These Separate Studios Keep a Retired Couple Happy

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By Aileen Kwun / Published by Dwell
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Art and life meet in the middle at a creative family retreat in Central Mexico.

Nestled in Mexico’s central highlands, the historic town of San Miguel de Allende holds folkloric charm, with its cultural mix of local handicraft and contemporary galleries and jacaranda-lined, cobblestone streets of Spanish Baroque architecture that date back to the 18th century. For art and design veterans Austin and Lida Lowrey, it was love at first sight. Two days into their first visit to San Miguel in 2004, while on vacation with their two daughters, Elizabeth and Sheridan, they wandered into a local real estate office and, on a romantic whim, purchased a small casa in the center of town.

Two art studios adjoin a central volume at this work/live residence built from terracreto (sustainable concrete), glass, and painted steel just outside of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. Residents Austin and Lida Lowrey, retired design and museum professionals, collaborated with their two daughters—Sheridan, an artist, and Elizabeth, an architect—to design the structure as a place for creative contemplation.

Two art studios adjoin a central volume at this work/live residence built from terracreto (sustainable concrete), glass, and painted steel just outside of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. Residents Austin and Lida Lowrey, retired design and museum professionals, collaborated with their two daughters—Sheridan, an artist, and Elizabeth, an architect—to design the structure as a place for creative contemplation.

Retired and in their early eighties, the couple considered the possibilities as they began to desire a larger home that could integrate artist studios and a living space in which to spend their days in peaceful contemplation, painting, writing, and basking in "the pleasure of doing nothing," says Austin. So they acquired a half-acre plot in the vast, rolling desert community of Los Senderos, just outside the town. Elizabeth, a principal and director of interior architecture at Boston-based firm Elkus Manfredi Architects, and Sheridan, an installation artist with a background in architecture, were also excited by the idea of a year-round residence for their parents that could also host family gatherings during the holidays. Between visits to and from San Miguel and their respective homes in Boston and Los Angeles, the idea began to form.

To the south, a small soaking pool sits outside Austin's studio, where he'll often lie and meditate: "I'm a great floater, and can look at the clouds for an hour every day," he says. The adjacent wall was coated with smooth sand plaster finish to accommodate video and film projections by night.

To the south, a small soaking pool sits outside Austin's studio, where he'll often lie and meditate: "I'm a great floater, and can look at the clouds for an hour every day," he says. The adjacent wall was coated with smooth sand plaster finish to accommodate video and film projections by night.

"It wasn’t a formal or prescribed process. Design is just what we would talk about all the time," says Elizabeth. "We’ve spent our whole lives thinking about our environment, and we’ve lived in many different places and houses, each one a project. We were kind of all used to that; that’s part of our nature." Over the years, the family had lived in several college towns throughout the United States as Austin and Lida filled tenures at various institutions in cities across the country, from Auburn, Alabama; to New York City; Athens, Georgia; Terre Haute, Indiana; and, among many others, Raleigh, North Carolina, where Austin taught design as a professor at North Carolina State University and Lida was design director of the North Carolina Museum of Art. Retiring in 1999, the couple relocated to Los Angeles and set up an art studio in the harbor area of San Pedro. It was there, in a raw, 6,000- square-foot warehouse—formerly a car mechanic’s garage and then a barbershop—that the couple cultivated a taste for conjoined studios that afforded them the focus of isolated productivity without being unmoored from each other’s companionship.

The Lowreys works with architect Luis Sanchez and a team of local craftsmen to complete the build. The custom counters in the kitchen are terrazzo and granite; the oven and cooktop are from Teka.

The Lowreys works with architect Luis Sanchez and a team of local craftsmen to complete the build. The custom counters in the kitchen are terrazzo and granite; the oven and cooktop are from Teka.

"They built a wall down the middle and put a door from Home Depot in between," recalls Elizabeth, who helped design the build. "Each had their own space. My mother’s side was totally pristine, all about these giant paintings and space; my dad’s was full of collections of objects. You had the yin and the yang."

Glass-and-steel corridors link each of Austin and Lida's studios to the main pavilion, where they share the kitchen and a central living and dining space.

Glass-and-steel corridors link each of Austin and Lida's studios to the main pavilion, where they share the kitchen and a central living and dining space.

The meeting of minds, so to speak, occurred regularly over a morning coffee, dinner, or break in either of their studios, with a discussion of the day’s progress. Fitting perfectly with their increasingly independent and creative lifestyles, the idiosyncratic prototype served as the basis for an expanded live/work space program in San Miguel. Many group discussions later, the Lowreys teamed up with local architect Luis Sánchez Renero, who helped bring the plan to fruition, completing the structure in 2014. 

Outside, a gridded trellis with sheet-punched panels overlays the structure and extends into the landscape, providing shade in the warm desert climate. 

Outside, a gridded trellis with sheet-punched panels overlays the structure and extends into the landscape, providing shade in the warm desert climate. 

