Miguel Angel Roca and an ‘architecture of divergence’

The search for a contemporary Latin American architectural identity


True universality in architecture can be attained only through connection with the roots, gratitude for the past and respect for the genius loci.
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Engendered by a history of conflict, assimilation and colonial rule, the search for a distinct Latin American architectural identity has resulted in an environment of restless questioning and self-analysis.

Emerging from this tempest, the top Latin architects have become masters at what Marina Waisman calls the ‘architecture of divergence’. This can be summarized as the search for novel, regionalistic answers to the specific problems of architecture, as opposed to the blind imposition of universal, externally developed models. It is a system of thought in which the architect relies upon analysis and interpretation, as opposed to the rigid application of general systems, theories, or values.

An ‘architecture of divergence’ is by nature critically regionalistic, though that term has been applied so frequently it is beginning to lose meaning. It is an attempt to synthesize history, technology, and the environment in a style which draws strength from the specific site, architectonic program, and cultural surroundings.

In reacting to an influx of foreign styles and ideals, and looking away from easy historical references or stirrings of nationalism, the search for a contemporary Latin American architectural identity has, at its best, fused external influences and local values to dramatic result.

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Miguel Angel Roca is a leader of this new school of architecture, with his regionalistic application of a late modern formal language. He exhibits a new form of situational sensitivity and classical formality, in which external stylistic concerns are never allowed to triumph over the unique characteristics of the specific architectural problem. In contrast, the imposition of a formal modern architectural language is, in Roca’s hands, used to enhance the natural situational characteristics.

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In his Casa en Calamuchita, Roca exhibits many of his defining stylistic elements. The house sits in the countryside, halfway buried in a valley and wedged between a mountain and a dramatic vista down over the remainder of the valley.

The house is a negative image of a classical villa, or the archetypical patio house with the surrounding environment as the peripheral living spaces. The surrounding hills become the walls and the farmers fields in the valley below become the front lawn. The formality of the juxtaposition of stereotonic ‘servant’ spaces and tectonic ‘served’ living areas affords the house a clear formal language, yet the symmetry of the plan is broken with irregular corner forms, and what might have been cold interior spaces are enriched with local natural materials. Heavy and light, open and closed spaces are balanced to ultimate effect.

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Inherent in the design of the house is a sensitivity to the situational orientation and local climatic conditions. The glass box of the central living space is surrounded by a series of operable wooden panels, offering differing degrees of privacy and insulation against the elements. The house manages to open to the surrounding countryside without becoming exhibitionistic or exploitational, respecting each extreme of its environment. The tower adds a verticality which gestures to the mountain, the corner stone blocks tie the house securely to the hillside, and the living room becomes the horizontal valley surrounded on all sides by vertical anchors. There is formality and adaptation to the local landscape in equal portions, and a strong sense of metaphysical meaning and layered procession.

Roca is a key proponent of the new international style, paradoxically reflected by the universal rejection of the applicability of an international style. This is sensitive architecture, a turn away from empty formalism and a final realization that there are no general answers. This is freedom from historical models, empirical laws or strict theories. With this freedom, however, comes the responsibility to fully investigate each unique problem with the need to uncover the universal values which always lurk just beneath the surface, and which will invariably serve to inform further investigation.


This article was originally written in 2006, while studying at the ITESM in Querétaro, Mexico.

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