The house is in a very small town on the top of a limestone hill by the Foix dam. The hill belongs to the Serralada Prelitoral, that separates the catalan coastal areas from the interior territories. On top of the hill, a castle. It was built in the Xth century, and it has a romanesque church. At its base, a dam. It was built in 1928, and around it the Parc Natural del Foix was created in 1993. Its location and the views from the town over the dam and the Penedès, a wining region, have prevented it from being abandoned. Instead, it has become quite a popular place for foreigners to buy some of its affordable empty houses and spend their holidays there. Its picturesque location and the ancient blanket that the castle throws over the town has shaped its insular character over the years. It is a place of stone, limestone mortar and walled waters.
BuilderVILELLA CONSTRUCTOR, TIMBERLAB
The house among portals, untamed rudiments
How to turn an old house made of nine rooms isolated from each other into portals which its large family can inhabit according to their changing daily, seasonal and lifelong needs?
TERRITORY / ECOSYSTEM
NEEDS AND HOPES
An architecture of the well-traveled environment
Kirsten and Nico got one of these houses. They live in Paris and they need a place to spend time close to two of their kid’s grandparents. Another gravitational reference. They run Faircompanies, and this place might also become their permanent abode in the future. Through many years of traveling around the world producing videos for their very popular Youtube channel, they have acquired a wide and open understanding of frugal and courageous modes of habitation, and they wish to apply and develop some of the ideas gathered along the way in making their own place. As for many other travelers, this house might not become the center of the world for them, but rather another moon that constantly revolves around their life.
The house sits straight on the rock, on the low ridge where the town has been built on, facing the pantà de Foix to the south and a hundred meters below. This manmade body of water brings up a cool breeze in the dry and sun beaten summer days. It also reflects its light bringing it up into the house.
The rock brings humidity in, specially after the strong seasonal floods endemic of this side of the Mediterranean.
Before we started transforming it, the house was basically nine rooms, some were not even connected between them. The house was in fact almost three houses side by side. In section, very distinct floors: the basement, at the edge of the dam level, was a ramshackle workshop, and two dark cellars, where the rocky hill surfaced, bringing extreme humidity in. The ground floor contained the living room, a small bathroom, the kitchen and a bedroom. The first floor was under three different roofs. It had a bedroom, and then two uninhabitable spaces which were too low.
There are neither material manufacturers nor builders and carpenters in the town or in its near vicinity. Due to the presence of the castle, the whole town anatomy is protected through an old, unclear heritage plan which tries to maintain its pintoresque looks intact. Paradoxically, it is turning the town into a catalogue of rustic designs.
This is how the house was:
Cross section towards the dam
These nine rooms were too isolated from each other and the outdoors. Its structure was in good shape, although the southern end of the top floor roof needed to be removed if it was to be made inhabitable. This end corner of the house had the biggest potential in terms of opening it to the surrounding views. The basement would have to be ventilated to improve its air quality, regulate its excessive humidity and prevent efflorescences to emerge on the side where the hill enters the house.
SEARCH AND PLAN
Living in the doorstep, dwelling along thresholds
How to increase communication of these nine rooms among themselves and with the immediate and far surroundings? Horizontally, by taking the doors away, making the resulting holes much bigger, and opening new ones where there is none; vertically, by removing parts of the existing floors and roofs. We build deep thresholds where we place all services and some domestic functions, untaming and freeing the rooms from any pre-established program. By inverting the common sense logic, static actions are based now in these thresholds, which also contribute to reinforcing the structure of the house. Substracting part of the existing floors brings more space inside, which feels bigger, and cross ventilation to all the rooms. A new roof at the west-end room makes this attic not only inhabitable, but enjoyable, opening up to views of the pantà de Foix, while bringing a totally foreign haptic quality -wood- into town. This serene roof room works as a big wind chimney, funneling humidity from the lower floors by manually regulating air pressure.
Can a house be untamed?
