A gift horse

Four months after the strong earthquake of 19 September 2017, Karina received the good news that she will be given a house. A renowned architect from the capital will design her house, she was told. Less than eight months later, the house in the Mexican community of Ocuilan de Arteaga was completed for Karina and her small family.

© Dane Alonso

The small village of Ocuilan in the state of Morelos was particularly badly affected by the earthquake. The donated houses are intended to improve the quality of life of people who not only suffered heavy losses but are often traumatised by the earthquake and in need of a safe home. Karina's house is one of fifty to be built by the end of this year thanks to private donations - collected by a group of celebrities called «Love Army» - and the PienZa Sostenible Foundation. The campaign attracted a lot of public attention when it was announced that Mexico's most renowned architects would design the houses on a voluntary basis. A local construction company was commissioned to build all the houses using concrete for the foundations, locally pressed clay blocks in brick form for the walls and pine wood for doors and windows.

Karina's property is tiny - a very modest place with lots of life. To reach it, the visitor makes his way between the animal stables and her mother's house. A wide corn field, which borders the property on two sides, makes the 75 square metre area appear larger than it is. The other sides are bordered by the very simple wooden and concrete brick houses with surrounding gardens of Karina's siblings and her mother. The outside space is much used by the whole family: as a playground for the children, for the vegetable garden, for the animals and as a family meeting place.

This was also seen by the architect Francisco Pardo, who designed the house for Karina and her family. Together with the family he discussed which rooms were needed. The architect convinced them that the footprint of the house had to be kept as small as possible in order to have enough garden space. Despite the family's fear of earthquakes and the desire to escape outside as quickly as possible, they agreed to a two-storey house and the architect's spatial interpretation without really understanding it.

© Dane Alonso

Pardo has created a residential building that fascinates the architectural community. Like a sculpture, the building towers above the cornfield on the edge of the village. The clever division of the volume into three sections with a floor area of around 25 square metres results in elegant vertical proportions. The room layout is simple: on the ground floor there is the covered kitchen outside, on one side the bathroom, on the other the entrance with a small living area; on the upper floor there are the two bedrooms with access to a roof terrace from which there is a great view over Ocuilan. The free-flowing room in the middle of the ground floor, the rounded off corner of the house and the accentuated staircase on the outside give the house a very special character. In the village it is aptly called the «little castle».

© Dane Alonso

After initial euphoria, the «donated» houses are now also viewed critically by the community. Two years after the completion of the first houses, some of them are already in need of renovation: due to the swelling and shrinking of the wood, the doors can no longer be opened, the clay bricks are not watertight, and the houses are not being used as the architects had intended. They wanted to improve the residents' way of life - but did not pay enough attention to their needs. Karina's gratitude about her house is written all over her face. But she also says that the beautiful roof terrace is of no use to her and that she could never use the pretty outdoor kitchen because wind, rain and animals dominate this space. The projects of the renowned architects are unique - each in its own way. But Karina would not have minded having a house that attracts less attention. A modest, practical house would have been enough, even if the beauty of the «little castle» cannot be denied.


This text was published on werk, bauen + wohnen.

© LEARNING FROM MEXICO 2019 by Laure Nashed

 Die Beiträge von «learningfrommexico» entstehen in Zusammenarbeit mit der Schweizer Architekturzeitschrift werk, bauen + wohnen.