Applying organic materials and vernacular techniques to a modern design, Sánchez enlisted local artisans to construct the new home—an expanded version of the Lowreys’ earlier studio model, comprising Lida’s studio to the north, Austin’s to the south, and a joint living area at its center, accessed from either end by an enclosed glass-and-steel bridge, and lined with glass wall panels that roll back to dissolve boundaries between indoors and outdoors. "This is still all natural," says Austin. "We haven’t really disturbed the land, other than to try and control it. All of our yards are made of riverbed rocks, so they undulate and move around, working with the architecture and with the land." Each of the three pavilions sits on a slightly varying elevation, with the aim of keeping the natural, gently sloped site undisturbed. Lighting is rarely needed from dawn to dusk, nor is air-conditioning, as the structure’s numerous openings are apt for passive cooling. A wading pool outside Austin’s studio is solar-heated, and for colder temperatures, the family anticipates the development of a centralized solar energy system in the near future. 

Lida and Austin share the main pavilion, where the kitchen, living area, and dining room are located.

Lida and Austin share the main pavilion, where the kitchen, living area, and dining room are located.

Despite an apparent language barrier, the family worked closely with the craftsmen, who began referring to it as simply "Casa Lida"—a moniker that has affectionately stuck. "They’re teaching me new ways, and I was just amazed when they built the house," says Lida, its unwitting namesake. "They improvise  > with other kinds of tools and give character to form in a way that’s not totally possible in the United States. So much of this house is handmade." 

"It's never static or solid here—with the light, there's always some sort of movement." —Austin Lowrey, resident

"It's never static or solid here—with the light, there's always some sort of movement." —Austin Lowrey, resident

Built from terracreto (sustainable concrete), glass, and treated steel, the structure sits low-slung to the ground, its center pavilion overlaid with a gridded trellis that extends into the natural, pristine land-scape of cacti, mesquite, wildflowers, and native grasslands. "We all decided we didn’t like front doors on houses because they were intimidating," explains Austin. "So as you come up, this cage envelops the house, and you see right into the living room, which opens up totally to the outside." 

A workspace, bedroom, and bath comprise each of the two studios; an early riser, Lida spends most of the day painting in her space.

A workspace, bedroom, and bath comprise each of the two studios; an early riser, Lida spends most of the day painting in her space.

Akin to a residence by Mexican modernist architect Luis Barragán or an installation by artist Olafur Eliasson, the structure commands a visceral experience, filled with sweeping, perceptual vistas that shift in concert with the light and shadow of the desert. A series of circular plinths—what Austin calls "resting places"—dot the property, acting both as site-specific landscape artworks themselves, and a platform for sculptural pieces, which he and Lida rotate periodically. "With everything in my family, nothing’s ever finished," says Elizabeth. "Each time you come back, it’s like a new installation. Now, my father’s art has left the canvas. Every day, he’s out moving rocks, like a rock artist, and sculpting the earth."

Welded-sheet partitions carve out a sleeping area and mirror the exterior palette, blurring boundaries between inside and outside. Inspired by the hue of artist Richard Serra's Cor-Ten sculptures, the Lowreys had all of the steel primes and painted with a hand-mixed blend of matted paint from Sherwin-Williams.

Welded-sheet partitions carve out a sleeping area and mirror the exterior palette, blurring boundaries between inside and outside. Inspired by the hue of artist Richard Serra's Cor-Ten sculptures, the Lowreys had all of the steel primes and painted with a hand-mixed blend of matted paint from Sherwin-Williams.

For the Lowreys, Casa Lida is not just a peaceful retreat but a site for continually evolving experimentation and play. The family’s latest addition to the property, "Window Frame"—a tall, steel swing set that lurches more than 20 feet into the sky—extends their views to the rolling hills beyond. "I feel like we’re always inside the outside," says Austin, with youthful glee. "It’s our own little utopia." 

A collection of flea-market finds and personal keepsakes sit perched upon a shelf in Austin's studio.

A collection of flea-market finds and personal keepsakes sit perched upon a shelf in Austin's studio.

Crushed stone paths and native plantings, including cacti, wildflowers, and grasses, encompass the surrounding landscape. 

Crushed stone paths and native plantings, including cacti, wildflowers, and grasses, encompass the surrounding landscape. 

"We're nothing but natural. The cacti, to me, are like pieces of sculpture, each with their own personality."
—Austin Lowrey, resident

In Lida's studio, terrazzo and granite floors blend seamlessly into a sunken bath, paired with a steel storage unit and a wooden Moroccan bath mat from Insh'ala, a local antique store.

In Lida's studio, terrazzo and granite floors blend seamlessly into a sunken bath, paired with a steel storage unit and a wooden Moroccan bath mat from Insh'ala, a local antique store.

Mexican encaustic tiles with a geometric floral pattern from Mosaicos Terra line the bathroom in Austin's studio, where a full-height window near the wall-mounted shower provides a view to the expansive outdoor scenery. A vintage kewpie doll sculpture sits atop the custom terrazzo-and-granite counter; the steel mirror is from Artes de Mexico.

Mexican encaustic tiles with a geometric floral pattern from Mosaicos Terra line the bathroom in Austin's studio, where a full-height window near the wall-mounted shower provides a view to the expansive outdoor scenery. A vintage kewpie doll sculpture sits atop the custom terrazzo-and-granite counter; the steel mirror is from Artes de Mexico.

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