Yes, Yes, Yes

Natasha Stagg around the Azulik hotel

Sceno by SFER IK in Tulum, Mexico.

“THE MOST IMPORTANT THING is that this is a project with meaning, that we do something more than make money,” Roth is saying. He’s just Roth (born Eduardo Neira), founder of Roth Architecture and a self-described visionary. “The idea is to get out of the cave.” A reference, I think, to the tunnel vision inflicting our human race (“the human tribe”).

We’re outside Roth’s sci-fi-set-meets-skate-park home near Tulum, Mexico. Chet Baker’s voice wafts over the water plants as we sit down in a concrete “nest,” surrounded by theme-park-like waterfalls to have lunch on latticed ceramic plates designed by the chef himself.

It’s my second day here, and visiting Roth’s home was somewhat climactic after touring his other incredible properties made from local materials. The house at first looks like a literal hole in the wall, and then each curved corner leads us into a new jungle garden or meditation room or chandeliered shower. Chopin’s Nocturne in E-flat major mysteriously floods the space as we notice netted hammocks, bookshelves set into the floor, and a baby grand under a strange red glow.

Plus, we’re couched behind Roth’s SFER IK Museion, an impressive building that spirals around trees and other naturally occurring growths. The gallery’s exhibitions, artisanal workshops, and artist residencies are curated by Claudia Paetzold, who joins us for lunch with Jon Shapiro, a member of the LA-based Data Garden, who will be one of the first exhibitors in Claudia’s new event program at Roth’s Tulum location on the beach—Sceno by SFER IK. (The venue is connected to the already famous Azulik resort, which opened in 2018.)

Inside Roth’s home. Photo: Natasha Stagg.

Over charred whitefish steak, Roth goes on to describe tentative plans for new ways of living and commuting in places currently encumbered by climate crises. His goal is to get people to be more aware of their surroundings by stepping into or otherwise experiencing his fantastic architecture. His ideas are acutely influenced by ayahuasca ceremonies, of which, I’ve heard, he has participated in more than one hundred.

“Technology alone won’t be the solution,” he says, although drones may be a big part of his next project, whose details are under development. Luxury travel, of course, won’t solve anything either, but Azulik is different: “We’re the second-most followed hotel on Instagram,” he says, when I ask him about its typical clientele. Of the 1.1 million followers, “only .3 percent of them can come, but these people are interested in our project.”

Outside Roth’s home, behind the SFER IK museum he designed. Photo: Natasha Stagg.

Most of us are inured to the cries of “eco-sensitive” when it comes to art events. After all, what could be more sustainable than a temporary, large-scale attraction that boosts worldwide tourism and requires ad hoc production? Putting the ironies aside, though, as luxury resort-slash-nightclub-slash-galleries go, Azulik and SFER IK are at least remarkable for their intentions of coexisting with coastal Mexico—particularly the most visited part (Tulum), which is experiencing its own ecological crisis due to a recent surge in tourism. The rooms at Azulik, for example, are not air-conditioned or illuminated electrically. Instead, candles are lit each evening and a small fan points from the ceiling to the circular bed. Roving raccoons, lizards, and large iguanas prove that the wildlife has not been completely run out from under it. That said, the popularity of the hotel has no doubt accelerated tourist traffic in its own way. However, the strip on which it is situated was already crowded with other resorts, clubs, and restaurants playing heavy bass and guarded by armed security way before 2018. Beachwear boutiques and pharmacies between the attractions stay open late here, and everything is overpriced, even by New York standards. Azulik is almost an oasis inside a destroyed oasis, its treehouse approach almost a bridge from the paved-over Tulumense paradise that originally brought the business here.

On the path leading up to SKER IK. Photo: Natasha Stagg.

In 2020, long-canceled is the doctrine If you build it, they will come, replaced, perhaps, by the approach that Roth Architecture seems to take: If they are coming, we should build it. Singularly responsive to the existing landscape (as in, erected without blueprints by indigenous Mayan craftsmen atop a network of outlines that account for the earth’s natural surface and attributes, elevated so as not to disturb the paths of plants and animals), the buildings look, to a certain intersection of the area’s many kinds of vacationers, simply perfect.

I happened to arrive in Tulum amid a massive jungle festival called Day Zero (something one tour guide tells me may have killed several jaguars last year by scaring them out of their habitat and onto the freeway). As I’m carted around to snorkel near friendly alligators and bats, throngs of people in fascinatingly impractical techno-fest attire gather in the sun, their airbrushed faces running and their felt hats damp, lining up to leave the woods.

