San Miguel de Allende’s streetscapes are inscrutable. Seventeenth-century buildings form a continuous wall on the winding cobblestone streets, and CASA, the new Center for Architecture, Sustainability + Art, is indistinguishable in its surroundings. But behind the deep red stucco façade are four soaring cubes linked by courtyards. In May, its doors opened to American architecture students for five intensive weeks of analytical design exercises, field trips, and theoretical debate.
For San Francisco architects Cathi and Steven House, who first traveled to central Mexico in the early 1990s to source Cantera stone, the idea was years in the making. The principals of House + House Architects purchased three infill lots near the Jardin—the central plaza with its signature pink granite cathedral. On two lots they built a vacation getaway/satellite office and a rental house. The couple finished construction on CASA in the spring, offering the seminar’s inaugural run to students from Virginia Tech, their alma mater.
The Houses describe the study abroad program as “loosely modeled on the Bauhaus.” Participants receive academic credits for classes in architecture, art, and sustainable building. They’re also offered courses in fiber arts, painting, and ceramics and the opportunity to test their ideas with local blacksmiths, carpenters, and artisans.
The goal: to give students a holistic view of architecture, and to help them find their voice as designers. “Travel is so important to keeping the creative spirit alive,” says Steven House, AIA. “To go to an ancient place and walk paths that have been walked for hundreds of years changes who you are and how you think about your work.”
In this culturally rich enclave, where expat retirees, artists, and writers mingle with Mexicans on the town square and four-star restaurants share the streets with elote vendors, the couple also hopes to host groups of architects who “gather at our long table to have interesting conversations at night, when we’re not burdened by the realities of work,” Cathi House says. In addition to Virginia Tech, the summer program will be offered to other universities as it evolves.