SAN MIGUEL DE ALLENDE – Not far from the fairytale center of Mexican San Miguel de Allende, is the fairytale palace of Ben (74) and Margaret Gall. The high, robust tower of the house already stands out from the main road, because of its almost kitschy battlements.
Once inside the four walls, you will be amazed. The beautiful patio is full of art and greenery. The breathtaking view from the roof terrace. The red-yellow ceramic snake that winds down. This is Casa Sentosa de las Serpientes, the dream house of Eindhoven resident Ben Gall. And the remarkable thing: it consists of 50% recycled material and waste.
The colonial city of San Miguel de Allende is an hour from the metropolis of Querétaro, in the country's center. When Ben Gall visited the town a few years ago, he fell in love instantly. The couple lived in Alabama then and wanted to get out of there. To a country with fewer rules, to a city where history is visible, to a place where the sun always shines, to an environment where the population is not so conservative. San Miguel de Allende has it all.
San Miguel de Allende is also a base for about 20,000 foreigners, which makes social life easier for Ben Gall. From their roof terrace, they look out over the historic center on one side, the beautiful valley on the other, and mountain peaks all around. “We lived in Zaltbommel for years, where the ships crossed the river Waal right in front of us. I missed that and wanted it again; a moving view that is slightly different every day.”
They live for two years no in this basurahouse, a house made of garbage. Particularly messy-looking walls, various stones masonry through and over each other. Every now and then a ceramic or porcelain item is incorporated, originating from the rubbish dump. And yet it doesn't feel restless anywhere. It feels like a unit. The colorful walls provide coziness. “I still can't get enough of it. Recently I was in a wheelchair because of my Achilles tendon. At that level, I discovered plenty of new surprises.”
The beautiful outside wall of the house features work by the Eindhoven artist Clemens Briels, who has been a good friend of Ben Gall for many years. Designed specifically for the house, featuring images of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, crafted in ceramic. Briels frequently returns to the house. There are easily thirty works by the Dutch artist on display. ,,Clemens was not only an artist but also active in the advertising world. That's how we know each other, we've really become friends. I hope he comes here soon.”
The outside wall already creates expectations for what it will look like inside. A frog, a vase, a dog, and many more funny details are built into the old-looking, worn-out stones.
Lots of greenery on the patio, a fountain, and art, lots of art. Ben Gall has been an art lover all his life. A collector. Old family pieces - his grandfather Jan Gall was also an artist - are interspersed with more modern work. And a lot of Briels.
But first back to that house.
Pontifical and clearly present is the long tower with the battlements. A red-yellow snake circles around it. The tower houses the elevator, which can take you to the second floor, to a roof terrace with the already mentioned, beautiful view.
Casa Sentosa de las Serpientes is Ben Gall's dream home. Mexico has not a lot of rules, this house would be impossible in the Netherlands, or the United States. In Mexico, people don't look so much at the street scene, although the rules are slowly starting to arrive. The outside wall, therefore, has significantly fewer details than the inside. It looks a bit neater.
House of trash
Gall isn't an architect, but he started to draw his dream house. And find out about the basurahouses in San Miguel de Allende and got inspired. There are already fourteen here, all built under the direction of two men: José Carlos Jimenéz and José Miguel Hernandez Chavez. 25 construction workers will work for Gall for 52 weeks, for a house that's the most unique basurahouse that they ever built. Jimenéz passed away last year because of corona, so this would be the last basurahouse for now.
,,They had eight workers with them who were really good and could do more. Artists. I have always managed teams and know how to empower people optimally. These guys were incredibly creative, so I gave them a rough assignment: build basurahouse-style and act as crazy as possible. Without borders. That freedom resulted in a beautiful building."
He regularly came to see the construction, but he never interfered. He has accepted the dozens of cosmetic mistakes that have been made. A bedroom light switch in the casita is created above a bed. You have to grope in the dark to turn on the light. A window in the shape of an eye was built in at a height of one meter. The stained glass is beautiful, only special that it is located in a pantry.
Casa Sentosa de las Serpientes
On the outside stairs to the first floor, a snake is twisting, also a spontaneous inspiration from the construction workers. “They had a handrail and of course, something had to be done with that.” Gall loves it and asked them to make another one; winding over the tower of the elevator. It explains the name of the house: Casa Sentosa de las Serpientes.
Gall buys the double land in San Miguel de Allende in 2018. Cost: about 50,000 euros. The house, including that land, cost him about 300,000 euros. On the property, he built an extra casita where friends, family, or musicians can spend the night. It could be a gold mine on Airbnb, but he refuses that for now. One of the rooms here could serve as a studio. ,,Clemens Briels has not yet visited due to corona, but this place was built with him in mind. He could just work here.”
The house has been made completely planet-friendly. Gall wants to contribute and also serve as an inspiration for the Mexicans. A rainwater tank collects the rainwater and although it is mostly dry in San Miguel de Allende, they can live on this eight months a year. There are solar panels on the roof, which generate more than enough electricity in this sun-drenched environment.
The 74-year-old Gall was born in Eindhoven. He first worked for Philips for seven years, but he lacked challenge and made the switch to major competitor Panasonic. When, after a few years, the Austrian company TopCall wants to establish itself in the Netherlands, he gladly accepts. Bringing a new product to new markets is something that suits him. Gall is allowed to build up the Dutch branch and succeeds excellently. After six years he is asked to conquer South and North America as well. Gall shows himself to be a businessman and takes 50 and 30% of the shares respectively. This is how he earns a lot of money in the very fast-growing software market in the 1980s.
When he is 52 years old and lives in Philadelphia, he retires. After a few years, it starts to itch and decides to open an art gallery: Holland Art House. ,,Many artists don't know how to sell themselves. I am a seller and wanted to help them with that. I succeeded, but it really only cost me money,” he grins. Gall opens a second gallery a little later, grander. With a restaurant, theater, concerts, and more: The Arts Scene. It is a big success and even seems to become profitable until the recession hits in 2007. The Arts Scene is forced to close its doors.
In San Miguel de Allende, however, he cannot resist. Not only is the house full of art – by illustrious names such as Eugène Brands, Hans van Den Bovenkamp, Herman Krikhaar, and Peter Bol – he also wants to open his house to the public again, to help art. ,,I have noticed that artists are often also difficult people, so I no longer want a gallery. Now I organize concerts, here, on the patio. Musicians are generally easier to get along with, also in business.”
Concerts on the patio
The concerts are mostly classical. Opera, jazz, instrumental. Intended to offer young musicians a stage and also to let them earn some money. There is room for about fifty visitors downstairs and another twenty on the roof. The entrance to this San Miguel Salon is 500 pesos, about 20 euros. All money will benefit the musicians. The idea is to organize mainly exclusive listening concerts, intended for a select audience. Due to corona, only eight concerts have been organized so far.
It portrays Gall, a somewhat eccentric figure whose life revolves around adventure, pioneering, art, and beautiful existence. Gall certainly does not want to return to the Netherlands, life here is too good for that. No, he'd rather grow old here. Observing from its roof terrace, with its beautiful view. Musing about life, about art, about his birth ground Zaltbommel.