House in Alcobaça, Portugal by Aires Mateus
Transmuted into a spectral abstraction of its former self, a ruined house in Alcobaça comes back from the dead
When Manuel and Francisco Aires Mateus were commissioned to design this house, their initial intention was to renovate the existing structure. But as the project developed they decided that their notion of heritage was not about fabric but about scale, about the typical urban legacy of the city’s historic centre. So, they contend, it is the scale of the construction that was to be protected and not its language, material or colour.
In view of its ruined state, the practice ruled out refurbishment and instead conceived of treating the existing condition as a void, limited by four walls. Aires Mateus have described this as a first moment of ‘crystallisation of a memory, where all elements kept from the existing house are treated to have the same look and texture. The walls are chiselled, the windows and doors are enclosed, and both rendered in tin-coated plaster painted white’. And it is this whitewash − that covers pretty much everything but the lawn − that is the most striking feature of the house.
Sited on an irregular plot in Alcobaça, steeply sloped toward the river Baça, this is a 475sqm building arranged over three floors, extending the existing structure to the side at the lower level, set in a walled garden. There are two entrances: more dramatically through the street front into the intermediate level of the void space; or from a side street through the garden, directly to the main living floor.
Organisationally, the interior places the three family bedrooms at the lower level, each served by a small courtyard. Family life unfolds horizontally through the kitchen, dining and living space, which opens to the garden and to the landscape through a large window. Other rooms are distributed more freely, as volumes that spiral along the exterior walls surrounding and defining a large, slightly Piranesian, central triple-height void. The intermediate level houses the guest bedroom and bathroom; the top floor, a library.
This play between a vertical development within the existing house and a horizontal development at lower level is where the functional dimension intersects with a dimension of pleasure. This was at the heart of the commission: the client’s belief that ‘architecture is very close to sculpture’, and the challenge for the architects to come up with a ‘revolutionary house for a reactionary milieu’. This dimension of pleasure − of spaces that are not absolutely necessary − develops vertically and culminates in the library.
To achieve this, light and form come into play. The inverted staircase below the access to the top floor, for example, mirrors the staircase leading to the lower level; or the excavated route compressed within the thickness of the wall for you to ascend from the garden to the car park; or where a raindrop silhouette runs around the walls through the geometry of the skylight. ‘The raindrop is a tribute to Siza,’ say the architects. ‘We felt we needed a top light to reveal the vertical dimension of the void. We designed an edge on one side, and on the other a sculptural gesture, which becomes immediately recognisable.’
Reading the plans gives a further sense of the architects playing with tradition, inversion and ambiguity. Using black and white not to distinguish between void or filled, but between served and servant spaces, the drawings coincide with the expression of an archaic construction system based on large, deep sustaining walls, and in the built form, where the depth of closets, or even small narrow rooms, are added to the wall membrane thickness to gain mass. So what you see from the outside acquires the expression of an archetypal tectonic, without ever losing sight of the clearly contemporary expression of the ensemble.
And what of the interior qualities of the house? Surprisingly, light is plentiful and well tempered, contrary to the glare you might expect from the reflective white surfaces. When the light needs to be dimmed, filter elements have been introduced, such as the patios that work as light-wells to the areas of the house away from the facade. Both the effort to control the house’s privacy and the extraordinary depth to the walls contribute to this comfortable internal light quality.
Cuts through the existing walls juxtapose the contemporary intervention with the original structure in the chessboard-like composition of openings typical of Aires Mateus, where rigorous geometry is matched by rigour in the construction. To the outside this suggests an apparent zero thickness of the pavement slab. To achieve this, the slab is receded and the window covers its thickness; from the inside, however, to see the bottom of the window disappear below the pavement looks awkward and artificial.
Given the extent of the intervention and the absence of much of the original building, you wonder whether the same strategy − of preserving the building scale and the urban condition that built the city’s historic centre − could not have been achieved with a new construction altogether. Aires Mateus confirm this was a fundamental question through the design process. But they decided the existing building, and its scant architectural elements, should remain as something to hold on to.
The decision to retain the former window frames derived from this need to keep some stable elements, from which to break free, disruptively, to activate the latent conflict between modern and traditional architecture. And suddenly this becomes yet another antinomy, existing/new, or traditional/modern adding successfully to the Aires Mateus modus operandi.
Set in the larger context of the practice’s body of work, the house contributes to ongoing research based on a great coherence between vocabulary and process, and an understanding of architecture as a ‘will to form’, through a minimalist lineage where tectonic is limited to few elements, to make the volume and surface come to the fore.
Solutions to perfect the minimal quality of the space include door handles replaced by a slit running along the edge of the door making it possible to pull it open, while the common lock is substituted by a spring lock. The bathtub is flush with the pavement, so it does not break with the planes of walls and floor. In the kitchen, as in the living space, all equipment is stored behind closet doors.
The tendency to abstraction reduces the expression of materials to a coat of paint, all things relentlessly white. The marble floor is white, as are all fixtures and fittings: doors, handrails, window frames, walls and ceiling, in spite of their difference in materiality − even the induction cooking stove, on top of the white Corian kitchen table, is white. On the outside, walls and roof are white.
Aires Mateus refer to the concept behind their architecture as an acknowledgement of materiality, that ‘we cannot run away from the idea of having a certain materiality on the project, on the construction. That we really accept the idea that it will have to be built, that it will have materials, that there is a certain heaviness in that condition’. And yet everything in the construction denies materiality, eludes the construction lexicon, to achieve the abstract and diagrammatic aspect of form and surface.
Perhaps this idea of materiality can better be understood as a more specific research into the idea of limit, and its expression. ‘It’s very important for us the relation of the project to context, but it’s also important the idea of a certain independence of spaces. And that this space that is dealing with the context and the interior can become a limit, a field, which can be explored.’ And so it is explored − as a repository of depth, of the material image of classic construction.
Architect: Aires Mateus
Photographs: Fernando Guerra/VIEW