A husband and wife architect team is on a quest to promote a green lifestyle for themselves and their community.
By BARBARA THORNBURG
MOST things in the lives of Alejandro D'Acosta and Claudia Turrent are recycled: the trailer in which the architects live, their three-year-old Christmas tree.
"The only thing not redclada is my wife," D'Acosta says with a grin, his wedding-ring finger tattooed with her name.
"Ay, gordo! What am I going to do with you?" Turrent admonishes him, laughing, her right wrist imprinted with his name like a bracelet. The couple show their good humour, but make no mistake: they are on a serious quest to promote a sustainable way of life for themselves and their community in the nascent revoludon verde just south of the Tijuana border in Mexico.
The Ensenada coast and nearby Valle de Guadalupe wine-making region inland are testing grounds for the couple's experiments in recycling and "upcycling", the process of designing a product with its end-life in mind.
"Recycling is taking an object, like a plastic bottle, and after you drink it, turning it into a candleholder," Turrent says. "We want companies designing the plastic bottle to design it in the shape of something functional, like a roof tile." Instead of ending up in a landfill, she says, the plastic could be incorporated into an inter- locking System of bottles that provide cover. "This would help many poor people have a shelter over their heads,and at the same time, the Earth will be cleaner."
At the rear of the couple's home facing the northern Baja coastline, where waves break dramatically along the shore, a brown Christmas tree stands in the small garden. "The tree was a big discussion at Christmas," D'Acosta says. "My children told me, 'It smells like fish, and we want a new one that smells more like Christmas.' I told them, 'This tree will be for my grandchildren and great-grandchildren.'"
Originally from Mexico City, the couple spent eight years living in Oaxaca, teaching and aiding poor communities in the area by building health facilities and cultural centres. Along the way, they learned to create a modern architecture based on ancient traditions.
A local bar, La Mezcaleria, features walls and a ceiling woven of carrizo or cane grass, which the indigenous people also use for roofs, window coverings and baskets.
"Es una canasta ... it's a basket," D'Acosta says of the structure. When the sun's rays stream into the interior, Goethe's description of architecture as frozen music comes to mind. "We have much to learn from indigenous people and the way they live with the land," D'Acosta says. "Some people call them backward, but they don't need cars because they grow their food in the garden next to their house. They use the natural materials that surround them to make their homes."
The couple have taken the lessons they learned in Oaxaca and created a vernacular architecture of their own based on materials that surround them in northern Baja. And the material found in most abundance here, they say, is basura - trash.
D'Acosta and Turrent's home is a laboratory. They joined a 1940s American mobile home with a former Mexican office trailer to create a comfortable, inexpensive dwelling that seems to float on the land, parallel to the sea. The 20m-long red mobile home, re-clad in waterproof
corrugated cardboard, houses the kitchen, living room, two girls' bedrooms and a bath. The shorter trailer, set at a right angle, serves as the master bedroom suite overlooking the ocean.
The house wears an interior skin of unpainted dry wall and is filled with recycled furnishings. A whale vertebrae is now a sculptural centrepiece atop the patio dining table. A vintage blouse is a cover for the plasma TV. A 70s desk serves as the kitchen table.
Outside, a long deck made of redwood beams from an old, deconstructed bridge stretches to the shore. An open-air aluminum-and-wood pavilion, reclaimed from an old factory, is covered with carrizo, echoing the trailer's topping of palm fronds. The materials, salvaged from their neighbour's trash heap, help to cool the spaces.
"Our neighbour used to throw things out. Now he asks us before disposing of anything," says D'Acosta, who can be found most Sundays combing the coastline for trash, often returning with a necklace of plastic bottles draped around his neck. "Gifts from our northern neighbours," he quips, referring to refuse that has washed clown from California. "They make great insulation."
He's planning to use the colourful bottles in a new wine-tasting centre at La Escuelita, a wine school started six years ago by his brother, Hugo D'Acosta, in the Valle de Guadalupe. Set in a former olive oil factory that still produces olive oil as well as wine, the school is where D'Acosta keeps stashes of trash in segregated piles.
"Another laboratorio," he says, pointing to mounds of cans, tyres, rusted pipes, barbed wire
and old wood, as well as a lone toilet where he takes up a seat to gaze at his tesoro. Treasure? Most people would look at all this and see junk. D'Acosta, like Don Quixote on his quest, conjures other visions. Buildings on the property have been fashioned from the trash: a classroom made of discarded pieces of wood from construction sites; a wine storage facility composed of used bottles; and an open-air building framed in rusted box springs. Then there's the front of the school, clad in discarded filters used in the pressing of olive oil.
His latest structure is a work in progress:a wine-tasting centre made of old barrel staves. Colourful plastic bottles will be placed between walls as insulation and to "colour the light," he says. Old wine barrels, fittingly, will make up the wine bar. "The idea of buildings is not just for function but to create sensations," D'Acosta says. "Each material~ has its own soul, and when you reuse that material it has a new soul on top of its old soul." Nature's way
Turrent has her own project, Viento, a highrise condominium in El Sauzal, a seaside community just north of Ensenada, complete with an in-
house wine-making facility that will be cooled by sea breezes and heated by the sun. She's experimenting with hand-carved furnishings - built-in benches, wooden sink stands - made from the same redwood beams that form her home's deck.
While the project is on hold, Turrent has turned her attention to retrofitting a half-dozen trailers on the property as part of a new delimarket by the sea. Come summer, when wine aficionados hit Ensenada's Fiesta de la Vendemia (Harvest Festival) and other cultural events, the new market will be in place offering organic and regional products. "The idea," she says, "is to
bring small producers together and promote the idea of buying local."
Inland, in the Valle de Guadalupe, lies D'Acosta's latest boutique-winery, Paralelo. With its corrugated metal roof painted the colour of nearby olive trees, the rammed-earth structure all but disappears into the landscape. During harvest, trucks drive up the building's eastern ramp to the roof,.releasing grapes into the vats below.
"Everything is run by gravity," D'Acosta says. No pumps are needed. Metre-wide walls, punc- tuated with barrel-shaped windows on each side of the building, regulate air flow to control temperature. "We try to work with the land- scape, not against it," says the architect, also a professor at the Autonomous University of Baja California, where his classes emphasise ecology and sustainability.
Baja conservation attorney Jose Luis Perez Rocha recently worked with D'Acosta on trans- forming an abandoned 120-year-old school into a family home in La Paz, Mexico. "Alejandro sees things differently from the rest of us," Rocha says. "He turns waste and trash into something not only useful but beautiful."
Already copies of D'Acosta's work- fences of discarded lumber or recycled grapevines - are popping up in the Valle de Guadalupe and Ensenada. But D'Acosta says that's a good thing. "People are starting to look at trash as something that has value."- LAT-WP