1 December 2014
A new community for artists and residents in Mexico, Casa Wabi is a minimalist built environment where ocean joins desert and mountains to inspire art.
One man’s vision given life by another man’s architecture is a way to describe the new Casa Wabi artistic community in the state of Oaxaca, Mexico. The vision comes from Mexican artist Bosco Sodi. The architecture comes from Japanese starchitect Tadeo Ando, a winner of the Pritzker Prize, architecture’s Nobel.
The name combines the Spanish word for house or home “casa” with the Japanese word “wabi” which means something like humility or modesty. The vision of Casa Wabi is to create a permanent community of temporary artistic residents who will interact with and inspire the people who live in the surrounding area.
It’s not yet clear exactly how that will happen, but Casa Wabi like many current architectural projects represents not only buildings but also a philosophy of social integration. By the end of November, the first six artists had moved into the simple concrete boxy houses where they will live for up to three months.
The architecture of Tadeo Ando expresses minimalism, his sense that the simplicity of a structure allows it to interact with the environment. His design for the National Maritime Museum on Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Island lets the water divide and run through the structure and surround it.
Where another architect – including some of those designing other museums for Saadiyat – would emphasise the complexity and size of the structure he or she has imagined, Ando focuses on the sea which is a given on the site.
At Casa Wabi the given environment is 90 acres nestled between ocean dunes, cultivated fields, and mountains. It was a challenge for Ando who admits to “always seeking new challenges” because of “a very grand contrast, with the endless beach view on one side and the mountain view on the other.”
Because the site is remote and everything had to be brought in, Ando had to manage with what the location offered. In addition to concrete as the basic building material, Ando was inspired by local roofs of dried palm leaves or palapa to use the same material for the thatched roofs on the six artists’ residences. “I used palapa in order to preserve the identity of the local culture and the local landscape,” he explained.
Moreover, as he pointed out in a recent interview, the concrete too is native, mixed by hand from local materials and carried “bucket by bucket” by local workers. “The proof of the passion from every single worker who was involved,” said Ando, “is evident.”
Casa Wabi was established by Bosco Sodi as a non-profit foundation set up to last. The trust binds his children to continue its work and blocks them from doing anything else. Thus far, he has paid for land and construction from his own funds although he has received some help from the state of Oaxaca and Mexico’s National Council for Culture and the Arts.
The artists who stay at Casa Wabi are asked to contribute to the foundation if they are already established. Sponsors and donors are welcome and invited to contribute on the website (www.casawabi.com).
The property includes a 6,000 square foot gallery and several studios as well as a long swimming pool, a botanical garden, a sculpture garden, two small buildings for meditation, and other community spaces. It is marked by a 341-foot concrete wall that divides the private and public spaces. Sodi’s own studio, like the six artists’ houses, is one of the private spaces.
Dominant inside a public area is a 30-foot wooden table designed by Sodi from a local tree trunk as a setting for long relaxing talks after dinner. “Artists are often very solitary and must be forced to come together,” he says.
Foundation director Patricia Martin says that the next group of artists has already been selected, and there is a waiting list until mid-2015. The artists range from well known to emerging to unknown and represent various nationalities and disciplines from painting to poetry.
Bosco Sodi wanted to create a personal refuge from the exciting but stressful life he and his wife lead in Mexico City where she has a boutique, Brooklyn, New York, where their three children attend school, and the cities where his work appears. Currently, he is preparing exhibitions for Pioneer Works gallery in Brooklyn and Galería Hilario Galguera in Mexico City along with a sculpture installation at the Bronx Museum of the Arts in New York.
He also wanted to develop a place where worlds could be bridged, something that is never easy. Bringing Casa Wabi into an underdeveloped region of Mexico hasn’t been entirely welcomed by the people who live there. Sodi recognises that but is optimistic that their distrust of outsiders can be overcome. He and Martin have spoken with local VIPs to explain their intentions with Casa Wabi.
They also hope to create links by encouraging the artists who reside at Casa Wabi to work with local artisans; the first step has been to commission a study of craftsmen who can be found within a 60-mile radius.
Martin says, “the first resident-created activities for the communities have been very well received.” As the “bond between residents and community” grows, “activities and workshops will gradually attack more and more relevant problems within the communities.”
As always, young people offer the best possibility for progress. “We can have the activities for children and youth to exploit the creative genius and at the same time raise awareness of various problems,” Martin added, “in the hope that they understand their surroundings differently and are able to transform this knowledge into their daily lives.”
Four million people live in Oaxaca, a state that isn’t much developed and attracts only a few tourists, the kind who don’t have much money to spend and don’t require three-star or higher accommodations and food. Sodi has been coming to the area for years because of family ties, so he was able to see potential in its remoteness.
In 2006 his father Luis Sodi, a chemical engineer, found the land that his son would acquire for Casa Wabi. Earlier Bosco Sodi had an architectural residency in Japan where he became acquainted with the work of Tadeo Ando. Even before he owned the land, Sodi spent several years trying to convince Ando that he was a worthy client who would come up with an interesting and challenging project.
Eventually, Ando agreed.
Now that Casa Wabi is operational, Sodi recognises that what it offers is new. “The children in these communities have no contact with art. The idea is to bring them to see the studios, the nursery, the gardens and to open their understanding of life.” He looks forward to visits by youngsters from kindergarten and up all the way to university students. He hopes that contact with Casa Wabi can inspire local women to explore their own lives and identities in ways that hardscrabble existence has not allowed.
“The program will bring together two worlds that don’t usually coexist: renowned artists and members of developing communities,” says Martin, whom Sodi hired after a friend recommended her. “The hope is that it will become a relevant community centre where the learning experience goes both ways. This will be a social project carried out through art.”