ARQUITECTURA-G

ESCRITOS-G: “THE HOUSE AS A CITY”

Posted in Discurso-Conversaciones, ESCRITOS-G by ARQUITECTURA-G on marzo 21, 2017

Conversation between Benedetta Tagliabue and ARQUITECTURA-G about her house in Barcelona

Published in Apartamento Magazine #18

Photography EMBT and Adrià Cañameras

 

Intro:

The house of Benedetta Tagliabue is hidden on a small street of the Gothic Quarter of Barcelona. When observing the façades from the exterior, it’s difficult to imagine the magical nooks and crannies hidden behind them. In this house that she renovated together with her husband and professional partner at EMBT, Enric Miralles, layers of time accumulate, and aged gothic and early 20th-century remnants emerge. Enric Miralles (1955-2000) left us prematurely, but his brief and intense career left a prolific oeuvre full of strength and personality. At the point of his death his work probably had the widest reach out of all Spanish architects. The house that we are visiting is impregnated with a way of thinking and living and intimately projects the legacy of its inhabitants. When we arrived, we entered the house via a staircase located in an interior patio, and Benedetta welcomed us with a smile and a parakeet perched on her index finger. We went on to get lost in unexpected corners of the house that made us feel like we were strolling through the streets of an unknown city, in a cityscape made up of furniture and objects that organised the view.

 

ARQUITECTURA-G 

We’d like you to tell us how your relationship with the house started: how you found it and what your first impressions of it were.

 

Benedetta Tagliabue

At the time, Ciutat Vella was a very decadent area; there were lots of lowlifes, troublesome places, a lot of prostitution, a lot of lumpen, as Enric used to say. I had studied and lived in Venice, and I carried it deep within me. Enric was from Barcelona, but back then—it must have been around 1992 when we found it—people from the most bourgeois areas in Barcelona were unaware of this older side of town. I loved it though. When he showed me other places, such as the Eixample, I became anxious because it all seemed far too designed; you would never find anything really surprising there. Its grid-like structure made it too predictable. The old quarter didn’t have that feeling. When I moved around here I always thought, ‘Oh, how beautiful!’ It reminded me of Venice a lot more. Enric had a grandfather who lived on Carrer Nou de la Rambla, so he had experienced living in the old town. One day we found an ad for a space to rent on Carrer d’Avinyó; it was meant to be a restaurant, but that’s where we set up our first architecture studio. The job was to find a really rundown place and discover it little by little. It was our first contact with everyday life in Ciutat Vella. And from the point of view of the project, it was a way to act on something that was already there. After that, I kept on looking for houses, just for fun. Back then I didn’t have a lot of work in Barcelona, and this was almost a way to visit the city through its old houses.

 

ARQUITECTURA-G 

You weren’t yet working with Enric when you found this house?

 

The InesTable designed by Enric Miralles, located at the entrance of the house.

 

Benedetta Tagliabue

No. Or maybe we were beginning to work together. I came to Barcelona in 1989. I worked, but we had more spare time. Afterwards, when I started working with Enric, having these free moments became impossible! I visited many houses for sale in the old town, and found all sorts of things. There were some palaces that have now been refurbished, but back then they had rabbits and other animals inside. They were like country houses, and I found that fascinating. One day I saw this house, and I thought it was really nice. As soon as you entered you could see the garden. The glass in the windows was all broken, everything was in a bad state. But being able to see the garden was something magnificent, especially with this fig tree, and the house was very quiet. It was completely rundown, but there was no noise at all—it was almost like living in the countryside. I thought it was OK, and since Enric was a very enthusiastic person, we bought it. It’s a big house, but back then it cost next to nothing. That’s how we landed here.

 

ARQUITECTURA-G 

You could have also chosen to build a new house on another site. The idea behind finding something old has to do with the fact that you felt more at ease with the idea of
transformation, of adding a new layer to a space that already had a history. Is that right?

