When Sarah Livia Brightwood was ready to fund her vision for a place young students in Mexico could learn about nature, ecology and the human spirit, she contacted longtime friends, the father-son artist/architectural team of Hubbell & Hubbell, to help design and build it. Brightwood and architect Drew Hubbell, both of whom are the children of well-known parents (hers: Deborah Szekely, founder of Tecate’s Rancho La Puerta Spa; his: artist/builder James Hubbell), grew up in the rugged landscape that connects Baja California with East County.

From a design standpoint, also, Tecate’s Kuchumaa Ecological Center (pronounced coo-cha-ma) is a meeting of kindred spirits. The duality of the entire project is outwardly visible: two cultures joined by nature. Its inner vision is less obvious—until one begins to explore its roots. The center goes by two names, the other being Brightwood’s affectionate Las Piedra (The Rocks).

“The story of the center began in my childhood, with the thousand simple pleasures that come from being raised in the country at the foot of a boulder-strewn mountain,” says Brightwood. “I hung out there under broad-limbed oaks, fished for tadpoles and spent lazy afternoons watching swallows stitch the clouds.”

Ten years ago, it became clear to Brightwood and Enrique Ceballos, a Tecate sculptor, ecologist and biologist, that because of encroaching urbanization, those pleasures of a rural childhood were no longer available to the children of Tecate. At the same time, Mexico’s national curriculum was revised, requiring teachers to present ecological principles and ethics in the classroom.

“Quite a few teachers called on Enrique for help, and we organized a series of meetings with a group of middle-school teachers,” says Brightwood. “Very quickly, the idea for a facility sprouted. It was obvious that Tecate needed a nature center; the children needed access to a protected, diverse habitat; and the teachers needed support.”

Today, the center consists of three buildings: a classroom, a workshop/office and an audiovisual theater, all of which fit into the surrounding landscape and create outdoor “rooms” through the use of patios and work areas. Built with sprayed concrete in the shape of natural boulders, the structures are unique in their construction and appearance. The buildings teach through example by calling upon the latest environmental technologies, which produce energy-efficient structures using natural lighting and passive cooling and heating. The buildings and adjacent nature trail at the Kuchumaa Ecological Center allow children to learn through interaction with the built and unbuilt environment: a blending of nature and human spirit.

The trail and center are within Parque del Profesor, a 28-acre green space developed for the city of Tecate by the nonprofit Fundacion La Puerta (set up by the Brightwood and Szekely families). The park is on a ridge between Colonia Bella Vista and Brightwood’s nearby Tres Estrellas organic farm.

Early on, Jim Hubbell loved the site and its connection to nearby Mount Kuchumaa, a sacred peak to Native Americans. When Drew Hubbell came on board, the ensuing work marked one of their earliest father-son collaborations. The project, completed in 1999, “weaves a playful reverence for nature, while celebrating man’s spirit,” says Drew.

“The buildings are about things on the outside being what they are on the inside,” explains the elder Hubbell. “For the children to go within the cool shadows of the interiors, to sit on the back of a concrete rattlesnake or to stand in the colors cast from the stained glass, the transformed light of the sun. To open a door to the magic and play within each of them, leading them to a world where the nature is within and there need not be a fear of change and the unknown.”

Brightwood notes with pride that “the magic of Las Piedras would not have been possible without the collaboration of so many: Jim Hubbell’s doors, stained glass, tiled thresholds and metal door handles; Drew Hubbell’s great patience and resourcefulness in creating working drawings and teaching us new building techniques. Important, too, is Reuben Leon, who interpreted and engineered the design on site, and the Mexican masons who smoothed their trowels around forms that were unimaginable, until they found themselves to be maestros of a new art.”

Kuchumaa Ecological Center is open Monday through Saturday from 8 a.m until 3 p.m. Visitors are requested to call in advance (011-52-665-654-8478) or e-mail laspiedraslapuerta@hotmail.com.

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