Vieques: The Caribbean's Unlikely Design Destination

The Ramp House.; Architect John Hix at Casa Triangular. Courtesy of John Hix

Eight miles are all that separate “mainland” Puerto Rico from the tiny islet of Vieques, a 52-square-mile outcrop accFessible only by old-fashioned ferry service or a quick prop-plane flight from San Juan, St. Croix, or St. Thomas. But that brief aquatic expanse has spared Vieques from the kind of cookie-cutter over-development marring once-pristine beachfronts across the Caribbean.

In their place, Vieques reveals itself as a tranquil tableau of rugged mountainside, wild horse herds, and eerie bioluminescent bays. What’s most intriguing is its increasingly—and surprisingly—sophisticated art, architecture, and design scene. Recent arrivals have put it on the map—the W Vieques Retreat and Spa, a 157-room hideaway opened in 2010, and nearby in the tiny hamlet of Esperanza, the Malecón House was unveiled with 10 contemporary-design rooms.

But Vieques’s true style nexus is the Hix Island House, a 15-year-old “extreme green” hilltop retreat named after its developer and designer, the architect and eco-maverick John Hix. Much like visionaries ranging from Bauhaus-founder Walter Gropius to Hix’s former professor Louis Kahn, Hix—who was born in Ohio and splits his time between Vieques and Toronto—rigorously adheres to a form-follows-function philosophy that extends as much to living in his buildings as it does to designing them. “Bunker”-like and crafted from reinforced concrete, Hix’s 13-room, 13-acre hotel—along with his handful of private Vieques villas—are instantly identifiable by their angular support columns, infinity-edge pools, and windows sealed from the elements by steel security doors rather than conventional glass panes.

“I’ve learned from the ways locals create their own homes to make buildings that are beautiful, while responding to the island’s inherent climatic conditions,” says Hix of Vieques, which was infamously occupied by the U.S. military from the 1940s to 2003. “When designed properly, these structures reduce energy demands, have no need for artificial cooling, and can be run completely from the sun.”

Hix’s mindset is uniquely suited to Vieques. The island’s balmy trade winds, semitropical temperatures, and dramatic topography are at once inspirational and practical. The original Hix Island House’s loftlike rooms are solar-powered and precisely positioned to maximize those brisk breezes. Modernist furnishings and an alfresco yoga studio keep luring back design-conscious guests for whom aesthetics trump air conditioning. Repeat visitors, such as former Marimekko textile designer Donna Gorman, were so taken by Hix’s glamorously green designs that they hired him to build their own private villas. Today a handful of Hix’s residences are available for weekly or nightly rental. (Prices range from $175 to $310 a night.)

“The hotel attracts this interesting, cosmopolitan crowd,” says Gorman, now a private design consultant whose two-bedroom Vieques villa was designed by Hix. “He’s not an architect that creates typical Caribbean environments,” she says. “His work is certainly not for everyone.”

And Hix’s latest creation—the six-room Casa Solaris—is likely to be his most “not for everyone” yet. The first completely “off-grid” hotel in the Caribbean, Casa Solaris is oil-free, gas-free, and pollution-free—yet still luxed up with crisp Frette linens, groovy Dedon furniture, and apartment-like suites starting at larger than 1,000 square feet. As in the original Hix Island House, Casa Solaris—whose roofs are covered in solar cells—relies on wind power for cooling, sun power to heat its outdoor showers, and Mrs. Hix for freshly baked breakfast breads. But here Hix has extended his self-sustaining (and self-sufficient) vision to include water-efficient appliances, enhanced composting systems, and zero electricity. It’s certainly not the W. But keenly aware that they’re doing good while feeling good, Hix’s guests don’t seem to mind. In fact, with island winds often more reliable than generators, they might actually be the coolest Vieques visitors of them all.

eco-friendly-caribbean-om03-2ndary Casa Solaris, the Caribbean's first "Off Grid" guest house. Courtesy of John Hix

“Even if the electricity goes out on the rest of the island, our lights will still be shining up here,” says Hix, who’s currently completing additional villas in Vieques and the Bahamas. “Back in the 1960s, I first explored off-grid, electricity-free designs,” Hix says. “More than 50 years later, there’s something very satisfying about seeing it actually work.”