 

 

Benedetta Tagliabue

Yes, well, I’m not sure. I was looking for a ‘Venice’, that’s for certain—something that would surprise me. Enric was looking for me to feel at home. When we found the place on Carrer d’Avinyó, the one that became our studio, it was almost like Italy. Everyone who visited said, ‘Wow, this looks like Naples’. It was Barcelonastyle Barcelona, but an almost Italian Barcelona as well: very intense and very beautiful. I should also add that Enric was running away from his recent past. He had been married but had broken up his marriage, which had also been a professional partnership. The old quarter was like a part of the city that didn’t exist; it just wasn’t there. People from Barcelona didn’t know it, didn’t visit it, didn’t even consider it. It
was like outside the map, and Enric felt comfortable being outside the map. He went on living in the same city where his marriage had broken down and where he’d left things behind, but on a different level, in another place.

 

ARQUITECTURA-G 

Apart from the fact that they’re both in Ciutat Vella, there’s something that links both projects—the Avinyó studio and the house— and it’s the central presence of a patio. Was this idea of organising life around a patio a coincidence? In the end, space acquires an infinite quality; it happens here, and we can guess it must have happened at the studio, too.

 

Benedetta Tagliabue

It was a bit of a coincidence, but we soon grew fond of it, especially Enric. He adored it.

 

ARQUITECTURA-G 

In addition to the central patio, we have another great external presence here: the garden. It’s quite striking that the house is built between parting walls, that we’re five metres above street level, and that such large trees can grow here.

 

Benedetta Tagliabue

Yes, it’s true. Actually, there’s a whole floor full of earth under the garden, like a huge planter—we were even able to excavate a pool at a later stage. The garden is an element that must have had a lot of weight in this house throughout the years, as we can see by the many floral motifs present in the interior decoration. When we bought the house, the garden had two trees. One of them was the fig tree, and we planted many others, which have grown a great deal. Towards 2004, when Enric was no longer here, I created the pool area. It works quite well; it feels very cosy. We have an interior water area and a fireplace we use sometimes, and also space for deck chairs; it’s a really magical space. At the top there’s a green wall and a lot of vegetation growing wild.

 

Above: A view of the living room. 

 

ARQUITECTURA-G 

How did you plan the process of intervention once you bought the house?

 

Benedetta Tagliabue

We made some decisions, but others had already been made for us. I mean, the structure and distribution were typical of a bourgeois house, but since it had been used as a warehouse for years, many of the partition walls had already been knocked down to make better use of the space. This saved us from having to think about demolishing anything, from deciding which elements we wanted to preserve and which we did not want to keep. When you enter a well-preserved modernista flat in the Eixample, it’s tricky to decide what to touch and what to throw away, but here the difficult work had already been done. So we felt a lot freer, eager to start acting.

 

ARQUITECTURA-G 

We see the presence of capitals, arches, paintings, and valuable historical, ornamental elements. How did you approach the integration of different layers of time in the new project?

 

Benedetta Tagliabue

We discovered all these elements little by little. Most of them were hidden. We intended to carry out a very relaxed project, taking advantage of the fact that the partition walls had already come down to simply reinforce the structure a little and create a kind of loft. In any case, when we got here, it was full of fleas and had been empty for about three years. Little by little we started discovering a bourgeois house that had been built on top of a Gothic construction. When we peeled off the wallpaper, all these decorative paintings started appearing, golden lines and the like. It was a very beautiful moment. Apart from the decorative paintings, we discovered sketches of classical motifs near the ceilings, with horses, angels, ships, even naval battles. Once, when we were drilling a wall to create support for the beams, we suddenly saw something inside the cavity, and all of a sudden this angel appeared—an angel-shaped capital! Later on, archaeologists told us that Ciutat Vella was full of these kinds of things, but it’s still surprising. We wanted to preserve these traces for their beauty, but at the same time we didn’t want to leave them as they were. So we came up with strategies, like the white stripes, for instance. That was born here. I think for us it was the first real experiment with working in relation to history, in relation to an architecture that already existed. Enric had done a few things in Ciutat Vella, but never a rehabilitation work.

 

ARQUITECTURA-G 

The stripes and the white paint are a way of making the base behind them evident, because we realise that what’s behind isn’t white. It limits the presence of the past, granting it value through that contrast. It also becomes more your own, you appropriate something that already exists. This house is full of such details, traces that overlap, and we have always wondered up to what point they are decisions born of sensitivity and artistic intuition or due to more symbolic questions.

