Modest ambitions do not inhibit this economical yet expressive project for a penthouse in Spain
Getting permission to visit the Casa Lude in Cehegín, a town of 16,000 inhabitants in the low mountains of Murcia, in southern Spain, was not entirely straightforward. The owner, a music instructor at a nearby high school, was tired of constantly opening his doors to visiting architects, students and journalists, and didn’t understand what all the fuss was about. For him, it was simply a house he had asked a childhood friend to design − Martín López Robles, who works with Francisco Leiva of the Alicante-based Grupo Aranea. Echoing an oft-repeated quote from the late Spanish architect Alejandro de la Sota, López quips, ‘We gave him hare for cat’ − the inverse of the old Spanish saying about passing off cat meat for rabbit in a paella or a stew.
Though Spain is renowned for its adventurous public buildings, an idea about what architecture might have to offer has not penetrated deeply into Spanish society. The homes in the neighbourhood around the Casa Lude, for example, though neat and well-kept, are without the slightest aesthetic pretension.
In contrast, contemporary public buildings, over-budget and under-used, seem inspired by an idea of conspicuous splendour that survives, direct and undigested, from the decadent royal courts of Imperial Spain. Of course, such extravagance has shown itself unsustainable, as seen in the skeleton of an unfinished auditorium by Martín Lejárraga in Cehegín, as well as an elaborate aquatic park in the old town centre by a young Madrid firm, almost complete but recently abandoned as funds dried up.
But before Spain dismisses architecture as a needless frivolity, works like the Casa Lude might demonstrate what creative design can do to improve everyday life without excessive means or pretensions.
With a budget of €120,000, Lude, as the owner is known, asked the architects to add a penthouse to the modest corner building where his mother and sister live on two separate floors. The architects stretched the new volume to occupy the maximum building envelope permitted. Instead of building up straight from the existing walls, they replaced the existing roof terrace with a new slab, supported on the walls below, that cantilevers over the facades to gain space. On this new platform they erected a lightweight steel-frame structure, and fitted an upper mezzanine within the zoning height limits, expanding the habitable area from 80 to 130sqm.
The roof is also habitable, a 100sqm, multi-level terrace that features a vertiginous stepped slope, both stair and sitting area, which echoes the combined stair and grandstand of the architects’ prize-winning 2009 High School in Raval, in the province of Alicante. The terrace is designed with zones for sun and shade, full exposure and shelter from the wind, and with hook-ups for water and a barbeque. It is enclosed by a single, curvaceous steel tube that swoops up and around the two levels as a balustrade.
Grupo Aranea’s projects are often designed around a rising spiral movement, as in their project for a seawater spa in Gijón, Spain that featured in the 2006 show on Spanish architecture at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Here, they fashion this three-dimensional spatial loop through the device of the stepped slope of the roof. In the open, flowing spaces of the interior, where only the bedroom and bathroom have doors, its angled plane rises to create a double-height zone in the living area that is overlooked by the mezzanine. This sloping ceiling reflects natural light from the upper level into this space, and establishes a spiral interlock between the two levels that continues on the upper terrace.
Another spatial eddy is produced by the narrow stair that rises in two runs from the entry, embracing two sides of the kitchen. Full-height windows are set obliquely in the walls, to capture views down the streets to the surrounding hills, and to shelter the interiors from direct sunlight. Additional light filters into the kitchen and the rear of the flat from a small existing patio. The result is an open, multi-level interior of inviting nooks and lively vistas.The diagonal gesture of the slope is sharply profiled on the exterior facade, together with the planes of the walls, which alternate around the oblique window openings.
All exterior surfaces are finished with a matte polyurethane in a light-grey colour that softens the impact of the southern light. These faceted planes are sensitive to different weather conditions, responding to changes in light with different shades of whites and greys, ranging even to blacks and blues.
When seen at a sharply foreshortened angle in indirect light, they glitter with a reflective brilliance. As a whole, the penthouse reads as an irregular polyhedron parked on top of a modest house, not quite otherworldly, but not quite part of its surroundings either.
The spiral pull of the design carries visitors up to the roof, which visually connects the house to its natural setting, lifting it out of the mundane streets to find its place in the wider world, almost like a Greek temple. Up on the roof, Francisco Leiva eagerly points out the sights, from the choppy roofscape of the houses below, to the profile of the historic town centre on its hill in the near distance, and the surrounding bowl of mountains.
Leiva’s wife and design partner, Marta García Chico, is an agricultural engineer and landscape designer, and their firm’s interest in the larger environmental issues involved in building is evident even here. The spiral movement of this little house is like that of a sprouting seed, an organic life force in vital contact with planet Earth.
Architect: Grupo Aranea
Photographs: Jesús Granada