Cross section towards the dam
A house can do without bedrooms. There is no house if there are no beds. How can a house have no defined bedrooms and still provide the best possible situations for sleeping, resting, healing, making love?
Doors out (Out of doors)
Material subtraction makes the house lighter, and stone is substituted by breezes from water and from inhabitants passing by. These widened new openings need a structure. On the basement, where gravity holds the house to the rock, and where its forces are bigger, it is made of concrete blocks. On the ground floor, it is gero ceramic bricks, which will let less weight through. And on the top floor, to make it as light and easy to lift as possible, while channeling the breeze coming up from the dam, GL24h and KV-H pine frames hold the sky and channels the rain.
Concrete block basement.
Brick ground floor.
Wood first floor.
We take out whatever is in bad condition, and introduce three standard structural pieces within the house -concrete blocks, bricks and 10×10 cm pine studs. Transformation stages:
The house only fully revealed to us once the construction started. The noise of stones falling, dust of the going floors, the scorched walls. The more light got in, the older the rooms looked, the darker the corners turnt. In every visit, each wall became more present, fragmented, more broken and of itself, and less aligned with our plans.
As in many towns built around a castle, some of the stones found in the house might have been part of it. A blurred extension of an ancient life, of a long gone atmosphere. Every week the house became more medieval, in a more remote time that we couldn’t reach. Our sketchy and robust plan allowed us to make ultra-local decisions that were atonal, unelegant, loosely executed, thus erasing the last prejudices of our project and letting an older, more imperfect house to surface. We embraced material human error in all its time scales, when the changing moods of the builders’ hands are welcomed.
Ground and first floor
Besides reusing half of the existing roof tiles, we also repositioned the concrete beams from the former floors in the new openings and thresholds. We also calibrated how the breeze from the dam gets on through the house upwards, and how the rain can go back down to the dam without eroding the earth in between.
Concrete block basement.
Brick ground floor.
Wood first floor.
A DAY IN THE LIFE
José Hevia documented the house right after Kirsten and Nico had spent their first days there. We asked him to focus on the thresholds, and the new portals that had emerged after our intervention:
A few days after moving in, Nico shared with us this text by Carl Jung that very much reminded him of the house:
It was in a house I did not know, which had two storeys. It was “my house”. I found myself in the upper storey, where there was a kind of salon furnished with fine old pieces in Rococo style. On the walls hung a number of precious, old paintings. I wondered that this should be my house and thought, “Not bad”. But then it occurred to me that I did not know what the lower floor looked like. Descending the stairs, I reached the ground floor. There everything was much older. I realised that this part of the house must date from about the fifteenth or sixteenth century. The furnishings were medieval, the floors were of red brick. Everywhere it was rather dark. I went from one room to another, thinking, “Now I really must explore the whole house.” I came upon a heavy door and opened it. Beyond it, I discovered a stone stairway that led down into a cellar. Descending again, I found myself in a beautifully vaulted room which looked exceedingly ancient. Examining the walls, I discovered layers of brick among the ordinary stone blocks, and chips of brick in the mortar. As soon as I saw this, I knew that the walls dated from Roman times. My interest by now was intense. I looked more closely at the floor. It was of stone slabs and in one of these I discovered a ring. When I pulled it, the stone slab lifted and again I saw a stairway of narrow stone steps leading down to the depths. These, too, I descended and entered a low cave cut into rock. Thick dust lay on the floor and in the dust were scattered bones and broken pottery, like remains of a primitive culture. I discovered two human skulls, obviously very old, and half disintegrated. Then I awoke.
Kirsten, Nico and ourselves documented the whole design and construction process on video. They are very good at filming and editing other people’s stories about their houses. They undertook the challenge to do the same with their own house. This is the result:
As they move from one room to another, the family embarks in a constant inauguration of the rudiments of passing by, a brief leaving and coming, a passage with no arrival or departure. Inhabiting the going:
Sitting out there on the street, rising on tables and chairs, five people talking and listening to each other.