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ARQ (Santiago)

On-line version ISSN 0717-6996

ARQ (Santiago)  no.67 Santiago Dec. 2007 

ARQ, n. 67 Concursos de arquitectura / Architectural competitions, Santiago, december, 2007, p. 80-87.


The Columbus Lighthouse Competition: Revisiting Pan-American architecture’s forgotten memorial

Robert  González *

* Professor, School of Architecture, Tulane University, New Orleans, USA.
** Professor, Stone Center for Latin American Studies, Tulane University, New Orleans, USA.


The vision of Pan-Americanism as an expression of the unity of America’s peoples inspired one of the most singular competitions in the history of the hemisphere, the Columbus Lighthouse competition. The author shows us how this project of unprecedented scope evoked the participation of great figures in modern architecture, and took a complicated course on its way to becoming reality.

Key words: Architectural competitions, Columbus lighthouse competition, Pan-American architecture, Joseph Lea Gleave, the Americas.


The Columbus Memorial Lighthouse Competition, which took place from 1928-30, was expected to provide Santo Domingo with, among other things, a crypt for the bodily remains of Columbus, a functioning airfield, and a Dominican presidential palace. Approximately 455 design entries were juried in two stages, in Madrid and Sao Paulo. Architects Raymond Hood, Eliel Saarinen, Horacio Acosta y Lara, and later Frank Lloyd Wright, served as jurors; Hood and Saarinen had won first and second place in the Chicago Tribune Competition. Joseph Lea Gleave, a British architecture student, was awarded first prize in 1930. However, the monument was not built until 1992 due primarily to the failure to collect construction funds promised by all the American Republics(1). Those who have written about the competition usually focus on three elements: the innovative navigational technologies it promised in air and sea travel; Gleave’s neo-Mayan and earthworks design aesthetic; and the iconic impressions made by some of its entries a particular stand-out belonging to Konstantin Melnikov (Waldheim and Santos-Munné, 1998, Roorda, 1998; Irigoyen, 2000). The entire effort, as it turns out, was much more than an homage to Christopher Columbus. In fact, the lighthouse was one component in a larger effort to construct an American identity, an exploration that spanned several generations over nearly a century. The competition is thus best understood in the context of the history of Pan-American architecture, a history that includes other key competitions and projects directly involving Latin America.
We see the concept of Pan-Americanism being explored in the built environment beginning in the late nineteenth century. While a multitude of monuments, buildings and place names could theoretically be linked to Bolivar’s vision of a unified America, the identification of projects designed to specifically represent the entirety of the American Republics requires careful selection. Designed to capture a geopolitical regional identity, these projects have been envisioned to represent all the American Republics
(2). These projects should not be confused with those built in the name of Pan-Latin Americanism or Pan-Hispanicism. In its totality, the study of Pan-American architecture represents an overlooked chapter in the history of American architecture.
Even before the term Pan-Americanism came into popular use, we see the first example of Pan-American architecture appear in the layout and design of the grounds of the North, Central and South American Exposition of 1885-6 in New Orleans, Louisiana. Other similar fairs followed, including two linked to quadricentennial celebrations to commemorate the discovery of the New World: the Exposición Histórico-Americana in Madrid in 1892 and Chicago’s World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. This early phase came to an end with a fourth fair, the Pan-American Exposition of Buffalo in 1901. While these hemispheric fairs were the endeavors of independent boosters, city officials, merchants, and state and federal governments, these fairgrounds can be read as physical manifestations of the relationships between the republics of the Western Hemisphere.
Two major projects that followed were developed under the directorship of the Pan-American Union (PAU) in Washington, D.C., the organization established in 1890 as the International Bureau of American Republics (today the Organization of American States). The first competition, taking place in 1907, was the design of the PAU’s own headquarters. Although this building would serve as the home of the American Republics, Latin Americans were not allowed to enter the competition unless they resided permanently in the United States. Architects Paul Phillipe Crét and Albert Kelsey of Philadelphia were awarded first prize. The building’s prominent location in Washington, D.C. has been expanded upon over the decades since then to include additional buildings and affiliated structures, including the Inter-American Development Bank and the Pan-American Health Organization, which was itself the result of a competition won by Uruguayan architect Román F. Siri in 1961
(3). This unique institutional landscape, a dedication to the Americas at a scale that remains unmatched, is linked together with a series of plazas and statues dedicated to the heroes of Latin America. While the early fairs represented the interests of Pan-American flag wavers seeking economic gains, the PAU headquarters came to represent a model union of nations. Some even came to consider the building as the symbolic capitol of the Americas, the nexus of an imagined nation-continent. And appropriately, the language used to describe the building as a symbol of a unified hemisphere took on a nationalistic tone.
Building upon an age-old desire to honor Columbus and his historic Caribbean landing, in 1914, William E. Pulliam, the U.S. Customs Receivership stationed in Santo Domingo, began to raise interest in a lighthouse monument, imagining it as Dominican historian Antonio del Monte y Tejada had once described such a monument in the nineteenth century. The PAU eventually coordinated this ambitious project and hired Kelsey to prepare a two-stage competition. He traveled to Latin America, raised interest in the lighthouse memorial, and created a competition program that emphasized technological innovation and hemispheric unity. Kelsey’s competition program was itself problematic; the role he assumed was patronizing and beyond his expertise. He presumed to educate the registering architect on tropical architecture, the Dominican cultural landscape, and Latin America in general. The program’s repeated imagery of lighthouses, Columbus statuary and crosses influenced many predictable design submissions, which the jurors quickly eliminated. Early on, Kelsey had communicated his disappointment with the quality of the entries in the first round; and Wright was ruthlessly critical of the second-round entries.
The competition is thus not only remembered today for the unprecedented number of countries represented and the impressive number of entries more than twice as many as the Chicago Tribune Competition of 1922, which totaled 189, but also for the entries submitted by the many noted architects that were eliminated, including Alvar Aalto, Erik Bryggman, Tony Garnier, Helmle, Corbett and Harrison, Konstantin Melnikov, and from Latin America, Flavio de Rezende Carvalho, Luis MacGregor, Mira & Rosich, Smith Solar & Smith Miller, and Carlos Obregón Santacilia
