By Christina B. Farnsworth
Sixty kilometers north of Queretaro, Guanajuato, Mexico, the colonial hillside village of San Miguel de Allende contemplates the Laja River and distant mountains ranging to the horizon.
Founded in 1542, the former provincial Spanish capital boasted a population greater than New York City by 1770. But San Miguel's march through time stopped in antiquity, and in 1926, Mexico named it a national monument.
Now residents speak of living history. Their town is a celebrated artists' community where flower-filled terraced patios, bird song, and narrow, winding, cobbled lanes work an addictive everyday sensory magic, and time flows in any direction.
Steps and handmade casework separate kitchen and dining room. A 200-year-old carpenter's table forms the center piece of the dining table. Floors are locally quarried slate delivered via donkey.
San Francisco architects Steven and Cathi House discovered the hamlet quite by chance in 1989 while in search of a Canterra stone quarry. Smitten with its pealing church bells, lush bougainvillea cascades, and "luminous skies, crystalline at 6,300 feet in altitude," the couple designed and had their own home built. Some years later, a neighbor asked if they knew anyone who would want to buy her deceased aunt's property. Yes, they did, indeed--themselves. And thus began a second odyssey through time and space with their trusted master builder.
Every House + House project begins in ceremony: a dedication, perhaps a poem, and a ribbon cut with scissors handed down from a mentor. Preserving an ancient pomegranate tree became key to this home's soul. "Her life is in your hands," Cathi recalls saying at the ribbon cutting to lifelong resident and local builder Maestro Jos Guadelupe Gonzalez Morales. And preserve it they did--gently hand-forming the house elements that approached the tree.
As in the United States, often the hardest part of any job is getting permission, Guadelupe says. Fortunately, this house is just half a block beyond the historic district limits, so getting permits and permissions took only half as long--four weeks rather than two or more months. Houses touch in these ancient barrios. Thus part of the construction process is talking to the neighbors and perhaps fixing something that needs a little fixing in their houses as you build new.
Guadelupe's team took down the existing house brick by brick. Old adobe turned to dust and so did the 25-inch-thick adobe party wall shared with the house next door. Not only did Guadelupe's team of craftsmen build the new house, but with Cathi's endorsement, they also built good will with neighbors--underpinning foundations, fixing roof leaks, and even tiling a bathroom.
Little went to waste. The recycled brick, for example, worked its way back into the new house. Tight working quarters--the lot is 25 by 60 feet--meant "three guys doing a shovel dance," Cathi says of hand-mixing concrete for the reinforced post-and-beam structure.
Communication between architect and builder was via fax, telephone, and Cathi's visits. Once every six weeks during the 18-month process, she ventured to San Miguel de Allende for a week. Guadelupe praises Cathi's clear and thoughtful vision, her detailed drawings, and the inviting challenges of building a unique house.
Building new in an ancient city is challenging. Neither the lot nor the adjoining structures were square. Yet Cathi's architecture relied on strong horizontal and vertical elements that had to be in alignment. And other structural challenges required some ingenuity: A heavy cylindrically shaped shower perches midway on a second-floor beam. Guadelupe figured out how to reinforce and tie the elements together in a way that is completely hidden.
Now complete, the house is a slice of color seen from the street. Unlike most houses in the United States, this 2,000-square-foot house hugs the perimeter of its allotted space.
Illusion starts at the 3-inch-thick entry door built of ancient oak. The weighty door pivots effortlessly into the narrow outdoor hall flowing into a central courtyard. Hand-selected, deep-red and ochre river rocks undulate across the court's charcoal gray floor, "twisting in a pattern that links the path of one's life with all that you touch," Cathi says. "The home is strong and heavy, transparent, layered in color, form, and emotion," she adds.
Slate floors, delivered from mountain quarries via donkey, pave interior rooms. Living, dining, and kitchen open into the plant-filled court with its rich cobalt-blue wall. The main bedroom, at the back of the house, sits just above the court and shelters its own garden.
The master bathroom embraces the century-old pomegranate tree. Its bath has a secret: a cobalt, ochre, green, and burgundy tile mural. Sunlight splashes through the pomegranate and a glass block wall onto a glass-beaded shower seat.
Natural mineral powders yield rich wall colors: mango, cobalt, and soft gray greens. Mango, for example, evolves from red and yellow iron oxides. The powdered colors are bought from barrels by the kilo (2.2 pounds) and mixed on site. Grids of custom and locally made floor-to-ceiling steel windows spill the crystalline light throughout the house, modulated by a row of square columns. These carefully orchestrate shadow patterns in rhythm with the sun.
Glass beads become jeweled inserts adorning richly troweled burgundy concrete columns and counters. Handmade weathered perforated steel sconces, steel railings, and unexpected skylights give "sight of hand" at every turn.
The sinuous front stairway scales the 20-foot-high cobalt courtyard wall to two second-floor bedrooms, each with private balcony. These rooms share the bathroom and a shaded terrace overlooking the courtyard.
Frosted-glass star lights sprinkle the wall, "seeming to pull heaven right down to the earth on starry nights," Cathi says. Finally she says she draws inspiration from the philosophy of architect Luis Barragon who believed architecture was about poetry, joy, myth, and solitude. Barragon said, "Beauty speaks like an oracle. Serenity is the great and true antidote against anguish and fear." And in this special home you feel all that and more.
Project: Beso de las Estrellas (Kiss of the Stars), private residence; Location: San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, Mexico; Size: 2,000 square feet; Builder: Maestro Jos Guadelupe Gonzalez Morales, San Miguel de Allende; Architect: Cathi House, House + House, San Francisco; Carpenter: Francisco Caballero, San Miguel de Allende; Steel windows: Meliton Lopez, San Miguel de Allende; Steel railings: Transito Salazar, San Miguel de Allende