The mandate was clear: design a house that offers privacy from the outside world but opens up to gardens and terraces within its confines. The solution was a familiar one for the setting in Andalusian Spain, where inward-facing patio houses speak of a Moorish heritage. However, in conceiving a vacation retreat for a family of four in Marbella, on the palmy Costa del Sol, Swiss architect Gus W'stemann has avoided the arcaded courtyards and red-tile roofs typical of the region. He has kept the general idea, but emphasizes the abstracted masses and voids seen in his other work, such as the muscular concrete residence Two Verandas in Zurich. The client, a European businessman, had been coming to the resort for 20 years to enjoy golf and spend time with friends and family. When he decided to build a new home there, he was drawn to the strong geometries and complex play of light and shadow in W'stemann's architecture.

While Marbella's sunny weather, sandy Mediterranean beaches, and breaking surf account for its popularity, the picturesque village had fewer than 1,000 residents right after World War II. During the 1960s and '70s, it became the haven for the so-called jet set, a migratory social flock of aristocrats, showbiz people, and rich political exiles. Attracting such 'beautiful people' as Prince Alfonso von Hohenlohe, Sean Connery, and former Cuban dictator Fugencio Batista y Zaldivar, Marbella grew as others followed: today the population is over 140,000. It is good to be able to withdraw behind garden walls.

W'stemann's plan recalls those that Mies van der Rohe developed in his elegant linear-court house projects of the 1930s and '40s'only here, as the architect puts it, 'much of the program for the house is hidden on the periphery.' Its concrete frame with white plastered masonry infill walls gives it an implacable and impenetrable solidity. Following the outline of the property'a parallelogram in a compact residential area'you might say the 6,200-square-foot house evokes, on a small scale, fortresses such as the nearby 10th-century Moorish Sohail Castle.

The neighbors at first didn't see this historic connection. Since it diverged from the Spanish Mediterranean or classical-style vocabulary typical of Marbella's villas, they asked the client if it was going to be a hotel or a department store. As the owner tells it, they even expressed concern to the local government that the design represented a violation of the residential zoning. No, it was simply a house.

Stepping through the protective entrance behind the thick walls enclosing the site, you are surprised to find yourself in a light-filled living and dining area contained in a glazed bar. It extends the width of the house, stretching from the entrance vestibule on the north to a minimal kitchen on the south wall'so minimal, in fact, that it is hard to find the stove (concealed by a movable counter) or other culinary appurtenances.

Long sliding glass walls open the indoor living spaces to a patio and a small pond immediately to the east, and to a grassy lawn and swimming pool to the west. Looking in this direction, where the house's receding columns and beams frame vistas and define the various interior and exterior areas, you can catch a glimpse of the Sierra Blanca Mountains. As the spaces unfold, boundaries blur between inside and out. 'We just move the furniture outdoors when it gets warmer,' says the client on a 65-degree winter's day. Not all of it moves, however: W'stemann has created nooks with built-in benches and podiums of masonry covered with a smooth cementitious coating'as integrated with the architecture as built-ins are in the habitations of Le Corbusier.

Leaving the living area and walking west to the lawn and garden, you pass through an open court, a spatial void that is the center of the house. Bound on the four sides of the second level by expansive grills of slender precast-concrete brick, the court seems enclosed by modern-day Moorish mashrabiyas, which filter light into the corridors leading to the bedrooms, library, and media room. Where the upper bedroom wing overlooks the lawn, an L-shaped pool, and a lemon grove, W'stemann has carved deep niches, much like the syncopated crenellations of a medieval fort, to provide secluded sunporches for the occupants and guests.

In boiling down the elements of both historic and modern motifs to their essentials, W'stemann avoids obvious replications of any particular style. His unremitting approach to clean details reveals his architectural training at Zurich's rigorous Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. Yet the fact that he has offices in Barcelona as well as Zurich explains his more casual Mediterranean sensibility and underlies the house's subtle combination of control and la buena vida.

Back to Record Houses 2015

Size: 6,200 square feet

Construction Cost: withheld

Completion date: July 2014




Gus Wüstemann Architects
Florastrasse 1
CH-8008 Zürich
Tel. +41 44 400 20 15

Escullera de Poble Nou, 163
E-08005 Barcelona
Tel. +34 932215095

Personnel in architect's firm who should receive special credit:
Gus Wüstemann, ma ETH sia coac
Silvia Pujalte, graduate architect ETSAB
Eftychia Papathanasiou, graduate architect NTUA, master in IaaC
Joan Pau Fernandez, graduate architect ETSAB
Jan Kubasiewicz, ma arch bru
Manuel Greter, graduate Hochbautechniker HF
Mariana Marques da Silva
Sandy Brunner, graduate architect ETH

Alicia Huguet, BAC Barcelona

Numo Almeida

General contractor:
ADP Empresa Constructora, Marbella

Bruno Helbling
Tel. +41 44 271 05 21



Structural system
Reinforced concrete slabs with post-tensioned beams

Exterior cladding
White plaster on double skinned masonry construction, with acoustic / thermal insulation XPS (50mm) in ventilation gap

Precast concrete: White 250x250mm precast concrete pieces screen walling, SAS C-260

Built-up roofing: Non transitable flat roof. Sloped concrete 1% / leveling mortar M5 2cm / Vapor barrier MAXDAN / hot bitumen CURIDAN / bitumen membrane / geotextile / cement mortar M5 3cm / PUR insulation 50mm / gravel

Metal frame: Minimal frame window, Panoramah!, 38 series, aluminum frames both sliding and fix elements, with stainless steel bearings

Glass: 8mm tempered glass / 22 / 44.2mm laminated EK

Metal doors: exterior doors Panoramah!

Wood doors: interior doors of DM varnished in white, hidden hinges

Sliding doors: Panoramah sliding doors

Locksets: serie LS 990, ALBRECHT JUNG, in white

Security devices: FERMAX video monitors

Interior finishes
Suspension grid: interior in plaster / exterior waterproof plaster Pladur

Paints and stains: walls finished with smooth plastic painting ACRITON / in wet zones walls finished in microcement in white

Fixed seating: interior and exterior benches in masonry finished with microcement TOP CIMENT

Interior ambient lighting: indirect lighting in suspended ceiling and floors LEDS KSR Iluminación

Photovoltaic system: Sun powersolar panels on roof