Radical Architecture at its Most Subversive

photo Marcel Fontanillas
photo Marcel Fontanillas

This house near Barcelona ranks among the most radical and subversive works of architecture of 2014, and yet it’s not by one of the usual suspects, but by an architect you’ve probably never heard of (in case you’re wondering, his name is Marcel Fontanillas).

So just what is it, exactly, that makes this house so radical? It certainly doesn’t ‘look’ extreme. Where is the gravity-defying space-frame, the infinite grid, the inflatable structure, the plug-in mega-infrastructure or the obliquely inclined surface? Where are the crashing-into-each-other beams or the chain-link fence façades?

You know times have changed when architects who once styled themselves as ‘radical’ end up building headquarters for the European Central Bank in Frankfurt, art museums for luxury multinationals, or a headquarters for China’s single, state-controlled television broadcaster. Sell-outs? No, they were simply never radical in the first place. Architecturally novel, yes, and very clever at marketing, but not radical in the commonly understood sense of the word: politically subversive. Political radicals never label themselves as such. In politics, one’s own position is always ‘central’ — it’s the others who are ‘radical’ or ‘extreme’.

Why is this house radical, then? Because it has no air conditioning, furnace, or water heater (it’s completely off the grid) while its interior is comfortable year-round, and because its embodied energy is among the lowest a house can possibly have since it is a refurbishment. Apparently, it’s the first retrofit project in Spain to receive PassivHaus certification. The adaptive re-use of an existing building leaves a smaller carbon footprint than building anew, while very thick thermal insulation in combination with passive solar heating in winter means no need whatsoever for any artificial heating. Photovoltaic cells generate the power for lights and appliances.

Since it is not supplied by utility companies with electricity, natural gas, or heating oil, this house opposes the interests of state-sanctioned energy oligopolies. In short, this harmless-looking, cosy little rural house subverts the system. Truly radical. However if you ask Marcel, he’ll deny there’s anything radical about this house, believing that it is what all architecture should strive to do: save energy, reduce our carbon footprint, and fuck the system.



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