Advanced Topics Studio with Wonne Ickx

M.Arch.I, Third Year


The topic of this studio is triggered by our fascination with Armando Salas Portugal’s photography of the Ixtapa Hotel by Ricardo Legorreta built in 1981, an image we encountered preparing the exhibition ’Mexican Modernisms’for the Palais des Beaux Arts in Brussels in 2010. The cropped image - an endless continuum as if it were an Andrea Branzidrawing for Non-Stop City – shows a continuous field of hotel room terraces, each very similar in design but occupied in different ways with people, daybeds, tables, chairs and plants.

Legorreta wrote about the building: The Ixtapa Hotel consists of an extended volume draped over the whole surface of a hill sloping downwards to a private beach. The rooms are stacked one on top of the other following he exact same inclination as the existing topography, creating a fairly easy constructive solution. Seen from the ocean the building looks like a massive 10 story construction, but in reality it rarely raises more than two levels above its foundations. The Ixtapa project raised our interest in building types that are architecture and topography simultaneously. The idea to make a mountain-like building or a building-like mountain was however not new. In 1925 F. L. Wright’s had already designed his proposal for the Gordon Strong Automobile Objective and in the early sixties some visionary architects in Caracas, Venezuela had started construction on the Helicoide, a large scale commercial project that unfortunately would never be fully completed. Also Cesar Pelli’s project for Santa Monica(1965) or Moshe Safdie’s Puerto Rico Habitat (1968) or the many stepped and terraced housing projects developed and built during the seventies were obvious precedents to this project. All these projects defied one way or another the modernist ethos of simply ‘multiplying by stacking’, a strategy that had proved to be a commercial success but had been fartoo often a redundant social failure. Many of these projects exemplify well a paradoxical ambition: to be mega-structure and vernacular village simultaneously, to be extremely large and extremely small at the same time. But rather than issues of scale, it is the notion of territory and the shifting relation between architecture and the ground it stands on that interest us here.

The relation between modern architecture and topography is a scarcely investigated topic. Some exceptions aside, modern architecture always had a cumbersome relationship with topography: uneven landscapes were generally quickly annihilated by plinths, supporting columns or cantilevers in order to allow the architect to play an untarnished game of clean orthogonality. Modernism wanted to detach itself from the earthly matter and generally manifested itself a singular object in contrast with the natural surroundings. With a more mature modernism in later decades, a shift in the relation to the immediate surrounding changed significantly. Introduced into the architectural vocabulary in the 1960s ‘context’, ‘contextual’ and ‘contextualism’ were part of the first substantial critique of modernist practice. Mostly however these ideas of context were concerning the need for a historic continuity (Rossi) or with a formal relation to its surroundings (Rowe). So, in general these ideas were rather related to a historical urban environment, and much less to topography, geology or natural situations. Legorreta’s Ixtapa project can be read as a project to understand that shift in relation. It can help us to understand how the inclusion of the diagonal vector in seventies architecture (as an addition to the modernist orthogonal ethos limited to the horizontal and the vertical), is not only inspired by vernacular architecture, but also a product of the shifting relation with topography. The disdaining relation between modern architecture and the earth it stands on, is very well expressed in Le Corbusier’s first of his five points of modern architecture: “Pilotis: (…) The rooms are thereby removed from the dampness of the soil they have light and air; the building plot is left to the garden, which consequently passes under the house.” One can indeed claim that for early modern architecture, ‘the plan is the generator’ as Le Corbusier so clearly phrased it. The re-discovery of the topography, context and a full exploration of the section will only happen in a later phase of modernism. This studio will attempt to trace this change in attitude by exploring together with the students this thesis through a limited selection of reference projects and texts on architecture.


Wonne Ickx