Craft of Tropical Modernism, an Interview with Mark de Reus, Part 2
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BUILD sits down with Mark de Reus of de Reus Architects to discuss his practice and passion for tropical modernism.
[Mark de Reus by Joe Fletcher]
Last winter BUILD traveled to Hawaii’s Big Island and visited with Mark de Reus of de Reus Architects. We discussed the design strategies of tropical modernism, the challenges of thatched roofs, and why new construction in Hawaii should be blessed by a Hawaiian priest. For Part 1 of our interview, head over to ARCADE Magazine.
[Kaupulehu Beach Club photo by John Russell]
What are the most important ways in which your work has engaged Hawaii’s architectural background?
There is a Hawaiian tradition of keeping things simple and fitting the architecture into the land rather than imposing on the land. In this spirit, our designs treat the land with minimum impact. We try not to over grade so that the architecture can sit on the land carefully.
One of the principles that guides your firm, according to your website, is “maintaining a sense of order while allowing elements of surprise to emerge from honest problem solving.” What is a good example of a problem solving surprise in your work?
Much of that surprise happens in the master planning phase of a project when we’re laying out the building and figuring out how it fits to the land. As we work through the concept stages of the design, an organization comes through about how one enters the site, or wants to live on the land, or experience the environment. From there, we set up the armature of the organization, and then we look at every individual area whether it’s a bedroom or an outdoor living room. We ask ourselves where is the sweet spot of the site, where does the user want to spend the majority of their time. It’s really about picturing yourself there, and this brings its own hierarchy into the design. One influence starts to shape another and an order starts to emerge. Some of the surprises I find most appealing are the discoveries that come about in the play and interaction between symmetry and asymmetry. It can result in a richness in how you experience the place. To me this is exciting, to get these discoveries in the layers of problem solving.
[Kauhale Kai by Joe Fletcher]
Your writings also indicate that the firm’s search is for the meaning of each particular place, expressed and experienced as a unified whole of site, buildings, and landscape. Are there unique methods you use to research a new place?
When I was in college, one of the first things I was drawn to was the work of landscape architect Ian McHarg, who had written a book called Design with Nature, which keyed me into the natural systems that are at play with the land. McHarg’s teachings involved the slopes, drainage and angles of the sun, and set up my architectural career for having a keen awareness of these factors. I’m now intuitively very quick at getting a grasp of a site’s circumstance, including the lay of the land, but I should be after 40 years and hundreds of projects.
[Kaupulehu Beach Club site plan by de Reus Architects]
There is an unconventional form of landscaping at work in projects like the Kaupulehu Beach Club where the lava rock is cleared like you would plow snow to expose the level grade below. Can you talk a bit about the process of working with lava fields?
When I moved to the island in 2000 I was struck by the vast starkness of the environment. The landscape is quite arid and has these long slopes of repose from the volcano. It didn’t immediately fit the connotation most people have about tropical Hawaii and it took me a while to get used to this. In our work, we’re often inserting a little oasis into the lava fields and the landscape architects have a significant role. It’s often desirable to design a lush tropical garden space around the living quarters, but it’s also nice to taper that garden off so that there’s a gradual transition to the arid environment around it — so that it isn’t too abrupt.
[Kaupulehu Beach Club photo by Kyle Rothenborg]
Your portfolio suggests that you’re sought out from all over the world for tropical resort work. While many of these locations could be categorized as “tropical,” what are the challenges of working in diverse cultures such as Mexico, The Bahamas, and East Java?
In these cultures we have to recognize that we’re the visitor, and our design approach is a matter of respecting the place and culture. What we design needs to fit in. The biggest challenge is usually in achieving quality of construction.
Projects in these various places are similar, in that they all involve what we refer to as “designing to first principles.” These include the program, what the clients need, and what we want to do with an architectural direction. The client is coming to us for something tailored to them, and at the same time anticipating a unique architectural expression.
The Punta Sayulita Resort in Mexico prides itself on achieving a “triple bottom line where ultimate success is measured by economic, ecological, and community factors.” Can you elaborate on this concept?
The triple bottom line is a way of measuring the success of a true sustainability model. In the example of Punta Sayulita, economically, a quality project like this will succeed financially; culturally, we designed it so that it felt like an extension of the fabric of Sayulita itself. It was a careful study of scale so that it fit with the existing village and doesn’t call much attention to itself. Ecologically, it was designed to respect the indigenous ecosystems and have a light impact on the land. The project included the protection of the native oil palms, so the structures were quietly tucked into the hillside below, and several hillsides were left as natural parks. These three factors: Economic, Cultural and Environmental form the tripod of the triple bottom line.
[Punta Sayulita Treehouse photo by Petr Myska]
How do your projects benefit the existing communities?
The owners of these projects pay significant property taxes that benefit schools, roads, and infrastructure. But because many of the projects we work on are second or third homes, the owners may only use their house two to four months per year. They’re not using the resources much, yet they are paying significant taxes and the project becomes a sort of benign annuity to the community.
Is it liberating to design in countries where every walkway and stair isn’t required to have a guardrail?
It’s hard to take out the responsibility to safety. I have two children and once you start thinking about the user-friendliness of a design. It’s impossible to ignore. There’s a little more freedom with designing in the places we do, but we constrain ourselves because we still think in terms of western building codes. Many of the buyers are also from America, and they have standards on par with current building codes in the United States.
As an architect, how do you design to stay ahead of what the market wants in terms of resorts, attached condominiums, or detached residences?
It’s not too difficult to perform economic studies based on different models, and developers will often ask us to look at their property and tell them what we’d do. Because of this relationship, we’re sometimes the catalyst for changes in this realm.
[Punta Sayulita Resort photo by Petr Myska]
With the endless design possibilities that must present themselves with luxury vacation homes and high-end resorts, how do you approach the budgeting of a project?
A lot of the homes we design are located within master planned communities and along with that come design guidelines. This usually prescribes a narrow range of design possibilities and may even guide things as specific as the height and pitch of roofs. With that said, we like to have the budget discussion early on. Even if people say there isn’t a budget, there’s always a budget in the back of their mind. It’s expensive to build in Hawaii, everything is imported and there is a limited pool of sub-contractors in any given category. There are only so many good plumbers, and everybody’s really busy, so you get premiums associated with these costs.
In order for us to succeed in the work we do, we have to exceed expectations. First we have to find out what those expectations are and help set them. We often do this by taking clients to past projects to set benchmarks. It’s not a difficult conversation to have if you treat it objectively.
Which books have had a significant influence on your approach to design?
I can identify a few books, but the experience of working with the firm of Backen, Arrigoni & Ross in San Francisco and extensive traveling to places with great architecture like Kyoto, Bali, and Europe have had the most influence on me. I recommend looking at the work of Geoffrey Bawa who worked in Sri Lanka, and Vladimir Ossipoff who worked here in Hawaii. Kerry Hill, who worked for Bawa, has a great book; and The Craftsman by Richard Sennett is also a wonderful book.
[Punta Sayulita photo by Petr Myska]
Mark de Reus is the founding design partner of de Reus Architects, an award-winning architecture firm based in Hawai’i. He has been widely recognized for his designs of resorts and residences. His portfolio also includes clubhouses, spas, restaurants and mixed-use projects. He has been recognized as one of the world’s top 100 architects and designers by Architectural Digest. His first book, Tropical Experience Architecture + Design, gives readers an in-depth look at a number of Mark’s most celebrated designs.