(4). It is also impressive to see that 39 Latin American design entries were submitted to the competition, compared to the mere three submitted to the Chicago competition (from Cuba and Mexico)(5). Unfamiliarity with Gleave led to a lukewarm reception by the press and the architecture journals; the most comprehensive histories of architectural competitions consequently left it out completely. When it was noted, the Columbus Lighthouse was described as a grand monument to the Western Hemisphere’s founding father, again, with a nationalist tone. With its erection, the lighthouse joined the capitol of the Western Hemisphere on the Potomac to complete the imaginary construction of the Americas, according to the PAU’s vision. Other attempts followed. In the early 1940s, the Sixth Avenue Association in New York City proposed to rename itself as the Avenue of the Americas, and develop a commercial center of the Americas. The plan was to erect 23 high-rises along the avenue, each building representing an American Republic. Architect Harvey Wiley Corbett organized the committee and hired Hugh Ferriss to prepare concept sketches. Edward Durrell Stone had his NYU architecture students prepare models and drawings for a public presentation(6). This grand plan was never fully realized, but Mayor La Guardia did sign the bill to change the avenue’s name. Today, the legacy of the three projects -the capitol building, the monument to the founding father, and the grand avenue- are the hundreds of plazas and parks of the Americas, the monuments to Columbus, and the Pan-American clubs and institutions found throughout the Americas.
The 50s and 60s witnessed the last grand hemispheric projects of the century, one being the proposed permanent world’s fair called Interama (Inter-American Cultural and Trade Fair) planned for Miami, Florida. It was designed in the early stages by Hugh Ferriss, and later by Marcel Breuer, Louis Kahn, Paul Rudolph, Josep Lluis Sert, Edward Durrell Stone, Harry Weese and Minoru Yamasaki. This fair never took place, but in 1968, a similar fair, cleverly named HemisFair, took place in San Antonio, Texas. The Americas may soon see a predecessor to this line of building with the future permanent secretariat of the Free Trade Areas of the Americas institution. Ten cities are now vying for the title center of the Western Hemisphere and are poised to house this new Pan-American building
Locating the Columbus Memorial Lighthouse amidst this family of projects is key in understanding the nature of the entries. The competition’s most interesting contributions to Pan-American architecture are the over 300 entries, authored by Africans, Asians, Europeans, etc., that present diverse visions of the Western Hemisphere
(8). As already stated, many contestant’s designs fell prey to predictable imagery of an heroic Columbus, but others presented global perspectives of linked continents that concentrated on technological modernity. The design entries reflect a broad cross-section of the architecture of the late 1920s, with evidence of Beaux-Arts, Art Deco and Modern influences. The most interesting are the Russian proposals.
The themes explored in the design entries tended to fall into three categories: nautical exploration (with giant ships and statuary depicting Columbus, the Navigator); illuminated globes (representing the illuminated lighthouse or the world); and Columbus’ Christianizing mission (with cruciforms and chapels added to the designs). Two additional design approaches that offer insight focus on navigational innovation and the Americas’ indigenous past. The meshing of the lighthouse typology with the aviation airfield and tower was arguably the most interesting part of the program. Bryggman presented one of the most elegant schemes; it abstractly combined the lighting and viewing components of both programs at the top of a slender tower. Fellow Finnish architect Aalto proposed a spiraling reinforced concrete tower where the Western Hemisphere was abstracted into a pillar of progress, futurism and solidarity; in this scheme, the functional elements were hidden. Chilean architect Rodulfo Oyarzún presented a gradually tapering and spiraling tower, but his submission referenced the pre-Columbian El Caracol ruins of Mexico. Garnier’s spiraling tower harkened to the Eiffel Tower and served as an exoskeleton that protected the Columbian crypt; the jurors called this a dizzying scheme. The Russian schemes, produced by Vladimir Krinsky, Ivan Leonidov and Konstantin Melnikov and others, used mechanical parts to symbolize progress and freedom of expression, resulting in the most dynamic lighthouse forms. The rotational motion integrated into Melnikov’s scheme, for example, occurred in different time cycles along the vertical dimension. With this, he relied on time and place to illustrate the never-ending progress that the Western Hemisphere represented for the Russian provocateur. The red and blue rotating fins captured the perpetual dance between North and South America, while two balanced conical structures symbolized the New World and the Old World. While many of the non-Latin American and U.S. entries were successful in abstracting the Western Hemisphere’s future and past, the Latin American entries were most successful in intelligently introducing pre-Columbian references. In Carvalho’s scheme, pre-Columbian motifs were used to bring historical specificity to central components of his design. Likewise, Obregón Santacilia’s proposed indigenous historical narrative was extensive and informed. One can contrast this with Gleave’s approach, which reflected great naiveté. In fact, when the monument was finally built in 1992, the consulting architect, Teófilo Carbonell, completely eliminated Gleave’s pre-Columbian wall motifs. Gleave’s scheme resembled a Hollywood set design, with sombrero touting scale figurines added to his final model. It is widely felt that he won first prize because his scheme resonated with Wright’s own Pan-American-Californian dreams.
In 1992, it was hoped that the monumental lighthouse would catch the eye of an international audience and finally bring Santo Domingo the tourism for which it so yearned. One of the main spectacles of the lighthouse was the enormous illuminated cruciform projected onto the sky, a feature that caused regular power outages in a city with an already stressed economy. In the end, this and other controversies drew most of the attention. More criticism arose with the erection of a wall meant to hide nearby poverty-stricken neighborhoods christened the Wall of Shame by the press. Furthermore, the United States did not send a representative to the inauguration; protests from Native-American communities had brought another layer of controversy to the celebration of the New World’s discovery. It may be seen as a curious observation that though Pan-American architectural activity has been centered in the United States, Latin American participation has always occurred, a case clearly made with the history of the Organization of American States. One should note, as well, how many of the projects mentioned here were linked to the efforts of numerous U.S. cities claiming the title of Gateway of the Americas, a title that until recently few Latin American cities ever attempted to claim. This attests to the fact that Pan-American architecture has largely been a uni-directional enterprise. The Columbus Lighthouse thus remains an important icon from this period, when the U.S. assertively tried to shape the Pan-American movement, and it can certainly be called one of the most ambitious, though nearly always overlooked, icons of American history.


