Erik E.

Erik was an industrial designer at an agency in SF before leaving it all behind to become a sustainable architect in Tulum, Mexico. I spent a week in Mexico learning about his new life and career.

Erik and I are connected in a really interesting way – way back in design school we switched spaces for our exchange. He went to Cincinnati, and I took his spot for a semester in Wuppertal, Germany. I never met him until he moved out to San Francisco to work at an agency. A few years later, he decided to dramatically switch up his life – he moved to Mexico, and decided to design, build, and run an eco-resort in Tulum. I visited him in Tulum for a week to learn what he’s been up to and how it’s going.

Erik works seven days a week from a coworking space, where he has access to other architects and designers in Tulum. The coworking space is located in the middle of a new development off the main road- at the moment it felt eerily empty with a lot of modern homes and storefronts still uninhabited.

I spent a week with Erik, where he shared how his life had changed since moving to Mexico. It was interesting to compare Tulum to San Francisco, as both cities are going through periods of enormous growth and investment. Tulum is attracting investors from all over the world to build modern luxury retreats – think yoga centers, condos, meditation spaces, and more. For someone with a background in design and an interest in making great things, it’s a pretty interesting opportunity to go up against some of the biggest names in hospitality.

The street where Erik’s lot is located – his lot is on the right, and a finished hotel is on the left.

Jon: Let’s talk about why you started this project.

Erik: I started this project based on the research that I did, but also based on the observations Tulum and its surroundings. So usually, people that come here, they want to get in touch with a more primeval sense of themselves. You can see this trend around the world?

Jon: Why do you think people want to do that?

Erik: They lost touch with the most basic parts of being human

Jon: Is that new,  or have people always felt that way, or is that the latest way of expressing themselves?

Erik:  I think the more people use technology, the more lost they can get in it. People still need that primeval part of themselves, just doing the simple things in life. They forget what it means. Just to feel like an animal is going to come behind you, that feeling of being in nature, just being amazed by something. that hearing the wind or the sound of the sea. I think people forget these things that are intrinsic to being human or feeling like an animal. That sense of adventure or awe is something people need in their lives, and they start to lose touch with that. And things like burning man or here in Tulum help people reconnect for a little bit with that. That intrinsic nature of being an animal human.

Jon: An animal human?

Erik: An animal human.

Jon: What’s an animal human?

Erik: It’s a human where we’re all animals, and we shouldn’t think about ourselves as anything else.

Jon: How is this reflected in your architecture?

Erik: I had these three principles and guidelines, so first of all, awe and mystery. Something that Albert Einstein said is “the most beautiful we can experience is the mysterious, he to whom the emotion is the stranger, can no longer pause to wonder and stand wrapped in awe, is as good as dead. His eyes are closed.” So, I think having this sense of awe makes you feel alive, it brings your awareness to a different level and it’s what people are looking for. The way I included it into my design and the work that I do is really paying attention to the details that might create a sense of awe and wonder in people.

Jon: What kind of details are those? Like, when you’re talking about awe and wonder, what are you actually doing and what’s your approach to coming up with that abstract idea and putting that into a design element?

Some of the architectural plans for his lot- every day Erik is coordinating with various contractors and architects to make sure everything is moving forward according to plan.

Erik: I think that’s just doing the unexpected, that’s what creates awe. When you have a sense of surprise, the same with design, you can create a very simple object, what’s going to make it really unique is the sense of surprise. If there’s no surprise the object is… it’s not interesting

Jon: So, what’s an example of something that isn’t surprising and something that is?

Erik: Well let’s say with technology, you’ve seen the very simplistic, minimalistic approach with products, very repeatable, inspired by maybe Braun, Dieter Rams influence. But at some point, it gets so simple that it’s not inspiring anymore. So I think the greatest challenge is to find a balance between the simple and the inspiring. The surprise effect, I think that’s very powerful. So how can you make something as simple as possible, but not forget about the surprise factor? The awe factor? The wow factor? I think that’s something that needs to be included in every single project that you create. And you have a lot of hotels that are just replicas of one another here. And the only ones that stand out are the ones that try, that push really hard to make something different. It can be anything. It can be the message they create. The way they communicate. The branding they create. The design they create. The way they utilize materials. The way they mix materials. It’s very easy to just go with the things that already exist. But what’s going to really create an impression on the user is going to be doing something that creates this moment of surprise. Of the unexpected.

Jon: Right.

Erik: I think that humans are always looking for the unexpected. Like as Albert Einstein says, that kind of brings a moment of aliveness in you when you see something that you didn’t expect to happen. And people just want to feel alive. I think that’s the purpose of being alive. Feeling alive.

[we all laugh for a moment]

Jon: So do you think that a place like Tulum for example, the goal of coming here is to feel alive? Like people are coming here, like this is not a place to necessarily live, but a place to escape?

Erik: I think you can do both. In the Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs, you need to have your basic needs met. Which is shelter, food- like your economic situation needs to be resolved, and then education is very important. But once you have those needs met, you’re sort of looking for more. You’re trying to meet higher needs. Which is being self-actualized, the higher need in that pyramid. I think you can only meet that higher need, that intrinsic need to being human by reconnecting to the basics. By reconnecting to yourself. By reconnecting to what’s truly you.

