Earthy, Corpulent and Well-Structured: Mont-Ras Winery by Jorge Vidal and Victor Rahola

IMG_20170327_104546.jpg[Originally published in Baumeister, June 2017]

The Costa Brava’s Empordà region has a long history of exporting wine. Empúries, an Ancient Greco-Roman “emporium”, became an important trading port for commodities such as wine and olive oil in part because the Fluvià River’s claybeds enabled the local manufacture of amphorae for their storage and transportation. Today, the D.O. Empordà appellation extends over two subzones: a larger one in the more northerly comarca of Alt Empordà and a smaller one in that of Baix Empordà. The most widely planted grape variety is Garnacha, whose thick skin is capable of resisting the region’s hot, dry summers and strong Tramuntana winds. Amphorae are of course no longer used today, but an important ceramic industry continues to be active in the area, manufacturing earthenware as well as bricks and ceramic tiles for building construction. The harvesting of cork from the region’s extensive native cork oak forests is another traditional activity in the region, while the more modern “industry” of tourism and leisure has made important inroads from its coastal origins, resulting in a contemporary “patchwork landscape” that can be jarring and surreal in places.

Situated less than two kilometers from the Mediterranean Sea, behind the rocky coastal topographic outcrop of Cape Roig natural park, in Baix Empordà, the Mont-Ras winery is a semi-interred structure occupying a slope that descends from a private house toward a vineyard. It is comprised of four parallel, vaulted, longitudinal spaces of varying width that open southward onto the vineyard, thereby remaining largely out of sight from the adjacent house. The four parallel vaulted aisles, separated in plan by interstitial service strips containing kitchen, bathrooms and mechanical equipment, correspond with the four most essential activities associated with wine-making. These are, in east to west solar order: the cultivation of vineyards, the making of must, fermentation in bottles or barrels, and tasting and enjoyment. This last, most social and representational aisle is situated closest to the house, with which it connects via a separate entrance.

IMG_20170327_102445Wineries are typically semi-buried within sloping terrain, as this provides ideal temperature and humidity conditions for wine-making. In this case, moreover, same-level access to and from the vineyard is conveniently provided while at the same time creating, on the residential side, a raised garden terrace level with the house from which the surrounding landscape can be viewed. Different kinds of vaults are employed both in the roof and within the building’s three retaining walls for structural reasons as well as —to brilliant effect— admitting natural light to an otherwise dark interior. In situ concrete vaults spanning each of the four parallel aisles support the roof-garden, while retaining walls use a series of vertical vaults made of brick to withstand soil and hydrostatic pressures. Buttressed by the regularly-spaced concrete columns supporting the roof and featuring skylights at the tops, these exposed-brick vertical vaults become, on the interior, naturally illuminated niches, somewhat like chapels in a church. Thus, the eastern- and western-most aisles of this “church” feature side chapels, with each aisle terminating at an “apse”. The brick selected for the vertical vaults is hand-made locally and contains small irregularities that, under the zenithal light, is reminiscent of the brickwork employed by Sigurd Lewerentz at St. Mark’s Church in Bjorkhagen, Sweden.

The 23 niches of this winery become used for purposes that range from the mundane to the ceremonial. In the easternmost aisle, where agricultural tools and equipment are kept, the side-chapels are used for storage, while the side-chapels of the aisle closest to the house contain more domestic elements such as two fireplaces, a television, and art objects. While the easternmost apse contains a laboratory used by the winery’s enologist, the westernmost apse contains a sculptural, solid-concrete wine-tasting bar that forms a veritable altarpiece against the backdrop of the curving, skylit artisanal brick wall.

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Curiously, in both Spanish and Catalan, the word “nave” means not only the central aisle of a church but also a ship, a factory or a warehouse: any construction using a linearly extruded structural system. With its vaulted naves, side chapels and apses; its wine-tasting altar and its mysterious natural light, the building is indeed a place of congregation and worship as much as it is a small factory. While its internal organization into parallel bands recalls the Kimbell Art Museum by Louis Kahn, the Civil Gothic Shipyard of Barcelona or, indeed, the Great Mosque of Cordoba, its topographic integration is consistent with vernacular tradition. Although the vertical vaulting forms an integral part of the building’s structural system, it also becomes a highly poetic element under the very daylight it admits. In summary, like a good glass of wine, this building is simultaneously simple and complex.

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About Rafael Gomez-Moriana

I am an architect, writer and educator. rafagomo.com chronicles my architectural making, writing, teaching and curating activity, while criticalista.com is an archive of my writings as well as a platform for venting personal rants and observations. I studied architecture at the University of Waterloo (Canada) and at the Berlage Institute (the Netherlands). I direct the University of Calgary’s architecture term-abroad program in Barcelona and teach at CIEE, and have previously taught in the Metropolis Masters Program in Architecture and Urban Culture as well as at Carleton University and the University of Manitoba.

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