Latin Accents

Emily Young is a frequent contributor to the magazine.

Architect Robin Donaldson’s clients had a drop-dead gorgeous view of the Pacific. No problem there. But instead of the run-down Chinese-style home it came with, the couple dreamed of owning a modern house that evoked the wife’s Mexican roots. The challenge was infusing the project with south-of-the-border character without resorting to north-of-the-border cliches.

Fortunately, Mexico’s rich architectural heritage provided ample inspiration. And so down came the old home and up went a series of stark geometric forms as monumental and mysterious as any Mayan pyramid. “This house is contemporary in the spirit of the buildings by Luis Barragan and Ricardo Legorreta,” Donaldson says. “There are big volumes, but also a warmth and casual elegance that are Latin in flavor.”

The massive two-story house, in Hope Ranch in Santa Barbara, is on a hilltop, and nearly every room takes advantage of the vista. A quarter of the south-facing exterior is glass, offering dramatic views of the sea and sky.

Donaldson, who is based in Santa Barbara, collaborated on the design with his partner, Russell Shubin, who supervises the Culver City office of their practice, Shubin + Donaldson Architects. In turn, they teamed up with Jorge Adler of Adler Arquitectos in Mexico City, whose contributions to the project included finding Mexican craftsmen to fabricate custom doors, flooring and ironwork. “Jorge enabled us to incorporate detailing we wouldn’t have gotten otherwise,” Donaldson says.


The clients, a retired couple with two grown children and young grandchildren, previously had made do in a 1970s tract house outside Goleta. But on their new three-acre site, they wanted a larger home in which to host family reunions and charity gatherings and to enjoy their collection of Latin paintings and other artwork, much of which had been in storage.

Today the homeowners have about 8,000 square feet of living space, plus a four-car garage and a pool pavilion with an exercise room and sauna. “We’re on the coast and I’m sensitive to the cold, so it’s very nice to have an indoor pool,” says the husband, who swims daily.

Because the back of the house faces the water and the road, visitors approach via a long driveway that sweeps uphill and past the rear garden before ending at the front entrance. The motor court’s square concrete pavers underscore the facade’s rigorous angularity, softened by grass and king palms that lend a tropical note.

Bold gray walls finished with rough-textured plaster are 18 inches thick, devoid of ornament and exposed to the baking sun. Inside, however, any similarity to a fortress vanishes. Spacious but intimately scaled rooms of smooth stone and lustrous wood are cool and inviting, enlivened by the play of light through floor-to-ceiling glass. “We were going for a sense of solidity, something sculptural, but also a certain serenity and spirituality,” Donaldson says.


The most dramatic part of the house is the jaw-dropping view through the double front doors. A backyard reflecting pool capitalizes on the spectacular setting, its infinity edge creating the illusion of waves lapping against the building. “The sunsets in this house are straight out of Hollywood,” the husband says.

The entry offers a preview of the restrained palette of natural materials that the architects repeated throughout the house. Walls are pale French limestone, floors are polished Mexican travertine and, overhead, a bridge, fashioned from glass and Mexican tzalam--a reddish hardwood--links the master bedroom suite and home office.

Elsewhere, there are subtle references to traditional Mexican architecture. The striped floor of the wide central hall mirrors the exposed wood beams above. The sleek kitchen sits under a deeply coffered ceiling, which is echoed in similarly grid-like niches for art pottery in the den and for towels in the master bathroom.

Festive color is used judiciously, most notably in a long corridor that curves from the house to the pool pavilion. One side of the passageway is glass, while the other is orange plaster. In the pavilion, the lap pool stretches 75 feet along a blue wall animated by shadows from three large skylights.


“This house was a bit of a departure for us,” Donaldson says. “It represents an attempt to distill ideas down to the most basic elements. The massing is simpler. The material vocabulary is more formal.” Adds Shubin: “It’s home as a place to reflect and get centered. What’s important is its experiential quality.” The result is a purity of forms that is disciplined yet relaxed.


Resource Guide

Shubin + Donaldson Architects, Santa Barbara, (805) 966-2802; Culver City, (310) 204-0688. Jorge Adler, Adler Arquitectos, Mexico City, 52-55-5251 3391,