ESCRITOS-G: Should we Build a House?
Published at Apartamento Magazine #7
The young architect, Nestor Piriz (ARR architecture), has been working for five years on everything that constructing a house-studio for himself and his family implies. The project, still in the construction phase, is located in Les Planes, Barcelona in a forest environment. The house is a ramp in the shape of a lasso. It surrounds and is surrounded by trees, allowing the spaces and their inhabitants to participate in the environment. It is, above all, a house open to all kinds of happenings.
As always we are accompanied by Ekhi Lopetegi, musician and PhD student, to meet up with Nestor at Ginger in Barcelona.
‘In 1936, in this religious shipyard in Getaria the construction of the plank lined timbering for the empty egg interior of the church has been completed. This casing, here completed with open plans, polyhedronic, irregular and simple, can adapt itself (…), and also adjust itself to mobility as the work and the corrections progress, the coincidences (coincidence within coincidence, as poets and artists of today could think) because here the coincidence, for this wise combination of coincidences, does not exist, here the coincidence (a roll of dice), will not suppress chance.’
‘Once, twice, how many times, during its progress, will a height, an angle, the location of a size, have been corrected, and its trajectory rectified, in the spontaneous and wise (popular) sentiment of what has been lived, in this construction, the spiritual articulation of its perspectives and readings.’
–Jorge Oteiza, Aesthetic of the Egg (egg and labyrinth)–
It’s generally understood that building our own house gives us the opportunity to build it to our own specifications, exactly as we’ve always wanted or desired. We can, apparently, through our own decisions, give shape to our immediate surroundings as if we hadn’t appropriated them, and this would not result in our own alienation. Sometimes more specific problems, concerning relationships between working and living, as in a house-workshop or a house-studio, crop up. Building one’s own house is also a practical architectural problem. How has the relationship between work and life, between domestic and work use, been set?
On the one hand we have a subjective question related to desire, and on the other an objective and practical question related to architecture. From one perspective or another, in both cases we’ve already gone beyond our original motivation to build the house. And above all, the question surrounding the construction of our own house is directed toward the relationship between architecture and life itself.
The problem with this relationship can continue to go off course, for example, analysing from a sociological or political perspective the reasons behind the decision to build a house. The ways in which we approach the problem of the life-architecture relationship are many. However, not everybody appears to question this in depth. Sometimes it appears they can’t situate themselves in a precise place, and their responses, though sensible and full of reason, do not seem to connect with us.
In fact the problem of the life-architecture relationship is more about life than architecture. But not life in general; it’s about one life, it leaves us a story. It’s the story of the decisions one makes, and the first decision of all, before the story begins: the decision to provide shelter to share with others, who are our people. In the end it is towards this decision – which we don’t make alone – that we direct the question of the significance of building our house. And it is in this way, this provision of shelter for ourselves, that architecture takes on its most particular meaning.
However, this is also the story of the construction of the house, of the accidents that occur throughout the whole process; we’ve made architectural decisions. Not only the happy accidents that help us in the creative part of the construction, and those that we can enjoy, but also the accidents that make us commit ourselves to the house, and the house to itself; the accidents which delay its construction longer than desirable, those that reveal faults, inappropriate decisions (in detail and overall), accidents that make it vulnerable. And even including those accidents that happen in life which question the very nature of the house, or those that make us see possibilities in what we hadn’t amended.
In any event, we’re left with a sketch of more arduous, laborious work, which only advances in fits and starts, and which expresses, greatly and in a very specific form, the architecture and its problems, on all levels, while also telling us about the persistence in the decision that has moved us to build our own house.
When somebody creates their house-studio, or a house in which the work undertaken is a craft of whatever kind, we can distinguish between three cases to see which is the most predominant condition, that of working or living. Is it more a ‘house’ or more a ’workplace’? In the case of a writer, for example, a place in the house in which to put the laptop can be appropriated, and this corner or room is already the workplace, without having to further recondition the house. What’s more, it’s work in which a mobility factor exists; the writer doesn’t have to be in the house to be able to work. The opposite of this would be the case of the lighthouse keeper. Here his work determines his way of life, the morphology of his house – a cone frustum tower that withstands the force of the wind and the inclemencies of the weather, rising up to emit light – and the place it’s situated. Its working function has precedence over that of the living space.
