The resorts that dot the coast of Baja, Mexico are famous for their stunning Pacific vistas and all-you-can-eat lobster feasts, but they’re definitely not known for their architecture. In a groundbreaking collaboration, six architects from the United States and Mexico plan to change that. Terra Sur, located between Tijuana and Rosarito, is a new luxury development of 119 beachfront houses on seven acres that aims to reinvent the northern Baja coastline with a new form of Mexican vernacular design. It also marks the first time that Mexican and American architects have worked together on such a large-scale residential project. The initial phase, which includes seven single-family cliff-side houses, is underway, with the first house complete and serving as a model and sales office.
The U.S. firms include Rob Wellington Quigley, Spurlock Poirier Landscape Architects, Safdie Rabines Architects, Ocean Pacific Design, and Studio E Architects. From Baja comes REDI Design and the developer and lead architect Guillermo Martinez de Castro, known to many in the Mexican design industry simply as “Mannix.”
The 3,300-square-foot show house Casa Agua, designed by Quigley and REDI Design, contains many of the design cues that will guide the entire development: an indoor-outdoor floor plan, site-sensitive elevations, and the use of natural materials. Additionally, the house is filled with regional details by local craftsmen like pebbled walkways, artisanally-built doors, and wrought ironwork. “These architects and engineers have the best of both worlds,” said Mannix, who held weekend workshops in his Baja office for all the architects. “They have all the amenities of high-tech construction, but they also have access to Mexico’s hand-crafted brick and stonework, as well as carpenters.” Three future phases will include 112 units in the form of villas, townhouses, and two mid-rise condo towers; a spa and fitness facility; and a restaurant. With units ranging from $350,000 to $2 million each, the developers hope to lure a mix of second homeowners and permanent residents from both the U.S. and Mexico.
Terra Sur is just ten miles south of the Mexican border, making its residents perfectly positioned for a “bi-national” lifestyle, said Mannix, who was raised and educated in both countries. An upcoming redesign of border facilities will allow residents to make the border crossing in 15 minutes, he added, making it possible for them to commute easily for work or leisure to San Diego.
Quigley, who also designed the development’s master plan, said he enjoyed the freedom of working in a Mexican design culture, which he described as more intuitive than American architecture. “There’s much more respect for your expertise,” said Quigley. “You’re not expected to put every 3-D detail onto a 2-D sheet of paper. It’s expected that as you build, you change and improvise and adjust as needed.” Quigley was also interested in creating a modern aesthetic that is region-specific, with nods to Mexico’s architectural legacy. “Mexico has been successful at adapting the modern sentiment. There’s a unique local style you can see in their major civic buildings,” he said. “This is a chance to create some high-quality architecture in the residential arena, which has usually not been so good.”
Although this part of Mexico hasn’t seen much luxury development, it seems the area could soon be a thriving community of vacationers and residents. Donald Trump’s Ocean Resort—a 525-unit, three-tower designed by Guerin Glass of New York and HOK in Mexico City—is underway a quarter-mile to the north, and many private houses are also being built in the area. With coastal land diminishing throughout Los Angeles, and San Diego prices five to ten times higher than in Mexico, Mannix thinks this is an obvious area for growth. “With less buildable space available [elsewhere],” he said, “this will become a natural extension of Southern California. People will move here to live full-time so they can have a higher quality of life.” He also noted that, for better or for worse, chains like Starbucks, Wal-Mart, and Home Depot are locating nearby, which might help make some Americans feel like they never even left home.