SAN MIGUEL DE ALLENDE – Not far from the fairytale center of Mexican San Miguel de Allende, lies the fairytale palace of Ben (74) and his wife Margaret Gall. The high, robust tower of the house stands out from the main road because of its almost kitschy battlements. Once inside the four walls, you will fall from one surprise to the next. The beautiful patio, 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 home of Ben Gall from Eindhoven. And the special thing: it consists of 50% recycled material and waste.
The colonial city of San Miguel de Allende is an hour away from the metropolis of Querétaro, in the middle of the country. When Gall visited the city a few years ago, he fell in love instantly. At the time, the couple still lived in Alabama, United States. 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 Gall. From their roof terrace they look out over the historic center on one side, the beautiful valley on the other side and mountain peaks all around. “We lived in Zaltbommel for years, where the ships crossed the Waal right in front of us. I missed that and I wanted it again; a moving view that is different every day.”
They have been living in this basurahouse for two years now, a house made of garbage. Particularly messy-looking walls, various masonry stones masoned through and over each other. Every now and then a ceramic or porcelain item has been incorporated, originating from the garbage dump. And yet it never feels restless. Does it feel like a unit. The colorful walls provide cosiness. “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 exterior wall of the house features work by the Eindhoven artist Clemens Briels, who has been a good friend of Gall for many years. Designed especially for the house, with images of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, made in ceramic. Briels often returns to the house. There are easily thirty works by De Brabander on display. In addition to being an artist, Clemens was also active in the advertising world. That’s how we got to know each other, we really became friends. I hope he comes here soon.”
That outer wall already creates expectations for what it will look like inside. A frog, a vase, a dog and many more frills are set in the old-looking, worn-out stones.
Lots of greenery in the patio, a fountain and art, lots of art. Ben Gall has been an art lover all his life. A collector. Old family heirlooms -his grandfather Jan Gall was also an artist- are interspersed with more modern work. And every now and then a Briels.
But first back to that house.
Pontifically and clearly present is the tall tower with the battlements. A red-yellow snake circles around it. The tower houses the elevator, which can take you up to the second floor, to a roof terrace with the already mentioned, beautiful view.
Casa Sentosa de las Serpientes is the dream home of Ben Gall. Mexico has few 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 outer wall therefore has significantly fewer frills than the inside. It looks a little neater.
Ben Gall is not an architect, certainly not. But he has started drawing his dream house. And came into contact with the basura houses in San Miguel de Allende and became 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 what also became the most striking basura house they had ever built. Jimenéz died of corona last year, so Gall’s basura house will be the last for the time being.
,,They had eight guys with them who were really good and who can do more. artists. I have always managed teams and I know how to put people in the best possible position. These guys were incredibly creative, so I gave them a rough assignment: build basura house style and make it as crazy as possible. Without Borders. That freedom has produced wonderful things.”
He regularly came to see the construction, he never interfered. He has accepted the dozens of cosmetic mistakes that have been made. A light switch from the bedroom of the casita is mounted above a bed. You must first 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
A snake twists on the outside stairs to the first floor, another spontaneous inspiration from the construction workers. “They had a handrail and of course something had to be done with it.” Ben Gall loves it and asked them to make another one; winding over the tower of the elevator. Liked it. It explains the name of the house: Casa Sentosa de las Serpientes.
Ben 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. He has built an extra casita on the site, where friends, family or the musicians can spend the night. It could be a gold mine on Airbnb, but he is refusing that for the time being. One of the rooms here could serve as a studio. Clemens Briels has not yet visited because of corona, but this place was built with him in mind. He could just work here.”
The house has been deliberately made so planet-friendly. Ben Gall wants to contribute and also serve as an inspiration for the Mexican. A rainwater tank collects the rainwater and although it is mainly dry in San Miguel de Allende, they can live on it for eight months a year. There are solar panels on the roof, which provide more than enough electricity in this sun-drenched environment.
Ben Gall, 74, was born in Eindhoven. He first works for Philips for seven years, but he lacks a challenge and makes the switch to major competitor Panasonic. If after a few years the Austrian company TopCall wants to establish itself in the Netherlands, it gladly accepts it. Bringing a new product to new markets is something that suits him. Gall is allowed to build up the Dutch branch and succeeds very well in this. 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. He earns a lot of money in the very fast-growing software market in the 1980s.
He will retire when he is 52 years old and lives in Philadelphia. 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 salesman and wanted to help them with that. I managed to do that, but it really only cost me money,” he grins. Gall opens a second gallery a little later, bigger. With restaurant, theatre, concerts and more: The Arts Scene. This is going very smoothly and even appears to be 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’ve noticed that artists are often difficult people, so I don’t want a gallery anymore. Now I organize concerts, here, in the patio. Musicians are generally easier to get along with, also in business.”
Concerts in the patio
The concerts are mostly classical. Opera, jazz, instrumental. Intended to offer young musicians a stage and also let them earn some money. There is room for about fifty visitors downstairs and another twenty on the roof. The entrance fee for this San Miguel Salon is 500 pesos, about 20 euros. All money goes to the musicians. The idea is to mainly organize 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 the beautiful existence. Gall certainly doesn’t like a return to the Netherlands, life here is too beautiful for that. No, he’d rather grow old here. Observing from its roof terrace, with its beautiful view. Musing about life, about art, about Zaltbommel.