In between the two cases we find house-studios, or house-workshops that have a spatial interconnection between both functions, forming an ascending gradient of privacy from the workshop to the living area, but without one function imposing on the other.
Looking at the plan of the house, there’s a line which defines the boundaries of what is the studio, and what is living space. Do you feel the house is more of a studio, or more of a house?
The disposition of the uses and the layout is very fluid, and this zoning or division is almost what interests me least about the house. What I’m interested in is that the spaces have a good orientation, and the way they relate with the place itself. What is currently the studio could be converted over time into an apartment for my daughter, the office could be moved up to the floor above. I can’t see the separation between work zone and living zone; what we are separating is interior from exterior, what is shelter from what isn’t, porches from walkways.
There is always an agenda; in this case it’s that of a family – two children and a couple – and a studio. Where? In the existing context, in a plot deliberately oriented, and most importantly, surrounded by many trees. The overall intention has been to find well-located spaces, modifying the context as little as possible. In fact there’s been no movement of earth, nor the felling of a single tree. I’ve tried to create habitable spaces, and later on I gave them uses, which have changed over time.
What’s always been clear, because of views and orientation, is that the daytime area will be upstairs.
There have been three projects in which the house has evolved a great deal. The first was a schema, well orientated, well placed in so far as function, but very square, in the worst sense of the word. The second was formed in two volumes over which a path leads. In the end, maintaining the intuitive layout of usages, the latter is the combination of one with the other, but closing in on itself like a knot or a lasso. I prefer to call it a lasso, which can be released easily. A knot has the connotation of being more difficult to untie.
Do you believe that the story surrounding the house is important?
Five years have gone by, in which there were also relationship problems, with moments of near separation – times that made me reconsider my plans for the future of what I have in hand. I’d always thought about building a studio, with a house above it, inverting the plan of a living space and garden with rooms upstairs. The other day Mikaela (his daughter) said, ‘Aita, it’s half a life!’ She’s 10 years old, so she perceives that right now it doesn’t matter whether the construction work takes a month longer or not.
Time and the needs of each moment have come into play. Now things are better with Patricia (his wife), but there was a time when the studio was going to be my apartment. Now I think about it as the studio in my house. When I’m building it I think of it as the studio for the whole family. It is having that space where you not only develop professional practice, but also where your children can do their homework or arts and crafts.
Apart from this are the circumstances that have enveloped my studio. There was a moment in the project when I left the studio I had in Barcelona and moved to work on site, in construction huts. Later, when the construction work began there was no room for the huts, so I relocated into the house as it was being built.
The house, even though it encloses a space, doesn’t open up in the same way as a patio house does, or at least it isn’t more open to that space than to the volume’s surroundings. Normally a patio house tends to close itself from the exterior perimeter space and open itself up to the patio, but if we look at the relationship that this establishes with the exterior in this case, we see that it isn’t exactly a patio house, but perhaps a house that has a patio. In appearance it could have been conceived in the form of a bar, with the studio at one extreme, and the living space at another. Later that warped bar fit it into the terrain and closed off part of the plot, thus closing the circle, and enriching the circulations. This lasso could be untied. It wouldn’t fit into the denomination of a canonical patio house either, because the green space that encloses it isn’t domesticated. It is in its natural state, at a lower height. In fact, it isn’t strictly enclosed, as the house is raised and lets the greenery pass through.
When it first hits the eye you see the house and you appreciate a grand gesture, which attempts to appropriate part of the forest, which is the central space. But analysing it in a little more depth you realise there’s no physical relationship between the house and this zone that’s being engulfed; and it’s strange to see the house’s grand gesture, adopting a clump of the forest, without taming it at all.
