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The Language of Architecture


José García lives and breathes cutting edge architecture the world over, but he passionately recalls his roots. Born in the farthest reaches of Patagonia, the Cincinnati-based architect from Argentina can wax eloquent on all things Latin American, from the fantastic fiction of Jorge Luis Borges and the beauty of the Andes to the humble spirit of the people and their ability to endure in the face of hardship.

"I come from adversity," García says. "If you come to take this as a normal way of looking at the world, everything becomes a challenge to be overcome. Coming from Latin America has taught me to deal with problems in a very creative, down to earth and humble way."

This early lesson has served García well. From a house made of zinc to the city's first LEED NC registered condos in Hyde Park, García has learned to speak a visual language that is heavily imbued with a spirit of creative problem solving and is eco-friendly to boot.

"Being in a one-to-one relationship with the workers in Cincinnati and being able to connect with them has allowed me to act locally and do the most I could with the money I have had to work with," García says. But reaching this architectural fluency has been more than a job.

"It's more like an addiction," he adds. "I've always loved architecture for one reason or another, perhaps not knowing what I was getting into. But I didn't fully realize how much I loved it until I went to school in the States."

Born in the far south of Argentina's Patagonia region, García left his remote boyhood home to travel north to the Universidad Catolica de Cordoba where he cut his architectural teeth and earned his first architectural degree. But the itch did not go away. So he moved further north to attend the University of Cincinnati (M.S., architecture) and finally wrapped up his formal education when he graduated from Princeton University (M.Arch.). Yet, despite this laundry list of academic qualifications, García humbly emphasized the importance of down and dirty work on site.

"I had a chance to build a massive house in Argentina after I graduated from college," García says. "This background gave me more tools to think critically and put theory into practice. One is nothing without the other. Books alone won't get you to the jobsite."

After years of integrating a vast swath of theory and practice across two continents, after graduating from Princeton in 1990 García got the chance to work for Michael Graves, a legendary member of The New York Five who also studied at the University of Cincinnati. Alongside these formative experiences, García drew inspiration from a pantheon of Latin American heavy weights such as Mexican architect Luis Barragán and his Uruguayan counterpart Eladio Dieste.

While he admires these men for their authentic work, García is quick to suggest, "I don't think there's a uniform style of Latin American architecture. If you look from north to south, there are so many conditions across the region to add up to a unified architectural style."

"These architects were incredibly universal," he adds. "But they were also very local in their approaches to solving problems, such as using local materials in very creative ways. They also did a lot more with a lot less. A very hard act to follow, but they did. Making things simple is ultimately much more difficult and expensive." This is a lesson he learned in his work with Graves and others.

But after spending years actualizing the visions of those he worked for, García reached a point when he could confidently speak an architectural language of his own. Since launching José García Design in 2006, his firm -  which now employs five locally scouted talents - has spawned a number of projects that display his guiding principles of simplicity and balancing the universal with the local in both Cincinnati and farther afield.

Reflecting on the range of projects currently on his plate, García grows excited when he begins to talk about one particular project: a cutting edge spa resort he is developing in the Avenue of the Volcanoes in Bolivar Province, Ecuador, nestled in the foothills of the Andes.    

In a region which he describes as having "absolutely zero tourism," García plans to target an international market of travelers - roughly 50% from the US and the other 50% from Europe and Asia. Completion of the architectural side of the project is currently underway with construction set to begin in mid-2011. When the resort is opened around the end of 2012, it will be intended as an idyllic resting place for those on a tour of the Galapagos and Machu Picchu.

Out of respect for local methods and the environment, García is using dirt for the walls, which he explains as being as good thermally and strength-wise as the cement blocks. As an added bonus, this readily available resource cuts down on fuels to transport it, reducing the carbon footprint. The resort will also incorporate all green tech for energy, waste treatment and beyond.

"Everything I've learned all these years will be put together in this one project," he says. "This project is extremely interesting and exciting because more than ever I'm going to be able to use local labor, local materials and particular manners of construction that are at use in that part of Ecuador. The resort will be very gently inserted into the community without wiping it out." 

According to García, the push for greater green consciousness is shaking up architectural developments all around the world, where some of the most innovative and exciting work is being done in places like Latin America, India and Europe due to "the freedom paired with difficulty in Latin America and India, and in Europe where creativity in construction is supported." He adds, "Literally almost every interesting material that impresses me comes from Europe."

A noteworthy example, García explains, is the green roof, now ubiquitous in architecturally progressive countries like Germany for more than 30 years. This environmentally friendly innovation, which quilts a rooftop in vegetation, is slowly catching on in the US due to its myriad long-term environmental and economic benefits, such as reducing heating and cooling pressures in buildings, filtering pollutants and carbon dioxide from the air and increasing the lifespan of a roof.

Yet, "It's still not common here because it's initially several times the cost of a regular roof," García says. "In the US we're behind Europe by a number of years. But I see great cause for optimism in Cincinnati today." When considering the state of environmental practice in Cincinnati, he adds that this will eventually become a common practice. "I'm very excited about that," he says. "But now it's still an option, and an expensive one. But I think it will eventually become the rule, rather than the exception."

"I see enormous insight, interest and creativity from all the young people coming out of school now," García adds. "It's a grass roots force. It's kind of underground. But it's a force nonetheless. Over the years I think they will push the issue to completion. I think it's very healthy and very real."

Portraits by Scott Beseler.
Architecture photos provided by Jose Garcia Design
Jose Garcia at his office
2801 Erie Ave. Cincinnati, OH
Jose Garcia
Schiff house on Grandin, Cincinnati OH
End of the World Spa (rendering)
Zinc House, Cincinnati, OH
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