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Breaking Down the Barriers : Mexican Architect Attempting to Mix Inside and Outside

December 24, 1986|BILL MANSON

SAN DIEGO — Luis Orvananos has come from Mexico City loaded with Aztec, Moorish and Mexican ideas that he says are going to bring California architecture into tune with, well, California. That is, its climate, culture and environment.

There's no shortage of Mexican architecture in San Diego County, but Orvananos says there's a difference between concessions to Anglo-Americans' ideas of Mexican architecture and the real logic seen in the buildings that have evolved over the centuries in the California environment.

For the Mexican architect, much of what we see here is Hispanic icing on an Anglo cake, architects pandering to tourists' conceptions of Hollywood Mexico. The tiled roof. The sun dial. The archway between the kitchen and dining room, or over the double garage.

Orvananos is out to change all that. He comes with a mission to break down the barriers between the two cultures. He wants to educate us into his ideas of reconciling with our semi-tropical environment. To not be afraid of living inside and outside. To have everybody living in more intimate contact with nature, not walled up away from it in high-tech "islands" of houses conceived to separate a person from the earth and water and sun that bless this climate.

What's more, he wants to bring that concept to everybody, from super-rich to very low-income families.

So he is building his ideas into houses in prosperous La Jolla, upper-middle-class El Cajon and modest San Ysidro. What his creations in all three locations have in common are a commitment to integrating outside and inside living and using nature in ways sometimes not seen since the Aztecs of Teotihuacan.

Not Traditional

But the barriers he faces are formidable. One problem is that his architecture is not the traditional pretty-pretty picture that we have come to expect of Mexico. Clients want him to build their vision of the hacienda.

"But they still want the substance to be what they're used to: the solid Anglo block house," Orvananos said. "I want to break up the house, make it half outside, put in patios of varying degrees of privacy. Bring in breezes, water, natural materials like earth blocks that actually make you feel close to nature."

According to Orvananos, we have yet to come to terms with this environment. Most Anglos are still mentally living on the East Coast--attached to ideas of privacy, idealizing houses that exclude the world, creating their own artificial realm inside. They are reconciled to the life of neon lighting, artificial environments, artificial materials, an internal existence with nothing or little to do with the world of nature outside.

Walk down Broadway and count the outside sidewalk cafes that any Latin town of this climate would boast. Where are they? Locked away behind Puritan ethics and laws from a colder coast, Orvananos said.

"We have to recognize that here in California we don't have to fight nature," he contends. "We have marvelous weather! Environment, climate, nature--all are sympathetic here. We just have to learn to live with them and coordinate with them and make use of them. Anglo California should be looking and learning from the Californians who have been acclimatized to this environment for centuries."

This is why Orvananos seeks inspiration from the Aztecs of Teotihuacan, from the Grandees of Guadalajara, from the Moors of Granada--and even from the prejudices of low-income families of Mexico City.

His El Cajon houses (planned at 2,000 square feet and costing $180,000) are filled with patios, rooms looking to pools in one direction, distant hills in the other. Sliding glass doors are the only element defining inside and outside. Every room has access in two directions to life in the inner courtyards, and to the world outside.

"All these and other ideas I'm getting from the past," he said. "For instance, the Aztecs and the Moors in Granada made use of nature where we use machines. I'm reviving their ideas: In the palace of the priests at the temple of Teotihuacan, their air conditioning came by bringing nature into the courtyards. They built them to face the prevailing breeze, and they put running pools of water out front to welcome the breezes so they would play across them--and cool down before they circulated into the rooms giving onto the patio.

"They'd angle and shelter the patios so they provided maximum shade during the heat of the day. What with the use of water, shade, prevailing breeze and the intelligent placing of rooms giving onto the patio, they had an air conditioning that didn't divorce them from the beauties of their environment. Rather, they made use of them.

"That's the compromise we're building into our houses here. As at Teotihuacan, there is the outside public area, but there are semi-enclosed spaces, and there is also the enclosed patio, where you can come out in your pajamas and have your morning coffee, enjoying the sun and trickle of your pond, without worrying about the neighbors.

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