For the greater part, this gesture in the form of a lasso isn’t habitable, and when I say habitable I refer to closed spaces. I haven’t done any percentages, but the closed spaces take up approximately a third of the floor plan. The rest is open, or half-open, for what is a very permeable house, so it doesn’t enclose the central paio too much. It is a gesture that simply passes through this natural space, without owning it, without domesticating it.
Because of inertia architects tend to, at least in my case, trace lines parallel to the extremes of the plot, aligning them with the street, and using those guidelines to draw up plans. And more so in roughly square plots like this one. In the first project this happened, but I’ve got over that now; it isn’t the case in the present house.
It could be that the house has ended up ’smothering’ the plot. If the plot is 1000m2, I need 3000m2 more so that the house can ‘breathe’. Also it’s produced corners, adding residual spaces, which are places that have their own character.
What I’d most like to change is the proportion – it is too big for the space that I need, just as for the size of the plot. If you look at it in a wider context, without fences, without having the plot as a reference, then it isn’t disproportional. I still haven’t managed to separate myself conceptually from the existence of the street and the plot.
We’re so reliant on the regulations! I didn’t want to put fences on the plot. It sounds like an anecdote, but it isn’t. It is a house in the forest, in which one day lines were drawn up dividing it into plots, but the form of the house doesn’t originate there, it comes from a little before that, and is defined by the trees and the orography.
I think that the fact that there are no right angles gives the house a special attraction, a perceivable dynamism. In fact, the floor plan is very pretty at the level of composition, even before understanding it. I could come to see this space as independent of the technical questions, and interpret it as something exciting. I see the angles and that makes it intriguing, but free from the dictatorship of the right angle, and that creates a very pleasing house.
These gestures, which make us believe they’re the fruit of inspiration or a special sensitivity, are the result of deep reflection, and many hours of work. What I‘ve achieved is to rid myself of the burden of the plot lines. In the end, almost unintentionally, there are no 90º angles, and I was the first to be surprised about that. There was a moment when I believed I’d achieved a unitary project, and I have tried to keep that as it is.
There is a text by Deleuze, ‘A Thousand Plateaus’, in which he discusses the state as strata which goes against the ‘nomadic’ forms of construction, and which establishes a division of the intellectual-manual work. The nomads of Deleuze, or the compagnones who built Gothic cathedrals, and worked more on site, drew on the ground, and not on paper. They formed groups of mobile workers for whom the division of work was different from the intellectual-manual division of the state (or church). They went from a Euclidean geometry to an Archimedean one, in which greater importance was given to the operative plan and the immediate result, than to the theoretic plan on a piece of paper.
I’d like to know how the project transformed itself when you left the studio, and moved out there to work in the construction huts, with a better situated perspective.
This concept of nomadism is very nice, but in this case I think it’s more about restraining oneself from the excessive desire to regularise everything, in which moment we even give things names; ‘unifamiliar’ (single-family) home. Uni-family. In my house, as the regulation demands, there can only be one kitchen, because it is one uni-family house. Without wanting to be destructive, I’ve pretty much detached the house from this world. Afterwards I progressively changed the program within one same format. It was the fruit of working on site, because apart from the regulations I’ve had to deal with my own life.
The first real contact I made was when I cleared and pulled up the weeds from the plot with my own hands. I had a topographical plan, but the moment I saw just the trees and the naked space between them, it changed everything for me. This took the first step to the second. Until then the project had been theoretical, designed on a plan.
The change in progressing toward the third step happened during a bad night. You have ideas and you work on them, even though you don’t realise it, and the time comes when what you have inside, and is left for a time to soak, comes out.
The house is the result of a terrain in which there are oak trees, Holm oaks and pine trees, and an orography that starts three metres below street level, and which defines access to it. On top of this I’ve been very respectful towards the terrain in not altering it.
There’s another question – the evolution in the way I project. From the beginning I wanted to have elements characteristic of Mediterranean architecture, like balconies, porches, patios… and I’ve achieved that.
