How an Architect’s Descendants Brought His Crumbling Home Back to Life

IN THE MIDDLE OF THE 1940’s, the architect Rafael Urzúa Arias, director of public works in Guadalajara, Mexico, had the first two houses he ever designed demolished to widen what would become one of the city’s major thoroughfares. When the houses were finally demolished in 1952, colleagues asked why he hadn’t chosen a different street, a decision that might have preserved his legacy better. Urzúa, then 47, responded with a proverb: “El buen juez por su casa empieza” – “The good judge begins at his own house.”

At that time, Urzúa was retired and had left Guadalajara to live in his hometown of Concepción de Buenos Aires, a quiet village in the folds of the Sierra del Tigre, about 80 kilometers south of the city. Over the past two decades he had built extensively, one of four architects—along with Pedro Castellanos Lambley, Ignacio Díaz Morales, and Luis Barragán Morfín—credited for founding the Tapatía School of Architecture, from which, in the 1920s, an idiosyncratic regional style emerged as Guadalajara grew into one of Mexico’s major urban centers. Of the four architects who reformed the metropolis, Urzúa’s influence is perhaps the least apparent: he built a few houses, mostly in a regionalist aesthetic; several dignified blocks of workers’ housing; and during his two terms in office, he oversaw many major urbanization projects, from public parks and botanical gardens to roads connecting the historic center with new neighborhoods.

But if Urzúa is less known than his peers, it’s because his greatest works were created not in Guadalajara but in his hometown. From 1948 to 1987, Urzúa brought sewage, electricity and a paved road to Concepción de Buenos Aires. He renovated houses for neighbors, reorganized the centuries-old cemetery (the village was founded in 1869) and redesigned the cedarwood square. When modernism reached its peak in Mexico City and Guadalajara in the 1960s, he chose instead to design mission-style chapels with stucco walls and pointed terracotta roofs, whose modest shape was proportioned to blend in with the surrounding mountains.

“When I was a student, there was a lot of criticism that he built outside of his time,” said Urzúa’s 45-year-old grandson Agustín Elizalde Urzúa, an architect and product designer from Guadalajara. But the elder Urzúa had no interest in what modernism might have dictated. Instead, as Elizalde wrote in his 2006 monograph on his grandfather, his career has been “an intimate, almost secret quest to find harmony in the things around him.”

NO PROJECT DISTILATES Urzúa’s preoccupations more fully than his own 9,192-square-foot home in Concepción de Buenos Aires. Built by his grandparents around the turn of the 20th century, the house has lime-slaked mud walls; a terracotta roof; a shady entrance called a hallway which opens onto the cobbled street; and a wide central courtyard surrounded by a drawing room, an office, four bedrooms, a dining room and a kitchen. An accomplished collector, Urzúa filled these rooms with remnants of Guadalajara’s disappearing architectural heritage, including grindstones from defunct village mills, 17th-century religious sculptures, and altar rails removed from the city’s Catholic churches after the Second Vatican Council.

After Urzúa’s death in 1991, his descendants used the house less and less and gradually gave up entire rooms to decay and decay. Mold ate through the walls; the wooden columns holding up the 11-meter-deep inner verandahs began to rot; downspouts Urzúa had improvised from rusted sardine cans. During severe summer storms, half of the building would become uninhabitable. “If we fix the village hall” became a familiar refrain. Then, in 2016, an attic beam broke, threatening the entire structure. The family knew they couldn’t wait any longer.

Despite his training as an architect, Elizalde had no desire to lead the project himself. He had spent most of his career working in interiors, designing Puerto Vallarta restaurants and, more recently, homewares in collaboration with rural artisans. “I’m not a builder,” Elizalde says. “And especially in a project like this – my grandparents’ house, with a lot of emotions, with a lot of expectations – it was complicated.”

So he asked his friend Francisco Javier Gutiérrez Peregrina, the 45-year-old director of COA Arquitectura in Guadalajara, to supervise the renovation. A decade earlier, Gutiérrez had begun a master’s degree in historic restoration, but the bulk of his work since then has been private residences. Elizalde had watched Gutiérrez’s practice evolve over the years — the two became friends in 2005 while working on book projects for the Secretary of State for Culture — and appreciated his rigor and humanity. “You can tell he likes to understand his customers,” Elizalde says. “And this project wasn’t just about repairing damage. It was about preserving the house for future generations.”

It took Elizalde and Gutiérrez nearly a year to document every piece of pottery, artwork and furniture in the house, from elaborately crafted neocolonial tables and chairs by the artist León Muñiz, most of them commissioned by Urzúa after his 1940 marriage to María del Rosario. Zambrano, to hand-painted tiles from the nearby village of Sayula, where such craftwork has died out. Meanwhile, Gutiérrez’s team measured every ceiling joist and cobblestone hallway and assessed which parts of the house would need to be rebuilt and which could remain unchanged. “The question we had throughout the process was, ‘What does? original you mean?’” Elizalde says.

Rather than creating a museum or a memorial to Urzúa’s work, Gutiérrez describes the process as ‘a dialogue with pre-existence’, keeping the traces of time visible where possible, but mainly focusing on making a livable home. In the 118-square-meter zaguán, for example, Gutiérrez made virtually no adjustments, leaving the stoneware floor tiles intact, their emerald-green glaze worn from a century of footsteps, a striking contrast to the electric hues of blue and coral Urzúa used to give the coffered ceiling such a painting six decades ago. In the 344 square meter kitchen, Gutiérrez built custom cabinets from purple rose, a tropical hardwood, and installed utilitarian countertops of hammered black granite. At the back of the property, behind the kitchen, he built a 700-square-foot guest apartment over the footprint of the former servants’ quarters. Rather than include antiques from Urzúa’s collection, Gutiérrez and Elizalde relied on modern furnishings from Guadalajara-based design firms such as Supermorphe and Alvaluz, which inscribed a new era within the home’s thick mud walls.

The core of the house is the 650 square meter central courtyard, where the architects executed their most ambitious idea: they temporarily lifted the entire 10 meter high roof of the veranda that surrounds the courtyard garden 10 centimeters and removed four foot crossbeams – each so tall as a mature pine tree – and eight wooden columns to make them from scratch, exactly mimicking the century-old structure of the building. Planted with heliconias, calla lilies, begonias and bird’s nest ferns, the garden now grows lushly around a stone fountain flanked by a pair of metal dragons that Urzúa rescued from the mansard roof of Guadalajara’s first department store when it was demolished in the 1950s.

Each of these details, newly introduced or carefully preserved, bears the seal of Urzúa’s idiosyncratic vision of beauty: some are decorative, such as Neo-Baroque finials added to the terracotta facades, while others are functional, such as the indented plinths of a deep concrete washbasin, ingeniously designed to make the taps more accessible – a choice that would have gone unnoticed at the outset by all but the house staff.

In Urzúa’s aesthetic universe, there was no hierarchy between these design elements, just as there was no hierarchy between time periods, between architectural styles, between town and village, discarded waste and potential treasures. The work — from his own home to pro bono projects scattered across the village and region — may have seemed anachronistic, but it was also forward-looking in its clever reuse of municipal waste, its democratic eclecticism, its commitment to community over personal legacy. Where so much modernist architecture aimed to transform society, Urzúa wanted instead to reflect its joyous complexity. The good judge, as he once said, begins at his own house. Or maybe the right judge doesn’t judge at all.

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