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House of retreat: completed some 30 years after its conception, this remarkable rural house in Andalusia by Emilio Ambasz resonates with place, tradition and nature in a way that has wider lessons for amodern, ecologically responsive architecture. Peter Buchanan considers its significance.

It was one of the most compelling architectural images of its time. Two tall white walls rising from a green sea of grass like sails to capture breezes and reflect the sun down into, or shade it from, a sunken courtyard. Beyond this, the curving rooflights of subterranean rooms trailed away like a watery wake. Except for the conspicuous walls, the 'House near Cordoba' hid itself, the better to emphasise its relationship to the primal elements of sun, sky stars and wind above, as well as those of the enveloping earth and the water that burbled within its walls. First designed in 1975, premiated as a Progressive Architecture Project Award winner in 1980 and widely published since, it was the design that first brought Emilio Ambasz to international attention as an architect.

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Yet not everybody got it. Many remain baffled by looking at the images rather than imagining the promised experience of the protracted ritual of approach and entry the shifting light and mood within the court as the hours and seasons pass, and the poetry of opening up to the multi-sensorial magic. Such potential enchantments explain why Ambasz was loath to acknowledge that the project remained unrealised. Building it now presented the challenge of surpassing a dream undiminished by decades of being unattained. This he has achieved by constructing the house (with Felipe Palomino Gonzalez as local executive architect) in an idyllic, Andalusian Arcadia. Here it is placed with utmost precision in relation to views and solar orientation, so as to draw the landscape and ambient elements into relationship with itself.

The house crowns a headland projecting into a manmade lake in the Sierra de Seville, a range of low, verdant mountains dotted with evergreen oaks. It lies in a 600-hectare estate populated by fighting bulls and beef cattle, a rare breed of Spanish horses, dark grey pigs for acorn-fed, wine-dark ham, wild boar and deer. Especially in spring, with wild flowers in profusion, it epitomises one aspect of the Andalusia that fed the dreams of paradise of the Moors of the Alhambra. As the road dips into a valley, the house appears on the ridge opposite. It then disappears from view on the drive that snakes up to it to reappear right before you as the road crests the ridge. Ahead two tall white walls rising from grass and ancient olive trees meet at a right angle that points towards those arriving. Set angled across the base of the corner is an ornately carved dark wooden door-case with matching doors. Above, towards the top of the walls and folded around the corner, is a similarly carved enclosed wooden balcony derived from those of Hispano-Islamic tradition.

Crossing the threshold

Passing through the doors, you find yourself standing above the corner of a sunken and diagonally oriented square patio as the two walls, now seen as extending upwards from the patio's two closest sides, form a gigantic gesture of open-handed offering. They gesticulate to the panoramic view, across the sunken house and its grassy roof, towards the lake a little distance away and the mountains beyond. Below this view, a shady arcade edges the two far sides of the patio and fanning downwards into it are broad steps, the last of which diagonally bisects the patio and edges a semicircular pool that marks its centre.

Like the doors and balcony behind you, the heavy dark wooden beams spanning over the cylindrical columns of the arcade are traditional in form with carved corbelled brackets and wrought iron straps. Contrasting with the ornateness or heavy bulk of the wooden elements, almost everything else, such as the plastered walls and cylindrical columns, is smooth and white giving a Mediterranean sharp-edged contrast between blinding light and deep shade. The patio floor, like that of the ambulatory behind the arcade and the interior visible through the glazing beyond, is in smooth white marble lightly streaked in grey. So are the slabs edging the broad steps of white marble chippings, within which sit shorter slabs of intermediate steps defining a slightly curving descent that lands to one side of the pool. Other visible elements are in crisply minimal grey-painted steel. They include the frames of the glazing and sliding doors, some tubular columns, and most conspicuously, the cantilevered treads of steep stairs that climb each of the tall walls to the entrance of the balcony projecting out over the entrance doors. Pervading the space and contributing greatly to its cool, contemplative atmosphere is the soft murmur of water that you later discover rushes down runnels in the recessed handrails of the stairs to the balcony. As a delta calms the flow of a river into the sea, the broadening stairs and curving route slow your descent. Time seems to slow and you are apt to reach the patio floor in alert silence, greeted by the pool, inviting a cooling splash of hands and face. This patio is the serene heart of the house. Here, in an all-season outdoor living room, are sunny spots on chilly mornings and, in the heat of the day, cool shade from the tall walls that reach up to embrace the stars at night.