You talk about Mediterranean architecture, or at least about components associated with that, but with respect to contact with the earth, Mediterranean architecture is intimately connected to it, it is placed within the earth, and the land is part of the house, which often extends itself in the form of terraces.But you talk about a respect for the land, even though there is a kind of ‘disregard’ for it; in fact you could live your whole life in the house, on the same platform. There is total respect because you don’t modify anything, but at the same time this total ‘disregard’ because there’s no reason for you to utilise it, it hasn’t been tamed. Coexistence without interaction beyond the visual.
With Mediterranean architecture I refer more to taking advantage of the Mediterranean climate. Yes, I could enter my house from the forest without changing my shoes, because I don’t get them dirty with mud. The house is an ‘urban’ element which is set in surroundings that aren’t urban. Being inside the house I don’t set foot on it at any point, I don’t have an actual ‘garden’, I’m always within that object, on the platform. The access, that level that you step onto when you walk in, is the studio roof; walking over some ramps that create this central patio, you have access to various open and closed spaces. The fact that the house is elevated above the ground also, in practice, resolves a very important problem concerning the land, because when it rains a lot it floods, a torrent of water comes down from the mountain. So it is better not to put limits on that.
In this sense it looks more like a tree-house than a house on a plot of land, or terrain, it’s isolated from it. It doesn’t matter if there’s a squirrel below, or weeds, or a wild boar.
Yes, this could be a definite idea, viewing the house more as an infrastructural skeleton open to whatever possible layout, not like a house connected to a fixed layout, with exterior spaces linked deliberately to the other rooms.
I always see layouts in a bad light. This is already a question of biography. I’ve been designing layout in architectural plans within a predetermined perimeter since I was 13, with my father, who was an interior designer. At first I designed bathrooms, with the Rotring and a template, and I can say that when laying out uses, on a scale of 1/50 or 1/100, I can tell the size of a bed from sight, whether it measures 1.50m or 1.35m. I have tried to get away from that, but I can’t. I really have tried! I have so many layouts of the house, so many variations that could be useful, and that could work, with their pros and cons… So what there is right now is just one more, yes, but it is what I believe to be the best solution in this moment. I’ve changed the layout so many times, but the windows and gaps in the facade remain where they were, so I’ve ended up doing what I did at the age of 13 with my father. I have marked conditions and rules, and look, well, this is the result. Let’s wait 5, 10 or 20 years, and then have a look.
I’d like to be able to do without bedrooms, so that there are no so-called bedrooms. A little bit like the Japanese, where you pull out the bed and sleep, and later put it away. What happens is that here the politics of negotiation with the family comes into play, that has perhaps another living culture.
A priori, since you’ve done three projects, or for other reasons, I am thinking about the relationship you’ve been able to have with the workers. Has this relationship changed? Going from the studio to the terrain in this continuous visit to the construction site, supposedly pertinent to building a house, has this changed how you relate to them?
No, no. I‘ve changed within myself, but not with regard to the people who work on the construction. In this case I’ve worked half a day in the studio and the other half at the building site, hand to hand with them. That hasn’t had any influence on the project.
The execution of this 1:1 model, that is in this moment the house, was extremely fast, so that there was no time to change anything. The foundations, which aren’t exactly foundations, are pillars literally pinned into the ground. They were done in three days. The structure of the house was built in two weeks, so that in two and a half weeks we already had the model on a scale of 1:1. It was a great shock, with no time to digest it – suddenly it was there.
What I’ve learnt a lot about is the estimate of costs of the gestures I have made in this project without right angles. In this way I’ve changed a lot.
Now when I see a project and I see a break or a turn like those in my house, I take into account that the cost will be almost 20% higher. In the end a cube is a cube, and when you leave that behind the estimate grows. That’s the least that happens when you break out of the standard geometry. There are window frames in my house that have four different angles. I realise I’ve had to reach this extreme of specification in order to head in an almost contrary direction.
It isn’t a house made on the basis of a plan. The control of the layout, and the control of the angles can only be achieved with learning a skill. My daughter Mikaela plays the cello, and through practice, but to her surprise she played a vibrato. And there it is, now she’ll have that forever, she’s learnt how to do it.
