Words by Charlotte Jansen
Andres Saavedra is sitting at a table at Loot – a three-storey cultural complex, with a cafe and lifestyle store on the ground floor, a gallery and barber on the second, and a fine dining restaurant – that later on often turns into a club, with regular DJs spots and a dancefloor among the tables – on the top. Saavedra isn’t a typical architect – and he seems far too relaxed – but he is clearly passionate about an experimental approach, which incorporates culture, art and leisure.
I’ve been watching Saavedra at work over a couple of weeks, in the idyllic tropical town of Zihuatanejo, Guerrero, Mexico’s Pacific coast. ‘Zihua’, as it’s known locally, has a population of around 105,000, with a fluctuating tourist population throughout the year. Saavedra grew up on a farm on the outskirts of Mexico City and moved here almost 17 years ago. It’s obvious that the pace here suits him, and over the years, he’s become an expert in building in these biodiverse conditions.
“When I was 11 we came here on a family trip. It was so green and lush, and it was almost empty back then. It was as if my parents had taken me to the moon – and I wanted to live there,” Saavedra tells me. Now 39, Saavedra is remarkably unassuming for someone who has done so many major projects and has even bigger ones in store. In addition to designing and building Loot, Saavedra has renovated and built extravagant private homes, small guesthouses and restaurants across the area, mostly for clients from the US and Canada who come to Zihua for months at a time. His current focus is Musa – a new “city,” on an uninhabited stretch of land. They hope to start working on it in January. “It’s really a dream project,” Saavedra enthuses. A building could take three years, or more, and is planned to include a hotel and private villas, fully equipped workshops and studios, for a community of creatives.
The son of an architect, who he describes as “truly a genius,” Saavedra at first pushed back against his Father’s profession. “I was curious about my Dad’s trade, but I saw all the negative aspects of it.”
Instead, he moved into the city centre and set up a commercial photography studio. “It was really fun for a while,” he reflects. He kept practising architecture and construction, but only after he moved to Zihua did it become his focus. The years he spent working in photography, observing and looking at aesthetics have clearly informed his eye as an architect and designer. Spending times in his buildings, the views are always cinematic: clean lines and minimalistic materials frame the naturally beautiful surrounding landscapes. “I want to tell a story, but in a way that people still feel comfortable in the space,” Saavedra says. Part of that narrative is also told through the materials: concrete, locally-sourced wood, and stone, “traditional Mexican materials but applied with a more contemporary feel,” as he puts it. The vibrant green colours of palms and coconuts, with pops of colour from blossom, is then left to do it’s own magic.
Working in paradise isn’t without its challenges. “It’s a remote area; there’s no access to a lot of things, so it makes you really crafty.” He explains. “It taught me how to use what we have around. We started to design furniture, to cut rocks and make custom carpentry – that process was really cool.”
Loot, where mostly Mexican and foreign tourists mingle and enjoy brunch, or dinner and dancing upstairs, was founded to “bring optimism to the area,” following the 2008 financial crisis, which saw many residents moving out and businesses closing up in Zihua. “There wasn’t anything related to music or the arts happening,” Saavedra tells me, “and paradise without the other elements can get a little boring.” Loot’s programme of music and art, as well as coffee and food, and a stock of surfboards, organic cotton clothing, and swimwear, mostly imported from California, has certainly filled that gap, but still at a slower pace than in the city. It’s feel is definitely youthful, but it seems to attract all kinds of customers. It’s also brought opportunities to the area that didn’t exist before – especially at the architecture studio, where local students come to do apprenticeships, and experimental ideas are encouraged. “They don’t need to live and leave somewhere else now; they have outlets here. I think that’s super important, to be able to be successful in the places that we’re from.”
Zihua’s social fabric is complex. Most of the local population are poor and live in pockets downtown or in the Doce de Marzo neighbourhood and the hills above it, while the tourist population come in and out of La Ropa, the main beach strip, with its tourist-oriented restaurants and a mix of mid to high-end hotels.
“One of the most important things for us was to be inclusive in every single sense,” Saavedra says of Loot. He and his team also established an annual international longboard competition, Mexilog festival, “to involve as many people as possible and bring something else to the area.” It takes place in nearby Saladita, a well-known surf spot, where Saavedra also opened a cafe spot.
“Gentrifying certain areas here was necessary, to make everything better for everyone,” he says, when I ask him how you can introduce places like Loot in Zihua without dividing a town that seems already split economically and geographically. In Ixtapa, the town next to Zihua, most of the coast has been carved up and sealed off with large, all-inclusive resorts. “That’s sad; it needs to be spread for everyone.”
Saavedra envisions a better world and is committed to creating it. Collaboration is key, as well as supporting other creatives on their journey. “I think that’s really important – for peace; it’s the only thing that could save us, and put us on the right track.