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San Miguel de Allende:
the soul of mexico

Architecture, part 1

From the book

January 14, 2024

by Cathi and Steven House

We were fortunate to learn early in our professional and personal lives the transformation that can happen when you touch other cultures. When you slowly feel a place, breathe its aromas, taste its delicacies, listen to the stories of those who live there and stand in awe before its beauty, you allow them not just into your senses, but into your very core, into your soul.

Travel is our source of inspiration and personal growth, allowing us to see the world with clear eyes and search beyond the limits of our own imagination.

As architects, artists, photographers, and educators, we find inspiration in ancient lands, vibrant colors and extraordinary people. In some of the most impoverished countries in the world we have met communities that are joyous, respectful and that have created environments that are beautiful and sustainable.


At 6,200 feet altitude, the sharp, clear lines of shadows embellish the colorful walls of San Miguel with layers of patterns cast from exquisitely carved stone moldings, ornate lanterns, balconies draped in greenery... Lime-washed colors glow in the sunlight as though they are illuminated from within. San Miguel has a complex mix of centuries of architectural styles, protected by the National Institute of Anthropology and History. Declared a National Monument in 1926, San Miguel's historic center has long been protected from modern intrusions such as traffic lights, billboards, neon signs and most fast food franchises. When San Miguel was declared a World Heritage site by UNESCO in 2008, the protected centro was expanded.

Ancient stone walls are draped with bougainvillea; cobblestone streets lend an old world clatter to passing vehicles; intricately carved stone churches grace every neighborhood, the music of their bells adorning every hour. The main square, the Jardin, is the center of life, its shady benches always filled, the balloon sellers adding colorful bouquets to the swirl of humanity. Birds twitter in the carefully shaped trees, fountains cool the air, mariachi music wraps around lovers kissing on the benches or dancing in the plaza. The newspaper seller, the shoe-shine man, the horse drawn wagon selling homemade ice cream, children gleefully running…this dance of life plays out every day in this Jardin, so alive with life, what life can be when a community and the families that make it come together in the simple joys of visiting with friends, sharing gossip, watching children play...

Spanish Colonial architecture, often named Mexican Baroque, is a fascinating, unique style. Sitting quietly observing the moldings, one can almost feel the flow of Moorish traditions from North Africa into southern Spain, then across the ocean to mix with local materials and indigenous masons to become what it is here in San Miguel - luscious - in color, texture, shadow, ornate moldings and balconies. Most of the old walls are stone or adobe, plastered over and colored with 'cal' - lime wash colored with natural pigments. The result is walls that are bold yet soft, feeling almost alive to the touch. Cantera, a volcanic stone that can be found throughout the country in shades of grey to black, pink, orange, lavender, lime green, white and brown, is the material of choice for carved moldings that grace every building.

Facades are further decorated with potted plants along the roof, garlands of flowers around doorways, and exquisitely ornate balconies. Decorative light fixtures cast wild shadows; crosses or small statues crown peaks or corners. Under a buttress of the San Francisco church, it is possible to still see some of the original geometric painting that once covered the church. The buildings change as the sun casts living shadows that tell the time of day and year. Decorations are hung and removed in a regular rhythm of festivities. The walls of San Miguel embrace their inhabitants with warmth and beauty, celebrating holidays with them, echoing the music of life within every home, reflecting the love the inhabitants feel for these walls.

Cal - made of powdered limestone, mineral salts, and natural pigments for color - is mixed with water then brushed by hand onto walls to form a skin that glows as though illuminated from within due to myriad tiny crystals. It feels warm to the touch as though alive, is antibacterial, non-toxic, and its naturally mottled appearance is appropriate to the age of the buildings onto which it is lovingly applied.


San Miguel de Allende: the soul of mexico is available from your favorite bookstores including Aurora Books and La Biblioteca Tesoros in San Miguel, or from many of your favorite internet sites including Schiffer, Amazon, Barnes & Nobel and Thrift Books. If you would like an autographed copy of our new book, please send us an email request and you can buy it directly from us at


Cathi and Steven House, the founders and principals of House + House Architects, have received over 50 design awards for their work in California, Mexico, Africa and the Caribbean, and have been featured in prestigious publications throughout the world including two monographs, House + House Architects: Choreographing Space and Houses in the Sun: light movement embrace. Their studies of vernacular architecture have been published in Mediterranean Villages: an architectural journey, and in Villages of West Africa: an intimate journey across time, which document the people, villages and unique architecture. Cathi and Steven lecture extensively and created CASA, The Center for Architecture, Sustainability + Art, a study abroad program based in Mexico.

House + House Architects' work reflects Cathi and Steven's passion for soulfully designed buildings intimately responsive to their site and to their inhabitants.


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