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Opening into it through sliding glass doors, a large L-shaped living-dining room folds round the patio ambulatory. Across the room, as another source of light and views, more glass doors edge a small secondary patio, its curves contrasting with the orthogonality of the main one. Elsewhere along the back wall of the main room, doors open into toplit bedrooms, bathrooms and kitchen, all set deep in the earth in the manner of cell-like caves. Mainly for security, but also to temper the bright glare from the patios, electrically operated perforated aluminium shutters, hidden when not in use, can protect the glazing. As Ambasz's project title Casa de Retiro Espiritual makes explicit, the house is a spiritual retreat. Isolated on its estate, it withdraws below the ground. At a further remove are the bedrooms (for the deepest of dreams) and bathrooms (oozing Orientalist sensuality); and further removed, while also connecting back with the landscape, is the elevated balcony. Like those throughout the Islamic world and following a traditional Andalusian pattern, this is enclosed in a lattice of turned wooden spindles, giving privacy and shade while admitting the breeze. Though offering magnificent views of the lake and estate (if you stand and open portions of it), it is meditatively introvert in character, a place to lounge and read and occasionally get up to enjoy the view, perhaps of a sunset reflected in the lake and touching the tall walls with a rosy tint.

This is a house like no other, yet is full of familiar resonances, particularly local. Some may see Andalusian precedent in the whitewashed mountain dwellings of gypsy troglodytes. But more relevant is earlier Arabic and Moorish precedent, from which derive the patio form and carved wooden elements. The house's languidly dreamy and contemplative atmosphere recalls that of the Alhambra (in whose gardens are also stairs with water channels in the balustrades, though Ambasz only discovered these long after the house was originally conceived). The house is still unfurnished, but it is easy to imagine it furnished Arab-style with only carpets and cushions for languid lounging, especially around the kidney-shaped conversation pit in one arm of the main room. Indeed, patterned ceramic tiles, cool in colour and to the touch (or the soft-coloured glass tiles originally envisaged), would be splendid in the interior. And the elevated balcony recalls both the harem mashrabiya and chattri of Islamic tradition, a place you expect to find a pasha smoking his hookah and listening to poetry or music from a favourite concubine. But too intoxicating an experience, however administered, would be ill-advised: the long steep flights of steps are scary to descend, even when clinging to the handrail hidden in the water runnel recess.

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Modern eclecticism

Designed in the heyday of eclectic-historicist Post-Modernism, the house shares some of its concerns, such as with ritual and historical motifs. But formally the house is abstractly modern and the traditional elements are used unmodified with unabashed directness instead of, as in Post Modernism, cartoon-like with sniggering irony. Most architects would be too nervous of the judgment of their peers to have risked using these elements, which the timidly conformist might judge kitsch.

To clarify in what ways the house is modern, and yet not at all, a fruitful if surprising comparison can be made with Villa Savoye, in which allusions to Classical precedent (Palladio's Villa Rotunda et al) were so oblique as to become obvious only much later, unlike the historic references here. Villa Savoye was also designed around a processional route through a courtyard that terminates in an elevated, framed view of the landscape. But Savoye's route shows off its architecture, while this route is more ritualistic in provoking different psychological moods, bringing awareness of the inner self as well as the architecture. Also, Savoye's ramp climbs through its centre to reach a taut, thin-skinned Modernist composition hovering lightly above the landscape, while here the route skirts the centre as it descends into a heavily earthbound subterranean dwelling that is as archaic as it is contemporary And whereas Savoye's spatial emphasis is centrifugal and horizontal as attention is swept outwards to a continuous eye-level slice of landscape, here the interior spatial emphasis is centripetally inwards to the patio where the vertical dominates as it links the enveloping earth and overarching sky, with the pool marking an axis mundi. (1) Finally, though both houses were commissioned for entertaining (Corb's as a chic setting for a smart Parisian set on their country weekends), Ambasz's concern is more with the timeless (both being unplaccable within and slowing time) as a refuge for contemplative and intimate reclusion.

