Most visitors to the Galapagos Islands point their cameras towards the exotic animals and away from the local people. They direct their full attention to the natural landscape, as if to intentionally deny the existence of the urban space of the city, since the presence of any form of architecture would seem in logical conflict with the islands’ identity as a protected wildlife reserve.
The architecture of the Galapagos is both a conceptual and physical contradiction. Like a Piranesian joke, the San Cristobal typology of the proto-ruin falls somewhere on a spectrum between construction and dismantlement. With their “permanently unfinished” construction state seemingly in flux, it is unclear whether many of these buildings display a common optimism for vertical expansion or are instead symptoms of a process of urban decay.
The unique shapes of these pseudo-informal constructions are the product of a tax loophole found in many South American and even Southern European countries that allows residents and landlords to defer property taxes on buildings in the process of construction. (Another contributing factor to this practice is their residents’ existence in a liminal state of poverty.) The result is a strange, unintentional aesthetic of the purposefully incomplete that has a tendency to dominate many lower income neighborhoods. An especially large concentration of these building types can be found in the capital of the Galapagos, San Cristobal.
In leaving open the possibility of future construction, these semi-shelters invite the casual observer to imagine divergent possibilities for the completed construction that reflect an imagined future direction for the Galapagos Islands as a whole. Will the roofs of these homes become the penthouses of the wealthy Ecuadorians seeking a vacation home on the islands, high rise hotel towers to house the increasing flood of international tourists, or aviaries for accommodating the world-famous Galapagos finches, so as to integrate these birds into the matrix of human development?
Mapping the urban area of Puerto Baquerzio Moreno allows us to quantify the percentage of inhabitants that are actively taking advantage of this tax loophole. 1,800 buildings can be counted in Puerto Baquerzio Moreno from satellite photos. 1,253 buildings were surveyed from the ground in total: of those 960 appear to be mostly completed, 207 appear to be in a state of incomplete habitation, and 86 are apparently currently in construction. From that data, 76.5% are “completed,” 16.5% are “incomplete,” and 7% are “under construction.”
The somewhat larger and more developed Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz suggests one possible path in which Puerto Baquerzio Moreno may develop. The survey of site statistics shows 2,925 buildings in the main city: of those 2,633 appear to be mostly completed, 233 appear to be in a state of incomplete habitation, and 59 are apparently currently in construction. From that data, 90% are “completed,” 8% are “incomplete,” and 2% are “under construction.”
Joseph Kennedy is a Fulbright grantee conducting research and teaching at the Oslo School of Architecture and Design. He graduated with a B. Arch from Cornell University in 2015.