The little red cool house

Challenged to create living quarters for a ballet dancer– atop her father’s late-’60s house in Mexico City– architect Michel Rojkind designed a space-age structure whose curving forms represent two bodies in motion.

The Mexico City neighbourhood of Tecamachalco sits on one side of a deep ravine that slices through the north-western quadrant of the city. It’s across from tonier Bosques de Lomas where the wealthiest and most bourgeois along the ridge built multi-storey, reinforced-concrete lattice structures so that their backyard lawns would be flat.

For full text, click on “View full size” at bottom-left in slide show. Or, continue below.

From amidst the cool shadows of these looming monstrosities, Michel Rojkind’s PR34 house appears to hover like a space module, just above the surrounding residential development, dense and incongruous, an overexposed blur in the sun. Not only is pR34  (an abbreviation of the address, Prometeo 34) bright red, but the contrast between its clean continuous lines and the rest of the houses on the hill is immediate and arresting. The house is actually the culminating point of an extensive renovation; it sits on top of a late-’60s house revamped by Rojkind. Formerly Tecamachalco was upper-middle class but is now undervalued and many are buying properties to fix them up.

“Of course I was interested in the renovation of the existing house, but much more so in the upstairs,” says the 35 year-old principal of Rojkind Arquitectos. “It was like the cherry on top of the cake.” Rojkind, who designed pR34 under the growing reputation of his moniker, is also drawn to collaboration and large-scale urban planning. City Hall recently approved his master plan for the renovation of Presidente Masaryk Avenue (Mexico City’s Rodeo Drive) into a pedestrian mall with underground parking. Rojkind was also part of a consortium of architects, including Dominique Perrault, whose drawings were short-listed for Vincent Fox’s José Vasconcelos Library project.

Rojkind’s pR34 is unoccupied, belonging to a 20-year-old prima ballerina on scholarship in Russia. Her father, a veterinarian and art collector, lives in the 800-square-meter house below. While the reno cost US$1,200 per square meter, t he unit price for the construction of the 120-square-meter addition was a mere $700. The architectural program was strict, allowing for two spaces, one a half-storey down. Rojkind started from two square boxes. “They felt very rigid for a ballerina, so we began to work on diagrams of bodies in motion how ballet dancers move– it’s a  dance between two people,” he explains. The rooftop of the main house is the stage while the 12 meter wall of the adjacent property is the backdrop.

Given the complete lack of surrounding context, the upstairs apartment is in dialogue with the house. Rojkind wanted to mimic the playful ’60s sense of humour of the original, and pR34 does just that. Admittedly, the curves aren’t anything new: looping forms, tape reels, an infinity symbol or yin and yang. From the front, the apartment’s I-beam form looks like a giant unfolded paper clip.

What is particular and perhaps new about Rojkind’s concept is that the horizontal lines of the facade break at each curve. Each ends at different depth, never flush, one creating an overhang the other creating a balcony. “So that’s the interesting part, not the roundness,” suggests Rojkind, “In the living area, the upper ledge slants outward, because at lunchtime you want protection from the sun, but the one over the bedroom recedes because you are there at night.”

While pR34 was completed last year, the project almost didn’t happen, and then it happened quickly. At one point, the client shelved Rojkind’s renderings because the purchase of the property fell through. Then, overnight, the client called his architect and gave the green light. Construction would start the next day, without Rojkind having considered, materials, budget or other minor pre-construction details. Therefore much of the was done on site.

“We didn’t know what it would be made of: concrete, metal or lumber,” Rojkind explains, “At some point during the construction, a supplier came by with titanium plates, like the ones Gehry used on the Guggenheim Bilbao,” but Rojkind hadn’t imagined scales. Along with the material and texture, the colour was important: It could have been white or grey but it wouldn’t have been the same. It had to be red, symbolizing a passion for art.”

Once the architect and the client decided on steel for the house’s frame, Rojkind called upon the expertise of Mexican builders of automotive bodies. It was they who custom-built pR34’s curved corners from steel plates, which they fashioned to closely resemble the horizontal and vertical I-beams used for the rest of the frame.

Beneath the exterior’s seamless layer of steel sheets (120 cm x 240 cm) , there are two layers of insulation, one acoustic and one thermal. The particleboard interior is finished in semi opaque, off-white resin; it echoes the exterior by sticking to the shape of the frame, but the soft texture created is soothing by comparison.

A separate entrance from the downstairs garage leads up a spiral staircase with many thin, vertical recesses of illumination in the four walls. There’s a mechanized dumb-waiter for groceries and such. Visitors “pop up”  right between the apartment’s two space. This area, consisting of a small foyer with a futuristic looking middle console and a TV room a half-flight below, integrates the public and private parts of the house.

An outdoor patio wedged between the steel construction and the neighbour’s towering wall, features several areas of custom designed lounge furniture made of translucent acrylic. Most were built over round skylights to the main house, which now contain an LED lighting system, making them glow different colours at night.

When you see it, you think, “Wow! I’d like to be at a social event there, with candles around the exterior,” says Rojkind, “It’s a happy kind of place.”

Azure, May/June 2006

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austinmacdonald.net journalist | copywriter | producer/editor

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