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Although such comparisons might be revealing, negative comment is largely irrelevant: to architecture as original and particular to the client's predilections as this. Yet when confronted by such a work, part of the process by which architects might digest its lessons is to ponder what, had they ever got this far, might they now do differently For instance, what if the patio ambulatory was wider to accommodate more furniture and be itself more habitable, as in Hispano-American tradition? What if the balcony too was slightly wider and the opening parts extended low enough to be looked out of from easy chairs? What if alternate squares of paving in the patio's centre and the marble chippings in the broad stairs leading into it were cobbled with grey river pebbles as is typical in Seville, so softening the glare and emphasising the outdoor nature of the space, as well as its roots in tradition? But with such changes it becomes another house, not the fulfilment of Ambasz's dream.

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Green ideals

Ambasz and some critics claim his architectural approach to be green. This is because it seeks harmony with nature, returning to it, as planted berms and roofs, as much as possible of the site area, and because of the high levels of insulation that result. Hence, though the house has backup air-conditioning plant, both it and heating are proving unnecessary. (2) Yet there is more to greenness than verdant roofs and energy savings.

When this house was first projected, a green ideal was the autonomous house, isolated and self-sufficient in its own productive garden or estate. But as a prototypical solution this is now seen as wasteful, not least in energy expended in commuting, and as reinforcing the social isolation that the green agenda deems problematic. Today the green ideal is connection not isolation, dwelling in a 'compact city' of mixed, multi-use neighbourhoods, with local facilities and strong community ties. (3) Also sought is the 're-enchantment of the earth', encouraging us to open up to engage with it in harmony instead of detachedly exploiting it. So the green agenda seeks communion with others and with nature to provide the joys, succour and meaning that will help wean us from the desperate consumption through which we distract ourselves from modernity's lingering legacy of alienation and meaninglessness.

Besides ecological and technical measures, sustainability requires changes to our cultural representation of and psychological responses to the world. It is in relation to this that Ambasz's house has significance beyond that of an exceptional one-off: it points forwards, as well as backwards, as a harbinger that vividly evokes a crucial dimension of a more complete green architecture of the future. It may not offer connection with community yet it is an enchanted setting for intimate communion, with a few others, but most especially with an intensified sense of both the inner self that it draws outwards and the distant cosmos that it draws down into its centre.

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1 Villa Savoye also greets those arriving with a basin, a ceramic wash-hand sink, to wash off the dirt of travel or outdoors, a symbolic rinsing away and disconnecting with the earth before rising to elevated airy realms. In contrast, in this chthonic realm the pool is a vestigial impluvium (too vestigial, perhaps), which in Roman and Arabic prototypes collected rain from the heavens above and served almost as a mysterious eye to the earth below. In Ambasz's house, to dip a hand into the water is not to dissociate from the earth's dirt but rather a reverential genuflection to the earth.

2 Even in the exceptional heat of summer 2003, when Seville reached nearly 50[degrees]C, the unfinished house remained an equable 23[degrees]C; and when winter temperatures fell to 6[degrees]C the house remained at 18[degrees]C despite still being unenclosed by glazing.

3 Ambasz has built an office building whose planted roof terraces form a stepped verdant extension to a park in central Fukuoka, Japan.
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Author:Buchanan, Peter
Publication:The Architectural Review
Geographic Code:4EUSP
Date:Mar 1, 2006
Words:2318
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