The San Pancho La Patrona Beach Club

I have already distributed my own commentaries on the mishkan and the tale of the golden calf as well as my daughter’s commentary on the relationship of the two. What does a beach club in San Pancho, Mexico, have to do with the mishkan discussed and described at great length in Exodus (400 verses in all, almost six times as many as those devoted to the Temple in Jerusalem)? You likely cannot answer that question because, even if you have bothered to read in the Torah the detailed instructions on how the mishkan was built, for the vast majority of my readers it is highly unlikely that they have even been to San Pancho let alone seen or read about the La Patrona Beach Club, one of the most beautiful structures that I have ever seen or been in.

At first glance, a beach club juxtaposed against the mishkan may seem improbable. Though both display luxury, it is for radically different purposes. A beach club is dedicated to hedonism, to the pleasures and joys of the beauty and bounty that we owe to nature. The mishkan was dedicated to sacrifice, to the recognition of a possible world, to ethics and law rather than aesthetics for its own sake. In the mishkan, we sacrifice the best food we nurture and grow to God who lacks a mouth and a digestive system to consume that food. It is truly a sacrifice because the best food is offered, but it is given no material worth. And that is the point of the sacrifice. In contrast, a quality beach club generally promises fantastic dining that appeals to all our senses.

For example, the Beach Club and Resort in Parksville on Vancouver Island’s east coast on the site of the historic Island Hall Resort offers spectacular views out across the Pacific Ocean and of the mountains. It has a seaside pool, hot tub, Stonewater Spa and fitness centre. Like most good beach clubs, it is dedicated to the worship of the healthy and beautiful body.

What is perhaps just as or even more important is its architecture as an expression of place, more particularly what has become known as West Coast style. Given the role of trees in the temperate rain forest that is British Columbia, the West Coast style is most marked by its use of post and beam construction. By exposing its timber structural members, it offers an explicit identification with a particular and special place on this earth. At the same time, there is a worship of light in the use of skylights and extensive glazing. Horizontally, it offers a sense of unity and connectedness among functions with the use of an open floor plan in places and spaces that bring people together. There is also the explicit connection between the interior and the exterior, between human habitation and the natural world outside. This is emphasized by the use of wood finishes in both the interior and exterior facades. Buildings are oriented to ensure maximum exposure to the beautiful views and vistas. And our eyes project outward to the vast sea as the mountains rise to tower over the flat roof designs in the West Coast style.

West Coast style also expresses a particular time, generally the thirty years between 1945 and 1975 when that style was at its pinnacle as British Columbians insisted on their own pride and exceptionalism in this world as their architecture became a reflection of the local landscape and climate. The decline in the pre-eminence of West Coast design was first adumbrated by Arthur Erickson, one of the foremost architects who placed his own signature on the West Coast style, when, in the design of Simon Fraser University, he turned towards globalist brutalist architecture as its defining motif in trying to dominate its perch on a mountain in Burnaby rather than seamlessly fitting into it.  Subsequently, British Columbian architecture has at least thankfully turned toward globalist modernism, but that has seemingly made the West Coast style appear parochial and passé.

I put forth this brief summary of the Beach Club and Resort in Parksville as both a foil for my description of the San Pancho La Patrona Beach Club, but also to point out similarities. The main difference is that the B.C. facility used post and beam construction while the La Patrona Beach Club (LPBC) combined the internationalist modernist style with a traditional Mexican palapa, but one that was architecturally unique and outstanding, transforming the traditional palapa into a modernist expression. To get a glimpse of that structure, look at:

Palapa is a word of Tagalog origin. Any of the Philippine nannies who worked for us in the past when our children were young would easily recognize the term that has been incorporated into Spanish. The genesis of the word may come from the far Pacific, but its architectural expression is viewed as indigenous to Mexico and viewed worldwide as one of the most important architectural contributions of West Mexican culture.

