One of the first lessons every student learns in architecture school is that an architectural design must always be based on a “parti,” or a “big idea” that can be neatly summed up in a simple diagram. As we know, this can sometimes result in constructions that are little more than “built diagrams,” or structures with formalist gestures that have nothing to do with their intended purpose or place. Yet, the arbitrary element of the parti continues to be the very mark of distinction of “architecture”; the auteur gesture that elevates it to a level that is supposedly above building. It would seem that high-quality space or construction is not enough: architecture must always contain something more; something that in many cases nobody has asked for, and that few outside the profession tend to care about. Let’s face it: we architects are incorrigible parti animals.
Is there even such a thing as architecture that is not based on parti? A visit to architect Erwin Broner’s House and studio in Sa Penya, Ibiza, offers a possible answer. Broner, a German Jew who fled Nazism in the 1930s to eventually settle in Ibiza in the 1950s, built the house and studio for his wife and himself in 1960. Casa Broner proves the following: that a work of architecture can be comprised of many small ideas rather than one big idea (unless that itself is taken to comprise a big idea, of course).
Situated on top of a cliff at the edge of the old town of Ibiza, at the foot of a Renaissance era rampart, the Broner house forms part of a tightly knit vernacular urban fabric of whitewashed houses stepping up a slope; the postcard image of many a Mediterranean village. It is entered from a narrow and stepped street through a door in a garden wall that encloses a patio from which a ramp descends to the studio on the lower floor, while a door to a forecourt leads eventually to a dwelling on the upper floor. The ramp descending to the studio is actually a bridge over a high gulley in the cliff, replete with waves crashing on rocks 20 meters below (for safety reasons, the bridge is closed off to visitors). The house’s forecourt, by contrast, is a completely enclosed outdoor room with rustic pine logs forming a pergola overhead. It is punctured by wall-openings framing views of the port and the island of Formentera, and contains a stair leading up to the roof-terrace of the house. Here, a third door opens from the forecourt into the house’s interior living room. The interior of the house is small, but with its many corners, nooks and crannies, not to mention several fireplaces, skylights, and ingenious pieces of transformable furniture designed by the architect himself, the house packs a hell of a lot of design ideas into its approximately 80 square meter area.
The many subtleties and intricacies of the Broner house resist being summed up in a simple diagram. Only a typological diagram describing the overall layout of the house is possible, a layout that has much in common with its vernacular neighbours: it shares party-walls (not to be confused with parti-walls!) with both of its neighbours, it contains several enclosed and semi-enclosed outdoor spaces, and its stairs and services are placed against the longer party-wall in order to maximize the exterior exposure of spaces of inhabitation, i.e. living room, bedroom and downstairs studio. In section, the house is characterized by an upper floor which cantilevers over the garden and —in one corner— over the cliff, but even this highly Modernist move has a clear practical purpose: to gain square meters where few are available, and to shade the studio below from direct sunlight.
Significantly, this house was not designed by Broner for a client, but for himself and his wife as a place to live and work. It is probable, then, that the house evolved and changed over time into what it is today; that it was a site of ongoing architectural experimentation on “small ideas.” Such a program would not have been possible in a house designed to conform to a strict parti, so in a certain sense it can be seen as a space of freedom liberated from the tyranny of a big idea.
[All Photos by Rafael Gomez-Moriana published with permission courtesy Ajuntament d’Eivissa, Museu d’Art Contemporani d’Eivissa, Casa Broner]