by Jerry ElengicalJan 17, 2023
"The sun did not know how great it was until it hit the side of a building." - Louis I. Kahn
Natural light has proven to be one of the most awe-aspiring, timeless features of architecture, with practitioners choreographing it, welcoming it, and worshipping it, with and within their structures. Architects across generations have considered it a juggernaut material and tactile element, defining and basing architectural experiences by mitigating and channelling the powerful rays of the sun, almost obsessing over it, consciously, unconsciously and subconsciously. Think of the solo channel of light, almost acidic, piercing through Louis I Kahn's Salk Institute in San Diego, the faint streams of sunlight allowed to enter the zig-zagging, emotion-inducing Jewish Museum by Daniel Libeskind, the strategically meeting pair of elegant slits that take on the shape of a cross within Tadao Ando’s concrete Church of Light, or the blades of transient natural light decorating Tate Modern museum's floor in London.
Mexico-based studio Arkham Projects channels a sentimental friendship between daylight and concrete within the introverted yet august essence of Wóolis, a residence and observatory drawing inspiration from, and paying homage to Mayan heritage, architecture and culture. Across their oeuvre, Arkham Projects (named after the Arkham Asylum for the criminally insane in the Batman universe, as well as the fictional city of Arkham, a key part of the Lovecraft Country setting) ensure to find routes to inject or draw from the Mexican vernacular architecture, in concept, materiality or being. Wóolis was lovingly given its moniker by the workers, or rather, artisans of Mayan descent, who built it painstakingly by hand, giving it life. Its meaning in Mayan is ball, round, circle – referring to the heart of the project, the central cylinder they sculpted.
Located north of the city of Mérida in Yucatán, Mexico, Wóolis is inlaid with spirituality and science, as it sets dialogue with the sky, the sun and its natural surroundings. The Mexican architecture freezes history and humane stories in concrete, given distinction with a latticed screen that stands out in the secondary street it takes residence in. The client, a spiritual person, gave Arkham projects a straightforward yet challenging brief to crack – of conceiving a simple dwelling "where energy would flow".
"Wóolis is a place that invites us to observe and remember our origins, a contemporary observatory that provokes us to discover the passage of time that can be seen in the lines that the sun and the upper lattice of the cylinder paint on the walls at different times of the day, traces that change their location during the year due to the varying inclination of the sun,” shares Jorge Duarte Torre, principal architect, Arkham Projects, who anchor their works on the tenet spelt by "creating and transforming dreams through architecture".
A circle, a sundial, an infinity
Suspended between “dreams and reality”, bridging the past and the present, Wóolis takes advantage of its plot’s orientation, where its central, cylindrical volume allows the passage of light to perfume the residential architecture, decorating the central, circular pool. “However, given its great camber, it provides the space with enough shade during sunrise and sunset to exempt the use of a roof on the terrace, allowing the space to be inhabited under shade most of the day,” the Mexican architect explains.
This focal area carries dual spatial functions of a terrace and pool, demarcating the house's public and private zones. According to Arkham Projects, its main function, with its latticed, geometric design and skin, is to generate moving shadows that embellish the surfaces of the terrace in a continuum, also essentially working as an age-old, architectural sundial. As Le Corbusier rightly said about the behaviour of light when it converses with the built - “light and shadow reveal form.”
The geometry of a circle inherently implies a seamless continuity, which Benjamín Peniche Calafell, principal architect, Arkham Projects, elaborates upon, “The oculus is the main protagonist. It can be seen, and even experienced, from every corner of the house. From the moment you enter the house, it calls you and pulls you in. People have compared it to Mayan observatories and ruins, even ancient, elaborate sinkholes. It makes you feel like an explorer discovering a special place for the very first time. Once you step inside, you are immediately transported to a place and time stuck in limbo, traditional and contemporary at the same time.”
The view from the simple yet captivating oculus either drives the eye towards the blades of natural light embellishing it or straight upwards, letting inhabitants and guests make themselves one with the passing skies decorated with cottony clouds, marvelling at the enigma that is nature and time. Presumably, that generated sense of awe must result in definite psychological benefits for the residents.
The pool design enclosed by the latticed concrete skin jutting out gradually, is also given a prime, strategic location within the residential design, adjacent to the interior social space, ensuring a direct connection between both. Only sliding glass doors divide the spaces, integrating all key areas of Wóolis in uninterrupted visual pathways.
The concrete architecture features three patios, one of which sits on the other side of the social area, enjoying the company of a large álamo tree, from where the project allows the cylinder to be seen from afar. The second one functions as a public space, while the one in the back remains private. All other living functions of the interior design are planned around and with these patios, including services, transitionary, and public and private zones.
Concrete blocks and surfaces are softened by the use of chukum, a limestone-based stucco mixed with resin from chukum trees (a species endemic to the Yucatan region of Mexico), a material intrinsic to ancient Mayan architecture. Chukum is also an affordable and environmentally friendly material, that has proven to notably increase the lifespan of masonry construction.
Speaking about the employed colour palette, the design team relays that they kept the surfaces bare and monotone, to let the passing colours of the sun and sky and nature take over and swathe the residence. "The house reflects and imbibes varied hues of orange, red, yellow, blue, purple, pink, grey, and more, depending on the passing weather and time," they say.
"Wóolis is an exercise of self-construction, the client was the one who led the work process and coordinated all the actors who participated in it. It is a project that does not pretend to be unique due to its luxurious materials and coatings, on the contrary, it finds that luxury in the rigid sincerity of its elements, giving full prominence to light and its interaction with the project," concludes Arkham Projects.
The neutral tonality and sombre materiality compliment the spiritual essence of the project, an impressive melange of abstracted, traditional Mayan features homogenising with a solemn, contemporary skin. The efficacious interplay of light and architecture, as demonstrated by Arkham Projects, elicits and results in ecstatic buildings that transcend their own built being (if done right, and sincerely), lending it, its intended style and purpose. Just as the project was introduced, I’ll leave you words from the great Kahn, master of championing light within architectural canvases – “Just think that man can claim a slice of the sun.”
Location: Mérida, Yucatán, Mexico
Area: 452 sqm
Year of completion:
Architect: Arkham Projects
Principal architect: Benjamín Peniche Calafell, Jorge Duarte Torre
Design team: Roberto Romero Maldonado
Construction: Carlos Mora