Julia Schulz-Dornburg turns farm living inside out at Can Rei, her weekend house in Catalonia.
Geeta Aiyer -- Interior Design, 7/1/2004 12:00:00 AM
If you've recently eaten dinner in Barcelona, Spain, you may have encountered the trendy pizzeria La Verònica. And you may have been struck by the visual impact of the colorfully painted room's dramatic contrast with the Gothic stone facade, characteristic of this historic quarter.
Juxtaposing a virtually untouched historic shell with a punchy modern interior is a tactic that the restaurant's architect, Julia Schulz-Dornburg, went on to apply in a personal, residential context. A native of Munich, she'd been been living in Barcelona for seven years when she suddenly found herself craving such things as hammocks and vegetable gardens—in other words, a weekend escape for herself and her two daughters.
Three years of searching eventually led 35 miles north, to Can Rei. From humble beginnings in the 17th century, the hilltop farmhouse had grown to enjoy relative affluence in the 18th and 19th, only to fall into ruins in the 20th. By 2003, after an 18-month renovation by Schulz-Dornburg, the house had regained its former glory and then some: Can Rei was recognized as a finalist in its category for the architecture and design awards bestowed by the Fomento de las Artes Decorativas.
"I started by thinking of the project as a house within a house," Schulz-Dornburg says. "So it became a question of differentiating the old container from the new contents." That initially entailed patching up the walls of brick and sandstone and the roof of ceramic tile while constructing an interior shell of brick skimmed with tinted concrete. A technical challenge, to be sure, but one dwarfed in comparison to the architect's conceptual task, ' to interweave the brutalist style and industrial finish of the inner shell with the contextualist handling of the outer one.
From a distance, in fact, Can Rei looks like it might still be in ruins, an illusion that Schulz-Dornburg fabricated with the help of a novel fenestration idea. She respected the original window openings, but corresponding apertures in the concrete shell are significantly larger, leaving the new aluminum frames invisible from the outside. The same goes for the sliding glass doors placed at either end of the main axis, enabling one to see straight through the house.
With the absence of doors between public spaces, the interior benefits from uninterrupted sight lines across several rooms via the double-height entry hall. The openness also takes maximum advantage of natural light, which enters through different facades depending on the hour. The spacious eat-in kitchen, for in- stance, benefits from morning sunshine pouring through a sliding glass door that gives onto the garden. During the course of a day, interior windows allow the light to penetrate into darker corners as well as permitting visual communication between spaces, except when blinds are rolled down. Bedrooms and baths enjoy privacy and gently filtered sun, thanks to the brick latticework that Schulz-Dornburg built in front of the large new windows to disguise them.
In the glow of a Mediterranean afternoon, the interior walls' hand-polished concrete emerges in subtle shades of gray. This complements not only the texture of the outer shell—where left exposed by gaps—but also the numerous brightly colored accents. "It's rewarding to place colorful or organic objects in a monochrome architectural setting," she says, pointing out how ' gray concrete can emphasize the richness of, say, a string of dried peppers or a row of hand-fired ceramic bowls on open shelves. The colorful striped cotton used to make slipcovers and bedspreads comes from a traditional awning manufacturer recently reinvented by a team of young designers.
Besides enthusiastically buying up classics—seating by Harry Bertoia, lighting by Achille Castiglioni—Schulz-Dornburg designed most of the tables, sofas, beds, cupboards, and shelving. For the staircase, she built a balustrade of multicolored elastic luggage straps stretched across steel tubing. The straps add a softer element instead of steel or simply more concrete, and she likes the idea of changing the function of a ready-made object, making seemingly opposed elements work together to surprise the eye at every turn.
"At first, the local builders I'd hired to do the work thought I was just an eccentric outsider, and I had to play on that to get my own way," she says. "But when they saw the end result, they had a change of heart."