by Jincy IypeMay 22, 2023
Dwellings atop hilly, heavily forested terrains bear a dual–and pressing–responsibility. Apart from designing and building in an ecologically sensitive manner, the structures have to cut through sizeable terrain, while also addressing a notion of vernacularity prevalent in the region. When lent a distinct architectural treatment and character – turning obstacle into opportunity – these interventions bear immense potential to be model avenues for building on sensitive terrain in a manner that doesn’t quite uproot native ecosystems, even when scale is considered. On that note, what particularly impressed me about Mexican architect Rafael Pardo Ramos' Zoncuantla Apartments, located amid the mesophilic forests of the old Xalapa Road in Veracruz, Mexico, is that apart from ticking all of the boxes above, the structure still manages to emerge as an architectural statement, a veritable declaration of individual style. From form to material to the mineral hues adorning its unclad surface, its distinctly modernistic sensibilities stand in contrast to the nearest context it would have drawn from - the heritage lined cobbled streets of Xalapa.
With a composition Pardo describes as 'polygonal', the structure corresponds to the steep slope of the site, erecting itself over only 50 per cent of the site area. The remaining half has been earmarked for green spaces, both natural and landscaped, with the entire process involving extensive replanting and greening. The apartment complex thus rises from a wall of rubblework, "taken from the same land" according to the architects, and expands vertically through cantilevers and entire building blocks jutting out, re-forming the rather slender profile of its core. The cantilevered masses capitalise on the panoramic views offered by the site, while expanding on available social and green space. The greens therefore extend to the vertical avenues of the towering development, materialising on the terraces formed by the cantilevered masses below.
Accessed from the curving road beside the site, and leading from an expansive grass paved driveway, the ground level apartment abuts its own garden with endemic, native vegetation at the same level as the site. The ground level apartment, the only one spread over a single floor, provides access to the apartment floors above, and an additional subterranean level below. In that sense, vertical circulation through the structure becomes an odyssey of discovery and a playful uncovering of views and spaces, both public and private.
The apartments on the floors above boast mezzanines and double-height spaces elevating the living experience, with expansive glazing along all four facades of the cubist edifice whimsically arranged, ranging from floor-to-ceiling windows to vertical and horizontal ribbon windows, maximising visual avenues for the project.
The bare external materiality of the towering structure, that of exposed concrete pigmented and tinted with minerals from the site itself, is complemented with materials like wood, adobes, and clay in earthy tones, carrying over to the interiors of the residences as well, highlighted by light escaping inwards through cutouts in the ceilings and near sculptural stairwells. While the interior layout of each flat morphs according to a bespoke floor plan for each level, it is this unitary, almost monolithic material outlook, along with the sense of traversing through an enlarged vertical tunnel to reveal spaces in spurts that brings the structure together. Even as the project’s decidedly minimal being tips it toward a more widespread appeal as opposed to entirely local, the markedly distinct concrete sensibility, each strand of each band, remains quite typical of the early tenets of Mexican architecture, with tonal hints of tropical modernism even.
Name: Zoncuantla Apartments
Location: Coatepec, Veracruz, Mexico
Architect: Rafael Pardo Ramos
Site Area: 900 sq.m.
Ground Coverage: 470 sq.m.