Jon: Ok so doesn’t that kind of make this a bit artificial then. This is all created in service of helping you figure yourself out in some ways.

Erik: It’s always been there. This beach has always been there.

Jon: But not like this.

Erik: But that’s what’s interesting about Tulum, they’ve tried to keep it as natural as possible. I mean, not all of them, but I think what makes this place interesting is that it’s very raw. There’s not much.

Jon: Define raw in this case.

Erik: Raw is going somewhere and being untouched by humans.

Jon: But isn’t this super touched by humans, being on this beach with the fully thought through resort? [I point around to my hotel – we’re in an open cabana on the beach]

Erik in front of his lot. Eventually he’ll have to clear out the trash and some of the plants – his overall goal is to try and leave as much of the existing foliage as possible so guests will feel closer to nature. Keeping so many of the trees also presents some big design challenges of how to design and build structures around these obstacles.

Erik: Some of them, yea. There’s others that try to escape – well not escape, but go in a different direction than the very traditional resorts.

Jon: And that’s what you’re doing?

Erik: Yea, I think it’s a different approach. I’m not saying that the traditional resorts are bad or anything. That’s a way of taking a break from your everyday life. It’s just if you want to be more in touch with a primeval part of you, or something more raw, then I think you can find a lot of good places here.

Jon: So I guess tying that back to what you’re doing: you’re kind of entering this city that’s – I don’t want to say dominated, but there’s a lot of luxury hotels, and some of them have done a really brilliant job of crossing that boundary between luxury and raw. And I’m curious, with what you’re working on, where does that fit in, and how do you fit into the Tulum world?

Erik: I think a lot of people see Tulum as an opportunity to make a lot of money, and it’s been shown with a lot of hotels that don’t really invest in the physical facilities. Like the physical buildings. They invest in the non-physical experience, the intangible.

Jon: What’s a non-physical experience? Like the service?

Erik: The way you feel about a space, that’s the non-physical.

Jon: So the architecture?

Erik: But you don’t have to make it expensive to make someone feel a certain way. And that’s what Tulum has shown.  That you can have very basic elements, and not necessarily expensive, and you can create an emotion, an experience in people that’s so much more powerful than investing 50 million dollars into a golden restroom with diamonds around it

Jon: You don’t want to shit into some diamonds?

Erik: Yea. You can create a more powerful experience with less money. That you can create a beautiful, wonderful experience where you don’t have to invest so much money and people see it as an opportunity. And a lot of people are coming here with the sole purpose of making money. But they forget what Tulum is really about. Tulum is about the balance of being in touch with your surroundings and creating experiences where people feel transported into another world. So they’re just trying to recreate what they made in other parts of the world – big investors or construction companies – and i think because of that the spirit of Tulum can get lost. It hasn’t been lost yet, but it can definitely get lost. And that’s why I’m doing my project. Cause like, I look around me and I see places where they’re building these massive buildings made out of concrete, and they pretty much get rid of all the trees that have been there for decades, and they replant some palms around it and they call themselves sustainable, they call themselves green.  But I think green is more about understanding nature, understanding how it works, really getting in touch with it, and enhancing it. It can be so much better with human intervention. People sometimes think that eco-design or sustainable design is leaving nature untouched. But in my opinion it can be enhanced if humans intervene sometimes. It can make it better. It can make the ecosystem more rich and more balanced if you actually know what you’re doing. And that’s what I’m trying to do with my project. Really understanding the ecosystem and enhancing it, so you can create an amazing experience for humans but also enhance nature, and make the ecosystem more rich.

Tulum is really stunning- everything about it, from the nature to the architecture, makes you want to kick back and relax.

Jon: All in the greater purpose of having that raw or surprising experience.

Erik: Yea. I think people will always come back to it. I think there’s waves in societes, where people get tired of the raw, because they have it too much. Nothing in life is good if you have too much of it. But people have too little very raw experiences. There’s a trend of people going towards more raw experiences.  Like I said, Burning Man or Tulum or traveling to remote places. The resort things are kind of dying. And you can see the progression, here in the Riviera Maya, it started with Cancun, which was a cool resort place, and that’s what people were actually looking for and it started dying off slowly. And hopefully it doesn’t happen to this area here, Tulum and its surroundings.

Jon: You’ve been discussing your architecture philosophy and your approach and why you’re doing what you’re doing. You’re kind of switching from industrial design to architecture. As you make that transition, what are you learning are the differences what is the same? To me as an industrial designer I see that as a really huge step, and I think that while you can have similar philosophies there’s got to be some fundamental differences in approach execution and all of that.

Erik: In my opinion, nothing you learn is useless. Everything you learn can be useful at some point in your life. So you should definitely focus on learning as much as you can about whatever you’re learning about, anything you’re studying, cause like all the skills and knowledge that I gained through my studies in industrial design or my work, I’ve applied pretty much all of it in the architectural work that I’ve done. Including my sensitivity for aesthetics, but also the design approach.

The sunrise from my hotel room.

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