THE ROAD TO CASA WABI runs from the sun-beaten town of Puerto Escondido along a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean, where surfers try their luck on the 10-foot curl of the punishing "Mexican Pipeline." As it veers northwest toward Acapulco, half-finished construction projects loom on either side before giving way to fields of mango and papaya trees and lily-pad-choked ponds. In Hidalgo, a village of cinder block and corrugated-metal houses, it turns onto a pitted dirt track. And just before reaching the waves, the track dead-ends into a massive wall that cuts parallel to the ocean across the dunes. From end to end, the barrier, made of silky gray concrete, is nearly as long as three football fields.
This is Casa Wabi, a series of structures governed by the utopian principles of its owner, Mexican-born, Brooklyn-based artist Bosco Sodi. Sodi sees the complex—which is set to open at the end of this month and features an 8,000-square-foot art gallery and several studios—as a creative refuge for fellow artists, an educational facility for the local community and a temple to the minimalist designs of one of his heroes, the Japanese architect Tadao Ando, who designed everything from the swimming pool to the furniture.
The courtship between artist and architect began with faxes. While undertaking a residency in Tokyo in the mid-2000s, Sodi became a fan of Ando's brutally poetic concrete structures, as well as the wabi-sabi philosophy that inspires them—a Japanese way of thought that prizes humility and austerity and finds beauty in imperfection. Sodi asked if Ando would consider designing a studio for him. "We are very busy," came the response from the architect.
As he shuttled between Berlin, Barcelona, Mexico City (where his wife, Lucia Corredor, runs a mid-century design boutique called Decada) and Brooklyn (where their three children attend elementary school), Sodi continued to petition Ando—who typically will not decide on a commission until he's met with the potential client in person. Then, in 2006, his father, Juan Sodi, a chemical engineer and property developer, came across this 90-acre plot of land—a rough stretch of deserted beach, wedged between the ocean, farm fields and the craggy mountains—where Bosco could envision a Zen-like respite from the competitive, fast-paced contemporary art world, as well as a retreat for his family. In an effort to convince the architect to take on the project, he trekked to Los Angeles—along with a mutual friend, gallerist Kazuhito Yoshii—to present his plan (as well as aerial images and photographs) to Ando. At last, the architect was intrigued.
"The site presents a very grand contrast, with the endless beach view on one side and the mountain view on the other," says Ando, 72. "This project was rich in identity despite its many challenges." Undaunted by the lack of local infrastructure and the remoteness of the site, Ando instead found the prospect of working with Oaxacan traditions and the striking landscape appealing. "I am always seeking new challenges and want to create something unique with each project."
For Sodi, the monastic compound and the arts foundation are a manifestation of wabi-sabi. (The word wabi, which inspired the compound's name, translates roughly as "humility," while sabi means, essentially, a patina.) The simple, open design confronts the natural elements of sun, sky, water and land, encouraging visitors to lapse into Thoreau-like reflection. The compound is intended to gradually change over time as the small sculpture garden accumulates work and visitors interact with the environments, which also include a botanical garden showcasing local species as well as two studios for visiting artists. Ando himself doesn't view this project as particularly wabi-sabi, however, saying that his structure will be defined by visitors' individual reactions.
Whatever Ando's reasons for accepting, Sodi is thrilled to be working with him. "As much as Ando wants to build, I am trying to support it," says the 43-year-old artist, grinning.
Since he was a teenager, Sodi has visited the countryside near Puerto Escondido, where he has ancestral ties, and which is now known mainly for its strong surf, lush landscape and the laid-back types that both attract. The location provides inspiration and material for his artwork—three-dimensional, wall-mounted pieces that incorporate thick strata of vivid green, blue and red pigment mixed with sawdust from indigenous trees. "There is a special energy and a sense of fulfillment when you are here," says Sodi, who is currently preparing for upcoming shows at Brooklyn's Pioneer Works gallery and Galería Hilario Galguera in Mexico City as well as a sculpture installation at the Bronx Museum of the Arts and the publication of a retrospective of his work.
Of the four million residents of the state of Oaxaca, an underdeveloped region that scrapes by on a modest tourist industry, more than half live in poverty. Apart from bringing world-class contemporary architecture to an area where it's in short supply, Sodi envisions a radical, immersive educational program flourishing at Casa Wabi. "The children in these communities have no contact with art. The idea is to bring them to see the studios, the nursery, the gardens and to open their understanding of life," says Sodi, who anticipates receiving classrooms of students from kindergarten through university age as well as women from regional cooperatives to explore the grounds, partake in a film program and interact with artists. "I want them to see a Daniel Buren sculpture and think, 'Why is this art?' And then they might think, 'I can do this.' "
Along with Patricia Martín, an independent curator who is running the foundation, he is in the process of securing state funding, in addition to sponsorship from companies including Deutsche Bank. (He is paying for Casa Wabi's construction and the daily expenses of running the compound himself.) He will ask the artists he hosts to participate as well. "I'm a true believer, without sounding romantic, that one has to give something back. Now that artists are doing well—we are very lucky guys—we should do something," says Sodi, whose canvases sell at auction for more than $100,000.
"The program will bring together two worlds that don't usually coexist: renowned artists and members of developing communities," says Martín, whom Sodi hired on the recommendation of his friend, contemporary art collector Eugenio López Alonso. (Martín managed López's Mexico City–based Colección Jumex for eight years.) "The hope is that it will become a relevant community center where the learning experience goes both ways. This will be a social project carried out through art."
