Part of what makes architectural optical illusions so fun is the sheer size of them. Outside of extensive installations, few museum pieces can really compete with an illusory work of art as monumental as a building. It’s especially gratifying when the buildings are actually functional, too, and not just decorative objects to look at.
The Bed & Breakfast Santulan is one such project, set in the desert of Baja California, Mexico. Completed in 2019 and designed by architecture firm Santos Bolívar, this scattering of structures combines vernacular and modern aesthetics and materials into a seamless whole that feels fully at home in its surroundings. Made of rammed earth bricks, the upper parts of each volume have a more traditional appearance, and when viewed from afar, they seem to be floating above the sand and cacti below.
But each of these buildings is actually set upon a faceted, mirrored modern plinth, which themselves reflect various scenes around the property. Depending on the angle of the facet, that might be the red earth, the blue sky, or the faint gray mountains. Floating concrete staircases connect the buildings to the ground, and a long walkway leads into a striking subterranean geodesic dome conceived as a place for meditation.
“Santulan” means “balance” in Hindi, explains lead architect José Antonio de los Santos Bolívar, and that word is the guiding concept used for the development of the entire complex. The architect wanted the hotel to be both a tourist destination and an example of a culture of respect and balance with the ecosystem, both from visitors and from the architecture itself.
“We wanted to break with the architectural typology of a hotel that develops its services within a same volumetric body. [A]fter incessantly analyzing the site and its geographical and natural qualities, we made the decision to project its architectural program in different buildings interconnected by means of walkways that interact directly with nature and are architects of an invitation to live different spiritual and architectural experiences. [We also attempted] to make these walkers the result of the analysis of the traces of the OM mantra symbol, a part of an integral design that seeks the balance between architecture, nature, mind, and spirit.”
In addition to using blocks of compacted earth as a main building material, the hotel includes other ecologically sensitive features like greywater recycling wetlands, a fog catcher tower to capture water from the air, low-maintenance green roofs planted with native grasses, an organic orchard, low-water landscaping, and a natural cross-ventilation system. All of these considerations add to the peaceful and low-impact atmosphere of the hotel, which is augmented by the unusual nature of its reflective architecture.
Bed & Breakfast Santulan is the architect’s second project in Baja California’s Valle de Guadalupe. The first was the Media Perra Brewery, which uses similar materials alongside strategically folded metal facades that help shade the interiors from the harsh desert sun. The adobe blocks seen in this 2014 project are a trademark of the native Kumiai people who live nearby. Both projects achieve a sense of harmony with the landscape and traditions of the area, as well as the era in which they’re being built.