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In These Houses, It’s What’s Outside That Counts

IT’S BEST TO arrive at Casa Valle, the home the Mexican architect Alberto Kalach designed for his family in 1996, at night, when darkness heightens its mystery. Past a wooden gate in Valle de Bravo, a lakeside town two hours west of Mexico City, a narrow path along a brick wall leads to a dim, cell-like vestibule that all but eliminates the world beyond. From here, you can enter a 43-foot-high tower containing four bedrooms or turn right into the living area and garden: This common gathering space, entirely open on one side to the elements, would appear to be the home’s most arresting feature, until you climb a stairway at its far end. On the roof, a 28½-foot travertine bench is installed along one side of a long pool that’s horizontally bisected by five thick concrete walls; Kalach, 63, calls the resulting interstices “cubicles.” They’re intended to provide privacy as well as shade, creating meditative spots where, come daybreak, you can gaze out over the green valley extending far past the property’s limits.

Back in the 7,300-square-foot house, the plan is similarly spare and poetic. The staircase connecting the bedrooms — which are stacked floor by floor — doubles as a bookcase; in place of windows are narrow slits of horizontal glass, cut to precisely frame Lake Avándaro in the distance. “I searched for the least amount of light for the space to be enjoyable,” Kalach says. “I had no client here, so I could do what I believe in: no real windows, a coarseness fit for heavy use, rooms that are all the same size.”

The low-slung living room at Casa Valle, Kalach’s own family weekend home near Mexico City, built in 1996.Credit…Fabian Martinez
The pool at Tzalancab.Credit…Fabian Martinez

If designing for himself meant the home didn’t need to be conventionally comfortable, it also allowed him to create a physical manifesto, a dwelling less driven by innovation or bravado than by the careful consideration of proportion, material, light and, above all, the ways in which a building might respond not only to Mexico’s terrain but to the country’s own architectural history. At its essence, the house is little more than four platforms dug into the hillside, resulting in a shed and a blocky pillar, two ancient building archetypes. The open living room is separated from the grounds only by five slender steel columns, a reinterpretation of the porticos typical of Michoacán, one of the states that borders the region. The walls are mostly brick, laid in a woven pattern inspired by vernacular construction traditions. But the real point was not to build too much; to create lots of negative space and interfere as little as possible with the surroundings. Much of the quarter-acre plot is given over to cascading plant life — jacaranda and acacias on one terrace, followed by banana and guava trees, then lime trees, jasmine and honeysuckle and, on the lowest level, ivy and bamboo. Taking it all in from above, you realize: The house is a garden; the garden is a house.

The office at Casa Valle combines wood, concrete, brick and glass, the architect’s favored materials.Credit…Fabian Martinez
The house’s rooftop pool, with hammocks between concrete partitions that create small, shaded semiprivate lounge areas.Credit…Fabian Martinez

KALACH IS HIS country’s most influential living architect, celebrated at home and abroad for the variety and originality of his designs. He was born in Mexico City to Elias Kalach, a Syrian tinsmith’s son who had immigrated in the early 1940s to the capital, where he opened a textile factory and married a local woman, Margot Kichik, who ran the household and raised their five children. Kalach hadn’t yet graduated from Mexico City’s Universidad Iberoamerica when he began practicing professionally. In 1995, he established his current firm, Taller de Arquitectura X (or TAX). Since then, he’s developed a much-copied style that combines a mastery of naked structures and exposed materials with deep concern for the ways space might be experienced by its inhabitants. Even though his two dozen or so buildings vary widely, most appear both rough-hewn and urbane, at once weathered and utopian: If a Vitruvian ruin were given a Modernist overhaul and covered with plants, it might resemble a typical Kalach project. This effect is most apparent at the architect’s highest-profile commission to date, Mexico City’s Vasconcelos library (completed in 2006), a hollowed-out, nearly 410,000-square-foot vessel set within a garden that’s revered for its easy accessibility and seamless flow, which Kalach achieved by suspending thousands of metal-and-tzalam-wood shelves from above.

He belongs to a generation of Mexican architects who had to kill their forebears in order to push those heroes’ legacies forward. The architects who’d come before had historically produced their most memorable projects by combining imported design idioms born in Europe with elements rooted in Mexico’s artisanal traditions. Around the middle of the 20th century, a group including Enrique del Moral, Juan O’Gorman and, most notably, Luis Barragán translated the just-arrived language of Modernism into something more organic and vibrant. But by the time Kalach entered the field, Mexican architecture was stuck, either mimicking Barragán’s pink walls or resorting to monumental, Aztec-inspired forms.