 

Benedetta Tagliabue

I think that all this belongs more to the world of sensitivity, of having an intuition about how things should be placed—and after that, doing some research. Later on, Enric read many books about stripes, their symbolism and meaning, but that was after we put the style into practice here. Stripes have the power of highlighting things, and it’s also true for clothes, like with a gondolier or a prisoner.

 

ARQUITECTURA-G 

Since you bought the house, it has undergone more restoration works. We’d like to know whether these interventions can be clearly grouped into different stages or if they’re part of a continuously changing process. Taking into account as well that while you were refurbishing the house you must have been quite busy with your studio, EMBT.

 

Benedetta Tagliabue

To tell you the truth, we weren’t that busy at EMBT when we bought the house. We got married in 1993 and started living here at the end of the same year, which means by then the first part of the work was already finished. After that it was always a continuous process. We have always followed a continuous thread, between building and repairing. In fact, we had to put up with the works while we were already living here. The library’s ceiling, where there are only beams now, was the ground of the second floor. We eventually bought the house above and used lots of the materials for this floor, like the tiles and doors. While that was being demolished, we were already living down here with the children, who were still young. Everything was full of rubble and dust, with the neighbours complaining. It was a disaster! I remember we had a steel prop holding up the ceiling of the children’s room because the house was nearly falling apart. The problem was the structure. We lived with all that, the leaks and everything. One of the props stayed for good, we’ve kept it as a column. Our initial plan was not to do too much. Enric would say, ‘Let’s do nothing, just clean it and make it nice’. We had done that at the studio on Carrer d’Avinyó, and it turned out wonderful. Here we had the same feeling, ‘Just clean it a little and that’s it, we can perfectly live with all of this’. It was mostly about preparing a space for affection—having people you love, people coming to your place, that was very important. Cooking, for instance, has always been very important to me, with friends, with family, having a lot of people around. Your space needs to also be a space where they feel comfortable, happy, and we took that into account.

 

 

 

ARQUITECTURA-G 

The project plays with uncertainty and with the help of decisions made by others. This could seem to depersonalise it, in the sense that it moves the project away from the designer. However, it’s a very personal project, intimately related to you. It seems as if it were a process of doing things little by little, day by day, like something you created almost without realising. But in this house there are details and pieces that require a monumental amount of work, because basically each door, each wooden object, has its own complexity and detail. For instance, the wardrobe is almost a piece of jewellery, and defining it, drawing it, demands precise plans and long hours. If you were drawing at the same time as building, was it an open design process or did you have a global vision of what you wanted to achieve?

 

Benedetta Tagliabue

There were decisions we could make from a sketch drawn on the back of an envelope, but there was a general idea, like the desire to have an open space surrounding a patio that could be travelled around and that linked to the garden. It’s not so hard if you think you’re not going to do anything, which is what we thought—but it’s really a lot of work! We didn’t make any detailed blueprints though. When we redid the floor, we preserved the tiles, pointing them in a different direction, somehow following the rays of light coming in from the windows. The sketch showing how to place those pieces was a tiny piece of paper with a relatively precise drawing. It was something we did on a day-to-day basis, as you were saying. There was always a moment to devote to the house, and meanwhile we did other things, other projects, but we worked with the same craftsmen. For instance, the carpenter who made all our furniture was the same one who did the InesTable, and we were in touch for the house and for other work. All the drawings were small, a bit oldfashioned. Now when we undertake a project, we’re used to having something very defined, but here we did it more in the way people built in the old days. We didn’t have a builder; we worked with people by the hour. We chose a ship painter—he was just the painter, but he ended up building the whole house. After that, he actually became a builder. Everything was done as we went along. When we thought we needed rooms for the children, we created them by reusing all the old doors from the floor above that we were refurbishing, the one above the library. When I think of this house, it wasn’t really a project. There are almost no drawings, no prints; we drew stuff on a little piece of paper and decided things along the way. For example, you find some tiles, think about what to do with them, tell the worker. You haven’t drawn a plan of where all those tiles should be placed. Then you come back, and he has placed the white ones over there. Then you say, ‘Oh, OK, that’s fine’. And that’s how it was, at times leaving the situation to determine the final result. We wanted it all in white, with plaster, very clean. If all of a sudden a capital popped up, well, that was fine! To give you an idea of this way of doing things, I can tell you a story about a piece of furniture we have in the kitchen, called the Adolf Loos cupboard. One year, we went to Vienna to give a summer course. At the end of the course we were given our fees in an envelope—for us it was quite a large sum. We went straight to a shop called Lobmeyr where they sell glassware by Adolf Loos. It’s an incredible shop that sells dinnerware and glassware of the Viennese golden age. They’ve preserved the original moulds and continue to produce those magnificent pieces. We opened the envelope we were holding and counted the notes to see how much was there in order to spend it all on those fantastic Adolf Loos glasses. They’re very beautiful and very simple; in fact, when we have people over and I tell them to grab a glass, they tend to take one of them because they look like they’re for daily use. The only detail that they have is the meticulously crafted bottoms, cut like a diamond. When we got home we didn’t have anywhere to put them, and Enric drew a little cupboard, which is the one we call the Adolf Loos cupboard. Inside this cupboard there’s a little secret code—an in-joke. The shape of its doors one can read the letters A and L. This was classic Enric, when he had a bit of money in cash, he wouldn’t put it in the bank, he’d count it and go buy something that corresponded exactly with that amount. On another occasion we were giving classes in Germany, and there was a problem with the validation of the contract, and he didn’t earn anything for a year and a half. At the end of it, he received the entire sum at once, and that time was when we changed cars and bought a Saab!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ARQUITECTURA-G 

