Can a modernistic edifice, one composed of bleak concrete and visually unforgiving steel, blend, somewhat casually, into a woodsy, jungle-like environment? Can strong architectural form exist without throwing aside the verdant allure of nature by which it’s surrounded? Perhaps yes, if the structure is Casa en el Bosque—a single-family home that consists of four small pavilions linked by a winding exterior walkway that seem to float above the forest upon which it’s perched.
Appraising concrete as a medium used in the home-construction industry, it’s all too easy to think of Brutalism—the modernistic movement characterized by monolithic, blocky shapes, rigid geometric style and the large-scale use of poured concrete.
This property, though, is far from brutal. If you’ll allow us a little wordplay, we’ll invent the term "quadruplism," as the retreat features not one but four concrete pavilions. Located in a large forest just outside Santiago, Nuevo León, the fascinating "house in the forest" is suffused with a plethora of ingenious design features, each envisioned to ensure that the man-made complex sits comfortably in its forested context.
One of the first challenges facing the compound’s architectural team was where, precisely, to position the cabin. The tiny plot, measuring less than 7,500 sf (697 sqm), is beset with rich vegetation and seventeen large-scale trees, so the cabin was built with light machinery to ensure minimal landscape disturbance.
Foundations were carefully placed to respect tree-root structure patterns, and the height of the architecture was exactingly calculated to respect the treetop canopy within which the house sits. By all accounts it was a painstaking task—especially given the fact that the house occupies a hillside with a variable inclination of between 30 and 40 percent.
A thoughtful mix of clay bricks (characteristically northeastern Mexican), exposed concrete, glass and metal help create the illusion that the boxy pods are suspended in branches, much like a tree house. The structure utilizes a traditional system of columns and concrete slabs, with double brick walls that extend, in places, into the landscape to create guide routes and semi-private outdoor patios.
Environmental awareness being at the forefront of this build, the design focuses on reducing daily consumption. The sloping, forest position takes advantage of tree shade and cross-ventilation to manage interior climate, thereby saving on cooling and heating costs, the latter further moderated by double walls which maintain temperatures during winter months. Furthermore, strategically placed windows and skylights illuminate the complex during the day, further reducing the need to use electric power.
Throughout, interior finishes combine natural elements with man-made detailing, whilst custom wood furniture invites extra warmth across the design landscape. Crucially, exterior and interior landscapes are further connected by polished concrete floors and brick walls, both "repeating" or "echoing" elements serving to blur boundaries.
By building separate structures, all of which combine to form "one" dwelling, the architects have created a journey on which the transition from room to room involves heading outside and, therefore, interacting with nature. This makes even the simplest motion an experience. And of course because light, temperatures and atmosphere change as the day revolves, so too does the experiential transition itself.
As far as retreats go, this Mexican casa was clearly well planned, its realization the perfect observation of what can happen when client and architect toil in harmony. Yes indeed, it’s a relaxed world: nothing seems forced. And perhaps surprisingly, for all its hard edges, the indulgent holiday home feels soft and welcoming, across its various zones, at every turn. Who knew that concrete could be a forest dweller’s best friend?
Structure Designer: CM Ingeniería y Estructuras
Contractor: Sagal Grupo Constructor
Excerpted from Escapology: Modern Cabins, Cottages and Retreats by Colin McAllister and Justin Ryan. Photographs by The Raws. Copyright 2020 by Colin McAllister and Justin Ryan. Excerpted with permission from Figure 1 Publishing. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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