A disco ball hangs in the garden at Casa Verde, a simple home Kalach built for himself on top of an existing 1936 house in Mexico City’s San Miguel Chapultepec neighborhood.Credit…Fabian Martinez
Kalach’s library and living room at Casa Verde, with bespoke carpentry and low seating.Credit…Fabian Martinez

In the 1990s, Kalach and some others, particularly Enrique Norten, looked once more beyond the country’s borders to develop a lighter, more timely strain of regional architecture. Reflecting Mexico’s social and economic changes (NAFTA took effect in 1994), they absorbed the latest design trends, including high-tech details and radical spatial schemes. But Kalach, unlike his peers, was more attuned to his homeland’s topography and, with that, our age’s growing sustainability concerns. By steering Mexican architecture away from grand, self-referential iconography (replete with frequent nods to haciendas and pyramids) and toward a more elemental source — nature itself — he created a different template. “Kalach doesn’t think of architecture in terms of isolated buildings,” says Martino Stierli, the chief curator of architecture and design at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. “His practice is defined by a deep understanding of its environmental impact, and his buildings are the result of a careful reading of the local territory.”

Once he made land the ultimate bedrock of his practice — and helped Mexican architecture break with history — Kalach could follow any number of lineages. He borrowed freely from Modernist masters like the American practitioner Louis Kahn, Kenzo Tange from Japan and Barragán himself, who also liked to visually extend rooms into plazas of greenery. (The pool at Casa Valle is a stripped-down homage to Barragán’s 1977 Casa Gilardi in Mexico City’s San Miguel Chapultepec neighborhood.) During his four-decade career, Kalach has designed low-income housing, hotels, schools, art galleries, airports and, more recently, midrise apartment complexes in the city’s rapidly gentrifying central neighborhoods. But little stimulates him as much as creating stand-alone dwellings that are as mindful of their plots as of those who will eventually occupy them. While other architects define their legacies with skyscrapers or an array of international public commissions, Kalach’s residential architecture is not just his most personal work but his most impressive.

At Case Valle, a raw concrete wall incorporates a grill the family uses for weekend gatherings.Credit…Fabian Martinez
On the grounds of Tzalancab, Kalach combined untamed nature and decaying structures with water elements and so-called outdoor rooms.Credit…Fabian Martinez

Consider Casa GGG, built in 1995 for a couple with three young children, a house that’s as controlled and closed as Casa Valle is improvised and open. A different Kalach is on display here, one who revels in intricate layouts reminiscent of M.C. Escher mazes — the home is perhaps the best example of his gift for interweaving voids and masses. Indeed, the property would be just another exercise in late 20th-century, corridor-rich mannerism if it didn’t foretell what makes Kalach so admired among younger architects like Héctor Módica and Emmanuel Ramírez, many of whom attempt to emulate his ability to make complex blueprints seem inviting. There’s deep clarity and humanity in the way the home’s winding interior path guides you through space, the light shifting as a seemingly cold sculpture becomes a soothing, enveloping cocoon. Above all, though, it’s a house that’s meant to be used. “I wanted to make it fun to explore for the clients’ kids,” Kalach says. “What if you could be constantly surprised in your own house, and never finish discovering it? Almost imperceptibly, the light changes as the seasons pass, so the space is never the same.”

The 7,319-square-foot structure’s formalism can be traced to Kalach’s time at Cornell University in the early 1980s, when he earned a master’s degree in an architecture program that was then a locus of rationalism, training architects who conceived of buildings as complicated drawings rather than real-life objects. “From his first projects, it was obvious he was special,” says his former Cornell professor Werner Goehner. “They were compelling, elaborate, competent and to the point.” By 1985, the architect had returned to Mexico City in thrall to the New York Five — the canonical group of East Coast architects, including Peter Eisenman and Charles Gwathmey, who espoused classic Modernist tenets — and tried to make, as Kalach told me, “perfectly smooth, straight-edged white houses,” although he quickly realized that didn’t make sense in his more chaotic, verdant hometown. Instead, he decided to adapt the then-avant-garde look using common materials like brick, wood and concrete (a combination he still relies upon today). He also returned to earlier local teachers, in particular the Mexican architect José María Buendía Júlbez, who championed an introspective approach focused less on what you build and more on how the sun enters and exits it, on the constant play between interiors and exteriors. Those straightforward precepts would forever change Kalach and his practice.

