ENSENADA, MEXICO — Most things in the lives of Alejandro D'Acosta and Claudia Turrent are recycled: the trailer in which the architects live, their 3-year-old Christmas tree, even their rescued dogs. "The only thing not reciclada is my wife," D'Acosta says with a grin, his wedding-ring finger tattooed with her name.
"Ay, gordo! What am I going to do with you?" Turrent admonishes him, laughing, her right wrist imprinted with his name like a bracelet. The couple show their good humor, but make no mistake: They are on a serious quest to promote a sustainable way of life for themselves and their community in the nascent revolucion verde just south of the Tijuana border.
The Ensenada coast and nearby Valle de Guadalupe wine-making region inland are testing grounds for the couple's experiments in recycling and "upcycling," the process of designing a product with its end-life in mind.
"Recycling is taking an object, like a plastic bottle, and after you drink it, turning it into a candleholder," Turrent says. "We want companies designing the plastic bottle to design it in the shape of something functional, like a roof tile." Instead of ending up in a landfill, she says, the plastic could be incorporated into an interlocking system of bottles that provide cover. "This would help many poor people have a shelter over their heads, and at the same time, the Earth will be cleaner."
At the rear of the couple's home facing the northern Baja coastline, where waves break dramatically along the shore, a brown Christmas tree stands in the small garden.
"The tree was a big discussion at Christmas," D'Acosta says. "My children told me, 'It smells like fish, and we want a new one that smells more like Christmas.' I told them, 'This tree will be for my grandchildren and great-grandchildren.' " The architect shakes his finger in the air to drill home his point of living lightly on the land.
Even the family's adopted dogs are recycled -- well, sort of. In the nearby agricultural valley, the strays had recently killed a turkey, an offense that often means death for dogs as well. "They now have a second life, so they're recycled too," D'Acosta says, laughing.
Originally from Mexico City, the couple spent eight years living in Oaxaca building their own projects, teaching and aiding poor communities in the area by building health facilities and cultural centers. Along the way, they learned to create a modern architecture based on ancient traditions. A local bar, La Mezcaleria, features walls and a ceiling woven of carrizo, or cane grass, which the indigenous people also use for roofs, window coverings and baskets.
"Es una canasta" -- "it's a basket" -- D'Acosta says of the structure. When the sun's rays stream into the interior, Goethe's description of architecture as frozen music comes to mind.
"We have much to learn from indigenous people and the way they live with the land," D'Acosta says. "Some people call them backward, but they don't need cars because they grow their food in the garden next to their house; they use the natural materials that surround them to make their homes."
The couple have taken the lessons they learned in Oaxaca and created a vernacular architecture of their own based on materials that surround them in northern Baja. And the material found in most abundance here, they say, is basura -- trash.
D'Acosta and Turrent's home is a laboratory. They joined a 1940s American mobile home with a former Mexican office trailer to create a comfortable, inexpensive dwelling that seems to float on the land, parallel to the sea. The 60-foot-long red mobile home, re-clad in waterproof corrugated cardboard, houses the kitchen, living room, two girls' bedrooms and a bath. The shorter trailer, set at a right angle, serves as the master bedroom suite overlooking the ocean.
The house wears an interior skin of unpainted dry wall and is filled with recycled furniture from Los Globos, an area of Ensenada with secondhand shops. Other recycled objects take on new lives in the house. A whale vertebrae is now a sculptural centerpiece atop the patio dining table. A vintage blouse is a cover for the plasma TV. A '70s desk serves as the kitchen table.
In the master bathroom, the glass wall is covered with X-rays of family and close friends. Backed by a green shower curtain, the film is illuminated by the afternoon sun and given a psychedelic glow.
"We see inside the people we love -- they are more naked than naked," D'Acosta says, placing his face next to an X-ray of his own broken clavicle. "They are part of the house now."
Outside, a long deck made of redwood beams from an old, deconstructed bridge stretches to the shore. An open-air aluminum-and-wood pavilion, reclaimed from an old factory, is covered with carrizo, echoing the trailer's topping of palm fronds. The materials, salvaged from their neighbor's trash heap, help to cool the spaces.