What "Forever" Looks Like
Jesús Aparicio gazed deep into the arid Spanish landscape—and envisioned a house inspired by ancient history
Raul Barreneche -- Interior Design, 2/1/2007 12:00:00 AM
With its big skies and rocky flatness, the Meseta Castellana is the arid center of Spain—not quite the romantic, windmill-dotted realm traversed by Don Quixote. The harsh emptiness actually is more Marfa, Texas, than Man of La Mancha.
Amid this endless treeless terrain, however, sits the medieval university city of Salamanca, home to a couple who hired architect Jesús Aparicio to design a weekend house on their cattle ranch, less than 7 miles outside of town. The house was to be a gathering spot for three generations. (Most family members live in Madrid, 130 miles away, but an expressway now under construction will soon get the Madrileños to their destination in an hour and a half.)
Aparicio's clients' only stipulation was that most of the living space be on a single level, out of consideration for the older relatives. When it came to pinpointing where on the 500-acre property to build, the architect had free rein. "Where would you put the house?" he was asked.
After an extensive exploration of the vast ranch, he relates, he discovered the "magical spot." Right at the top of one of the area's rare hills, a natural clearing among dusty oaks opened to dramatic views of two mountain ranges 60 miles in the distance. "Picking this location," he says, "was 80 percent of the success of the project." He calls it the House of the Horizon.
The site may have been magical, but access was far from easy. First, a ½-mile dirt road had to be built from the nearest paved street. Getting electricity and water up to the top required blasting through an equal distance of solid rock, as the family wasn't about to spoil the pristine views with utility poles marching up the hillside. Laying utilities took 18 months—time Aparicio used to start drawing up plans for the 6,500-square-foot house. The design process ultimately lasted four and a half years, construction another three and a half.
Much of what caused construction to drag on so long was Aparicio's choice of building material: concrete embedded with rocks excavated on-site. It's a modern spin on an ancient technique named for the one-eyed Cyclopes of Greek legend, imagined to be the only creatures strong enough to move the boulders used by the Mycenaeans to build the mortarless walls of many edifices along the eastern Mediterranean. More recently, builders developed cyclopean concrete, embedding large rocks in dams and other huge structures to minimize the massive volume of the poured material.
Neither Aparicio nor his builder had any idea how, exactly, to construct a modern-day cyclopean wall. Only after erecting a 10-foot-tall mock-up did they understand—and only then could they calculate a feasible budget. The crew began by putting up one side of the plywood formwork for the walls, anchoring 1-ton boulders to the base of the plywood, and putting up the second piece of formwork. Alternating pours of concrete and smaller rocks, like a giant stony parfait, created walls ranging in thickness from 17 inches to 6 feet.
Figuring out when it was time to peel away the formwork was tricky, because Aparicio's ultimate goal was to chip away the walls to reveal the rocks, like nuts suspended in the nougat of a candy bar. "If we waited too long, the concrete would be too hard to hammer away at. Too soon, and it would collapse," he explains. So he slept in a tent on-site four days a week in order to be there at the exact moment when the walls were ready.
On the outside of the house, exposed areas of reddish-brown rock produce texture and tone, framed by smooth gray concrete. Aparicio brought the concept inside, too. In the four identical monastic bedrooms on the main level, the rocky swaths become "wallpaper." A square patch of rocks in the kitchen suggests a backsplash, simply due to the change in finish. As Aparicio says, "It was like drawing with concrete."
His technique lends itself to semi-enclosed spaces, such as the shady dining terrace adjoining the kitchen and the narrow private courtyards off the glass-walled bathrooms. However, the most dramatic example is the airy, open living-dining room, where low walls of sandblasted concrete anchor a continuous ribbon of glass overlooking the panorama of the treeless plain. The surface treatment is what gives the house its paradoxical character: a brand-new ruin, a modern antiquity.