AR House awards 2019 shortlisted: Ambrosi Etchegaray’s fusion of Modernist restraint and the vernacular in this retreat in Oaxaca segregates eating, sleeping and living in a ritual of water, earth and air
Enveloped in the dense thicket of Oaxaca’s coastal edge in Mexico, Ambrosi Etchegaray’s Casa Volta reveals itself in the familiar vernacular form of three brick vaults. It is the only sign of human inhabitation in a blanket of pin oak (or swamp Spanish oak) trees that extends as far as the eye can see along the Pacific periphery.
Countering expectations a house by the sea might bring, the dwelling retreats into the thicket and closes in on itself – in a manner akin to traditional monastic settlements – around a body of water. This is just one of the many paradoxes characteristic of this retreat.
‘What appears to be a simple vernacular use of materials and form is in fact driven by strong Modernist ideas about independent living’
In contrast to the modern advent of open-plan living, this house is deliberate in its separation and definition of the three domestic functions of eating, sleeping and living. The tripartite plan features two bedrooms housed in two of the vaulted spaces, with the third occupied by an open air kitchen-dining space. Although featuring three externally open courtyards, these do not connect the three functions in a typical way. Instead, one courtyard is a privacy buffer between the two bedrooms, while the other two courtyards connect these bedrooms independently to the living and dining space. In this way, free circulation between the triad of accommodation is restricted. Movement is made repetitive and, in doing so, ritualistic, creating a sense of rotation around the central pool of water.
Externally, the formal expression of the triptych combines both the clarity of Louis Kahn’s Unitarian church and the grace of Glenn Murcutt’s agrarian forms built in the vast Australian Outback. Reed screens – a vernacular material – are contrasted with a modern concrete-frame structure. The latter, however, has a pink hue to match the clay, lending it a rammed-earth aesthetic. The domed form seen in the early Murcutt sketches, with the reed lattices on either side, was conceived to allow cross ventilation in what is a humid climate. Recycled clay-fired bricks were sourced from a nearby kiln, and when combined with large mortar joints lend the vaults a stoic, all-encompassing feel. What transpires is an array of capped, earth-toned pillars enclosing a pool of water, and framing the sky in a symbolic ritual of water, earth and air.
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Internally, the purity of form continues. Clean walls and roofs characterise the internal space of the bedrooms, which have no visible wiring or pipework, unusual given the modern-day disadvantage of encasing services within thick concrete construction. However, it is this same thickness that is used to conceal rather than express. On closer examination, other subtle approaches to the domestic arrangement can be seen. The bedrooms, for example, feature beds that are set very close to the floor. There is a heightened spatial awareness of the horizontal plane as everything feels grounded and closer to earth. This is reinforced by the tactile, earth-like materiality of concrete and clay. Each bedroom also has a private courtyard, further promoting the idea of secluded self-reflection.
Casa Volta is at once a traditional and modern dwelling. What appears to be a simple vernacular use of materials and form is in fact driven by strong Modernist ideas about independent living. In this way the house counters accepted ideas of collective living and habitation, championing instead a self-sufficient and independent attitude to dwelling. The core human activities of eating, sleeping and living are boiled down to the absolute essentials, and are given designated spaces in order to heighten and elevate the human experience. Through this apparent simplicity but inherent complexity, Casa Volta forces us to re-examine our relationship with the everyday ritual of dwelling.
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Marwa El Mubark is an alumnus of the New Architecture Writers (N.A.W.), which is a free programme for emerging design writers, developing the journalistic skill, editorial connections and critical voice of its participants. N.A.W. focuses on black and minority ethnic emerging writers who are under-represented across design journalism and curation. N.A.W. was founded in 2017 by Phineas Harper and Tom Wilkinson with the Architecture Foundation and Architectural Review and you can read more about it here