Mexican wave: a brutalist shrine to hand-crafted design | Life and style

What does a house from the future look like? The Mexican sculptor and architect Pedro Reyes thought long and hard about what it means to build a house in the 21st century, away from a canon of modernity, classical styles and fleeting trends. He and his wife, fashion designer Carla Fernández, also wanted to avoid the usual type of architecture you find in Mexico, because “so much of it ends up looking the same”.

The result is this “future cave” – an amalgam of modern and ancient, where brutalist architecture is made from concrete in varying degrees of coarseness and yet the human hand, visible in layers of centuries-old, artisanal craft – furniture, artwork – is also evident. Minimal this is not.

“We like brutalism, but it is not minimalist,” says Reyes, on a Zoom call. “Some people might think our home appears cold in photos, but it is actually very warm and that warmth comes from the fact that everything is handmade, even if it is concrete,” adds Fernández. The couple share the home with their teenage children, Cristobal and Laima.

A bedroom in Pedro Reyes House

‘Our home is very warm’: one of the four bedrooms. Photograph: Edmund Sumner/The Observer

The use of materials and the choice of the craftspeople was important in trying to recreate the feel of pre-colonial Mexico. “Stone-carving here is a tradition that dates back 5,000 years, but it stopped at the time of the conquest,” explains Reyes. The couple chose to build their home, along with a sculpture garden and Reyes’ studio, on a plot of land in Coyoacán. It’s a neighbourhood south of Mexico City that was once home to Frida Kahlo.

Working with artisans was central to the build, once the couple realised that fashionable midcentury furniture – “the sort by Jean Prouvé or Mies van der Rohe – was not a good fit”. Instead, Reyes made his own. “We don’t own many things that are mass-produced. Every object around us tells us a story about the person who made it.”

Reyes reels off a list of first-name local artisans. “Alfredo, Abraham, Leonel, Antonio, Humberto… It’s the style of furniture that has been around for centuries. We were very interested in making things that keep trades alive, such as stone carving or weaving, or using natural dyes.”

The winding concrete staircase.

Textured finish: the winding staircase. Photograph: Edmund Sumner/The Observer

In many ways, this echoes the sustainable clothes Fernández designs – traditional clothes produced in a contemporary way, using an idiosyncratic colour palette.

The main part of the house features crazy-paving floors. Cantilevered steps lead up to a narrow gallery that overlooks the sitting room, a double-height living space filled with sculpture and mismatched furniture on a raised platform. The focal point, however, is the library. Made from slabs of concrete, it is filled with books as far as the eye can see. “The use of concrete allows you to have many textures,” says Reyes. “You can polish it to give you a mirror effect or it can be hammered or chiselled, like in the Barbican in London. We wanted a main space that could be a library for us – it’s a tool we use all the time and the projects we get involved in require a lot of research.” The couple have also opened their library up to the public (@tlacuilobiblioteca). During lockdown books are being left by the door or otherwise sent by courier.

“The library is very much the heart of our house,” adds Fernández. “It is where we prepare for an exhibition or a party, and what is great is that while it’s a big space, it gets used a lot. It’s even quite chaotic at times. My son does his homework here, and, during lockdown, we’ve used it for yoga when we couldn’t get out to exercise. It’s very much a shared space. I will come back from work and someone is browsing a book or coming in from Pedro’s studio.”

The dining room.

Light and airy: the dining room. Photograph: Edmund Sumner/The Observer

The kitchen and dining room are on the ground floor and upstairs are four bedrooms and a bathroom. The bathtub is hewn from stone to resemble a rock pool, and set below a shaft of light. Reyes thinks that the many shades of grey are a good backdrop for highlighting other colours. “We like that feel of being in a cave – the shadow and the light somehow become more dramatic.”

The light, he explains, is also their heating system. The skylight collects heat during the day and keeps the house warm at night. “We never need heating, and if it gets too warm during the day we open the windows, which means we don’t need cooling either. So light, heat and temperature work together.”

Reyes’ work (mostly large-scale projects) has won international attention for addressing social and political issues and inciting change through sculpture, performance and video.

A view of the concrete house from the garden.

Stone tradition: a view of the house from the garden. Photograph: Edmund Sumner/The Observer

He once observed that music is the highest form of communication, so how does he feel his house translates lyrically? What sort of composer parlays the spirit of his home? Reyes stops and thinks. The answer is a little-known composer of modern music from the 20th century named Conlon Nancarrow. He is best remembered for being one of the first composers to use auto-playing musical instruments, realising their potential to play beyond a human’s ability. It’s something that crops up in Reyes’ compelling Disarm video, where he employs dismantled guns and transforms them into percussion instruments.

Fernández prefers silence. “We have birds in the garden and we have crickets, which I love to listen to as they remind me of being in the jungle. And yet, I can also hear the sound of firecrackers, which reminds me I am still living in the middle of a city.”;

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