The 894-square-meter Culinary Art School in Tijuana, seated just south of San Diego in the Mexican state of Baja California, has to count its blessings. While it certainly benefits from gorgeous weather conditions, the surroundings leave a little something to be desired.
Situated in the middle of vacant lots, "the challenge was to make it more interesting," says Jorge Gracia, principal of Gracia Studio, the design and construction team that developed the new building for the school, which originally started in a home.
"We wanted to make it so that when you're inside the school, it feels like you're in an area that's already developed. The challenge was to create more of an urban area once you are inside."
For Gracia and his team, that meant creating communal areas that embraced the outdoors, instead of shutting it out. They created a plaza in the center of the complex which includes a water feature and serves as the main focal point of the school, where anyone can view all four kitchens at any time, as each is surrounded by glass walls. And because students, faculty and visitors are surrounded by and seeing the culinary arts in practice all the time, Gracia feels they are truly living the culinary experience.
The extensive use of glass and the incorporation of more intimate spaces off of certain classrooms also take advantage of the outdoors and weather. A concrete terrace sits outside the auditorium for students and visitors to observe their professors' work.
With four kitchens, six classrooms, a wine cellar and an auditorium—both of which also serve as classrooms—there are currently no plans to expand, as the school's leadership believes in quality over quantity when it comes to teaching and providing personal attention to each student. However a second design phase scheduled for the coming year includes plans for a fire pit in the plaza, a garden where students can grow their own vegetables and fresh herbs, as well as a residence for chefs who travel from around the globe to teach at the Culinary Art School.
Keeping in line with Gracia Studio's other work in Mexico, the complex's design has been kept simple, with the emphasis being placed on unique and novel uses of material.
"The concept is very linear because we do the construction as well in our projects in Mexico. So we do the designs very square normally and we try to experiment with materials. We used garapa wood from Venezuela—a very hard wood similar to ipe but a little lighter-colored," Gracia says. Corrugated steel was used on the kitchen areas and exposed off-form concrete was also highly utilized for its texture and strength.
In the classroom corridor polycarbonate panels were used on the walls, which were then painted black. They appear to be black walls during the day, but the secret is that balusters of fluorescent tubes were inserted into the panels, so at night the walls convert into light sources. There are no lights installed on the corridor ceilings.
But perhaps the most important element to consider for a cooking school in a hot climate like Mexico's is the HVAC system. "The kitchens are the more complicated areas, of course, because of all the exhaust they produce," explains Gracia. "They had to be designed so that the air conditioning doesn't extract the exhaust." In order to prevent that, the main AC system was separated into two units, one being for two of the classrooms and the other for the auditorium. Each subsequent classroom has its own smaller system that can be controlled separately, which helps to save on energy. Amazingly enough, thanks to a thoughtful HVAC design that relies heavily on cross ventilation, only one of the classrooms—the one that houses the stoves—is currently utilizing the school's AC units.
The orientation of the buildings is also beneficial, in terms of energy efficiency. All of the glass in the kitchens faces north, so it never gets direct sun. The doors of the classrooms are facing south, but the corridor in the middle of them gives shadow to their walls.
Another point of pride for Gracia is that almost every piece of furniture and product has been custom designed by him and his team. "[The school] wanted everything designed, nothing bought, and that's the way we like it." The bathrooms are a great example of this, with custom-made partitions of steel and oak, as well as sinks made from steel plates, painted with car paint. All of the furniture in the wine cellar, including the wine rack, was also custom made.
"We get into all the details," Gracia says. "In Mexico, we do the construction as well, so there's a lot of things we can decide onsite. Sometimes you can't do that in the U.S. because of contractors and all the other parties involved."
With no caps on their creativity Gracia Studio will pay just as close attention to the details on phase two as they did for the first, creating an environment that let's students cook up their culinary creations in an urban oasis.
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the culinary art school
Paseo del Río 7126,
3era. Etapa Zona Río,
architecture + interior design
6151 Progressive Ave.
San Diego CA 92154
Arq. Jorge Gracia, principal
Jorge Gracia, associate
Javier Gracia, associate
Jonathan Castellon, associate