A palapa refers to the petiole of the palm leaf, that is, the long stalk that attaches the palm leaves to the stem of a palm tree. This long stalk and its attached leaves are dried and used to form the thatched roof of open-sided dwellings called palapas worldwide. In hot weather regions, they are terrific in providing shade yet protection from heavy rains in the rainy season of most tropical countries. They are also viewed as ecologically sustainable based on the use of local materials available. Aesthetically, they are also seen as combining simplicity and rustic charm at the same time.

The huge palapa of the LPBC raises rustic charm to high style, especially in the context of all the modernist elements. It does so first by height. I estimate that the palapa of the LPBC to be about 50 feet high. Secondly the pillars that hold up the palapa consist of a combination of bamboo stocks of virtually equal dimensions that have been filled with material to provide stability. They are wrapped together to provide a column. They are quite a contrast with the pseudo-Greek columns that hold up the palapa in the house we are renting in San Pancho. In the LPBC, the bamboo stalks wrapped together simulate a tree that holds up the thatched roof, with the branches flayed out to serve as trusses.

Instead of a pastiche that replicates classical structures using local materials and styles, the architect has created a unique modernist pillar that pays homage to the area in which it has been constructed and its natural materials that are easily available. The reality, however, is that the stalks were imported at great expense from New Zealand and then sent to Costa Rica to be bent in precisely the needed way through the use of steam. Thus, instead of a pastiche of classicism and the rustic that is explicitly imitative in what I would regard as creating an unearned sense of gravitas and history to complement local charm, as in the house we rent, we are offered a very modernist expression of the local even though it is dependent on foreign sources and the technology of nearby states.

Thus, as with the Vancouver Island beach club, local climate and the landscape squeezed between the wide expanse of the Pacific Ocean and the forested mountains, LPBC’s forested mountains are jungles and not a temperate rain forest. Hence, the choice of a very different support material and, most importantly, an absence of glazing and skylights. Instead, glass is used as a separation and reflective material rather than as a protection against outside elements. For example, on the evening we were there, there was an art exhibit in which the colours of the paintings included all the bright greens, red, oranges and yellows of traditional Mexican art and the paintings were reflected through the glass and from a very shallow reflecting pool to make it appear that the hanging paintings were reflected on the imaginary level below. Further, the hanging blown glass large bulbs serving as lights appear like huge coloured droplets swaying to the ocean breezes from the ocean side of the palapa.

The floor plan of LPBC was, like its Vancouver Island parallel, open, but the openness extended towards the sand beach and the ocean and the sand beach itself was replicated in one area as floor material in LPBC. In other words, interior and exterior spaces were even much more integrated than even in the West Coast style.

As one example that can be viewed in the picture cited above, there is a high separation wall within the palapa that divides the professional kitchen from the dining area. It is unique in that its covering consists of ceramic folded rectangles bolted in place to give the effect of waves rising vertically. To add to that effect, in the openings behind and between the ceramic “tile” pieces, there are additional cup-like pieces that I believe were other tile pieces, but brightly coloured to suggest the deep blues and reds and various bright colours of a coral reef beneath the surface. Perhaps this was intended to suggest that the food being prepared behind the white-wave wall was as exotic and colourful as anything found in the deep sea.

Whereas the usually stained wood finishes in both the interior and exterior of the Vancouver Island structure were often stained dark, the wood finishes on the outside LPFC wall on the road side appeared as light almost blond vertical strips. In contrast, the dining and serving tables of LPBC were made of a dark and very dense wood which I did not recognize, but it appeared to be very rare, perhaps of Brazilian origin.

We went up a staircase with modernist glass side panels to a flat deck and into a walled room that served as a yoga studio. Except the walls were made up of a bamboo-like material in panels that could be opened up to the full length so that one stood on a roof deck protected from the sun by another roof. However, with the walls pulled back, the yoga studio was directly linked with the beach sand and the ocean waves. What was of particular note, there were no railings protecting someone from falling off. The Toronto building code would never have permitted such a use, but safety barriers would have totally spoiled the effect.

