by Rosalyn D`MelloSep 16, 2022
San Miguel de Allende, located in the Sierra Madre Mountains in Mexico, is a 500-year-old colonial city steeped in history. The well-preserved historic centre, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is characterised by pastel-washed buildings, colonial facades and stone colonnades lining cobblestone streets and formally arranged along a relatively precise grid. From here, the city dissolves into a spider web of slender roads leading up hills to densely packed neighbourhoods.
Located along one such narrow pathway on a picturesque slope and in the midst of this chaotic urban fabric is Sin Nombre Casa y Galeria. Built on a trapezoidal lot measuring 19 by 12 metres, the house and gallery is designed by Associates Architecture as a direct reaction to its surroundings and context. Nicolò Galeazzi and Martina Salvaneschi, the Italian-South African duo behind the Italy-based Associates Architecture, designed the two-level house and gallery for a young Italian-American designer couple.
"The clients, Giulia Zink and Mat Trumbull of Ohla Studio, asked us to design a sort of manifesto house in which they could live, and at the same time, display their work by organising small happenings and exhibitions," Nicolò Galeazzi tells us. "For the rest, we designed in complete confidence and harmony from the very first concept to the final details and then to the building site." Adds Salvaneschi, "Referencing the local residential typology, we opted for a scheme that works inwards and proposed a series of void spaces in the form of patios. These voids, together with the spiral staircase, are what gives the project its character."
A sombre shell of hidden secrets
Using Mexican vernacular architecture as the design inspiration, the duo's contemporary reinterpretation focused in particular on one aspect – the introspection. The architects' distinctive minimal style spills forth, influenced by references to some masters like Luis Barragán and Mies van der Rohe. Salvaneschi explains, "Most Mexican houses develop their space inwards, refusing a direct relationship with the city and the urban context in which they are built. Life takes place in indoor spaces and rooms that naturally extend towards patios and protected outdoor gardens."
Surrounded by homes on all sides, as you walk up the slope to the narrow plot, Sin Nombre appears as a monolithic volume of hidden secrets sitting on the existing stone plinth. Wrapped in white plaster, the exterior walls, punctuated with the minimal openings, give way to a rooftop terrace with sweeping views of the historic centre. "The trapezoidal site has been preserved throughout: the house is a complete extrusion of the shape of the plot. The Sin Nombre Casa y Galeria is an 'inhabited enclosure' coinciding with the project area," Galeazzi explains.
"The walls, defining the internal spaces of the house, continue outwards, drawing the perimeter of the external microcosms, the patios. In this way, the external space is a perfect continuity of the internal one and provides a condition of privacy and introversion with the external urban context. An essential element for us in the project," Salvaneschi continues. Just a small wedge on the west corner of the lot is left unbuilt and contains a garden of native cactuses and succulents, that thrive in the high desert climate.
An open plan that both reveals and conceals
Located on the side of the plot and a few steps up from the road is a thin scar of an entry door. From here, one enters the living areas that spill out on the opposite side to an enclosed triangular patio. An open-plan concept and large floor-to-ceiling glass walls allows views of the entire floor and opens the interiors to the hidden patio.
"The living area is conceived as a large space extending towards the outdoor patio through the long glass wall. It is a large, bright, deliberately continuous and flexible space because, in addition to housing the kitchen, dining room and living room, it can be transformed into a gallery…Compared to the rest of the living area, the living room is slightly lowered; this allows different spatial experiences and relationships with the patio within one large room," says Galeazzi.
The intimate and introverted private rooms with sweeping views
On axis with the door is a minimal spiral staircase leading to the upper floor and finally the open terrace. On the upper floor, the two bedrooms — each with private bathroom and walk-in closet — open to the light and air through their own enclosed private patios. "The bedrooms on the first floor are the most private spaces in the house," says Salvaneschi. "…places of semi-darkness, silence and rest that can expand outwards, through the system of pivoting full-height openings, into the related patios. Even the bathrooms, located at the back of each bedroom, expand outwards and allows (one) to experience the feeling of being in a large bathroom that extends into the microcosm of the patio."
On this floor there are only two precisely placed openings that bring in the urban landscape. Both openings were conceived as visual devices in different ways, capable of bringing the colourful cityscape into the patio. "The patio of the master bedroom relates with the city through two openings. The first, a small frame of light, frames the cathedral of San Miguel de Allende, bringing an intimate fragment of the city into the patio. The second, a large portal, made of the same material of the facade, frames a larger fragment of the city's informal context and, once opened, allows light to enter the patio in an unique way," Galeazzi adds.
Finally, one ascends to the rooftop terrace that affords panoramic views of the historic city. It's an unexpected experience considering the entire house is designed around introspection with a muted awareness of the surrounding city. "The terrace is the end of the ascending climax: from the city into the house, through the introverted microcosms of the three patios (living and sleeping areas) and back to the city," says Salvaneschi.
A restrained showcase of materials and light in different moods
The house is defined by a monochromatic colour scheme that evolves into mixed tones as the day and the seasons go by. "The interior materials – natural lime, concrete, limestone and stainless steel – were chosen through a close dialogue at first with our clients and then with the local craftsmen. It was, as in all our projects, our intention to work with local craftsmen to find out from them which local materials they were most familiar with. We strongly wanted the house to be not only a formal, but also a material expression of the city of San Miguel de Allende," continues Salvaneschi.
The muted enclosure provides the perfect neutral canvas to showcase the furniture pieces designed by the clients. It also plays a huge part in amplifying natural light within the different spaces. "Light, as in all our projects, plays a major role. The three levels of the house have been designed so that three different experiences of light are possible. The ground floor has a diffuse, homogeneous and gentle light ideal for daytime living. The first floor is the place of penumbra and rest. Finally, the terrace, the culmination of the path through the project, is a place of strong, typically Mexican light, which symbolically, together with the view, allows one to reconnect to the city of San Miguel de Allende," Galeazzi concludes.
Name: Sin Nombre Casa y Galeria
Location: San Miguel de Allende, Mexico
Size of the house: 160 square meters
Size of the site/property: 175 square meters
Project duration: Design start: July 2017; construction start: January 2020; construction completion: May 2021
Architectural firm: Associates Architecture
Lead Architect(s): Nicolò Galeazzi, Martina Salvaneschi
Interior and furniture design:Ohla studio