I really like it when people come to visit the site and we enter it from above, and we go round the house, we cross the roof and descend bit by bit walking, talking, dodging branches and walking on acorns. When we get to the porch below they ask me, disoriented, where we are, when in fact we’re just below where we first came in. The ability that this house has to disorientate, to absorb you in its surroundings, is something that goes beyond the plan.
What does building a house mean to you? Because there’s a moment when, even though you acclaim skill above all, the reality is that the house is yours and your family’s, and nobody else’s. I believe this to be a very relevant point, and one that gives the project another level.
I think that building your own house is a relationship. It’s creating a context of a pleasant and communicative relationship, and nothing more. Later one has to formalise it, but this is nothing other than positioning oneself. It would seem that positioning oneself is a bad thing, but it isn’t. It is the only way to advance and give shape to something. When I thought about the kitchen, I wanted a kitchen like the one my wife’s family has, in a house in Sorabila, Gipuzkoa, with a large table for everyone. A place to get together and share seemed to me a beautiful idea to reproduce. But there was a time when my relationship with my wife wasn’t going well, and I looked at the kitchen on the plan and it hurt, I felt sad. So I planned an office in my study for whatever could arise.
That’s why I say that in the end it’s a combination of decisions, circumstances and skill. Searching for the consensus between them all. That’s buiding a house. Then the relationship got better, but if it had got worse I would have had my place, the kids theirs, and Patricia hers, but all of us wrapped up in the same lasso. And the project would’ve absorbed the situation in any case. My personal situation has been changing during these last five years, and the project has fit itself in. Instead the first proposals I came up with worked very well with the real situation that I was experiencing, but they wouldn’t have absorbed all of the future changes. It isn’t a house that’s anchored to my life, but it accompanies me. It can evolve with me.
What I like is the fact that even though the house can be valued formally, this evaluation doesn’t stop being a distant judgement that leaves to one side the implications that keep the house at a biographical level, and even a constructive one.
There’s one thing that could be improved with reference to the vertical planes. I’d have liked them to be more flexible. Now the vertical planes are load bearing, just as the gaps in the facade are only modifiable up to a certain point. If I’d have made a light-frame structure instead of load bearing walls, it would have allowed me to open gaps where I wanted to, whenever I chose to. I’d like to reach the extreme of having frameworks with a light-frame structure, and watch how the light becomes involved in those vertical planes; see it in situ, and decide where to put the gaps in the facade as I’m progressing.
We’ve talked a lot about skill, and the skill would be precisely being able to foresee all of those events and draw plans on the consequences, and in a project where so many things have influenced it, some occur without having controlled them.
We keep talking about a lasso, which implies an open and continuous space, but the studio, even though you say it belongs to the house, is physically separated. They’re linked through sharing a path and are visually connected, but really a greater separation can be seen than in any other part of the house. One can sense there‘s a hierarchy of spaces that contradict the original spirit.
The ‘object’ which forms the lasso and works as it is, if taken to the extreme, would be a totally continuous space where the separations between studio and living space would be noted almost in hindsight, just as the separation between bedrooms, living room, kitchen and bathrooms has been formed. The house is very flexible, but the studio is fenced in. In the future it could be an apartment for Mikaela, but its dimensions won’t be changeable.
There’s something significant in all of this. When you come in from the street, and start out on the path, you walk on the roof of the studio, and you walk around the living space and end up just below where you started. There’s something in this starting and finishing in the studio on which the living space depends.
It’s certain there are contradictions, and more than one. In an almost involuntary way the studio has put downs its limits, and has had its place since the beginning, because I’ve always seen it as very united and in touch with the daily life of the house, but with a certain separation. I liked the idea of the studio as the house’s library, and I also see it with a certain separation because of that.
What ‘separates’ it are the porches, which I also see as articulation spaces. They are spaces which articulate the lasso; we see the inside and the outside because we have that perspective when we interpret the plans. We have to see it all as being one unit. The porches are one more room with the only difference that they aren’t heated. Even in this way the greatest single relationship will come with use. When a client comes he has to cross the access ramp and walk through the whole house, and can see our bedrooms and my children eating breakfast.
