Record Houses 2009
Villa 1 Vienna Way Residence House for a Photographer II Dutchess County Guest House Brick-Weave House Upstate New York House N House YTL Residence Desert City House House Ijburg House in Carapicuiba House in Garrison House on TownLine Road Pencalenick House Ventana Canyon House


Alcanar, Spain

Carlos Ferrater, with Carlos Escura

On the Costa del Azahar, 135 miles southwest of Barcelona, the Modernist summer house has a distinguished pedigree all its own. With its masonry construction, angled roofs, and organic cluster of one-room pavilions, architect Carlos Ferrater’s weekend house for a couple in Alcanar adheres partly to a tradition dating back to the first beach houses of José Luis Sert in the 1930s, and renewed by José Antonio Coderch in the 1950s and ’60s. Sert, in such works as his 1935 weekend houses in Garraf, explored a rugged Mediterranean alternative to the machine aesthetic of Northern European Modernists. Coderch reinvestigated the trend with his 1952 Ugalde House, where he used vernacular construction methods to create a fusion between the wild coastal landscape and his abstract, fluid forms.

In Alcanar, Ferrater has created his own particular interpretation of this tradition in a home he built for his brother, José Manuel Ferrater. He describes the locale, with its fertile gardens, orchards, and rice fields, as “the perfect union between nature and agriculture. And I think architecture, at least here, is born from this symbiosis.” To illustrate this observation, he points to his treatment of the former garden that the house occupies. In keeping with current Spanish coastal zoning, the house is set far back from the water, and because of periodic flooding, its pavilions stand on a platform 20 inches above the ground. Ferrater has framed the long space between house and shore with low concrete walls (which divert floodwaters without blocking views), and populated its sandy, gravel floor with stately rows of palms. “It’s a way of replicating the agricultural order with a very architectonic salon,” he explains. “Those palms, planted in formation, are like the rows of lettuce and tomatoes next door.”

For the house itself, Ferrater struck a similar balance between architectural grandeur and the informality of weekend living. The three pavilions, housing, respectively, a living-dining-kitchen area, a master bedroom, and an artist’s studio with a sleeping alcove for guests, scarcely occupy 1,000 square feet of floor area, yet their ceilings reach up to 16 feet high—taller than their modest width in many places.

Ferrater has shaped the pavilions for both functional reasons and to add to the complexity and richness of their sculptural forms. He arranged them around a central outdoor living space where access to all three is concentrated (insects and summer showers are not a problem in this semi-arid climate). This space is protected from the northern winds of the mestral by the rising profile of the bedroom pavilion, while the roof of the art studio to the south descends to create a mix of sun and shade. The position and shape of the pavilions direct the views between them, as well as the route of access from the front of the house. Their large, glazed openings offer alternative glimpses through the complex; the converging angles and rising roof of the bedroom pavilion, for example, focus views to the lemon tree behind it. Around the central space, Ferrater organized the openings orthogonally and gave them a uniform height of 7 feet, to create a sense of human scale and unity.

These doors are deeply recessed in the volumes, creating useful service spaces inside the perimeter walls. Ferrater also activates the upper spaces of the interiors: The high viewing slot of the bedroom is lined with bookcases, and a concrete shelf across the front of the living room, raked with light from the clerestory, displays a selection of volcanic rocks and sculptures from Southeast Asia. The couple collected most of the furniture on their travels, including sofas from Indonesia, fabrics from Thailand, and miniature benches and chairs from Africa—“no designer furniture,” Ferrater notes.

Ferrater worked with a small local builder on the house. Like Sert and Coderch before him, the architect used traditional construction techniques, such as shallow brick roof vaults known as “bovedillas,” although he mixes these with concrete slabs and lintels as needed. The crisp stucco finishes of the masonry exteriors emphasize purely formal qualities, but in the interiors, he exposes the patterned texture of the low-fired hollow brick of the walls and ceiling vaults, painting them white. Floors are terrazzo, and the planks of the exterior platform are of board-formed precast concrete, owing to its resistance to moisture. An exterior stair at the back of the studio leads up to a lookout and solarium on the roof, which was finished with precast-concrete tiles made on the site.

Ferrater likes to say that the house is a kind of portrait of his client and his lifestyle. But like the vernacular techniques he uses, these concerns are also the raw material for the more personal creative project of his design, which comes to focus around the sophisticated formal play between the pavilions. Architecture is born from its circumstances, as he observes, but it can also dignify and transcend them.