A view of the loggia the architect repurposed as an outdoor dining area at Tzalancab.Credit…Fabian Martinez
The house’s former chapel is now a guest room. The architect designed understated tzalam wood furniture for all of the restored property’s rooms.Credit…Fabian Martinez

TODAY, KALACH LEADS a simple life. His city home is a 1,033-square-foot cabinesque structure built on top of a 1936 house — Casa Verde, named for its sea foam green facade — a short walk from his office overlooking Chapultepec park. He lives alone with his cat and sleeps on a mattress on the floor, in a 9½-by-11-foot room he insulated with wine corks to block out traffic noise. He’s got a deck with an overgrown garden and, next to it, a light-box-like room that functions as his kitchen, studio, library and seating area. As with many homes he has designed, there’s lots of built-in pine cabinetry; unlike other recent projects, their walls often hung with impressive contemporary collections, the only art here is by his children, Maria (32, a landscape designer and painter) and Marco (36, a sculptor), with whom he is close. (Their mother, a 65-year-old architect named Adriana León, is the co-founder of TAX, where she’s still a partner.)

Every afternoon, Kalach likes to walk in the woods of Chapultepec, often accompanied by his longtime gardener, Demetrio Zúñiga. On one of these strolls Kalach told me, “You can’t write about my interest in shelter without seeing my casitas.” Nine years ago, Kalach designed two little houses for himself by the sea, about 15 miles from Puerto Escondido in Oaxaca. He considers them a response to the region’s most prominent structure, the Japanese architect Tadao Ando’s monumental Casa Wabi, completed in 2014 and now an artist’s residency (and architectural pilgrimage destination). Whereas Ando’s design includes a 1,023-foot-long concrete wall that required drilling deep into the earth and quickly overheats under the scorching sun, the 1,615-square-foot casitas — constructed entirely from timber that barely skims the sand below — are recessively site sensitive, an elegant exercise in how to do the most with the least. Kalach’s main goal was to dispense with anything nonessential to resting, reading or staring at the ocean. The villas, which recall small temples with gracefully slanted roofs, are both cozy and user-friendly: With their mechanical sliding doors, they can be hermetically sealed, a practical necessity in a hurricane-prone region. As in his other projects, air conditioning isn’t just unnecessary, it’s forbidden.

A stone sculpture by the Mexican artist Jorge Yázpik at Casa GGG, a Mexico City residence Kalach designed in 1995.Credit…Fabian Martinez
The garden and lawn outside Casa GGG.Credit…Fabian Martinez

As he has matured, the architect’s residences have become looser, more soulful, his hand both softer and more inventive. Eleven years ago, Kalach renovated Tzalancab, a private estate an hour outside of Merida, on the Yucatán Peninsula. Situated near Izamal, a historic town known for its yolk yellow facades, the former hacienda now belongs to a couple who split their time between New York and Mexico City; it was crumbling when they asked Kalach to transform it into a holiday home. Beyond repairing the 4,300-square-foot structure, his interventions in the main 19th-century residence are almost invisible — an added bathroom here, a new kitchen there, a former chapel reborn as an airy guest room. “It’s ancestral architecture you learn from … the way it was designed, optimally cross-ventilated with few windows — light equals heat in the Yucatán — [so] there was little I could do to improve it,” he says. Instead, refined austerity prevails. A room with five hammocks and a projector stands in for a home theater; a rustic 14-seat table the architect designed turns a loggia into an open-air dining room.

Outside, the property’s 624 acres are populated by deer, ocelots and snakes that roam through gardens of Kalach’s own design; here as elsewhere, the architect’s approach to landscaping is hands-off, focused on reordering existing vegetation and grouping similar species together. There’s a long alley of ceiba trees, a narrow pool crouched in a sea of capote plants and tall tropical palms brought in from Jalisco, among other “outdoor rooms,” as Kalach calls them, amid terraces, several water features and satellite structures purposely left in a state of ruin. Standing on the veranda, the spartan estate behind him, the untamed grounds beyond, Kalach seems satisfied that he knew when to stop working. As an architect, he’s learned something over the decades: “You don’t always need to make your own statement.” Often, the landscape is enough.

Production: GOBE Studio

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