A Sculpture for Living In
Outside Barcelona, Spain, sculptor Xavier Corberó inhabits an extraordinary five-story tower of cement and glass
C. Espin -- Interior Design, 8/1/2002 12:00:00 AM
This article appears in the May, 2001, issue of Interior Designmagazine. To Subscribe, click here.
Catalonian sculptor Xavier Corberó lives in an enigma built of cement and glass, one of those nonsense buildings that could have emerged from a De Chirico painting or the pages of Lewis Carroll. Neither a house, nor a castle, nor a warehouse, nor a studio, the building is yet all of these. It is in fact a sculpture. Corberó considers the massive three-dimensional piece the most complete expression of his sensibility: a hybrid of art and architecture for which he has acted as designer and foreman over a leisurely two decades, allowing something totally organic and personal to evolve.
The origins of this dramatic structure outside Barcelona, Spain, lie in his own history. Born in 1935, the son of the founder of the Escola Massana art school and grandson of a gifted clarinetist who played with Igor Stravinsky, Corberó attended the Central School of Arts and Crafts and the Royal College of Art in London in the '50s. "I studied at the Royal College with David Hockney, who was my age. He used to paint at very strange hours, and I would be there sculpting. We became friends. I also knew Francis Bacon and Anthony Caro, but my true mentor was Ben Nicholson," recalls Corberó. "In London, I traveled the road to constructivism and from there to abstraction. Constructivism, for me, is the basis of everything." Auguste Rodin, Constantin Brancusi, and Alberto Giacometti are points of reference for Corberó. He, too, is seduced by African sculpture, and he's simultaneously fascinated by the baroque, Dada, surrealism, and Salvador Dalí. (The two artists spent much time together in New York in the '70s.)
Corberó is often acerbic, tells extremely rude jokes, and has taught his pet parrot to swear like a trooper. He enjoys seeing people squirm. Astringent when talking about politics and money, he has no patience with American political correctness. In two words, he absolutely embodies the regional characteristics of seny and rauxa (common sense and eccentricity) in equal measure. He is also extremely driven with regard to his work and international like no other Barcelona artist. Practically an institution in Catalonia, where his pieces in metal and stone decorate many a public place, he is collected worldwide.
Such a man could spawn only an extraordinary building. It's essentially a tower surrounding a light well. Doors are few; staircases lead nowhere; narrow passageways connect to adjacent buildings. There are hanging gardens on the roof, and a central patio, adapted from the Mediterranean tradition of enclosed courtyards, drips with vegetation. The arch motif that characterizes virtually all the inward-facing doors and windows appears again on the exterior—which is why, inevitably, it triggers recollections of some half-forgotten artist's Tower of Babel. The structure is dug deep into the ground, with three levels below grade, and reaches five stories into the sky.
"For an exhibit, I always start with a single idea," Corberó says. "With time, the idea evolves." The same could no doubt be said of his tower. Each floor has a different layout because construction followed no specific model, as such, just a vague intention to grow higher, vaster every year. His reason for this verticality is also utilitarian. The tower stands among nine stone farm buildings that he began buying in 1969, when property in Spain was cheap. (They now house the Corberó Foundation, where young artists spend extended residencies and the founder entertains painters, critics, musicians—Barcelona's most sophisticated art scene.) Since the old farm buildings had to be preserved and Corberó also wanted to retain some of the garden, the only space-saving solution was to build up and dig down.
Inside, the giant live-in sculpture is stuffed with curious objects found at antiques shops and flea markets. The eclectic mix of art deco furniture, Biedermeier seating, Le Corbusier chaise longues, Chinese beds and screens, and endless bibelots and bric-a-brac stems from the fact that Corberó is an emotional as opposed to a scientific collector, really more of an accumulator. He buys what strikes his eye, usually while traveling. Some pieces have only sentimental value, while others are important by anybody's standards.
Visitors are instantly seduced, caught between admiration and a sense of unreality. The plaster walls, left white in order to show off art and furniture all the better, give a certain museumlike atmosphere to the interior. As Corberó puts it, "This space is all about looking at things, appreciating them."