Enric used to say that intuition comes first, and then comes learning. He also had a phrase like, ‘Something unexpected happens in big projects, and then learning comes; you never do the same thing as when you started planning the work, because you have learned through it’. Even if he was talking about bigger projects, this idea has a lot to do with the building process of this house. He also thought that it was important to accept any mistakes that appeared during the construction process as part of the project and as your own.

 

Benedetta Tagliabue

Exactly, it’s about appropriating them: I make them mine and I turn them into something positive. When it’s done the right way it becomes a very successful process, particularly when you work with layers and history. All of a sudden you achieve this delicate contact between the old and the new. It’s beautiful. This house was a lot like that. Especially when you think that, since then, we have done other projects like the Santa Caterina food market in Barcelona, and before that the Utrecht City Hall, and also the Scottish Parliament, which has that thing too of being in the old town. Before this house we lacked the confidence; it was good training.

 

ARQUITECTURA-G 

This contact between past and present, and this world of subtleties is also favoured by the presence of so many objects and corners. Bookshelves, for instance—the ones on the walls, but in particular the ones in the library area—form a very nice maze crossing the space, and books gain a great presence. Was this something you looked for?

 

Benedetta Tagliabue

For Enric, the book thing was a must; he read a lot and devoted long hours to keeping the library in order. The library shelves create a space where you can almost hide, pick up a book without anyone seeing you. It’s very intimate. The idea was to have little lamps, figures, and objects between the books, to build a cosy atmosphere. He actually used to say that his bookshelf design was his best project. To illustrate his love of books, I can tell you an anecdote. One of the first postcards he gave me was of the Doncel de Sigüenza. It’s a tomb dating from the Middle Ages, with a sculpture. It’s the tomb of a knight, and normally soldiers had sculptures of themselves with their sword and all that, but this knight is lying down reading a book. Enric loved it because he had this idea of a boy whose thing is actually books, but he’s sent to war and then killed, and after that his parents get this sculpture for his tomb. Enric saw himself more as a fireman who solved exceptional problems than as a soldier, but what he really liked was being in his corner behind the maze, reading. He would spend hours organising books and changing them around. I’m still incapable of it, but he used to say, ‘Today I’m rearranging all the essays, I’m going to put them over here’. To do that you need enormous physical strength. He loved it. He had ideas of placing this book with that book once again, this one making friends with another, that one he didn’t like so he would put it upside down.

 

ARQUITECTURA-G 

This way of living implies someone spending a lot of time at home, taking care of it and living it intensely.

 

Benedetta Tagliabue

Yes, that’s true. We would spend the weekends here, with the children playing at home. Enric was almost always drawing. I was too, at the beginning, then with the children a bit less, or I was cooking a lot, inviting friends over. The house has always been a very important place for family and social gatherings. For example, we saw that the house was special for kids. I noticed that when my children had parties and brought their friends over, after a little while they all started running around the house—it gave them a special feeling. This is something I’ve always loved. You would always see children, including our own, with their scooters or sometimes their bicycles, riding around the patio.

