A Concrete Townhouse in Mexico City Marks Studio Rick Joy’s First Ground-Up Urban Building
For years, architect Rick Joy was known mainly for designing houses in the Arizona desert. But that’s changing. “We’ve had a lot of ‘firsts’ in the last few years,” notes the principal of Tucson-based Studio Rick Joy. One was a train station in Princeton, New Jersey, the firm’s first public commission. Another was an 11,000-square-foot, two-family residence recently completed in Mexico City, its first ground-up urban building. “People tend to think of our projects as being out in the wilderness,” Joy says. “This one is squeezed between two other houses.”
Mexico City has long been Joy’s favorite place to visit. “It has a lot to offer in terms of both culture and emotion,” he observes as a fan of the capital’s burgeoning art and architecture scenes. So when a Mexican developer asked him to design a five-story townhouse for a site in the upscale Polanco neighborhood, he jumped at the chance.
Comprising a pair of duplex apartments stacked on a ground-floor garage, the 40-foot-wide, 60-foot-deep building is roughly the same size and shape as its neighbors. But in most other ways, it couldn’t be more different. The other facades on the street are flat; for contrast, Joy wanted to give his house front “a deep 3-D quality.” In fact, he created a kind of giant sculpture by pouring concrete into primavera-wood forms, a construction method used for the entire building.
“Some people have a negative attitude toward concrete,” Joy says, acknowledging the common perception of the Brutalist material as harsh and cold. “The concrete here is soft”—rich with the imprinted texture of the wood planks—“and a very warm color. Mexicans do the best concrete in the world.”
The townhouse’s sculptural form arose from Joy’s habitual desire to bring the outdoors in. “When I ask people why they hired me, they say, ‘We knew you’d bring nature into every room,’” reports the architect, who grew up in Maine but moved to
Arizona 34 years ago. “But how do you do that on a super-urban site?”
Joy’s answer was to puncture the building both vertically and horizontally. He started with three lightwells, which bring sunshine (and starlight) all the way to the ground floor. (“I’m really conscious of celestial connections,” he notes.) Since the shafts serve both apartments, where there are privacy concerns, Joy coated the window glass with opaque film. A lush garden courtyard sits at the base of each lightwell; additional plants grow in boxes built into the shaft walls or in baskets hanging from ropes threaded with local stones.
Next, Joy created terraces for both the lower and upper units. The penthouse terrace, open to the sky, is expansive enough to accommodate a firepit and a small reflecting pool with a totemic sculpture at its center. But it’s not only the outdoor spaces—2,000 square feet in all—that connect to the surroundings. Since the front of the building is the only facade with exterior fenestration, Joy made the most of the windows, positioning them so that they frame views of specific neighboring trees wherever possible. And one window is pointed at the Parroquia de San Agustin—a strikingly austere, reinforced-concrete church designed by Leonardo Noriega Stavoli in the 1940s—less than a mile away.
Entry from the street is through a blackened-steel gate, detailed with brass inserts, that leads into the largest of the three courtyards. The adjacent stairs to the apartments wind around a center partition of blackened steel, which Joy has given a traditional powder coating. A brushed-brass handrail forms a softly glowing ribbon against the inky metal backdrop.
In the apartments, Joy uses oak planking for ceilings and floors, which not only links those surfaces to the board-formed walls but also further mellows what would otherwise be all-concrete spaces. Built-in cabinetry and doors are made of oak, too, while kitchen counters and bathroom vanities and walls are travertine.
When it came time to furnish the townhouse, Joy’s team didn’t have to look far. There are a few European pieces in the mix but—given the high tariffs on imports and the resourcefulness of Mexican craftsmen—it made sense to have much of the furniture made locally. “We collaborated with local fabricators to make sure most of the pieces reflect the essence and culture of Mexico,” says Studio Rick Joy senior interior designer, Marybel Rodriguez Zepeda. The architect designed some of the hardware, including handles and hinges, which was also manufactured in the area. So were the large steel-casement windows, many of which feature nearly square panes.
Joy continues to expand his practice beyond the desert houses that made his reputation. His current projects include another Mexican foray—a resort north of Puerto Vallarta, for which he has designed more than 100 separate buildings—as well as two villas in Ibiza, Spain. Surprisingly, he has only one current commission in what was formerly his bread-and-butter state, Arizona. But he expects that to change momentarily. “Projects,” Joy says, “tend to come in waves.”
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Project Team: Marybel Rodriguez Zepeda, Philipp Neher, Natalia Zieman Hayes, Christopher Pela, Heiman Luk, Claudia Kappl Joy: Studio Rick Joy. Frb Arquitectos Asociados: Architect Of Record. Entorno Taller De Paisaje: Landscape Consultant. Concept Lighting Lab: Lighting Consultant. Rodolfo Padilla: Structural Engineer. Iesh Instalaciones: Mep. Montealban: Woodwork. P&G: General Contractor.
Product Sources: [Living Area] Atra Form: Sofa, Coffee Table, Brass Side Table, Lounge Chairs. Astro: Floor Lamp. Namuh: Wood Side Table, Area Rug. Lago Df: Accent Pillows, Black Blanket. [North Courtyard/Lightwell] Iguzzini: Wall Mounted Floodlights. Prudential: Wall Mounted Linear Fixture. [Dining Area] Atra Form: Table, Chairs, Area Rug. Buschfeld: Pendant Fixtures. [Penthouse Entry] Namuh: Wood Bench. Prudential: Wall Mounted Linear Fixture. [South Courtyard/Lightwell] Iguzzini: Wall Mounted Floodlights. [Kitchen] Buschfeld: Ceiling Fixture. Detaller: Custom Door Pulls. [Guest Room] Atra Form: Bedframe, Side Table. Searchlight Lighting: Table Lamp. Bi Yuu: Rug. [Terrace] Bogus Studio Through Atra Form: Painted Steele Chairs. Atra Form: Custom Teak Table, Custom Bali Beds. Sunbrella: Bed Roll Fabric. Lago Df: Accent Pillows. [Master Suite] Atra Form: Bedframe, Gold-Leaf Cabinet Doors. Flos: Table Lamp. Namuh: Stools, Rug. [Den] Prudential: Wall Mounted Linear Fixture. [Master Bath] Viabizzuno: Shower Head/Light Fixture. Warp & Weft: Indigo Rug. American Standard: Bathtub. Stanza: Bathtub Mixer. [Throughout] Basaltex: Stone Flooring. Vescom: Sheer and Dim-Out Curtain Fabric. ELR: Recessed Ceiling Fixtures.