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Stepping stone: Hamra Studio residence, Gotland, Sweden, by Collectif Encore

AR House highly commended: As it flows and extends with the landscape Hamra Studio residence harnesses an immaterial sense of liberty

A pale stone lies among the sand and lime of the Swedish island of Gotland’s southern arm. Flatheaded and barefaced, it rests heavy on the fine-packed earth, lifting a little to expose just a facet of its cool, dark underbelly to the air. It is both sound and uncanny: set firmly in its objecthood, the stone blows the scale of this level plain into shift. It shrinks shrubs and grasses down; the innumerable rabbits that burrow and bounce about the grounds become swift, hairy mites, while the visitor is compelled to clamber, to summit the stone as a child climbing on coastal rocks to feel the full force of the wind, of distance, of that sense of edification bestowed by altitude.

The stone is eerie and runic, and also a house; a dwelling for two, built of light clay block and plastered over with lime. It is home from home for Stockholm-based Birgitta and Staffan Burling, an artist and lecturer, and a teacher, respectively. It is built in the small and well-spread settlement of Hamra, and designed by Anna Chavepayre with Collectif Encore, the practice she co-founded. While from afar the contained whole of the object house shifts and melds with the landscape, on approach it becomes reciprocal. Its resonance dissipates; on skirting the edge to step inside, the unyielding mass of its body becomes cavernous and the scale-shifting pulses subside as it transforms into a hollow shell that bleeds at the edges, becomes light.

‘On approach the scale-shifting pulses subside as it transforms into a hollow shell that bleeds at the edges’

The living room and kitchen pan out, undivided, over the bulk of the space, a timber stair core rising to the left to support a bathroom, bedroom and a small office that looks out over the kitchen. Rather than capture and frame the landscape, taking it into picturesque planes, the walls are porous: great apertures slide open to flood the space in and out with air and circulatory gestures.

In summer, the house expands to the full limits of the site where, amid the shrub and grass, a patio for poetry or dance is planned; in winter, it retreats to become a cosy burrow. Irrespective of the season, the visitor, the inhabitant, is thrown into unfettered relation with nature, beset with an untraceable sense of liberty and flow. The exact mechanisms with which this is produced remain slippery. Surely this invisible and elusive sense of space in utter relation amounts to more than circulation, more than the opening of so many doors. In the absence of obvious material origin, it seems this sense must be seeded in methodological earth, in the ethos that permeates all of Chavepayre and Collectif Encore’s architecture. This bit, the slippery part, is where the house extends beyond the remit of its type, becoming exemplary of practice – for architecture, in this flexibility that often eludes a field founded on the installation of structure, and for any creative pursuit, in its investment in the collective.

Collectif Encore works across landscape and architecture as one: nature taking over the house, the house becoming a forest, the living room a clearing. The flow might emerge from the fields of interaction between Chavepayre, her practice and the often-silent bodies of authorship that go uncredited. She met Birgitta Burling while both were working at the KTH Stockholm School of Architecture and, while she describes the commission as really having stemmed from the specificity of that relationship, she says too that her work is inextricable from her collaboration with her partners at Encore. She speaks as if she is giving herself over to the notion of collectivity: ‘I am completely with my clients, with the builder, with the birds and the trees. We are the landscape and we are the architecture’.

Site plan

Site plan

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A triad forms between architect, client and builder: one of synthesis and concession. Chavepayre recalls how the drainpipes made to funnel out water and collect it in great garden barrels were lengthened by the builder, Allan Wahlby, to protect his precious lime plasterwork. She recalls also how she had originally disputed Birgitta Burling’s desire to site the house so close to the admittedly less-trodden roadside, her assent based on trust held in her client’s care and understanding of the site: ‘We say it’s not the thing you know well that you can love, but it’s by love that you can really know something. Birgitta really loved it there’.

Loaded into the matter of the house, such distances made from singular, authoritative control give Hamra the semblance of a manifesto, each compromise solidified in a glossary of incremental challenges to an individualism that profits from division. Burling believes – or hopes – that we might be moving away from such contemporary designations of authorship, the long arc of history bending back towards the kind of collective action she remembers from the ’70s. In the same breath she reasserts the inalienable role played by Chavepayre in the realisation of the project: the role of the architect shifting from heroic author to facilitator, as she pulls from the pool of site and subject matters to coordinate form from differing desires.