ON A SCORCHING MIDSUMMER DAY, with the opening date fast approaching, the main palapa roof over the living quarters has yet to be built (rain-swollen rivers delayed the necessary tree trunks from being floated down from the mountains), and the main gallery, which will open with a Buren exhibition, is still a tangle of rebar. Even the kitchen does not yet exist. Sodi, in scuffed sneakers, a T-shirt and soccer shorts, is alternately pacing, giving orders to workers climbing rustic scaffolding and fishing drinks from a cooler while his children, wife and mother, Loti, paddle in the immense pool situated perpendicular to the waves just yards away. Two Pointer puppies and a Westie dash past a volcanic rock sculpture coated in red glaze that was the result of an experiment in a kiln—"I wanted to see if the stone would explode," says Sodi. (His friend Damien Hirst has five such glazed rocks by Sodi in his personal collection.) The family is virtually camping here so that Sodi can personally oversee the final stages of construction to Ando's exacting standards. (Alex Iida, Ando's project manager, has already visited five times from Japan since the project began in 2011, and Mexican architect Alfonso Quiñones relocated from Mexico City to act as on-site supervisor.)
"Ambitious doesn't cover it," says Marc Glimcher, president of Pace, Sodi's New York gallery. "Frankly, I thought Bosco was nuts at first."
The architect's most striking gesture is the 341-yard-long wall that bisects the terrain between the dunes and the foot of the mountain range, effectively dividing the public and private spaces and punctuated only by a couple of doorways and small openings that evoke medieval-style arrow slits. Its span serves to emphasize the ocean horizon and the dramatic mountaintops. Using concrete to sublime effect is a trademark of Ando's work, whether the Richard Serra–esque walls of his Water Temple on Awaji Island, Japan, or the circular sweep of designer Tom Ford's riding ring at his ranch in Santa Fe, New Mexico. (The length of this particular wall prompts Corredor to joke, "It's like going to the neighbor's house to pick up the kids. We might need walkie-talkies.")
On the beach side, the main living quarters and a great room open on one side to the pool and, beyond that, the water. Facing the mountains are the studios as well as a to-be-completed art gallery and Sodi's own studio. There is a circuitous path that leads visitors to the botanical garden showcasing indigenous species like the red-barked papelillo tree and the cactus-scattered sculpture garden. Two one-room meditation structures, which look like sculptures themselves, reveal naturally illuminated interiors that recall Ando's magnificent Church of the Light, in Ibaraki, Japan.
Six individual villas hugging the edge of the Pacific will house the artists (the program is already booked through May 2015; residencies will last up to three months). In order to encourage visiting artists to "get the soul-searching of the place," as he puts it, Sodi requested that Ando make their living quarters as ascetic as possible. Accordingly, the one-room structures are furnished sparingly with mid-century pieces from Corredor's store and custom-made teak furniture she created in collaboration with Ando's team—the placement of which, like similar furniture in the main quarters, was approved by Ando.
Work by friends, such as a pair of antlers by sculptor Michael Joo, already populates the compound. Joo will also be attending the residency program, along with Mickalene Thomas, poet James Fenton and Teresita Fernández. "I am looking forward to experiencing the unique balance of nature and incredible architecture that is being created there," says Joo. "I'm planning to let the place dictate [what I work on]."
"Bosco is a social innovator who sees the big picture," says another friend, artist Ugo Rondinone, who has visited the site. "With the Casa Wabi project, he is presenting a challenge that brings people together around a shared sense of purpose."
Although Sodi's artist peers applaud the program, establishing the center has been a dance of diplomacy with Casa Wabi's neighbors. "The people around here are suspicious of outsiders," says Sodi. "So many promises have been made to them over the years." In response, he and Martín have waged an ad hoc marketing campaign, meeting with local leaders to explain their ideas.
Sodi's passion for the project seems to be part of what is winning everyone over. "I really admire his determination," says Eugenio López Alonso. "Nothing will stop him. He is putting all his money into this project and creating something that will be significant for years to come." (Sodi created a so-called bulletproof trust ensuring that his children will not sell Casa Wabi and must continue the foundation's work.)
To further integrate the new foundation into the surrounding communities, Sodi and Martín have commissioned a study of all the artisans within a 60-mile radius. Their hope is that visiting artists will work with local craftsmen, spurring symbiotic innovation.
Already, Ando and his team have juxtaposed local palapa roofs with his über-modern structures. "I used palapa in order to preserve the identity of the local culture and the local landscape," says Ando, who had never worked with the material before, but points out the similarity to kayabuki, traditional Japanese thatching. Even the concrete is fundamentally native: "It's the result of the nature that surrounds the house," he says. "All the ingredients are from local areas; it is mixed on site by local hands and carried bucket by bucket to pour it into the framework. The proof of the passion from every single worker who was involved is evident."
The workers' imprint can also be seen in perhaps the most wabi-sabi element at the compound—a nearly 30-foot-long dining table crafted from a single, giant trunk of a local parota tree. Sodi, who believes deeply in the value of the Mexican practice of sobremesa—convivial hours spent philosophizing, joking and talking after a meal—designed the table himself with that in mind. "Artists are often very solitary and must be forced to come together," he says. Prior to its move inside Casa Wabi, it was set up under a makeshift tent on the construction site for all to use. "I wanted it to have its own history, not be a perfect, varnished table," explains Sodi. "At the end, this is more than a house. It's an art piece."