Seven years ago, Mario Saravia stopped by our office to discuss a house he was planning. Mario is a framing subcontractor who'd worked on several houses we'd designed in the Hills of Oakland, Calif. This new house was intended for Mario and his family and was to be sited alongside a golf course at the edge of a mountainous rain forest outside Tegucigalpa, Honduras.
He had in mind a courtyard dwelling—about which it was easy to enthuse—decked out in a vaguely Spanish Colonial style (white stucco walls, clay tile roof), where ensued a momentary leveling off of our high hopes. Site information was sketchy, documented solely in Mario's memory. Lot dimensions? “About 90 feet by 175 feet,” he said. Topography? “Pretty flat,” he recalled. Utilities? “We'll work it out,” he assured me. Structural design of this concrete-frame-and-block building was to be by one of Mario's uncles.
A modest scope, with a yet more modest fee, was agreed upon, and the game was on.
ruinous notion Early on, we realized that Honduras is home to Copán—the site of a most spectacular set of Mayan ruins. This got us thinking about Mayan Revival buildings in 1920s Los Angeles and about Robert Stacy-Judd, a British-born architect who dreamed up several of the most endearing of these eccentric confections. Photographs of Stacy-Judd show him dressed alternately as an explorer—complete with pith helmet, holstered handgun, and, naturally, briar pipe—or as a Mayan prince, with exotic plumed headdress and hieroglyphic-patterned clothing.
Channeling our inner Stacy-Judd, we arrived at a courtyard scheme—imagined as Mayan Revival Revival style—incorporating a variety of characteristic forms, patterned decoration, and colors. This was, of course, a very distant cry from Spanish Colonial, and it had yet to gain the client's endorsement. It developed, of course, that Mario had visited Copán several times, was thoroughly engaged by the place, and therefore was enthusiastic about the proposal. Drawings were prepared and construction commenced. Four years after the initial meeting, Mario dropped by with photographs showing progress. He was pleased. So, too, were we (as was our inner Stacy-Judd).
Construction moved along deliberately, and it may be that the Maya built their pyramids more quickly than we have built ours. Yet progress was steady, and two years ago, as the color scheme (based on the Rosalila Temple at Copán) was being developed, Mario suggested I visit the site to begin work on the interiors. Stacy-Judd organized two different expeditions to Mayan and Aztec sites in Mexico in the 1920s, and his explorer bona fides are impressive. I am no Robert Stacy-Judd, however. When it comes to exotic travel, I am a coward.
site visit A year ago, of course, I found myself on a midnight flight to Tegucigalpa. It is embarrassing to admit now, but I wondered if I would survive the trip.
Early indications were not encouraging. I emerged from the airport there to a sweltering day—blindingly bright and overwhelmingly chaotic. Presently, though, Mario drove up in a small white truck whose windshield was crossed by two bands of reflective film, set inches apart. The effect was paramilitary, enhanced by the man riding shotgun in the truck's bed.