In Costa Rica, Built for Books and Breezes
Published in The New York Times
October 4, 2007
KEITH BOTSFORD has just flown from Costa Rica, where he lives in an angular, steel-covered house overlooking the Caribbean, to Boston, where his wife — a molecular biologist some 52 years his junior — lives and works. Next, Mr. Botsford will fly to London, home to four of his eight children, before continuing on to Istanbul, where he is spending the fall teaching comparative literature at Bogazici University, overlooking the Bosporus.
He has left the striking house in Costa Rica, which was designed by his son Gianni Botsford, a London architect, in the care of a maid, two gardeners and a night watchman. “I know how to have servants,” Mr. Botsford said, “unlike the average American.”
He explained: “I’m a man born to a certain class who expects things to be done in certain ways.”
Mr. Botsford’s late mother, Carolina Elena Rangoni-Machiavelli-Publicola-Santacroce, was descended from Niccolò Machiavelli, he said. His maternal grandmother, he added, had 120 servants at her house near Recanati, Italy. (His father, Willard Hudson Botsford, was American, from a family that he said helped establish Milford, Conn.) Mr. Botsford, who spends most of his time writing — he has at least three novels and two nonfiction books in the works — said he chose Costa Rica in large part “because it is cheap.” (The house “cost what a studio basement flat in an insalubrious district of London would cost me,” he continued in an e-mail message.)
Before moving to Costa Rica, he worked at Boston University, where he taught journalism and history and edited the alumni magazine, Bostonia. But he said he doesn’t miss Boston, in part because, in the last decade, most of his friends there died. Among them was Saul Bellow, with whom Mr. Botsford edited a series of literary magazines. They maintained a 50-year friendship so close that Mr. Botsford still speaks of Mr. Bellow in the present tense.
It was around the time Mr. Bellow died, in 2005, that Mr. Botsford decided to move to Costa Rica — a place, he said, where “I can indulge all my vices,” which consist of smoking, drinking and keeping odd hours. He had first visited the country, he said, in 1964, and returned 20 years later to oversee the publication in Spanish of a report on relations between the United States and Latin America. Later, Mr. Botsford’s son Joshua (now a restaurateur in Denver), spent some time in southeastern Costa Rica and recommended that his father pay the area a visit.
Two years ago, Mr. Botsford, who wears his gray hair in a mane and has gold hoops in both ears, and his third wife, Angela — a former student of his and Mr. Bellow’s, he said — flew down to search for a piece of property. They focused on Cahuita, about 30 miles south of the city of Puerto Limon, in a region largely settled by Jamaicans.
Mr. Botsford doesn’t mind the rainy climate. “Humidity keeps the body going,” he said. (He may be on to something; at 79, after 65 years of heavy smoking, he moves like a young man.)
And it helped that the town, though lacking even a single paved road, had an excellent Italian restaurant, Sobre Las Olas. Mr. Botsford numbers gastronomy among his passions, along with the Boston Red Sox — he tries to catch every game on satellite TV — and Formula One racing, the subject of several of his books. (He is currently writing a collective biography of the non-Communist left between 1934 and 1989, and a history of Mediterranean civilizations.) He eventually settled on a waterfront plot with mangoes, avocados, bananas, oranges and cashews, which he bought, he said, for $106,000.
All he needed was a house. Luckily, if you have eight children, one of them is bound to be an architect. “It was a perfect fit,” Mr. Botsford said of his working relationship with his son Gianni, born in Venice in 1960 to his first wife. “He’s immensely talented, plus he knows me and he knows my things.”
The younger Mr. Botsford has become known in London for creating modern, sunny homes behind the facades of historic buildings. But in Costa Rica, the constraints were a little different: “I asked him not to cut down a single tree,” his father said.
To dodge the trees, the architect divided the house into two pavilions, each an unusually angled box. One of the pavilions contains a bedroom and a freestanding bathroom, in a space that opens to the outside through louvered glass windows. (“You lie in the bath,” the senior Mr. Botsford said, “and look out at the beautiful jungle.”)
The other pavilion is his studio, a 1,000-square-foot room in which he writes, composes music on his Yamaha piano and entertains guests with tales of his improbable life. (Born in Brussels and raised in London, New York and Los Angeles, he said, he was badly burned when he was 2. He spent five years in bed, reading. By 7, he said, “I was a man of letters.” Now, he said, he reads 11 languages.)
The ceiling of the house angles up to a height of 16 feet, in part to make room for bookshelves; Mr. Botsford brought 17,000 volumes from Boston.
The house was made almost entirely of local materials, including native timber and, on the exterior, sheets of corrugated metal. “Rather than adopting the Western-influenced style favored by wealthy Costa Ricans, the house takes reference from native building styles,” the younger Mr. Botsford said.
Inside, the support system is exposed. The vertical and angled studs create a pleasing geometric pattern that the architect refers to as a diagrid, for diagonal grid. The fact that the studs in the walls and the joists in the ceiling form continuous lines, said the younger Mr. Botsford, “forces the eye to travel from wall to ceiling to wall and then back out through the windows to the sea or jungle.”
His father, an ascetic as much as an environmentalist, was determined that the house be built without air-conditioning. To make that possible, the buildings were treated as tunnels, open at both ends to increase the airflow. Wide overhangs are angled in such a way that the glass is shielded when the sun is high in the sky. (When it is low in the sky, it shines on the windowless, corrugated metal walls). And a gap between the wooden interior and the metal sheeting creates an air pocket that insulates the house.
In addition, the younger Mr. Botsford said, “We lifted the house off the ground” by about four feet “to help the breeze flow around the house.” And the bedroom pavilion was positioned so that it was out of the “wind shadow” of the larger building, and thus “able to harvest its own sea breeze,” he said. A 50-foot boardwalk connects the two pavilions.
The older Mr. Botsford said he spent about $110,000 to build the two pavilions, a task local workers accomplished in about four months. The property already contained a small house, in which he installed a well-equipped kitchen; there are also guest rooms and space for the watchman.
At the end of his semester teaching in Istanbul, Mr. Botsford will return to his house, where his black lab, Bolo, awaits him (and where he said he hopes his wife will join him). Among the things he looks forward to are the extravagant flora (he doesn’t mind, he said, “being awakened by the thump of an unripe avocado hitting the metal roof at night”) and the howler monkeys that begin whooping before dawn. (Mr. Botsford said he sleeps just three hours a night and is invariably at his computer long before the monkeys wake.)
Then there’s also the architecture. “When I look up at the ceiling,” said Mr. Botsford, speaking as both aesthete and admiring father, “I’m looking at a work of art.”