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Architectural Record, mid-May, 1977

Paradise, Writ in Concrete

By Deborah Snoonian, P.E.

Few spectacular Modern houses boast seaside views. Fewer still boast a moat. To our knowledge, none except John Lautner’s Arango House in Acapulco, Mexico, can lay claim to both. Completed in 1973 and published in RECORD in 1977 (we described it as “a spatial fiesta, blending site, sea, and sky”), the house doesn’t so much hug its mountainside site as burst forth from it in dramatic, sweeping forms. Add the panoramic vista of Acapulco Bay, the Pacific Ocean beyond, and the dome of sky above, and you’ve got an earthly paradise—or, at least, one family’s dream vacation home.

The house was commissioned by Mr. and Mrs. Jeronimo Arango as a weekend retreat for themselves and their four children. Specifically, they wanted great views of Acapulco Bay, choosing a hillside site for this purpose. Lautner responded with a two-story concrete structure of some 25,000 square feet. Five bedrooms and servant quarters are tucked into the lower level, while an enormous open terrace on the upper level, sheltered by a canopy, serves as the main living and dining space. And then there’s the moat—a 6-foot-wide swimmable channel ringing the entire terrace, with a continuous overflow at its perimeter. The moat not only underscores the dazzling sweep of ocean and open air, but also, ingeniously, keeps bugs and land critters from wandering into the house and eliminates handrails that would spoil the view.

In the Arango House, Lautner refined innovations in siting, material, and structure he had been honing in earlier projects. Its bold curves celebrate the sculptural qualities of concrete, which he liked to experiment with (he worked often with engineer T.Y. Lin, who pioneered prestressed concrete). Modernists like Richard Neutra integrated architecture and site by extending structures into the landscape; here, Lautner turned this tenet on its head, conceiving the house as an extension of the rugged topography and using form to frame exterior views (like his mentor, Frank Lloyd Wright). Boulders thrust their way inside to become bedroom walls; the upper level is cantilevered out from the hill to block out lights from houses below and to give occupants the impression they’re walking on air between the sky and the bay.

The Arango House was built in less than a year. It would be Lautner’s only project in Mexico, although he admired Mexican architects like the émigré Felix Candela. Shortly before Lautner’s death in 1994, the Arangos commissioned him to design another house, in Southern California. That project never went beyond schematic design, but the family still owns the house by the bay, a feast for the senses as fresh today as it was 30 years ago.

Click images to see larger.
Dramatic curves in concrete stand up to a rugged site.
Bedrooms are simple spaces of stone, concrete, and glass (top). The terrace offers bay views, sunlight, and cooling breezes (bottom).
Above photography courtesy
The John Lautner Foundation
The original layout in RECORD shows floor plans and a section.

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