The materials chosen to display opulence were not jewels. Nor were the exteriors painted in the usual pastels – greens and oranges and reds. Instead, beautiful stone work made up the wall separating the building facing the road, but with plenty of peak-through features. The same could be said of the iron fencing on the road side which looked more beautiful than any iron work I had previously seen, and Mexico is particularly noted for its excellent grates and gates on windows and openings.

As I interpreted the separation walls, they did not serve as physical barriers as much as they were social barriers that communicated openness to the general public while, paradoxically, sending out a message that this was an exclusivist preserve. The ordinary riff raff, or even the ordinary middle class, did not seem to be invited in. This might explain why we had not previously ventured forth to see the inside of the facility previously. The iron grill work and stone wall signalled a social and economic barrier more than a physical one.

When we attended the art show, everyone was treated as if they were millionaires there to purchase an expensive painting. Egalitarianism was the rule of the day. That is, once you were inside. But it also seemed clear that everyone was not welcome in spite of the direct link to the public sand beach on the ocean side and the ability to peak in from the road side. The real barrier was as invisible as God. Instead of a space where the divine would appear in the emptiness guarded by two cherubim, there were no guards in sight. Further, this was not space in which access was forbidden except to High Priests. Access was limited by a more invisible process; this exclusive club communicated a class barrier.

The mishkan was an enclosed and very sacred space. LPBC was a very open space, but closed in by a very invisible class barrier. Without the need for neon lights, the muted colours of the stone, the glass, the sand and the wood as well as the high-style design, communicated exclusivity. In that sense, the golden calf was egalitarian in the extreme. Everyone had easy access to its worship. There was no mediation required of a high priest. No one was obligated to pay half a sheckel in homage. The golden calf was a populist materialist god as distinct from a plutocratic hedonistic secular one. The latter message was clear since LPBC was owned by and linked to La Patrona Polo Polo and Equestrian Centre (LPPEC) just a few city blocks away. Polo in itself is a message of expense and exclusivity.

Though people attend the Sunday brunches and watch the polo matches dressed casually in open shirts, shorts and even flipflops, its huge expanse (220 hectares in total), its elegant tone, its horse stalls with slate floors and wooden finishes on the walls that are far more expensive to build than the tiny houses of local Mexicans, send out a message of a regal sport set in a huge sprawling and stunningly designed and coiffured club with a soaring steel 20 foot high roof structure. There are, in fact, three polo fields, not one, two regulation size, each nine times as large as a soccer field. There is even a hospital and therapeutic pool for the horses.

The owners, a Mexican billionaire and a Swiss billionaire, Iván Echeverria [no relation to the former kleptocratic president] and Gabrielle Weber, have succeeded in created a hymn to physical pleasure and delight of the highest sophistication which, paradoxically, at one and the same time, conveys total transparency and an invisible exclusivity. A space apparently open to all is really only accessible to the extremely rich. God does not appear in the empty space between the guardian cherubim. Rather, there is a physical emptiness that has been raised to an enormous aesthetic height, but there is no voice that will ever come forth with a divine message about faith and obligations. The invisibility is, paradoxically, invisible, communicating openness when it is really very exclusive, communicating fullness and sensual satisfaction in a high style that disguises the very sins underpinning that form of plutocratic life. The club is representation and valorization of a life spent in pursuit of the fullness of a healthy physical life but, ironically, also conveying the emptiness of that life. There is no absent or hidden god there.

Do not expect anyone to come to La Patrona Beach Club to atone for their sins. The patrons come to get a fix. It may not be heroine, but it is the regal materialist equivalent. The patrons do not come to seek change or to be changed. They do not come to remember past traumas but only to experience current pleasures. In the worship of nature and the earth-bound, the club also tries to sore upward, but only towards the sky and never to heaven.


With the help of Alex Zisman


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