How the descendants of an architect brought his ruined house back to life
IN THE MID 1940s, when he was director of public works in Guadalajara, Mexico, architect Rafael Urzúa Arias planned the demolition of the first two houses he had ever designed in order to expand what would become the one of the main roads in the city. When the houses were finally demolished in 1952, colleagues asked him why he hadn’t chosen another street, a decision that perhaps would have preserved his legacy better. Urzúa, then 47, replied with a proverb: “El buen juez por su casa empieza” – “The good judge begins with his own house.
By this time, Urzúa was retired and had left Guadalajara to live in his hometown, Concepción de Buenos Aires, a quiet village in the folds of the Sierra del Tigre, about 80 kilometers south of the city. Over the previous two decades he had built extensively, one of four architects – along with Pedro Castellanos Lambley, Ignacio Díaz Morales and Luis Barragán Morfín – credited with founding the Tapatía School of Architecture, from which a Idiosyncratic regional style emerged in the 1920s, as Guadalajara became one of Mexico’s major urban centers. Of the four architects who reshaped the metropolis, Urzúa’s influence is perhaps the least obvious: he built a few houses, most of them in a regionalist aesthetic; several blocks worthy of working-class townhouses; and, during his two terms in government, oversaw many important urbanization projects, from public parks and botanical gardens to the roads that connected the historic center to new neighborhoods.
But if Urzúa is less well known than his peers, it is because his greatest works were not produced in Guadalajara but in his hometown. From 1948 to 1987, Urzúa brought sewage, electricity and a paved road to Concepción de Buenos Aires. He renovated the neighbors’ houses, rearranged the century-old cemetery (the village was founded in 1869) and redesigned the square shaded by cedars. As Modernism reached its peak in Mexico City and Guadalajara in the 1960s, it instead chose to design mission-style chapels with stucco walls and pointed terracotta roofs, their humble forms proportioned to blend in with the surrounding mountains. .
“When I was a student there were a lot of reviews that he built outside of his time,” says Urzúa’s grandson, 45, Agustín Elizalde Urzúa, an architect and product designer based in Guadalajara. But the elder Urzúa was not interested in what modernism might have dictated. Instead, as Elizalde wrote in his 2006 monograph on his grandfather, his career has constituted “an intimate, almost secret search to find harmony in the things that surround him”.
NO PROJECT DISTILLED Urzúa’s concerns more fully than his own 9,192 square foot home in Concepción de Buenos Aires. Built by his grandparents at the turn of the 20th century, the house has whitewashed adobe walls; a terracotta roof; a shaded entrance called zaguán which opens onto the cobbled street; and a large central courtyard surrounded by a parlor, an office, four bedrooms, a dining room and a kitchen. An accomplished collector, Urzúa has filled these rooms with relics of Guadalajara’s endangered architectural heritage, including millstones from deceased village mills, 17th-century religious statues, and altar rails removed from the city’s Catholic churches after the Vatican Council II.
After Urzúa’s death in 1991, his descendants used the house less and less, gradually abandoning entire rooms to decay and decay. Mold was eating away at the walls; the wooden columns that supported the 11-foot-deep interior verandas began to rot; the downpours that Urzúa had improvised from cans of rusty sardines. During torrential summer storms, half of the building would become uninhabitable. “When we fix the village house” has become a familiar refrain. Then, in 2016, an attic beam broke, threatening the entire structure. The family knew they couldn’t wait any longer.
Despite his training as an architect, Elizalde had no desire to lead the project himself. He had spent most of his career in interior design, designing restaurants in Puerto Vallarta and, more recently, housewares in collaboration with rural artisans. “I am not a builder,” says Elizalde. “And especially in a project like this – my grandparents’ house, with a lot of emotions involved, with a lot of expectations – it was complicated.”
So he asked his friend Francisco Javier Gutiérrez Peregrina, the 45-year-old director of COA Architecture in Guadalajara, to guide the renovation. A decade earlier, Gutiérrez had started a master’s degree in historical restoration, but most of his work since then has been in private homes. Elizalde had seen Gutiérrez’s practice evolve over the years – the two became friends in 2005 while working on book projects for the Secretary of State for Culture – and appreciated his thoroughness and humanity. “You can see that he cares about understanding his clients,” Elizalde says. “And this project wasn’t just about repairing the damage. This was to preserve the house for future generations.
It took Elizalde and Gutiérrez almost a year to document every piece of pottery, artwork and furniture in the house, from the richly sculpted neocolonial tables and chairs by artist León Muñiz, most of them commissioned by Urzúa after his marriage in 1940 to María del Rosario Zambrano, with hand-painted tiles from the neighboring village of Sayula, where this artisanal work has disappeared. Meanwhile, Gutiérrez’s team measured each ceiling beam and paved hallway, assessing which parts of the house would need to be rebuilt and which could remain unchanged. “The question we asked ourselves throughout the process was: ‘What is original it means ?’ Elizalde says.
Rather than creating a museum or memorial to Urzúa’s work, Gutiérrez describes the process as “a dialogue with pre-existence”, leaving the marks of time visible wherever possible but focusing, above all, on the creation of a habitable house. In the 118-square-foot zaguán, for example, Gutiérrez made virtually no adjustments, leaving the terracotta floor tiles intact, their century-worn emerald glaze, a stark contrast to the electric shades of blue and of coral that Urzúa used. to paint the coffered ceiling about six decades ago. In the 344 square foot kitchen, Gutiérrez built custom cabinetry from morada rose, tropical hardwood and utility countertops installed in hammered black granite. At the back of the property, behind the kitchen, he built a 700 square foot guest apartment on the imprint of the old servants quarters. Here, rather than incorporating antiques from the Urzúa collection, Gutiérrez and Elizalde have relied on contemporary furniture from design companies like Supermorph and Alvaluz, based in Guadalajara, inscribing a new era in the thick mud brick walls of the house.
At the heart of the house is the 650-square-foot central courtyard, where the architects executed their most ambitious idea: temporarily raising the entire 10-foot roof of the veranda that surrounds the four-inch interior garden, they extracted four 33- foot rails – each the length of a mature pine tree – and eight wooden columns to remake them from scratch, accurately recreating the building’s century-old structure. Planted with heliconias, calla lilies, begonias and bird’s nest ferns, the garden is now lush around a stone fountain flanked by a pair of metal dragons that Urzúa rescued from the mansard roof of the Guadalajara’s first department store when it was demolished in the 1950s.
Each of these details, whether newly introduced or carefully preserved, bears the stamp of Urzúa’s idiosyncratic vision of beauty: some are decorative, like the neo-baroque florets added to the terracotta gables, while some are decorative. others are functional, like the recessed baseboards of a deep concrete sink, ingeniously designed to make faucets easier to reach – a choice that, at the time of its creation, would have gone unnoticed by anyone except the household staff.
In the aesthetic universe of Urzúa, there was no hierarchy between these design elements, just as there was no hierarchy between eras, between architectural styles, between city and village, discarded waste and potential treasure. The work – from his own home to pro bono projects scattered throughout the village and region – might seem anachronistic, but it was also forward-looking in its clever reuse of urban rubbish, its democratic eclecticism, its commitment to the community. rather than personal inheritance. Where so much modernist architecture aimed to transform society, Urzúa instead wanted to reflect its joyful complexity. The good judge, as he once said, begins with his own house. Or, maybe, the good judge doesn’t judge at all.