A conversation with the Architect

Brian R. Neumann, AIA, is known in San Francisco as "the architect's architect". For more than 20 years, Neumann has worked on some of the bay area's most renowned residences. As Encanto's chief designer and supervising architect, Neumann is manifesting his vision of tropical luxury with a warm, classical aesthetic.

Q. What is your design concept for Encanto?

A. Encanto is a marriage of what works and what's beautiful. What works -- and has worked for decades -- are two styles specifically indigenous to Costa Rica, and those are the estate homes of the highland coffee barons and the lowland fruit plantations. Those designers were incredibly astute at capturing every prevailing breeze and protecting occupants from the tropical sun. To that basic vocabulary we've added a more appropriate sense of proportion, open layouts, and pulled in the diffuse light of sunup and sundown. Next, we employ more durable materials and structural engineering with finer finishes. And of course we have certain amenities.

Movement was also very important. I want residents to move easily inside their homes and be drawn into the environment. Hopefully, people will feel the pull outdoors. For example, the terraces are integral to the primary living areas, there are paths that lead off to shaded gazebos and venture beyond into the jungle, where there are benches and lookout shelters. In this way, a living space that's defined as one or two thousand square feet can live much larger. The residences themselves are also designed for the movement of people, of the breeze, of the light, so that people experience it differently at different times, or in different moods, and it's always exciting.

Q. So what do you call this style?

A. I knew you'd ask me that, and I have a hard time labeling things. The air, light, and the water that are unique to this part of the world, and it's into this environment that we designed Encanto's residences. We are not building in one style throughout Encanto. We are extraordinarily site-specific, so what works at the edge of a hilltop is all wrong if it's nestled in the jungle. The goal is integration into the environment.

Miradores is obviously more influenced by the Hacienda movement that spread from Spain to Costa Rica's coffee plantations. There is a lot of movement in Miradores, the staggered angles of the footprint, the intersecting roof lines, these keep the scale down, so that what is essentially a large house feels smaller and more intimate. Miradores was designed around the view, so that when you first enter the building, one looks through an extra-wide hallway and the gaze falls upon the beach at Zancudo. It takes your breath away. And of course all the units have the same spectacular view.

Aguas Verdes is inspired by the lowland plantation homes of the pineapple barons, but we gave it a thoroughly modern twist, literally, by bending it at a not-quite 45 degree angle and hanging the building off a bisecting stone wall. So, while it's a duplex, everyone has the utmost in privacy. Aguas Verdes is the personal favorite of our local engineer, who calls it "preciosa". It's a special site.

Q. How are your designs different from what we've seen in other parts of Costa Rica?

A. There are some exquisitely designed single family homes and resorts in Costa Rica. When it comes to combining residences into a multi-family community, designs get watered down and prefabricated concrete construction gets repeated. There is no such thing as a cookie-cutter site, or a cookie-cutter family, so why should someone live in a cookie-cutter layout? Encanto's designs are distinct for each site, for the angles of the changing light, the views, the movement of the breezes. I also stayed away from the whole faux-Spanish nouveau-Mexiterranean look.

Q. How did you get involved with Encanto?

A. I've come down here surfing for a few years and bought a piece of property close to my favorite break. The seller of this property had an idea for a an intimate, eco-friendly community, something high on beautiful design and low on density. The proposal was an architect's dream, "if you design it, we'll build it." I'm a full partner in the development team, so I don't have to worry about designs getting watered down, and we can maintain our architectural integrity.

Q. And now that the designs for phase one are finished...?

A. ...oh yes, the construction begins. I personally work with the crews on-site, we just don't turn over blueprints and walk away. Encanto is as much about craftsmanship as it is about design. I've built my practice in a part of the world where Craftsman homes set the standard. Architects like Maybeck and Greene understood that we, as architects, have to work hand-in-glove with the crews. A beautifully designed home is only a top notch machine for living when the architect understands construction. I've always been in the field, I don't sit behind my drawing board all day.

Q. What's next at Encanto?

A. Phase two will be a single family home and two duplexes. Each of the sites inspires a unique response. For example, right now I'm sketching a design for La Primera, which will have a private garden courtyard off the master bedroom. My whole office is wall papered in sketches, it's chaotic but that's the process.