Appetite for Construction
Six years ago, architect Jorge Gracia came to Dwell’s attention with a house he built for his family that was radically different from any other in his hometown of Tijuana, Mexico, where the hillsides are peppered with unplanned, makeshift houses for the poor and pastel-colored, ersatz Spanish manses for the rich. Despite Mexico’s strong modernist tradition—think of the work of Luis Barragán and Enrique Norten—Tijuana hasn’t been its beneficiary. “I’m an architect in a city with no architecture,” Gracia told Dwell in 2005. “In a place like this, you have to ask a client to have faith, and faith to me has always been the belief in something you can’t see.”
Despite Tijuana’s shortcomings, Gracia has since managed to find local clients prepared to take that leap. He now has about 50 houses to his name, including the recently completed Casa Becerril, built for Marco and Angelica Becerril and their extended family. They commissioned Gracia after seeing the home he built for their oldest daughter, also named Angelica, which, like several of Gracia’s designs, was completed quickly and cost-effectively using a lightweight steel framing system manufactured and sold by Marco.
Casa Becerril is located in one of Tijuana’s many gated communities, protected by a high perimeter fence, barbed wire, and a guard who collects visitors’ ID cards and keeps them until their departure. Land is at a premium here, so unlike the nearby border town of Mexicali, where sprawling, low houses sit on large lots, the majority of homes here are multistory and jammed together, almost like row houses. Such is the case for the Becerrils’ new house, which sits calmly and quietly on a tight site between cookie-cutter houses—a stark, narrow, and tall box clad in creamy HardiePanel fiber-cement siding and rich brown acrylic panels.Not only does the house look different, it is less packed in on its site than the other houses, which squeeze up to their property lines. Instead, Casa Becerril is reached in stages, first through a quiet gravel yard shaded with bamboo and then by a second-level private courtyard leading into the main cooking, dining, and living room.
Mexicans often seek seclusion and like to focus on the family, explains Gracia, and this house conforms to that tradition by centering the life of the house inward, away from the street, onto the inner courtyard and the family space, which is typically brimming with people and pets. On the day of our visit, Angelica (the elder) is busy at the kitchen island making tacos for the guests, and a little Pomeranian, Paco, bounces around enthusiastically. Soon, Marco appears, followed shortly by his daughter Erica; expected later is the younger Angelica, now living with her parents and her two daughters. The family also includes a cocky parrot named Pancho, who is perched in the kitchen; Oscar, a 40-year-old tortoise who lives in his own custom stone kennel in the bamboo of the entry; and, snuffling at the glass doors from his home in the courtyard, a perky little black boar named José.Pivotal to the overall plan, the courtyard is sited on the eastern half of the house to maximize space and morning light on its narrow, enclosed site. The main part of the house sits on the western half, with a guesthouse, currently occupied by Erica, on an upper level at the south end. Along the western edge of the lot, the building butts up close to its neighbor and therefore gets scant natural light. Here, Gracia created an efficient spine of closets, bathrooms, and other utility spaces, all neatly concealed behind flush walnut-paneled walls and cabinets.
The house thereby is both a streamlined machine for living in—Angelica repeatedly raves about the efficiency of the house—and a restful, contemplative space. Marco, it turns out, not only had faith in his architect’s ideals—“we invested in the building because we believe in him,” he says—but also sustains a profound faith of the kind Gracia had described as “the belief in something you can’t see.” He prays daily and keeps his walls free of decoration except for an image of Jesus (and, on a wall upstairs, a typewritten memo of moral and domestic rules for his family). The house has an almost monastic asceticism that is even more pronounced than most modernist minimalist interiors. Downstairs, built into a niche off the corridor, sits a small shrine, with a kneeler in front of a triumphant Jesus and photos of grandchildren on the acrylic paneled wall.
Later, over a glass of tequila and spicy nuts, Marco explains that the house is unusual for Mexico, where houses often feature “many expensive paintings and flowers.” He laughingly says that their neighbor refers to Casa Becerril as “the warehouse.” But the warmth in this house, he says, comes from “the people, not the accessories, all the family together, cooking and eating.” His wife concurs, saying she loves it because it is so much easier to maintain. In the house they previously occupied, she recalls spending all her time on upkeep, “making sure flowers and portraits were properly cleaned” and tidying unused spaces, such as the “living room that was like a museum.” She is especially impressed by details like the concealed toaster, which tucks neatly in a drawer.
The aesthetic of efficient use of space and unadorned, basic materials befits an architect who cites Mies van der Rohe as one of his greatest influences: “With Mies, you see nothing that is not needed,” says Gracia. But the aesthetic also emerges from an approach that emphasizes careful cost control. The 4,357-square-foot Casa Becerril was built for around $320,000, plus the land at $175,000, with building costs of about $70 per square foot (compared to the average $200 in San Diego). The client and architect made savings by using the lightweight galvanized-steel framing system that could be put up fast and worked without a contractor. Gracia, on principle, builds his own projects. “To be able to build something interesting, you have to build it yourself.”
But building fast is the real key to reducing costs, explains Gracia: “Most of the materials come from the U.S., so the only place you have room to play with is in the cost of labor. Labor costs are about $1,000 per week and a house is built in nine months to a year. So if you can build in four or five months, that’s where you can start to save money.” Built in five months, Casa Becerril was not even his most cost-efficient project. “We spent more time, but we have built two houses in three and a half months.”
When Dwell last met Gracia, he, like many Tijuanans, was making the daily commute across the border—a lengthy process that involves sitting in traffic, sometimes for hours, and navigating a gauntlet of security cameras and inspections—to work in San Diego. Now with the recession in southernmost California, he has set up a permanent office in Tijuana. “I think developers are investing here because the costs are lower.” Right now, Gracia is working on shopping malls in Tijuana and a retail store in La Paz, and he has embarked on speculative development, building two houses for sale in Playas de Tijuana. Of course, they will express his modern sensibility. “I see Tijuana as a white canvas,” he says, “that’s the reason I decided to move back here. The city is growing, and I see a need for architects to propose something of value for the city.”