Welcome to the Jungle

Originally published in 

In Central America, Spanish colonial architecture prevails. But the creeping tide of modernism—represented here by the home of architect José Roberto Paredes—is signaling that change is afoot. Paredes gives us a tour of his house, set in the rain forest outside San Salvador, El Salvador.

I never imagined that I would live in a house like Casa Tuscania. In fact, it wasn’t until I saw it for the first time, in the light of the morning, that I realized it was my dream house. Just a couple of years before, I had left my father and brother’s firm to start my own more modern architecture practice in San Salvador. We have broken down walls, literally and figuratively, to create the Swiss Family Robinson–like tree house we call home. It’s pretty isolated here, outside of San Salvador, and those factors were important in deciding where to build and how to raise our two daughters, Pilar, 15, and Jimena, 4, in a natural environment.

While studying architecture in Barcelona, I learned a lot about spatial efficiency because I lived in a tiny little flat—–well, it was more of a bachelor pad, but that’s open to interpretation. We didn’t want to build a huge house. We wanted it to be cozy but open, making sure every room used its space wisely. Few walls separate the rooms and our dining table doubles as a homework desk and venue for Scrabble games. We did something strange and installed a bathtub right in Jimena’s bedroom. She loves splashing around in there and would spend hours on end in it if she could.

Throughout the house I used concrete for its cooling quality and easy maintenance. It works well in San Salvador’s sun-drenched climate. Patty grew up in Sudan, and I grew up here; we know an awful lot about finding ways to cool off inside when it is sweltering outdoors. But we didn’t want to sacrifice the sensation of being in a warm home for having all concrete walls, which is why we lined one of the walls with polycarbonate sheets. I’ve always found materials much more interesting than colors, and therefore I wanted to use wood, concrete, glass, and the polycarbonate, which offers us a bit of privacy and filters the light.

If we’re at home on the weekends, we paint, read, or play games at the big dining table. It’s strange hearing myself call it a dining table, though. The times that we formally dine at it are so few! The living area receives the best sunlight in the morning. It is definitely Jimena’s favorite place to catnap on weekend afternoons with the gentle breeze flowing through the back patio area and up through the front entryway. It almost feels like a porch inside. On a typical weekend morning, I am usually the first to rise. I start the day by opening the big patio doors downstairs. One thing we never do is take fresh air for granted, especially since there is a huge air pollution problem in the city.

With all the open doors we often get asked if we have trouble with bugs. I usually say that although we get the occasional visitor, only every now and again do dangerous forest friends, like venomous snakes, actually find their way in. It’s a minor drawback to living in a tree house on the ground, but I don’t think they like it as much as we do in here—–there aren’t too many walls or hiding spaces.

The bathroom is one of Patty’s favorite places in the whole house. It is like a little cabin retreat. To be completely honest, I don’t know what women find to do in bathrooms, but I can understand why she likes it in there! The warm wood walls and the random patterns of light create a soothing effect.

The lofted mezzanine area inside was designed to be a lounging space. We strategically placed furniture atop a comfortable rug and expected the girls to do their homework up there. But the truth is we barely use it. I’d like to change that someday. If we made it more of an artist’s studio, Patty could paint there and I could work from home on lazy Friday afternoons. We all seem to prefer revolving our lives around the kitchen anyway. It feels like we are constantly cooking something—–breakfast, lunch, dinner, and the snacks between.

We love the outdoors, but we don’t have patio furniture, which forces us to redefine the terrace on a daily basis. Sometimes we host other families for a barbecue in the late afternoons over the weekends, open a bottle of wine, and let the kids watch a movie inside. But other times it’s like an underappreciated empty platform that we use to look out into the trees from the kitchen when the warm sun bleeds into a dark, bedazzled sky.

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