Highly commended AR_EA 2014: At the foot of a Mexican mountain, a shingle-clad barn and sunkenstables elegantly accommodate domestic and equestrian pursuits
Two hours’ drive from Mexico City near the lakeside town of Valle de Bravo, dense pine and oak woods are home to an equestrian complex by CC Arquitectos. When CCA principal and founder, Manuel Cervantes Céspedes, visited the proposed site with senior architect, José Luis Heredia Alvarez, they discovered gently sloping forested terrain with a clearing on one of its inclines. It was quickly decided that this bare patch of woodland, with its lack of trees and outlook to forest and mountain, was where they would build.
‘The design began from the topography, and playing with the idea of architecture emerging from the site,’ says Cervantes Céspedes. ‘Our goal was to distribute the programme through the land’s movement.’ The complex has three key elements: a horse-training (sometimes bullfighting) ring with associated animal carrels, and two parallel rows of horseboxes extending perpendicularly from the long side of a central shingle-clad barn, the focal point of the ensemble.
To avoid obscuring views of the landscape and mountain, the architects reduced the scale of the equestrian structures by partly submerging them in the landscape and anchoring them in the relief. Their presence is further subdued by enveloping the stables in greenery. Endemic, hearty-yet-delicate foliage sprouts from between raw vertical planks and living rooftops. Stone circulation paths connect structures and landscape features, and narrow channels of water travel the length of the stables or escort visitors from entrance to barn reception area, while echoing the site contours. ‘We tried not to use a complex language,’ says Heredia Alvarez. ‘Rather we create visual connectedness and soft transitions.’
Forms are simple and elemental, materials and colours are dense and earth-toned, with subtle variances. The result is a series of calm, grounded spaces, with minimal distinctions between architecture and landscape. Dark railway sleepers, dormientes from a decommissioned Monterrey rail network, were repurposed as walls for the bullfighting ring and its carrels. Together with local pink and grey stone, these sleepers also provide structure for the landscape design. Mexican Durango pine has been used for the barn’s structural elements, with local tiles and copper utilised elsewhere. ‘The stone is from the region,’ says Heredia Alvarez. ‘The stonemason took his orders in terms of fruit size − lemon, apple, watermelon. Watermelon was the largest option.’ The exception to local materials is the Canadian shingles that clad the barn; unlike Mexico, Canada has a robust certification process for constructional timber.
Attention to light and texture are other key elements. Arrowslit windows, in the Mexican tronera style, interfere minimally with the barn’s form, but provide a surprising amount of illumination. In an otherwise dimly lit space, these strong insertions of light introduce a play of chiaroscuro, which Cervantes Céspedes hoped would ‘embrace silence’. The project is characterised by textures, both found and created. The green pencil lines of pine needles; rough and smooth stonework; manicured grass; thousands of pixellated shingles. Casts were made of the railway sleepers’ rough surfaces for moulding concrete blocks and walls, which are finished with an earth-tinted render.
Architect and client were keen to explore the concept of a private barn connecting interior and exterior realms. The resulting cork-coloured structure has four guest suites on the upper storey, and on the lower level, a vast, open-plan living area, commercial kitchen, and grand recinto taurino chamber for receiving guests and/or bullfighter preparations. The barn opens completely to the landscape via sliding terrace doors and every naturally lit and ventilated internal space has commanding views of the surrounding landscape, the green picadero areas for horse training, or the central garden above and around the stables.
The notion of estructural aparente is characteristic of CCA’s philosophy. ‘We are interested in transparency of construction, taking this into the final stages,’ says Cervantes Céspedes. In a detail as worthy of display as the fine seam work on a bespoke suit, the barn’s structural underbelly of pine beams is left exposed to the interior.
The conceptual starting point for the project was to create an environment that integrated natural, animal and human worlds, while preserving comfort and the ability to retreat. ‘The most exciting aspect was the opportunity to mix the domestic and equestrian programmes,’ says Heredia Alvarez. ‘You can live in the house without even seeing the horse boxes or the ring, but you can hear the noises of the horses and be surrounded by the landscape.’
Counterintuitively, this palatial woodland complex achieves a certain modest quality. This is perhaps because the sum effect of visual connections between interior and exterior, subdued volumes and elemental materials, is the impression that the architecture does not aspire to be grander than the ancient crowd of trees that surrounds it.