An Artist Turned Architect, Designer, Recycler
By James Vitale
As a child I was very artistic. I studied drawing, painting, and sculpture at The Cooper
Union School of Fine Arts in New York City, where I earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree. Later I also earned a MA from the California Institute of the Arts in
Valencia, California. My education landed me a job painting murals of Ronald McDonald and hamburger monsters. But that work was dreadfully unfulfilling. I found a compromise in home remodeling work, specializing in exterior house painting in Seattle, Washington. This work paid the bills but left scant time for making art.
Fate took me to Mexico, and on my second vacation there I experienced an amazing, crimson sunset on the beach and realized that I needed to orient my life so as to spend half the year in Nayarit making art and enjoying this beautiful area of Mexico.
After making that call to the Universe, four acres beside the ocean in the fishing and banana growing village of Santa Cruz de Miramar found me! The property had been protected from logging by the former owner and therefore some fantastic, ancient hardwood trees remain. It has a year-round stream and sits atop the archeological remains of a pre-Columbian settlement. Later I acquired more acreage featuring the ruins of a 19th-century hacienda built to produce coconut soap and honey for export to Europe.
To prevent erosion of the slopes I began clearing, terracing, and planting a variety of
tropical fruit trees, vegetables, and decorative plants. Under six inches of topsoil I
discovered large areas of stone pavement. I reclaimed some of these stones to begin making foundations and walls for new structures. The large, old bricks found on the property were turned on their sides, mortared into wall sections and supported by reinforced, cast-concrete pillars and bond beams.
I borrowed some wooden molds from Edward James's garden, "Las Pozas" in San Luis Potosi and began casting more elaborate members to support the reclaimed brick sections. Over time that led to using all manner of metal fencing, chicken wire, palm fronds, etc. over cloth as forms for casting concrete.
Then I had the good fortune to purchase 7,000 pounds of 1 ½-inch diameter rebar in long lengths from the scrap metal yard. This material allowed me to cast thinner columns with only two inches of concrete surrounding the structural steel.
Evolving over 20 years, the main outdoor kitchen is everyone's preferred hangout. The
big rebar allowed for the construction of an un-partitioned, open-walled bedroom over the
hexagonal pantry/scullery room below and the seven-meter nautilus shell-design roof over the cooking and living areas. Comfortable furniture and an extensive collection of kitchen, lava, and fiber optics lamps make for an exotic living space open to light, fresh air, and a backdrop of foliage and garden vistas.
Formerly a large, single-family home, the beachfront property has been expanded and remodeled into eight apartments. It has served as El Encanto's main hotel facility for 15 years and is rented by yoga groups, friends, and individuals for workshops and vacations in our less touristy and eco-friendly environment.
The garden building serves as an annex to the beachfront spaces and is available if needed
by larger groups. It continues to expand upward and will soon house my winter residence on the third and fourth levels with a fifth floor rooftop gazebo. From this perch zip lines will provide an exhilarating option for decent into the garden.
Almost 10 years ago I bought another interesting ruin in nearby San Blas. It is slowly
undergoing a transition (as time and capital allow) into a gallery/cabaret/dinner theatre.
Here I have cast my most elaborate concrete columns to date in the form of "fossilized" palm trees, effectively "raising the bar" for design and construction standards in the area.
Plans are to offer super-healthy, organic and original cuisine, local and imported art
and alternative entertainment in a reclaimed space. In short: FUN!
The climate on the ocean front is lovely for the eight months of fall, winter, and spring, but unbearably hot during the summer rainy season. So a couple of years ago I purchased a walled-in, stone-paved quarter acre with two large, brick rooms in the colonial town of Compostela, which is located at an elevation of 3,100 ft. My plans are to make this property into my summer residence and art studio.
Recycling materials became the design theme for this project from the start. The brick walls of the "residence" were raised to 18 feet and supported by steel columns made from reclaimed four-inch steel irrigation pipes. These columns also support some of the recycled steel roof beams and the industrial-grade, corrugated metal roofing panels. The 1 ½-inch diameter rebar was utilized to construct two second-floor bedroom loft spaces and a large, exterior platform which will support the sleeping porch. All of the doors and double-paned windows are recycled, as will be the spiral metal staircase. This space has the feel of a Pompeian ruin mixed with an industrial farm building/artist's loft.
Throughout the past 24 years of working and playing here in Mexico I have learned how to enjoy the whole process and not to be too willful a designer. I try to listen to what a space wants to become and to understand what inherent function a particular material may be destined. It's a lot less stressful to allow spontaneity and the serendipity elements to have a roll in the design process. This approach (at least here and for me) permits my aesthetic inspiration the freedom to transform into a relatively successful three-dimensional space.
I enjoy that which is graceful, simple, even elegant but with a sense of humor. Making
gardens and environments for large banquets, celebrations, or retreats (while attempting to tread lightly and respectfully on the planet) will no doubt help to foster human evolution in at least some small way.