It is rare to come across places where architecture, particularly in the case of contemporary buildings, would complement a beautiful natural setting in decidedly positive ways. Most locations are appreciated either because of the landscape, or the architecture, not both. Buildings designed by world-class masters tend to be built in stark contrast to the landscape they are surrounded by, and if we were asked to take a perfect shot of a gorgeous view anywhere, we would most likely make sure that nothing manmade gets in the way. These two contrasting worlds are successfully brought into harmony at Bahías — Antoine Predock’s latest masterwork, a community of 13 houses at Costa Rica’s famed Peninsula Papagayo.
Framed by back-to-back bays 80 meters above the Gulf of Papagayo, this pristine eco-paradise on Costa Rica’s north pacific is being adorned by an architectural wonder. A sensitive insertion of concrete, stone, copper, and glass into an inviting canopy of tropical dry forest. Predock calls his creation here the necklace.
Related ArticleTropical Modernism: Costa Rica’s New Elevated Treehouses
Antoine Predock (b.1936 in Lebanon, Missouri) was a natural choice for this dream project; unlike most leading architects he works predominantly outside of urban centers. Practicing out of Albuquerque, New Mexico since 1966, he developed his unique sensibility, characterized by poetic bold forms, seemingly emerging right out of the local geology, effectively blurring distinctions between the manmade and the natural. The winner of the Rome Prize and the top honor in America – the 2006 American Institute of Architects Gold Medal – Predock realized over one hundred buildings across the United States, Canada, China, and Qatar. I caught up with Antoine Predock over FaceTime between New York and Albuquerque to discuss original intentions and inspirations for his unique vision.
Vladimir Belogolovsky: What attracted you to Costa Rica?
Antoine Predock: Throughout my life, Costa Rica has been a mythical dream country to me. Yet, I never visited it until this opportunity with Bahías. I traveled in the region and I thought I had a sense of what it would be like. But it really surprised me, especially for its conservationist sensibilities and care for their land. But also, the feeling you get from the local people. When they greet you, instead of saying Buenos días or good morning in Spanish they say, Pura Vida, which literally means pure life or the joy of life. There is such a feeling of exuberance here. So, of course, when we were asked to do a project there, we immediately agreed. I was very excited.
VB: There is a feeling of a heightened intimacy with nature at Papagayo. Could you talk about the relationship of your architecture to the landscape there?
AP: What drives my work is a soul of a place, both physical and spiritual. In Costa Rica, particularly here on the doorstep of a UNESCO World Heritage Site, nature is a dominating force. It was essential for me to show our respect for the place and preserve as much of the existing topography and greenery as possible. The idea was to minimize the disruption and work with the land in the most sensitive ways.
VB: Preserving natural features is always a delicate balance. What were some of the challenges in working on this complex landform?
AP: What took me by surprise is that right away, once you enter the site you find yourself immersed in the jungle. The sheltering tree canopy is overwhelmingly beautiful. You get a feeling of being protected by a hovering umbrella. The area is known for its volcanos. On a clear day, you can see the iconic Arenal Volcano. There are tufa strata emerging from the slopes, outcroppings of some of the oldest rock formations in the country, and large boulders throughout. To treat this gentle place lightly and to preserve its beauty was our priority. For example, we preserved virtually all specimen trees, and not a single boulder was displaced. The key goal was to create a fully immersive experience – not to bring something predetermined but to derive our design out of the place itself. When you come here you are not merely looking at nature, you are literally a part of it. The stones, the tree canopy, the sky, and the Pacific Ocean became the anchors of my architecture – earth, air, fire, and water are all there.
VB: Architects are known for inventing their own worlds. What were some of your initial thoughts when you saw the site for the first time and what kind of place did you want to turn it into?
AP: I wanted to dance here! I imagined a choreographic event on this beautiful ridge, which is kind of schizophrenic because it sits between two very different worlds – the vast Pacific Ocean on one side of the ridge and Culebra Bay on the other. It is such a beautiful site; such wonderful topographic variations must be celebrated. The ridge is very dynamic – gently sloping away one moment and abruptly plunging off toward the ocean the next. The site itself assured that all 13 houses would be very different, adjusted to very specific nuances of the landform. The feeling of exploring this place is very cinematic and I would describe the whole experience as the atmosphere of sensory saturation. There are all kinds of sounds – from the ocean, birds, and animals, rustling of foliage of the tropical dry forest, and gusts of wind. It is like nature being unleashed. Being there is an exotic adventure.
VB: Your inspirations often come from geological formations and unique typologies. What was your overall design vision for these 13 houses?
AP: First, I don’t see Bahías as 13 houses. It is rather a single continuous event, one vision brought together by the houses’ roofline, a gentle canopy, a shade of green. That’s why I chose blue-green color copper for all roofs flowing, undulating, like the surrounding forest. These roofs float independently, they don’t touch each other, but they are all tied together in a continuous flow. And as these roofs hover above, there is a necklace of stone that anchors all the houses below along the ridge lane that links all the houses, like a dance that’s twisting and turning. Every volume, space, and terrace become a part of a single continuity flowing like beads dancing along the necklace. To me the connection is spiritual. The reason for selecting copper is malleability. What metal yields? What metal bends and curves? I had a vision of manmade foliage, a gentle roller coaster. And the color is green because I love the green patina color of European cathedrals or Buddhist bells in Japan. We will freeze the oxidation process to achieve the precise green color to harmonize with the trees and the ocean.
VB: You once observed, “A building is not what’s standing there, it is the process that went into making it alive.” Could you take me through your design process?
AP: My design process for Papagayo involved deep research and investigation about local history, culture, geology, and the Pacific Coastal ecosystem. But more importantly, to be on the site, feel it, smell it, photograph it, and sketch it. I drew every detail of the site.
VB: Do you see these 13 houses as a family of siblings, or is each unique?
AP: That’s a good word – siblings. There are 13 houses on 13 unique sites. Each home site has different conditions, shapes, and sizes. We had to find a personality profile for each site; each offers something unique – stone formations, a boulder, a special tree, a variation of a view. It was the topography that really defined each house. They all have different personalities, and each is entered differently – by climbing up, descending, and so on.
VB: I understand these houses will be second homes, in a way, trophy properties for collectors of exclusive luxury real estate around the world. How did you address that?
AP: Honestly, this is not how I see these houses. To me, they are homes where people will live. I don’t see them as vacation houses. These places are very site-specific, very much rooted in this magical place. I haven’t done anything like it before. I never built in the jungle before. This experience is totally new for me. The intention here was to design the kind of architecture that comes out of its place, reflecting our time, and responding to the environment all around. The idea was to build something that will, with time, acquire authority and permanence on its own. And we are using very solid substantial materials – mainly concrete and stone – to achieve longevity. Our concrete will be pigmented and wonderfully rich and layered by integrating the color with soil and beach sand.
VB: You have said before that your architecture is an adventure, a fascinating journey toward the unexpected. What will it be like living here?
AP: I want people to wake up here, take a deep breath of fresh ocean air, and savor the magical atmosphere that is all around. And I promise you – they will feel blessed and happy.
Read Vladimir Belogolovsky's previous interviews published on ArchDaily.