A bold aesthetic and practical blend of ancient and modern is adopted for a south-west Mexico sports centre
Sport City Oaxaca’s fresh facade, of coffee-coloured bricks capped with a colourful geometric frieze, offers a taste of the eclecticism that lies behind it, a fusion of old and new technologies and aesthetics.
This vast complex, which covers nearly 5000 square metres, is part of a chain of Mexican sport centres, a typology normally characterised by a hyper-modern aesthetic. The Oaxacan branch owner, however, was not interested in building another monolith in steel, concrete and glass, so approached Rootstudio for an alternative concept. The studio’s successful design proposal – characteristically – challenges the dominance of high-tech solutions and demonstrates the value and beauty of centuries-old construction techniques and materials.
‘We are advocates of ancestral earth construction and vernacular materials – like adobe, stone, tile, brick, lime and bamboo – because they have relevance to the local climate, culture and social character’, said Rootstudio’s founder and director, Joao Caeiro. ‘But these materials also have durability and resilience when used correctly, and they are beautiful.’
While Caeiro and his colleagues are passionate in their advocacy for and use of traditional production, materials and structural schemes, they are not exclusive about it. ‘We respect the nature of traditional materials and original techniques,’ said Joao Caeiro, ‘without denying the possibilities of contemporary materials and new technologies.’
Visitors to Sport City are greeted by the most modern aspect of the complex, its vast central gymnasium’s black powder-coated columns, state-of-the-art exercise equipment and high ceilings adorned with exposed service pipes and wires, and light plates suspended on fine steel cords. What might have been a cold space is, nonetheless, an inviting and expansive one with the warming presence of adobe, red brick detail and cork-veneer panels. Enhanced volumes and abundant natural light eliminate any sense of confinement, while also taking the edge off high-energy music. Large internal volumes come from extremely high, angled ceiling planes and the long glass panels that drop from their highest points. Large vertical windows on the periphery also introduce a great deal of natural light.
At the rear of the gym, the complex opens up to a courtyard – with pools, lawns, areas for lounging, a café and a striking bamboo shelter. The latter bridges two completely different buildings – one made from reinforced concrete, the other adobe – and was designed and built by Oaxacan architecture students as a metaphor for connecting old and new. In addition, this student involvement demonstrates Rootstudio’s commitment to technological transfer. While the structure incorporates concrete pillars, joined to the bamboo by metal connectors (since covered with plywood, cardboard, asphalt and handmade yellow tile), its bamboo webbing and ceramic shingles, both locally sourced, are what draws the eye.
Many of Sport City’s principal walls are comprised of adobe and/or kiln-baked bricks and a sand-coloured, hand-carved Cantera stone foundation. Both bricks and adobe were set with a lime and sand mortar, and the soft streak of a human hand is just discernible on each of the former.
Another example of the aesthetic and practical fusion of old and new are the metal joints, which are located every 12 metres along the main walls. These, with the stone basement, provide reinforcement for the complex’s exceptionally long walls in a high seismic zone.
The main walls are comprised of 33,000 fibrous, adobe bricks, stacked like loaves of German black bread. All were made in nearby communities from local earth, mixed with sawdust, black clay and horse dung, and left to mature for three days. ‘The mortar recipe was recovered from the oldest inhabitant [in the village we worked with], who remembered the exact place where his grandfather used to take out the earth to construct their houses …’ wrote Caeiro.
The beautiful textures and imperfections of Sport City’s artisanal materials invite touch and thought about the hands that made them, and these qualities are only enhanced beside modern, machine-perfect materials.
Other playful, craftsman’s details can be found here: a black, load-bearing column becomes a waterfall when it rains, when water finds its way down short zigzagging shutes, like ball-bearings in an old-fashioned children’s maze.
A colourful panel – assembled from variously sized and painted pieces of tin – wraps around the roof cavity of the main building. This fresh element – with its geometric shapes painted in 11 gelato colours – was inspired by the common use of flattened industrial cans for fences and property dividers in rural and suburban Oaxaca.
‘The beautiful textures and imperfections of Sport City’s artisanal materials invite touch and thought about the hands that made them’
Sports City’s design also harnesses natural resources in a variety of ways. Its design incorporates a rainwater catchment system, and natural airflow is optimised through horizontal openings extending around the top of the adobe walls. The latter coupled with adobe’s exceptional thermal inertia have meant that air-conditioning systems are not required, and energy and environmental costs have been significantly reduced. Water is heated via 500 square metres of solar panels on the southern roof side.
While Sport City Oaxaca will, on the whole, be used by a more privileged demographic, its construction phase had a number of deliberate social and cultural impacts, namely, the technology transfer which transmitted vernacular knowledge and skills to local architecture students, and the project’s patronage of artisanal work.
In addition to the quantum of required adobe bricks, ‘The use of 140,000 bricks and 22,000 tiles in the complex, each produced by hand in local communities, is important to note,’ said Caeiro. ‘The economic contribution derived from these production processes has been vital for maintaining these regional traditions as well as the value and promotion of its craftsmanship.’ The bricks were miraculously produced by artisanal groups in neighbouring villages in the Central Valley in only a month and a half.
It is unsurprising that Sport City has attracted considerable attention. This high-end, high-use centre challenges modern construction biases by demonstrating the possibilities of mixing low-tech solutions with slicker, industrialised ones. Sport City Oaxaca is also a reminder of the continued relevance of vernacular materials and their aesthetic, human, bioclimatic and cultural value.
Architect: Rootstudio and Arquitectos Artesanos
Structural Design: Javier Ribe
Landscape Design: Pina Hamilton
Photographs: Angel Ivan Valdivia Salazar, Fidel Ugarte