[Originally published in Mark Magazine #57]
It’s been said that the most difficult thing to design in architecture is a house. No, not an airport, a hospital, a skyscraper, or even a mass-housing project for that matter; but a simple, so-called ‘single-family’ house. Never mind that house plans can easily be ordered from pattern books, or that a suburban developer can crank out cookie-cutter houses made of ticky-tacky by the hundreds. No, in architecture, a great deal rides on the house, not least the designer’s reputation. It’s not for nothing that one of the smallest and most primordial building types occupies a disproportionately large amount of space in architecture history books. The diminutive house can even be enlarged into a nationalist symbol, if Heimatstil or the American way of life is any indication. Whether providing basic shelter or space for lavish social entertainment, and whether a repository of objects of sentimental value over successive generations or a rapidly transforming nerve centre for all our soon-to-be-obsolete technological gadgets, the house is always bigger than life. No wonder houses have grown in size and stature despite families becoming smaller over the ages. One’s house is a castle more than ever, it would seem.
A recent house outside Barcelona by architect Josep Ferrando, however, reminds us once again that size is not everything, at least when it comes to architecture. Packing in nooks, crannies and surprises at every turn, this house inside a house downplays grandeur and pomposity in favour of intimacy, comfort and liveability. The result can be seen as a manifesto proclaiming small to be beautiful again.
Situated in the Medieval core of the small town of Sant Cugat del Vallès across some ramparts that once protected an impressive Catalan-Gothic monastic complex, and on a site that drops two storeys from street-front to rear garden, the house is nestled within a historical centuries-old row-house whose stucco front façade and traditional terracotta tiled roof had to be preserved, and whose width between adjacent row-houses is a mere 4.5 m. ‘A cosy fixer-upper with curb appeal and possibilities,’ is how a real-estate agent would undoubtedly describe the original structure.
The new insertion within the historical shell consists of a rectangular concrete block perimeter wall, divided longitudinally by another concrete block wall that defines two parallel spaces of different widths: a living area and a narrower circulation zone enclosing straight-run stairs and landings. The living area is effectively further subdivided in two by a wooden shelving system concealing mechanical systems, such that a central band of space serviced by ancillary bands on either side is reduced to only 3 m in width. This tall, narrow, well-serviced central space accommodates floor space for different living activities on a series of timber platforms supported by angle iron brackets at varying levels. The more ‘public’ of these platforms are open, letting light and views filter through, while other more private platforms for bedrooms and bathrooms are enclosed by oriented strand board to form a series of pavilions with pitched roofs. The resulting iconic house-like rooms take Ferrando’s ‘house inside a house’ motif a step further, almost akin to a Russian matryoshka doll.
The question that immediately comes to mind is: Why make an already narrow house even narrower by positioning stairs and storage walls longitudinally as parallel bands, rather than, say, situating a more compact stair somewhere in the middle of the house, which would create three more squarely proportioned ‘zones’? Hell, the central zone could even be a tall atrium crisscrossed by flying stairs connecting split-level platforms – or as our real estate agent would say: ‘An open, airy, loft-like house ideal for entertaining.’
But then this is, of course, precisely what is usually done with narrow house sites. Every house builder knows that trick. Isn’t architecture about testing alternative ideas, even if these might seem counterintuitive? Otherwise, we would never know what kinds of spaces might actually result, and how these might work in reality. As it turns out, Ferrando’s counterintuitive idea works surprisingly well, creating spaces that are not only better suited to a young family than an open loft-like house, but that are also much more in tune with the house’s historical urban context of narrow streets and alleys, not to mention a general move away – at least in crisis-ridden Mediterranean countries – from grandiose expressions of ostentation and conspicuous consumption.
One thing that this little experiment shows, for example, is the degree to which size is a matter of perception and context. While the central living space is undoubtedly a width that is minimally tolerable, relief is nevertheless offered wherever stair landings necessitate openings in the wall separating the stairs from the living space – ironically doing away with the ‘tunnel’ feeling that would exist if the space were full width. On a smaller scale, the central space is similarly ‘widened’ – and also ‘warmed’ – by the ample knotty-pine storage shelving system along the opposite wall, many of the cubicles of which contain an assortment of tchotchkes, toys and books while others sit empty, inviting items to be collected and placed or just providing visual and psychological breathing room. One thing that is certain is that this house cannot be criticized for a lack of storage space, the most typical complaint heard about modern houses. In any case, the lesson here is that spatial perception matters as much as, if not more than, actual ‘hard’ measurements, since perception is affected by contextual factors that cannot always be empirically measured or pinned down. Isn’t architecture first and foremost a qualitative endeavour?
Herein lies another difference with many modern houses: real-life liveability has not been sacrificed at the altar of architectural experimentation and innovation, but is precisely its subject matter, proving wrong some widely held conceptions about space and liveability. The real-estate agent would probably call this a ‘win-win situation’. Switching over to archispeak, however, we could probably agree that this house fuses Kahnian ideas about served and serving spaces with the Loosian theory of the Raumplan, resulting in a layered palimpsest of complexity and contradiction.