Because we want to ensure smooth relations with our architects, I promised myself not to blog about the creative process behind Casa Nana. I’m sensitive to making the project a public spectacle and making the pros we hired uncomfortable. (I’m still not ready to “out” them.) But I’m all out of topics. I started to write another know-it-all post about a Mérida topic that I really don’t know too much about, and even my b.s. meter started blinking so I abandoned it. I’ll write just one more thing about Casa Nana and then give it a rest for awhile. The topic is light. Sunlight.
In 2010, we decided to stop talking about Mérida and finally go see it. I remember where we were when we decided this: In Provincetown, Mass., on the tip of Cape Cod, a region renown for the quality of its natural light. Painters still attempt to capture the Cape light in Provincetown. We were sitting on a second-floor balcony admiring the stunning and vast tidal flats, or the bay at low tide. The sun was possibly going down, or maybe up. I don’t really remember the time of day, but I do remember the water reflecting amber and cobalt, and my futile attempt to capture it all on my camera phone.
On our most recent trip to the Yucatán, which like the Cape is a flat land mass that juts north and is surrounded by water on three sides, our east-facing terrace was almost completed. At mid-morning, even under overcast skies, I was struck by the soft light that enveloped the space, and my mind flashed back to the Cape for just a second. Everything seemed to glow in a soft amber. The main house is designed on a grid so every space you cross, from street to terrace, is of equal depth. This makes for a satisfyingly deep terrace, suitable for staying dry-ish when the rains pour like they are doing this week. (My poor chukum.)
Before building, I studied Centro historic home layouts as best I could. Being a stranger in town, and unfamiliar with techniques for building in the tropics, we went to every house tour we could get to. I keep meaning to write about the ones we saw in January, one that starts at La 68 and the other at the Merida English Library. Both were very informative and well-organized. I promise I’ll get into those later, but I won’t be the first to blog about that. By January I thought I was pretty much an authority on building in the tropics, but I found that I still had much to learn and to observe. There are no tours now, but come to Mérida in high season and take one or more of these casa crawls before buying a home, and you’ll develop a much more sophisticated eye. Some houses I loved, loved, loved on early trips wouldn’t impress me now, now that I’ve seen a wider array of styles. I also can see how a home’s flaws, like awkward layouts with trapped rooms stacked on one another, were eliminated by clever architects.
We wanted lots of skylights in the house, but in the end, we don’t have an overabundance of them. The architects aren’t in favor of skylights that hover over bedrooms, and I see their point. Sometimes, in real estate pictures, you see a beam of light leading from the ceiling right to the pillows on the bed. If you want to sleep, is this really a desirable feature? Since the master bedroom faces west, absorbing the harshest light that comes around 4 p.m., we’re really battling light, not welcoming it in. But the tub and shower in the adjacent bathroom will have three small skylights, each centered into their own dome. They’re forming the shape now with wires, fashioning perhaps the house’s most dramatic feature that most people will never see.
A stroke of genius from the architects came when they made the most of the home’s irregular shape. The building flares out where the kitchen starts, but we want right angles for the cabinets. So the long, narrow pie-shaped sliver that runs along the side of the house will be a long skylight, illuminating the backsplash as well as the south wall on the terrace, on sunny days. The long, narrow form is replicated in windows all around the house, including in the linen closet and in the stairwell. The one oddball window, not repeated anywhere else, is the small circular window that crowns an old interior arch, on a wall that divides a guest bath with the center courtyard. It’s an unexpected touch, and it makes sense, visually. The outline of the curved arch will remain, although most of it was filled in and will contain a square window.
Every room will connect to either a window or an exterior door, which was planned with airflow in mind, but with air comes light. This is a challenge in the Centro, where you really just have windows on the street or along the rear wall, and where you can’t directly overlook your neighbor. (Well, I mean you could directly overlook your neighbor but your neighbor would be justified in bricking up your window later on.) We removed two whole rooms from the center of the old house to create a courtyard, slashing my potential kitchen in half, but solving the common Centro problem of windowless rooms.
When the sun falls, we plan uplight sconces, several pendant lights, recessed lights, ceiling fans with lights, and all that. Also, the stairs and some dark corners will have courtesy lights, those little fixtures that recess into the wall and keep you from stubbing your toe. The architects also reserving old tiles and I-beams that you’d think would have been thrown out by now, but they’re hinting at some creative way of recycling these in ways that honor the house’s history. The tiles will be mixed and matched in some artful way, which I’ve seen before so I can picture it … but what do you suppose they plan to do with the beams?