Section and floorplan

Section and floorplan

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Chavepayre tells me this comes through conversation, from a style of working that eschews highly detailed visualisations in favour of drawing; drawing quickly, talking, rehashing and drawing again, constructing in the space between architect and client a framework for the formation of habit. Thus, the house becomes a receptacle for eccentricities to unfold with native reason, the patterns of everyday life not treated as set, but as occasions to be invented afresh: to climb up to the roof, to sit with legs dangling over the broad ledge of the large central window or cross-legged on the floor by the fire. There are also instances of the ecstatic – the bath, for example, called ‘throne’ and set deep into the stair’s landing but connected to the kitchen by line of sight, ‘so that Birgitta can call to Staffan to deliver a cocktail’, Chavepayre explains.

Whether or not this actually happens is perhaps immaterial: the conversation has already disrupted convention, the architecture offering itself up for manipulation, for extension to and with the body. The details are designed to disappear, requiring great precision from Wahlby, and through use – the capital A of ‘Architecture’ – all volumetric intersections and prestige detailing become ‘invisible’, as Chavepayre terms it, meaning that it is operational, that it dissolves and fades into eminent habitability.

‘The house becomes a receptacle for eccentricities to unfold with native reason, the patterns of everyday life not treated as set, but as occasions to be invented afresh’

While navigating the complex intersections of the triad, the house was also subject to pressures from an institutional edge. In southern Gotland, strict limitations are placed on new buildings, directing the replication of the small farmhouses scattered across the countryside; having to be plastered in lime, set rising directly from the ground, with a given angle to the roof and no more than 100m² in area, 6.5m total height and 3.5m in height at the side, much of the design was predetermined. Rather than bemoan such stricture, this regulation is treated as a well of inspiration: ‘You don’t get lawyers complaining that there are too many laws. Without laws there can be no play’.

The sentiment gives detail to the apparently dichotomous terms with which Chavepayre introduces Encore: ‘pragmatic and magical’. Likewise pragmatic – heated entirely by geothermal energy conserved by the insulating clay – the building is also ecologically conscious: concrete is used sparingly, for the foundations and the base of the stair, while barrels stand by the long drains, supporting irrigation in Gotland’s dry climate. This pragmatism does not work in opposition to the magic – it acts instead as a generator. Cutting the roof at its apex gives room to a second floor inside, while obeying the code; angling the concrete base up from the ground is intended to make the building a fortress against mice. Rather than detract, however, these are the moments in which the house becomes sculptural, becomes a stone, in which it shifts the landscape, becoming resonant and object.

‘The home – as physically built, collected, mentally constructed or performed – is the grain of sanctuary from which habits form and extend, from which stems the production of everyday life’

There seems to be a certain conviction that the house as a type, being architectural bread and butter, is necessarily limited in what it can achieve. Burling tells me that some such mutterings followed the decision to award Hamra the 2018 Kasper Salin Prize; this annual prize for Swedish architecture had never before been awarded for a private house, and Hamra was up against sizeable public projects by Bjarke Ingels Group, Wingårdhs and Wikerstål. Burling recalls that in some award coverage, the house was misrepresented as being somehow public; she cites these as attempts to retroactively qualify its selection.

The house is denigrated by such an attitude. Architecture, in all its definitions, is poorer for it. The house, this house, is not just a starting point for architects to build their practice: the home – as physically built, collected, mentally constructed or performed – is the grain of sanctuary from which habits form and extend, from which stems the production of everyday life. The award constitutes a statement that not only is this house exceptional, it represents something exemplary in all of architecture. It suggests there is something to be learned. As Chavepayre puts it: ‘In this time of climatic crisis, in which nobody knows what to do or how we should work, perhaps the greatest impact on the world will be made through a change of perspective’. Material changes might be easily co-opted, subsumed as they find completion; the house as a ‘starting point’ suddenly becomes an opportunity for a site of resistance, humble beginnings retooled as an originary change for the better.

Architect Anna Chavepayre with Collectif Encore
Photographs Michel Bonvin, unless otherwise stated

This piece is featured in the AR July/August issue on AR House + Social housing – click here to purchase your copy today 

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