Western views on aesthetics, but I find it intriguing to consider the anthropological nature of these constructs, similar in concept to the growth rings of a tree. Cut it down in order to examine its rings and the entire history of its growth is presented. As these structures develop and continue to add layer upon layer of program, the vertical growth logic contains their evolutionary history in much the same way. I find that a much more poetic explanation of unfinished construction that simply an attempt to save on taxes.