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Staircase to heaven: Casa de Piedra, Cáceres, Spain, by Tuñón Arquitectos

AR House awards 2019 shortlisted: Tuñón Arquitectos’s restrained cubic form of traditional local quartzite fuses with the natural lines and undulations of its setting

‘We don’t think enough about staircases’, Georges Perec lamented in 1974. Chance upon a staircase that engenders not just thought but extolment – such as the spiral structure at the heart of Tuñón Arquitectos’s Casa de Piedra – and it becomes clear that such a construction is a rarity and that we, indeed, do not think about staircases enough. But what a delightful thing it is when we – architects especially – do.

 ‘The autonomous object in the atrium – a highly sculptural staircase – corkscrews gently upwards, referencing the rise and fall of the surrounding terrain’

Tucked away in Cáceres – a western province of Spain bordered by sundry valleys, gorges and mountain ranges – Casa de Piedra presents itself as an unassuming cubic form; a stark prismatic volume interrupted by large oak-framed windows. The term ‘prismatic’ is also found in the lexicon of geology – which gains relevance with the knowledge that Cáceres is regarded as one of Spain’s most mineral-rich provinces. The architects took note of the region’s repute, nodding to it in the naming of the house (piedra translates as ‘stone’), and leaning into it through the sourcing of some of the finest local materials. It is touches like these – subtle, knowing, full of thought – that contribute to the sense that this has been an intellectual exercise as much as it has been one of design and assembly.

For web 1

For web 1

Source: Luis Asin

Expressly approaching a project in such a way tends to yield less than satisfactory results, with spaces that are too cerebral, too conceptual, too cool for their own good. But while Casa de Piedra – on first appraisal – does read as blocky, singular and broadly austere, the reduction of the plan to dense linearity presents a scheme that coheres to the natural lines and undulations of neighbouring plots. Furthermore, closer inspection reveals a considered interplay between the house’s materiality and the surrounding landscape: local quartzite has been hewn and fashioned into a rustic facade, while an Extremaduran granite-framed indoor window – aligned, somewhat aberrantly, to the corner as opposed to the centre of the wall – dots each room, and draws the eye outwards.

Ar house shortlist tunon arquitectos crop

Ar house shortlist tunon arquitectos crop

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The house’s elegantly wrought interiors of sleek wood panels, simple white concrete finishes and modular units are highly satisfying and evoke mid-20th-century luminaries such as the Eameses and Edward Wormley. Nevertheless, the autonomous object in the atrium – a highly sculptural form, corkscrewing gently upwards and referencing, again, the rise and fall of the surrounding terrain – is a feat worth dwelling on. The architects, in a moment of sheer ingenuity, enlisted a Bilbao-based boat manufacturer to create the structure as an ‘autonomous object’. As such, it feels apt to set the staircase aside for individual praise.

The architects explain: ‘The volume [of the house] accommodates nine cubic spaces … which serve different domestic uses’ – a refreshingly casual approach to the more dogmatic formal arrangement of domestic space. Old axioms may persist but Casa de Piedra proffers a compelling alternative modus operandi, one that asserts that uniform space of fixed dimensions – designed with reverence for, and a view of, what lies beyond – can be just as habitable as space formed to be uniquely suited to a proposed function. The late Perec wrote extensively of spaces, built and unbuilt, and their functions. He was, at times, a bit of a traditionalist with regard to how spaces could, should be and are used. But even he would have been very pleased with Casa de Piedra – the staircase especially.

All photographs by Luis Asín

The AR July/August issue on AR House + Social housing is available to buy here

Tara Okeke 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 the Architectural Review and you can read more about it here

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