We come from the timid culture of the Mediterranean, clearly marked by the climate and its architecture. We’ve always protected ourselves from the light and the heat, with traditionally closed houses, resulting in a culture which has developed an elevated sense of shyness and privacy.
Once you enter, you pass through an entirety, not a living space and a studio. Once you’re past the threshold you’re inside. On the other hand the route is also marked by practical questions. That’s to say, its length is marked by slopes that are as steep as possible without being uncomfortable. The spaces have adapted to these breaks and longitudes.
If we look at the start of this conversation, we mentioned three kinds of house-studios, but now we could add a new category, which would be that of this house, if we were to take its possibilities to the extreme. Because there’s nothing pre-determined, and everything depends on the circumstances, including the studio.
Yes, that’s it. The studio is downstairs because the light is best there; the bedrooms are downstairs and they’re more sheltered from the light, but they have a particular charm because they’re tucked into the patio. The living room and the kitchen are upstairs because that’s where the views are, and it overlooks the landscape. But I insist that’s because it’s my house; if this 1:1 ‘model’ was to be inhabited by a painter, I’m sure he’d do it in a totally different way.
I think that beyond the question of perseverance, moving forward, there’s also an important question which is the family. Inasmuch as you aren’t worried, it’s the romantic question of creating it on a determined scale which contains you and your people.
It isn’t quite like that. I see it more like, shall we build a house? Shall we do architecture? So, shall I build a house for me and my people? Yes… and for anyone who wants it.
More than a house I see it as a project, generating dialogue, a circumstance… ‘Building a house’ is something very closed: ‘unifamiliar or plurifamiliar’, [single- or multi-family] or semi-detached or detached or between walls… I don’t want that, I want a more open project. Not a ‘client’, but a ‘person’. Evidently this has a domestic scale… But I don’t want to talk about a house; I’d rather talk about an open project. More than a house we could call it a ‘Basseri’ (traditional Basque farmhouse) with spaces where you can get together, where you ask yourself, ‘Where’s the dining room?’ It could be anywhere, wherever you’d like it most, where it’s warmer, where you have good views. ‘Where do you sleep?’ Today I’m tired and I want to sleep here… I’ll sleep here in winter because it is warm, and somewhere else in summer because it is cooler.
These days laptops and technology allow us to work anywhere. Without the need for a fixed studio… Approaching the absurd in a situation of total liberty we could relieve ourselves anywhere in the countryside. In my parent’s home in Besalú there’s an Art Nouveau chair from the beginning of the last century, which is a chair and a toilet, with a lid and a hole, which you pick up and take wherever you want, and do your business where you like, comfortably seated on a chair. We are excessively conditioned by custom. At home we have a relative understanding of shame. Sometimes things that are taken to absurd levels resolve a lot of things. I’m going to bring the chair back and be free!
In the end the fundamental thing is to feel sheltered. When I go on tour in Europe or the United States, having a van gives a sensation of shelter.
I don’t even feel sheltered in a hotel, because when a concert’s over at one or two in the morning, you know that later in the morning they’ll come and clean your room and you’ll have to leave it, or they’ll throw you out. And the club where I play isn’t mine either, so it’s still the place where I work and have to leave. Airports don’t provide any kind of shelter; they’re places where, once you enter, you know the only thing you’re going to have is problems. They’re places where you’re exposed to all kinds of unforeseen situations. A van, on the other hand, which is an uncomfortable thing on four wheels that goes at 100km per hour, gives you a feeling of safety. You have a feeling of superiority and protection from the outside world. You aren’t exposed to the outside.
I understand you perfectly. ‘Shelter’. What a beautiful word. Lately I’ve thought about this word a lot. When you’re worried, you think your children are sheltered and you know they’re safe indoors. This is very calming. It’s amazing. Shelter. Making shelter. We could talk about making shelter.
Pictures and drawings by Nestor Piriz