I met Vilma Pérez Blanco in 2004 when I returned home to Puerto Rico from the Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design after completing a Master in Landscape Architecture. Vilma was one of the first landscape architects I contacted while searching for jobs in Puerto Rico. She could not offer me a job at the time, but instead, she offered me her guidance, advice, and friendship, which have been way more valuable than any job. Her strong will and character, her energy and enthusiasm for each project she has worked on for the last 54 years have inspired many of her colleagues and young professionals. Through friendly conversations on her rooftop terrace and more formal interviews for local newspapers, I learned about her passion for design and her commitment to improve the public spaces in Puerto Rico. She has been a key person in the development and recognition of landscape architecture in Puerto Rico. Her design work includes a wide range of projects in scale, types, and clientele, while her active role in public and private organizations has created a positive impact on the role of the landscape architect in society.
Vilma Pérez Blanco began her studies in Habana, Cuba at the School of Architecture of the University of La Habana. In 1953, she began her graduate work at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design, in the Architecture department. While there, advice from Architect Josep Lluis Sert made her change her course of studies and she joined the Landscape Architecture program from which she graduated in 1957. We believe she is one of the first Hispanic women in the Landscape Architecture Department. At Harvard, Vilma gained accolades from her professor Hideo Sasaki, which eventually gained her a position at Sasaki and Associates in 1960, before moving to Puerto Rico in 1962.
Her work experience and design ability took her in diverse directions. Once established in Puerto Rico, Vilma became a part of the Puerto Rico Planning Board from 1962 until 1972. During 1966-1972 she worked in the revision of residential and tourism projects. That same year she started her own practice as Vilma Blanco, M.L.A. Landscape Architect and in 1991 changed names to O.L.A., Office of Landscape Architecture.
Vilma’s experience spans over 50 years in a diverse range of projects types: from small to complex, public and private, including college campuses, parks, office parks, shopping centers, housing, and natural resource conservation; all with an emphasis on sustainability. Among her most recognized projects are: Tren Urbano (Urban Train system) – Torrimar and Las Lomas Stations, Plaza Las Américas Shopping Center, Master Plan for Colegio San Ignacio (Jesuit School), Private residences for renowned families like Colón Neváres and Ferré, and Punto Verde, the first and only Eco Theme Park in Puerto Rico. In addition, the Puerto Rico Conservatory of Music’s green roof/plaza, which is the first intensive green roof system on the Island, is a collaborative work with the New Orleans architectural firm, Howard Performance Architecture. Her most recent work was a pro bono project for the historical gardens of Casa Blanca in Old San Juan where she became the leader of the project and liaison between the Old San Juan residents and the Office of the First Lady.
Vilma Pérez Blanco has been involved in various professional organizations like the Colegio de Arquitectos y Arquitectos Paisajistas of Puerto Rico, the International Federation of Landscape Architects, the Institute of Landscape Architects of Puerto Rico, and the Foundation for Architecture in Puerto Rico, where she is currently the President. She has also served as President of the Association of Landscape Architects of Puerto Rico (1989-1991), the local professional association, where the group worked on a proposal for the reforestation of El Morro’s Grounds, a cultural landscape in Old San Juan and a world heritage site. The Association also focused their work on promoting the profession while seeking the State’s recognition of Landscape Architecture as a profession, an effort that proved fruitful in 1997 with the passing of a legislative measure. Vilma won the 2008 URBE Award for her design for Punto Verde Park in San Juan and was nominated for the Copper-Hewett Lifetime Achievement Design Award in 2009. Current work includes collaboration with the firm of Thomas Phifer and partners from New York, in the design of a new Federal Building Complex in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Vilma is currently engaged in the development of an Equestrian Center and several high-end residences in the metropolitan San Juan area.
Her insistence that more needed to be done for the profession locally led her to teach landscape architecture courses at the state institution’s School of Architecture, to which she and a colleague submitted a proposal to establish a Landscape Architecture Program in Puerto Rico. Her efforts saw results a decade later at Polytechnic University of Puerto Rico, where she collaborates as Juror, Advisor to the program, Lecturer, and a consultant to students.
Vilma Pérez’s trajectory exemplifies passion for design and landscape, but also a career founded in project work, professional preoccupations, and academic interest. Through the years of knowing Vilma, I have realized that her path has been one of many “firsts”. One of the first Hispanic women to study landscape architecture at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design and to work in Sasaki’s office; first woman to preside over the Association of Landscape Architects;first woman and landscape architect to preside over the Foundation for Architecture of Puerto Rico; first to propose formal education in the field locally; first to start a woman owned office of landscape architecture, and the designer of the first ecological park for children locally. Vilma’s contributions leave an undeniable footprint in the local landscape and the Caribbean region.
by Olga E. Angueira, in collaboration with Marisabel Rodríguez
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