By 1992, the enterprise was a fully funded Dominican project because the majority of American nations refused to support the construction. Back in 1949, the Pan-American Union had sent a check for $26,122.56 to the Dominican Republic representing a few contributions. The check included the paid quotas from the Dominican Republic ($2,098.13); Honduras ($13,290.16); Nicaragua ($2,803.75); and Panama ($2,940.08); and miscellaneous contributions and income, and a small balance remaining in the Architectural Competition Fund. Memorandum for Dr. Manger from Mr. Curtiss, March 14, 1955, Columbus Memorial Library, OAS, Box 5, Minutes of Committee Meetings, 1927-1932. The PAU terminated its responsibilities on November 18, 1949.
2. Early on, the standard number was 21, with Canada and Cuba excluded from the group, even though they (and other possessions) were included graphically with depictions of the Western Hemisphere commonly used. Today, we see the OAS and Free Trade Area of the Americas Institution list 34 member countries. Continental representation usually references two components (North and South) or three (North, Central and South).
3. A total of 59 entries were received for the competition (more than 400 applications were originally received). Second prize was awarded to Mexican architect José Luis Benlliure and third prize was awarded to Uruguayan architect Adolfo F. Pozzi Guelfi. The entries came from the Western Hemisphere and represented the following countries: the United States (34), Mexico (7), Uruguay (5), Bolivia (2), Argentina (1), Brazil (1), Canada (1), Colombia (1), Peru (1) and El Salvador (1). There were four unidentified entries.
4. An estimated 1,970 registrants from 65 countries expressed an interest originally, including architects: Marcel Breuer, Paul Cret, Le Corbusier, Robert Mallet-Stevens and A. and G. Perret. Other architects who also registered included Federico Mariscal, Enrique del Moral, José Villagrán García, Carlos Raúl Villanueva (who registered from Paris), and the German architect Max Cetto (who later emigrated to Mexico).
5. Originally, 196 Latin American applications had been received, representing Argentina (32), Brazil (17), Chile (26), Cuba (35), Mexico (37), Peru (17), Uruguay (28) and thirteen other countries. No applications or entries were ever received from El Salvador.
6. This story appeared in the New York Times in June 12, 1941.
7. The competing cities are in Mexico (Cancún and Puebla), Panama (Panama City), Puerto Rico (San Juan), Trinidad & Tobago (Port of Spain), and the United States (Atlanta, Chicago, Galveston, Houston and Miami).
8. In addition to Latin America’s 39 entries, the United States submitted 113 and Canada 1.




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Pan–American Union, Program and rules of the second competition for the selection of an architect for the monumental lighthouse, which the nations of the world will erect in the Dominican Republic to the memory of Christopher Columbus; together with the report of the International jury... Prepared by Albert Kelsey. Pan–American Union, 1930.
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