These Separate Studios Keep a Retired Couple Happy
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.
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.
"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.
"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."
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.
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.
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."
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."
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."
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."
"We're nothing but natural. The cacti, to me, are like pieces of sculpture, each with their own personality."
—Austin Lowrey, resident