Modern in the City
Building on a Central Phoenix infill lot puts a pair of design professionals in the middle of it all.
By Katherine Adomaitis | Photography by Christiaan Blok
The elegantly modern structure presents a blank face to the street. Visitors approach via an exposed aggregate path, scored with lighting strips, then enter through a rust-patinated gate, which reveals a series of walls interspersed with open slots, allowing glimpses into a central courtyard beyond. A pivoting glass front door is hidden just around the corner.
This entry sequence is just one of the many thoughtful details in the home of Dora Castillo and Rafael Castro. But perhaps the most telling “detail” of all is that the home isn’t located on a tony lot in North Scottsdale or Paradise Valley. Instead, the house sits in the midst of a modest neighborhood in Central Phoenix. It’s an infill project—a reflection of the couple’s personal and professional missions.
Dora and Rafael—an architect and architectural designer, respectively, from Mexicali, Mexico—met while studying at the Universidad Autonoma de Baja California and found inspiration in the bold architecture of Mexican modernists Ricardo Legorreta and Luis Barragán, as well as traditional hacienda designs found in both their native country and Spain. They moved to Phoenix to expand their professional horizons, founded their own design/build firm and, after several years of working on standard residential projects, they discovered a Recession-era niche via the Neighborhood Stabilization Program, a federally funded, city-run program that spurred the renovation of distressed homes throughout Phoenix.
“Our company was selected to rehab homes in Central Phoenix,” Rafael explains. “Once a home was fixed and stabilized, it had a positive, domino effect on the neighborhood. We were helping out the community. We probably refurbished more than 100 homes through the program.”
Along the way, the couple became smitten with infill and the perks of urban living. “We became so connected with this community,” recalls Dora. “We were always here for First Fridays, concerts and trying out new restaurants.” When it came time to build their own home, they ditched their digs in Buckeye and bought an empty lot not far from Steele Indian School Park.
Responding to their site, which was flanked by an older home on one side and another empty lot on the other, Rafael and Dora decided to internalize the house—that is, maintain privacy from the neighbors and street through a series of blank walls while opening up interior views to two courtyards. In plan, the 2,400-square-foot, crisp, white, minimalist house angles around the front courtyard, with two bedrooms and a bath in one wing for the couple’s young adult daughters, who visit regularly; a central core that includes the living and dining areas, kitchen and a studio; and another wing for the master suite. A back courtyard connects the house to the freestanding garage, which also includes a bar and guest quarters.
The designers and homeowners drew inspiration from Mexican architect Luis Barragán.
Banks of window walls connect the interiors to the two courtyards and flood the home with natural light, as do a series of north-facing clerestory windows above the kitchen and the master bedroom’s seating alcove, where the ceiling heights rise to 15 feet, creating a sense of volume. Polished, ground concrete flooring keeps things simple throughout.
The couple designed numerous custom touches for the house, both inside and out. An open metal grate just beyond the entry door is the place to wipe your shoes; below the grate, Rafael placed a special stone from Hawaii. “You can clean your feet, and the stone helps cleanse your soul,” he explains. A glass bridge, suspended above grade, links the living areas to the master suite, signifying a transition between public and private spaces. The master suite’s barn door was crafted from old fencing, recycled from other projects, and, in the master closet, two movable metal wardrobes glide on tracks to hide clothes and reveal a full-length mirror.
In the front courtyard, a scupper from the roofline pours water into the dual basins of the rusted metal fountain below. The back courtyard’s water feature a series of recycled, old-fashioned faucets; a linear flame fills the center of the eye-catching element. In the garage, the bar was constructed from leftover shipping palettes for building materials
For furnishings, the couple started from scratch, mixing in new contemporary pieces with some vintage midcentury finds. “We decided that we didn’t need a lot of things for this house,” says Dora, “so we kept it simple, using a lot of white, but mixing in some metal and wood.”
In the living room, a white leather sofa and two vintage side chairs anchor the space, which is highlighted by a painting by the homeowners’ friend and Phoenix Home & Garden Masters of the Southwest award-winning artist Gennaro Garcia. The dining table is surrounded by a gathering of Charles Eames-inspired molded plastic chairs. Chrome and wood bar stools serve as a counterpoint to the kitchen’s white lacquer cabinetry and quartz countertops. In the master bedroom, a sleek custom wood and metal bed and nightstands float out from the wall, while an antique travel trunk—suspended on an industrial pulley—serves as a rustic counterpoint.
Once the house was completed, the couple settled into the neighborhood, taking advantage of local attractions and the ability to ride bikes to their nearby office. When Dora and Rafael are home, doors to the courtyards are open, inviting breezes and the soothing sounds of the fountains. They often host parties, cooking for large groups in the kitchen and throwing open the glass garage door to connect the bar to the back courtyard. Empty wine bottles, their contents once enjoyed by family and friends, have been recycled into pendants above the bar, and, before guests leave, they’re encouraged to sign the back of the solid garage door, which accesses the alley. “It’s our guest book,” says Dora.
Perhaps the best part of the house, though, is reached by climbing up a custom spiral staircase. There, on the roof deck atop the garage, the couple has views of city lights, skyscrapers and distant mountains. “We like to be up here on the Fourth of July,” says Rafael. “The view of fireworks is spectacular.”