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From the Dream to the Key: Architecture in Puerto Vallarta

Published Sep 8, 2005 - (Updated Dec 21, 2012)

During the Renaissance, Michelangelo listed architecture along with painting and sculpture as art that delights the senses. In Puerto Vallarta, award-winning architects like Jorge Chavez, Cachi Perez and Alberto Alvarez create spaces that enrich their clients and delight the public eye. Imagination, skill and materials come together to form a functional work of art.

Those same architects are not, however, arty prima donnas, as one might imagine them in major cities throughout the world. They are not designing in ivory towers, high above the commoners. Nor are they detached from the messy reality of construction. In fact, they are a constant in the network critical to realizing volumes of meticulous plans.

As Cachi Perez puts it, “Design is not really paid for here. Architects are construction/job site contractors. That’s really how they earn their money, by managing the project to the end.” And so it is that they draw ideas from clients, put them on to paper and walk them through city regulations, ultimately overseeing engineers and workers until abstract notions become a physical reality. Only when they hand their client the key to the building is their job truly done.

Though it might be simple to describe their work, it’s another story to live it. Clients journey from all over the world to Puerto Vallarta and bring their architectural fantasies with them. When they meet with an architect, he must put aside his own ambitions and interpret their ideas. The task is an art and a science. With the help of computer design, they can create a virtual image that, in the case of Los Olas, a beach club in San Pancho by Jorge Chavez, bears almost exact resemblance to the finished product.

But not every dream takes shape in this Mexican port. City officials and environmental groups have long had their own thoughts on development, and their plans do not always match those of the architects. “There is often conflict with the City Hall planning department and old Vallarta defenders,” says Perez. “There is a battle every time I have a new, creative project. They favor designs of the past 80 to 100 years.”

In the case of Casa Demae and Casa Perlita, Perez’s plans were rejected outright by City Hall. The designs were controversial because of the flat and straight design and the absence of roof tiles. Some of us might adore the bright terra cotta tiles that top so many buildings in the city, but not everyone agrees. The clients dreaming of Casa Demae and Casa Perlita had something less conventional in mind, and Perez helped them to achieve it.

In 2000 his labor paid off in accolades for Casa Demae when he took first place for best solutions for a house and best construction in the state of Jalisco from the CEMEX Association and the Association of Civil Engineers and Architects of Guadalajara and the state of Jalisco. When quizzed about why, after 25 years, he continues to put out enormous energy for unique designs, Perez gently smiles and says, “Passion drives the battle.”

Designs idealized by traditional groups in Puerto Vallarta blend elements of mountain and coastal architecture. Perez describes each style in psychological terms, “Mountain architecture from villages like Mascota and San Sebastian is more introverted, because of the cold weather at high altitudes. Coastal architecture is more extroverted because of the hot weather. People on the coast live a more open life.”

Do a visual survey of Puerto Vallarta and you’ll see both introverted and extroverted living spaces. From the mountains came red roof tiles, small windows and inner courtyards, all designed to keep people in, safe from the elements outside. From the coast emerged larger windows and doors, outside balconies and palapa roofs (palm branches) that open the building to a sea breeze, which is so essential in hot climates.

For arches, cupolas (small domes), bobolas (large broad domes) and columns, we have to look far beyond the borders of Mexico. As in the case of so many classics, the Greeks and Romans receive credit for these architectural boons. By the ninth century, the classic features gave new shape to Spain. “It was the Moors,” Jorge Chavez reminds us, “who brought cupolas and courtyards to Spain.” Later in the 15th century, the Spanish invasion of Mexico ensured that voluptuous domes, intimate courtyards and softly draping arches would become dominant in the architectural landscape of cities like Puerto Vallarta.

Outsiders today continue to affect design in Puerto Vallarta. Clients from North America and other continents bring new ideas, which architects attempt to implement. Although novel ideas sometimes face resistance, they can prove themselves a vibrant choice. According to Chavez, “Puerto Vallarta looks tired. A contrast would be refreshing. A few modern structures or designs would help the city.” He cites how tourism in Sevilla, Spain quadrupled after the modern Guggenheim Museum Bilboa was finished in 1997. A mix of stone, titanium and glass, it is truly magnificent.

New technology (related to materials and methods of construction) from around the world also drives architectural possibilities in Puerto Vallarta. International trade and use of the Internet mean that nobody, even in a remote resort town, ever lags behind. Take, for example, tempered glass that was developed in the USA. Containing special properties that filter UV rays, walls of glass become an ideal way to open up the building while still protecting the interior. In the past you might have to choose between completely open walls (open to insects and the elements) or a home closed in by brick and concrete walls.

From Germany came developments in aerated concrete, a material that impresses developers and environmentalists alike. Anyone walking the streets of Puerto Vallarta knows the critical role concrete plays in building and keeping the city together. But concrete has long been a strain on the environment in that it requires gravel in the mix. Now, instead of destroying the landscape by mining for gravel, builders can use cellular concrete with air pockets as sturdy as rocks – no gravel needed. The consequence is a much lighter substance that does not require huge footings when used in construction.

Old ways, however, will always have a place in Puerto Vallarta. Architects like Alberto Alvarez strike a fine balance of the old and the new. At Villa Ocarina, his most recent project on the beach in Bucerias, he has designed a spectacular villa with an open concept. The living and dining areas will be covered, but permanently open to the ocean view. One wall on the north side of the house is woven branches of pajarete wood, designed to allow a steady breeze while still providing privacy from neighbors.

Other walls made of new adobe (a mix of cement and earth) stand as taupe-colored structures that are more durable than the adobe of the past. In the 1950s, locals built their own adobe (large unbaked bricks made of dirt and hay) walls with free materials that surrounded them. If they were painted at all, they were typically whitewashed for flair and finish. Alvarez plans to leave his walls natural, unpainted and looking somewhat like unfired sculptures. In such a state they are also very low maintenance.

Traditional palapa roofs still have many fans in Puerto Vallarta – Alvarez included. Though it’s a hot day, we stay cool with the steady flow of air through the villa. For homes on the ocean, it evidently makes good sense to use palapa, at least as a part of the structure. But be advised: “Palapa is a perfect nesting place for bugs,” says Perez. “It’s a good idea for non-permanent spaces, like over bars or living rooms.” Perhaps they’re not the best idea for bedrooms. “If fumigated every few months,” notes Alvarez, “palapa works well for 4-5 years, whereas a tile roof is good for around 20 years.”

Anybody wanting traditional construction out of adobe and palapa, for example, might find it difficult to accomplish. “Adobe must be done specially,” says Alvarez, “people don’t really make them any more. ”Palapa is also becoming exclusive. If constructed properly, the palm branches become a network of eave troughs. But “knowledge of how to weave the palapa” adds Alvarez, “is in a few hands in Puerto Vallarta. They have to know which tree to use, which pattern to weave, and so on. Only a few people are given federally regulated permits to do the trade.”

Any creative process inherently contains a struggle. But these architects’ passion to design, and their respect for the old and the new, makes them a unique group of professionals. Communicating at once with affluent international clients, engineers and hardworking laborers, they know how to interpret a dream and make it a reality.

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