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Casa A by Smiljan Radic, San Clemente, Maule Region, Chile

Smiljan Radic’s atmospheric and humble restoration of an existing A-frame structure. Photography by Gonzalo Puga

To anyone unfamiliar with his work, Smiljan Radic’s recently completed Casa A is an encompassing example of the architect’s style. With an eye for preservation, regional sensitivity and the intersection of art and architecture, 44-year-old Radic executes buildings that are both phenomenally atmospheric and surprisingly humble.

Born of Croatian descent, Radic is known for being both press-shy and for having strong art connections through his partner and collaborator Marcela Correa, a sculptor with whom he shares Casa A. Early in his career, projects in Italy and Greece as well as a tenure at the Istituto Universitario di Architettura di Venezia briefly took Radic out of Chile and earned him critical success.

Located in a forest in San Clemente, a few hours south of Santiago, the house is a renovation of an A-frame that was built 35 years ago. The original structure featured a tin roof with a side entrance cut into one of the slanted walls. The house sat on a trussed timber foundation and included a smaller pitched shed attached to one side.

Radic’s renovation included stripping the roof, removing the shed, tearing out everything but the frame of the ground floor, replacing the foundation with masonry and creating a low brick platform that extends beyond the house to form terraces on either side, which angle down into ramps. The entrances were moved to the end of the A-frame and the upper-floor fenestration and cladding was overhauled.

Given the amount of work undertaken in the renovation (virtually everything but the most basic components of the frame were transformed) it is not surprising that this looks as much like a Radic project as any of his new builds. This is in part due to the exterior gestures, which include garage-style sliding doors and a new widow’s walk along the spine of the roof’s apex, as well as Radic’s style of interior design, which is both hungrily stark and comfortingly rustic. As he explains: ‘The only relevant formal decision I took was to “whiten” the interior: paintings from the walls, along with their nails, were all removed.’

The design of the house had to be relatively straightforward. This was partly because the contractor wasn’t familiar with technical drawings and so worked from basic sketches. Also Radic - who likes to be involved with construction - could only oversee the detail work on his infrequent visits to the site. But allowing local labour to determine the outcome of a project is something Radic believes in. Projects such as his Charcoal Burner’s Hut in Culiprán from 1999, in which he used traditional construction techniques for making charcoal to bake a domed clay house from the inside, reveal his fascination with craft. This, like his architecture, doesn’t manifest in an obsessive fussiness but rather a more relaxed, inquisitive approach.

From the exterior, the house looks like a pavilion, or even an installation. Correa, a sculptor whose work appears in many of Radic’s projects, scattered 60 monolithic stones about the lot and on the terraces.

Coupled with the absolute starkness of the project, the widow’s walk projecting overhead and the blackness of the materials, the quality is both meditative and theatrical - an interactive space that is, given its simplicity, active rather than passive.

The setting of the house, reflecting Radic’s reverence of nature, is key to its success. His 2006 Punta Pite house in Papudo was buried under a rocky driveway covered with Correa’s sculptures. Approaching it from a hillside highway, it’s easy to miss until you realise you’re parking on top of it. Rather than add to the rocky landscape of the cliffs overlooking the Pacific, Radic embeds the house into it and emphasises only the rocks he’s used to decorate it.

Given this attitude, it should come as no surprise that in the course of my exchanges with Radic, he emailed through a gritty image of Joseph Beuys’ 1966 artwork Homogeneous Infiltration for Piano with no explanation. None was needed. The piece - a piano covered in felt - represents a large body of Beuys’ work in its muted palette, material cloaking and haunting symbolism. There is a lightness in its dark absurdity, a quality that’s also strongly apparent in Radic’s works.

Of all the Radic projects I’ve visited - Mestizo Restaurant in Santiago, the houses at Punta Pite and the Ochoalcubo development in Marbella (Chile) - the atmosphere verges on the melancholic, with raw materials (including Correa’s work), dark colours and strong geometries. Yet perhaps given Chile’s climate, or because his material sensibility is acute enough to prevent it, these aren’t depressing spaces. They are organic, unfussy, and they connect gracefully with nature. These characteristics figure prominently in Casa A, a project with undertones of religion, performance and spectacle that is decidedly Radic.

Architect Smiljan Radic, Santiago, Chile
Collaborator Marcella Correa
Building contractor Marcelino López

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