SFER IK–goers and Azulik guests I spotted were indiscernible from the Day Zero attendees, other than the former’s pristine, protected looks. In fact, each bohemian-dressed person I saw in Tulum could have been here for any one reason, or all three. After all, each of the spheres they inhabited were tropical, multisensorial, immersive experiences engineered to shock the senses into connecting with the earth’s mysterious pull.

Azulik is extremely photogenic; its wooden swings over pools over the marble-green ocean make for some of the world’s most Instagrammable moments. Sitting on a lobby swing that got better Wi-Fi than in my room, I noticed at least a half dozen women wearing a beach-y, bangle-y, semitranslucent costume, leading a photographer around the stilted walkways. If it weren’t for their light gray contacts, designer phone holders on straps, and faces strangely dimensionalized with matte and shimmery makeup, I could have mistaken them for people readying to perform a contemporized ancient ritual dance.

The view from my room at Azulik. Photo: Natasha Stagg.

MY FIRST NIGHT HERE, I had dinner with Claudia, Data Garden (Joe Patitucci and Jon), Eugenie Dalland, and Kaitlin Phillips in one of th efour candlelit restaurants at Azulik.

“So,” Joe said, when we were finally seated. “What is art?”

Claudia groaned, then launched into an anecdote about a childhood philosophical fascination that somewhat informed her career trajectory. “This was before we got into our The Sorrows of Young Werther phase and tried to commit suicide in the forest,” she laughed. “I grew up five minutes from the forest where the Brothers Grimm were born, in a monastery.”

“That’s a heavy vibe,” said Joe or Jon.

“Yeah. Then I became a lawyer . . . for six years, in Paris and New York. Corporate.” Next, she said, she became interested in art, and the partners at her firm let her go on a sabbatical. “One of the partners was especially understanding. He was a novelist.”

“Lawyers are always writing books,” said Kaitlin.

“Well, what is law? It’s a fiction. You have a cast of characters. It’s all about nuances,” said Claudia.

“Like Laura Dern says in Marriage Story. Did you see it?” asked Kaitlin.

“I saw that one scene on Twitter,” said Jon.  

“When I left my law firm I went to Christie’s Education,” said Claudia. “It was a good class, but it was a lot of work. I had hoped for less work.”

“That’s why most people get into art,” said Joe, sort of answering his original question. 

The next day, I visited SFER IK, where Claudia gave me a tour of the space’s fifth exhibition, “Alliga.” Descending the spiral walkway, she recognized a friend, who was there with some English-speakers. One, she told Claudia, was working on an environmental project of her own. She wore a fan of feathers behind one ear, a feathered necklace, and a long dress that attached to each of her middle fingers with rings. Her friend wore a gold snake around one hand, a crystal pendant on a leather strap, and a Louis Vuitton purse.

View of Ernesto Neto’s Every Tree Is a Civilizing Entity in SFER IK’S “Alliga” exhibition.

The exhibition included Sissel Tolaas’s sarGassum, 2019, a fun rub-and-sniff pile of wooden blocks in the shape of their scents’ molecules, which belong to a species of seaweed growing in unprecedented amounts on the Mayan Riviera coastline, and Think Evolution #1: Kikuishi (Ammonite), 2016–17, a video featuring a cephalopod inhabiting a 3-D printed shell by Aki Inomata, among other works suited to the organic space. Claudia introduced Data Garden to the group, mentioning their upcoming “interspecies” concert at Sceno: “They connect sensors to plants to capture their biorhythms, which then translates into music. . . .”

“I’ve heard it,” said one guest, who sounded and looked American. “I’ve seen the videos. It’s so beautiful. It’s wow. It’s wow. The whole concept is wow.” He also expressed interest in joining the guided meditation and breathwork classes with the sensor-connected plants, which, we were told, would react to the room’s changing energies.

My last night in Tulum, I attended the interspecies concert, which featured singer Pascale Caristo and Jon on guitar. They riffed, her chanting about “peace” and “plants,” mostly. Presumably, our energy was being measured by the plants. I spotted Roth, who, like most of the guests, ended up horizontal on cushions laid out for the audience. I was also pretty sure that I could see the woman with the Louis Vuitton purse from before, and remembered something Roth had said, about “paying attention to the jungle, to listen to the music. . . . It’s so simple. We say yes, yes, yes, but now we go to the store and we buy Louis Vuitton and live in an apartment of marble, isolated.”

I was listening to the music: a mix of sounds created by an algorithm controlled by polygraphs attached to potted plants and live musicians. I was paying attention to my surroundings—a gallery on the beach with a Dior gift shop at the front. And, perhaps inspired by it all, I fell peacefully asleep.