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Holiday pay: vacation homes by Living Architecture in the U.K. and Solo Houses in Matarraña, Spain

Secular Retreat by Atelier Peter Zumthor and Solo Houses by Pezo von Ellrichshausen and OFFICE KGDVS are drivers for a new form of architectural consumption

Initial sketches were rudimentary, organic in their delineation and primal in their expression. Solid, rough-hewn pieces of stone were assembled, overlapping, on what was modelled as an uncared-for terrain, strewn with moss, pebbles and twigs. Reminiscent of Anne Holtrop and Ensamble Studio’s casting experiments, where man-made elements emerge out of moulds carved in the earth, Peter Zumthor’s early proposal for Living Architecture was at the time glibly interpreted by Alain de Botton as suggestive of a ‘prehistoric catastrophe’.

‘It is perhaps no surprise to see architecture becoming the stuff of collections and exhibitions’

After 10 years in the making, the Swiss architect’s first UK commission is finished, and it looks nothing like a prehistoric catastrophe. Lines have been straightened, matter compacted into vertical walls, and the house sits on a pristine piece of landscaped English countryside buffeted by westerly gales, overlooking south Devon’s rolling hills of green. It is also officially the last property to be rented out to holiday-goers by Living Architecture, the final piece in de Botton’s collection of habitable artefacts.

Atelier peter zumthor secular retreat living architecture architectural review model tc 1

Atelier peter zumthor secular retreat living architecture architectural review model tc 1

Source: Atelier Peter Zumthor

Deemed ‘just too big’ by Living Architecture, Zumthor’s original proposal was significantly larger – and, perhaps more problematically, more difficult to build and therefore more expensive. The project was granted planning in 2011 before the Swiss architect was asked to revise the drawings

In the time it took to scale down, simplify and eventually build the revised project, Zumthor completed another, more modest, structure on British soil – once it was publicly announced that he was working on his first project in the UK, Hans Ulrich Obrist and Julia Peyton-Jones swiftly invited him to design the 2011 Serpentine Pavilion in Hyde Park.

Living Architecture arose out of ‘a crisis’ in de Botton’s writing. Published just a few years earlier, his Architecture of Happiness had been well-received by the general public (the book even had its own moment in the spotlight, a favourite read of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character in 500 Days of Summer, supposedly adding credibility to the protagonist’s professional endeavours), but de Botton professed that a book ‘doesn’t change the world’ – but large, built interventions might.

Changing the world might sound overambitious, but there is something to be said about the importance of ‘experiencing’ architecture. Of pushing doors open, walking into and looking out of it. Of witnessing the passing of time, the moving of shadows and the changing colours of light bouncing off walls. Some buildings, and those by the Swiss master more so than most others, need to be smelled, and stroked, and savoured slowly.

Atelier peter zumthor secular retreat living architecture architectural review model tc 1 secular retreat zumthor 1

Atelier peter zumthor secular retreat living architecture architectural review model tc 1 secular retreat zumthor 1

Source: Atelier Peter Zumthor

An early design for the Living Architecture commission, which was later scaled back

As Zumthor himself likes to underline, he is not interested in doing buildings ‘for a quick return’. The simplified, revised plan is described summarily as ‘block, block, and a roof’, but the Devon house has kept the early proposal’s ingrained qualities. Horizontality prevails, the roof’s heavy cantilevering slabs of white concrete dissolving in front of an uninterrupted panorama of soft-edged hills. With local aggregates poured into the mix in an attempt to absorb the surrounding landscape, the castle-thick walls and stout pillars of hand-rammed concrete evidence the laborious manual process – to each day a wobbly joint. The floor is composed of an irregular pattern of limestone paviours, each unique in size, meticulously tessellated. Raw in its materiality, the house is impeccable in its execution.

Whether they mark the apotheosis of a style (think Fallingwater, Villa E-1027 and Farnsworth House), or the radical departure of an established language (think Adolf Loos’s anachronistically alpine Khuner Villa), weekend retreats and vacation homes have proved to be some of the most experimental and extravagant houses designed by architects – not always without tribulations, but isn’t that the ineluctable concomitant of explorative and innovative pursuits?

Atelier peter zumthor secular retreat living architecture architectural review original plan zumthor drawing tc 1

Atelier peter zumthor secular retreat living architecture architectural review original plan zumthor drawing tc 1

Plan of the original, bigger design for Living Architecture’s Secular Retreat

Throughout its history, architecture has been heavily reliant on wealthy clients and ambitious patrons who aspired to see their ideas materialised into the world. In Antiquity, Roman emperor Hadrian conceived of masterpieces such as the Pantheon as a triumphant display of his will and beneficence – still the largest dome ever built with unreinforced concrete. As the industrial revolution sparked an unprecedented increase in wealth in the 19th century, business magnates became philanthropists and funded spectacular public buildings through a sense of moral and social duty. The global economy has significantly hindered these ambitions, and buildings are now mostly required to be financially profitable. Our system of values has shifted, and it is perhaps no surprise to see architecture becoming the stuff of collections and exhibitions, seeking refuge in the arms of alternative institutions, finding comfort in artistic enterprises.

Peter zumthor secular retreat living architecture drawings architectural review

Peter zumthor secular retreat living architecture drawings architectural review

Secular Retreat by Atelier Peter Zumthor for Living Architecture – click to download

A year after Zumthor’s house started on site, a wander in and around the 1:1 architectural installations exhibited at London’s Royal Academy for Sensing Spaces prompted French real estate developer Christian Bourdais and Spanish art producer Eva Albarran to mastermind the ‘first architecture collection in Europe’, a project that has evolved to both resemble and move away from Living Architecture.

