Old Stones, A New House

Photo: Luis Asin

Caceres is a complex city. Its historic centre was built as a cluster of beautiful palace-houses and churches, most of which were finished in warm granite and rough Caceres-style plaster. After the Spanish Civil War, the Franco regime’s official restorers discovered the expressive impact of quartzite walls stripped of their plaster cladding, and they determined to promote an eminently expressionistic architecture inspired by those stark walls with their vast, turron-like surfaces of quartzite and lime mortar. In time, that strange decision – taken by just a handful of technicians  – became the distinguishing feature, and an almost surreal sign of identity, for this beautiful city in Extremadura.

Some seven years ago now, in that same enigmatic setting and within a cluster of three buildings each dating from a different period in history, we built the Relais & Chateaux Atrio hotel. The project involved rehabilitating the existing walls (a task not without a certain degree of personal anguish) and inserting within them a whole new living entity which, like a hermit crab, would appropriate and utilize the stony shell of another animal.

But as happens with books, one project led to another… Years later. one of the owners of the company that supplied the white cement for the Atrio called us to commission a home for his family. A well-read, upbeat person, he envisaged a highly original conceptual agenda for this new project: “We want a house where when we’re outside we want to be inside… and when we’re inside we feel an irresistible need to be outside”.

With this highly unusual programme as our starting point, Carlos Martínez Albornoz and I set about building a house in one of the few generic residential estates surrounding the city of Caceres.

The house we built discreetly dominates its location. Set back next to some beautiful hundred-year-old holm oak trees on one of the site’s natural slopes, it commands fine views of the countryside and the city of Caceres. From such a commanding position, the building conveys respect for both its natural and artificial surroundings while, perhaps ironically, establishing formal and architectural links with the historic centre of Caceres.

Within its dimensional constraints, the house aspires to be a palace for its users, this noble vocation being affirmed in its extremely simple organization and in the meticulous, traditional construction of its volume.

Built completely in Caceres quartzite, its appearance is that of a single, square prismatic block with three square openings on each side, each one framed by warm-toned granite sourced locally in Extremadura.

Inside, nine cube-shaped rooms fairly uniformly accommodate the home’s different uses: living rooms, bedrooms, kitchen and dining room. Server spaces like wardrobes and toilets occupy spaces between the rooms.

The house’s almost Palladian distribution reinforces its vocation as a little palace keen to vindicate its direct relationship with the historic city of Caceres and at the same time manifest the more contemporary desire to see the house as a city and the city as a house. Deliberately, constantly oscillating between the purely theoretical object of the architecture and the active subject who uses it, the building positions itself in the middle ground between the natural (a place of shelter) and the artificial (its geometry), thereby generating a structure which aspires to prioritise time over space.

The view of the historic centre of Caceres from the outside establishes an ironic material symmetry between this small building and the old stonework in the city centre – stonework which inspired us to build in a way that we somehow felt was alien to our interests but that has now allowed us to create a timeless palace-house where our friends want to be outside when they are inside, and inside when they are outside.


Text traduced by Andrew V. Taylor
Autor:
Emilio Tuñón es catedrático de la ETSAM, Medalla de Oro al Mérito de las Bellas Artes y RIBA International Fellow. En 1992 fundó Mansilla + Tuñón Arquitectos, y en 2012 Tuñón Arquitectos.

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