Las Tejas, Photo by Huw Lewis

Enrique Zozaya designed Hotel Las Palmas, Photo by Jason Miller

Everyone knows a Zozaya building, whether they’re aware of it or not.

In a way he informs the landscape of coastal Mexico as surely as enramadas and plastic Sol chairs. Synonymous with luxury coastal homes and hotels, his influence has begun to trickle into the mainstream in Zihuatanejo over the last decade. Most of the influential buildings which identify our little town were created by Zozaya; most of our stunning views involve one of his designs.

Hailing originally from Mexico City, Enrique Zozaya studied in the USA and Mexico, where he spent his formative years training and working with some of the world’s foremost architects. Masters such as Mexican Luis Barragan, certainly one of the lights of modernism whose influence is seen world wide, and whom Zozaya himself cites as a definite shaping influence. Zozaya says that he came to Zihuatanejo initially as a developing architect to free himself from “the confines of the fixed geometric designs and almost cynical cubism” popular in the early eighties, and it was certainly a case of right place, right time. Starting out 18 years ago in a self designed “humble arts and crafts shop” with partner Enrique Muller in Los Patios, Ixtapa, Zozaya was noticed by a client who thought the layout of the shop fantastic and inquired about the architect. From this humble beginning his career took off and his designs began to be noticed by the world. His work has appeared in several films including the famous Casa Que Canta swimming pool scene in “When a man loves a woman”, “Hot Pursuit” with John Cusack in the Villa del Sol; Style bibles such as “Homes of the Pacific” and Vogue magazine.
Citing design techniques inspired by factors as diverse as ancient Greece and minimalism, Zozaya buildings are immediately recognisable for their organic shapes, their simple use of materials and their overall beauty. Zozaya says that one of his rules is for all his work to be designed on-site rather than desk drawn, i.e. the landscape should shape the design rather than the design imposing itself on the landscape. He feels that in this way his work complements the natural shape of the land, the structure is placed on the land rather than tearing up and reforming the land around the structure. This creates a sympathetic feel to most of his work, it is harmony with the land in stark contrast to the steel and concrete edifices slung thoughtlessly along much of Mexico’s vacation coast today.

There is a serenity and peacefulness to much of Zozaya’s work which he attributes partly to his strict use of local materials, a key element in successful natural design. He likens his sourcing of these materials to that of ancient Greece, where geographical boundaries and limited availability restricted choice to a simple minimum of limestone, timber and adobe, resulting in a beautifully simple common ‘look’. Zozaya imposes similar limits on his work that have given rise to a recognisable local aesthetic, a more organic shape and look which is a refreshing change from the usual concrete box seen in this area. This strict use of materials and imposition of design rules goes beyond architectural whimsy of course; emulating proven centuries-old techniques, Zozaya uses palapa and adobe to cool a building. High open spaces circulate air in a way simply not possible in a typical modern concrete building without recourse to air-conditioning. Thick interior and exterior walls are overhung by large eaves, keeping the sun from directly hitting the outer surfaces of the buildings, again providing a much more effective and natural cooling system than A/C. A necessity in climates such as Zihuatanejo’s, a return to a more responsible and traditional aesthetic has seen an increased popularity all over the world, thanks to architects such as Zozaya. Concrete does of course have a limited place in the designs; it’s use as a cool interior floor material has developed into one of Zozaya’s signature pieces with the introduction of polishing and colouring techniques, and the thoughtful placement of river pebbles that lead the eye round a room to it’s features. It also provides a strong yet flexible (Zihua is in an earthquake zone) and easily sculptable framework for material such as adobe, with it’s far greater insulatory properties.

Zozaya buildings are easily recognisable from the way they emerge majectically from the landscape, Casa Bina, Hotel las Palmas in Playa Blanca, Amuleto Boutique Hotel high above La Ropa, Las Marvillas condominums in Troncones to name but a few. One of Zozaya’s personal favourites is Las Tejas in Manzanillo, Troncones. It marked a departure from the ‘typical’ beach house as the first ‘hacienda’ style house he designed. It’s owners, Mercedes and Bill Dorson, says it’s design takes it’s cues from many traditional areas of Mexican architecture, from the old colonial houses of Puebla to the massive beamed haciendas of forested Michoacán. Zozaya’s art, according to the Dorsons, lies in the attention to detail and completeness of the design, for example the way the natural curve of the house’s huge beams reflect the skyline and the mountains behind: sympathy for the surrounding physical environment means the house doesn’t impose itself on the landscape.

A more recent departure for Zozaya, and perhaps one which will benefit all of us in the long run, is his increased involvement in town planning. A long time campaigner against the type of unregulated urban sprawl Zihuatanejo is, in some areas at least, in danger of becoming, Zozaya recognises that a balance needs to be struck between progress and architectural sensitivity. Some progress has been made over the last few years in the visual improvement of Zihua; for example after countless roadworks, excavations and pipe-laying, Calle Nicolas Bravo now looks quite good in the light of day, but venture much further and its gets worse. What is out of place in central Zihuatanejo is the complete lack of natural materials. To be sure, shopkeepers do their best with great greenery displays, but the acres of mouldy old hoardings and scruffy plastic awnings may hopefully be on their way out. Take a look next time you drive into town from Ixtapa at all the new and remodelled shops, and something becomes apparent – they all have wood and tile or palapa roofs over the street. This is part of a new incentive by Zihuatanejo to ensure a more beautiful, continuous, and traditionally Mexican architectural aesthetic. Apart from being much better looking, to any eye, these new additions benefit in other ways – they retain their appearance much longer than a plastic awning does under constant bombardment from UV, they’re cheaper to make and employ more traditional skills, and they are made from a much more sustainable resource. In towns of acknowledged beauty such as Patzcuaro, much more restrictive planning rules apply to the outward appearance of a building: uniform town colours are the rule, brash or obtrusive signage are outlawed, and it’s inescapably Mexican look has given rise to it’s status as a World Heritage Site. While this outcome isn’t being proposed for Zihuatanejo, anything is better than nothing, and a real architects’ sympathetic hand in the future design of our beach town cannot be a bad thing.

-Originally published March 2004