Rather than being dispersed across hilly fields and salty coastlines and compiled into a national inventory of holiday hideouts, the pair’s brainchild Solo Houses includes a concentration of holiday retreats in the untarnished wilderness of secluded Matarraña, a mountainous region of red rocks and green oaks in eastern Aragon, bordering the Spanish regions of Valencia and Catalonia. ‘The compromises necessary to construct a building are killing the architecture’, believes Bourdais, whose intention is to give the designers he commissions carte blanche.

Unlike houses for everyday life, its routine and implicit sense of duty and restraint, holiday homes help liberate conventions. They call instead for ‘a degree of informality, unpredictability, even exuberance’, believes Mauricio Pezo, one half of Pezo von Ellrichshausen, the first practice to have completed a Solo House in Matarraña. ‘Perhaps that is the real pursuit of a holiday home; to be able to alter the perception of time, passing from the linear sequence of our daily life to the circular time of idleness and boredom’, continues the practice’s other half, Sofia von Ellrichshausen.

Solo house pezo von ellrichshausen drawings architectural review

Solo house pezo von ellrichshausen drawings architectural review

Solo House by Pezo von Ellrichausen - click to download

The Chileans built a long succession of steps in the forest leading to a concrete plinth, suspended above the landscape. Climbing upstairs, a rectangular ring of narrow rooms, closer to an enfilade of balconies than traditional interiors, surround the deep swimming pool. The ‘circular time of idleness’ is taken a step further and materialised in the hollowed-out plan of OFFICE Kersten Geers David van Severen’s round house, the second Solo project currently available for holiday-goers.

Commissions from Living Architecture and Solo present architects with a blank canvas and free rein: stunning settings with barely any neighbours in sight and generous budgets. Disconnected from its own reality, this architecture enters another dimension and inhabits a parallel world. It is an atypical setting for architecture to thrive in, but not all is lost along the way. ‘Some buildings do not need to solve any problem whatsoever, but to be a problem in themselves’, argues Pezo.

Office kgdvs drawing solo house architectural review 01

Office kgdvs drawing solo house architectural review 01

A drawing of Solo House by OFFICE KGDVS

Time itself is a luxury, ‘more important than money’ according to Bourdais – interestingly, he decided to ask each architect he invited to work with the same ballpark figure, €800,000 for the full, furnished house. While Zumthor is renowned for getting what he wants and nearly all his projects have suffered from interminable delays, his way of working is not the norm. What Living Architecture and Solo Houses provide is a safe space free of protocol, market demand and legislation that invites architects to launch into the world of ideas with the sole brief of designing a holiday home. Unburdened by practicalities, architecture can arguably elevate itself, attempt to break new ground and challenge the wider public to rethink the spaces we live in – even if for just a weekend getaway.

Office kgdvs solo house drawings architectural review

Office kgdvs solo house drawings architectural review

Solo House by OFFICE KGDVS - click to download

While past relics and design heritage have since time immemorial been converted into guest accommodation – even Palladio’s Villa Saraceno can be yours for £20 per head per night, as long as you take 15 friends along – modern and contemporary architecture have lagged behind, less popular destinations for mass tourism. But the trend has veered. Today, several websites compile listings of attractive homes to satisfy, and benefit from, the hunger for architectural tourism – recently completed projects such as Walmer Yard (AR February 2017) and Casa Wabi (AR April 2019) can now easily be booked.

The popularisation of short-term rentals has exploded in the last decade, replacing demand for traditional hotel rooms and ownership of second homes. Airbnb continues to break its own records (as of this month, its website lists more offers than all the rooms operated by the world’s top seven hotel chains combined) and constantly adapts its offering to a changing market. The days when the company was seeking to monetise unused apartment space for travellers on a shoestring by blowing up an air mattress are just a faint, distant memory.

But as the market evolves and explodes, short-term rentals and hotel stays are looking more and more like one another. As Airbnb introduces rental caps (there is a maximum of 120 nights per property in the French capital’s arrondissements 1-4), property managers started looking for tactics to boost revenues despite a reduced number of bookings – charging additional fees for early check-ins or late check-outs, adding payable treats and alcohol in the kitchen, imitating minibars of hotel rooms. Conversely, major hotel corporations are trying to add ‘local flavour’ to their branches.

Planned solo houses drawings renders architectural review

Planned solo houses drawings renders architectural review

Solo Houses started out as a self-funded project but Bourdais is now looking for investment to continue populating the 100-hectare park with projects currently on the drawing board. Rather than a ‘collection of houses’, he prefers to speak of a ‘collection of experiences’

Solo itself is gradually evolving as an idea. Currently on Smiljan Radic’s drawing board is a small hotel building (25 to 30 rooms), which also facilitates check-in and check-out for house guests and provides services such as catering. Berlin-based Kuehn Malvezzi, currently working on one of Matarraña’s upcoming dwellings, further broadens the remit of the holiday house: ‘perhaps it is also something like a retreat or a set. Imagine going to a monastery or making a movie. Like Godard filming Le Mépris at Villa Malaparte’. Reality has already caught up, and it’s not quite as radical as Godard. Living Architecture and Solo Houses are being booked by luxury fashion and lifestyle brands to shoot advertising campaigns.

Like all things, serious built form has been subsumed into a linked socio-capital economy, taking architectural tourism to new heights. The names of the architects represent a significant draw – de Botton referred to Zumthor as ‘the greatest architect in the world’, while Bourdais believes his invited designers are ‘future Pritzker Prizewinners’. Living Architecture and Solo are offering a new, piecemeal model of architectural consumption: low-investment, low-commitment, high-experience.

This piece is featured in the AR September issue on money – click here to purchase your copy today