 

The intimate and cosy library located under the beams that once supported the upper floor.

 

ARQUITECTURA-G 

It’s funny this thing about the central space you can circulate around; we’ve also noticed in a few projects that children go mad with this. When you think about it, it’s no little thing: passing through the same place and still moving forward, without backing up. Children keep on moving forward but see the same things; they go, but they know that going is also coming.

 

Benedetta Tagliabue

Yes, exactly! That’s a good explanation— even if we as adults take it to another dimension, it gives children great joy.

 

 

An angel and some of the drawings that were discovered during the construction process.

 

ARQUITECTURA-G 

Something strange happens when you walk around this house. When you see the blueprints you can’t imagine the experience of moving through it. While we were visiting it now, we told ourselves, ‘It’s like a city!’ because of the way it’s arranged. It’s like in Venice, where you can see objects in isolation but also as part of a general view, and you lose yourself in a sequence of spaces where all of a sudden something surprising appears. It has to do with what you were saying at the beginning about Venice and Italy.

 

Benedetta Tagliabue

I love what you’re saying about the city. Venice is a city that touches you. Enric loved it too.

 

ARQUITECTURA-G 

The feeling you get when visiting the house is almost like a continuous sequence of rooms. One of them is used as a bedroom, another as a living room, another as a bigger lounge, and at the end there is a chain of living areas. We find that very beautiful. You put a bed in one of them, and it’s become a bedroom—in a way, it’s almost the furniture which determines the use, almost like a project that colonises through objects and artefacts a container that is almost left as is. These pieces dissociate themselves from what was here before, either because they have a geometry that makes them clearly different or because they do not reach the ceiling and are separated from the original structure. In this way you can clearly see the layers of time; you can tell what’s new and what was there already.

 

Benedetta Tagliabue

Exactly.

 

ARQUITECTURA-G 

Besides, the new elements have a very mobile characteristic. In fact, you added wheels to pieces of furniture you bought and which did not previously have any wheels, seemingly to emphasise this characteristic.

 

Benedetta Tagliabue

It’s true. Furniture takes up space, and depending on how you place it, the space is transformed. And it has been transformed many times, because before we had no children, then we had a girl, then two kids, then they started watching TV, after that they had to play with their friends. The house had to adapt, and it has changed. The thing with the wheels and mobility was something that Enric talked about a lot, too. He liked all the tables, which was what he loved building the most, to be movable: a table that could become a coffee table to serve the aperitif, or become a higher table so we could lunch there afterwards.

 

ARQUITECTURA-G 

It’s very beautiful that the InesTable is called that, because when you walk around the house you get the feeling that everything is a bit unstable, like a vibration. And with things like a leak suddenly appearing, or whatever, it all gives a feeling of fragile beauty. It really gives the impression of a very natural project, not at all planned, and that’s a virtue. It’s like building a landscape of objects in alreadyexisting surroundings, almost like a landscape work. As if the question was, ‘Where do I put a series of objects that will allow us to live here?’ You get this big difference between what was already there and the new, and the new elements generate a landscape that allows you to live with what was there before.

 

Benedetta Tagliabue

I love that. The thing you said about it being almost like a landscape work, of it being like a city—I love it. It’s a landscape, yes. We have tried to make it physically visible, for example, that in this house there was a continuity between the garden and the inside. The garden has taken many different forms—more or less like this, except that plants are living organisms, and so they come and go. They change. And inside it’s a bit like that, too: how you live it, the different situations you face, the landscape keeps on changing. But the fact of it being like a city is also fantastic, because, for example, these bottles here could also be like a city, a small thing can be interpreted as a city.

 

ARQUITECTURA-G

Yes. In the same way that a bell tower gives a square its identity, a table gives an identity to a room; it creates the condition of place. In that sense it’s a bit like urban design. In the end, relational logic has no scale.

 

Benedetta Tagliabue

That’s why I think that, out of all architects from around the world, Spanish and Italians have this courage to make things on any scale. Enric used to say in the studio that he liked making cities. Well, we didn’t make any cities, but we applied to many urban planning competitions and we also made very small things. It’s strange, but what you said just now about scale is the perfect justification for it. It’s OK, because this way is a lot more fun!

 

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