Live and Let Live
Man and nature flourish together at a Madrid house by Selgascano
Raul Barreneche -- Interior Design, 1/1/2007 12:00:00 AM
Glenn Murcutt, the Pritzker Prize–winning Australian architect, preaches a modern-day take on the ancient aboriginal belief about respecting the land when one builds on it. Murcutt's mantra: "Touch this earth lightly."
Half a world away, on the outskirts of Madrid, José Selgas and Lucía Cano of Selgascano took that idea to what could be a new extreme. In building a family house in the community of La Florida, they chose to restrict themselves to natural clearings. The architects surveyed every specimen on the thickly wooded 30,000-square-foot property, from pines and laurels to acacias and London plane trees, and documented the precise location of every one—the better to weave the house into the landscape without removing so much as a branch of vegetation.
All the firm's projects attempt to incorporate generous amounts of landscaping. "Strong green lungs" is what Selgas calls it. This commendable sustainable approach sounds eminently contemporary. But Selgascano's inspiration for La Florida came from a look back to 1957, specifically to Le Corbusier's brutalist Dominican monastery near Lyon, France. Corbu left the cloister's center unlandscaped, curious to see how it would be filled naturally by plants—with birds and the wind doing the propagating work. Selgascano, however, inverted the master's approach, building only where nature left a void.
Respecting nature did not mean mimicking it, though. "Like Le Corbusier, we never camouflaged the building or used organic forms," Cano says. There's no question about what's natural and what's man-made.
Cautious in preserving the landscape, Selgas and Cano threw caution to the winds when it came to choosing materials. "We were constantly testing things, like in a laboratory," Selgas says. He and Cano originally planned to cover the exterior in molded silicone. They even went so far as to have the panels fabricated before deciding against installation, because the silicone lacked the desired softness. Instead, the walls, made of concrete, and the roof, recycled tire rubber, are vividly colored: bright orange for the living areas in one wing, deep blue for the sleeping quarters in the other.
Rising from the colorful roof, bubble-shape skylights provide a whimsical, Teletubbies quality. Set flush with the roof, meanwhile, are large round orange mats for stargazing. (The roof is reached by two exterior steel staircases.) Between the roof above and rock gardens below, walls and windows appear as a continuous clear ribbon of acrylic—there's not a single pane of glass in the entire structure. The central foyer, which joins the two wings, even has an acrylic roof.
Self-deprecatingly, Selgas and Cano describe the house's 1,850-square-foot interiors as forgettable—merely the result of fitting the exterior to its natural setting—but they really are far from unremarkable. The architects designed the angular fireplace, the faceted orange steel bookshelves, the pendant fixtures made of galvanized steel tubing, and the pine dining table. Remaining furnishings came from vintage shops, some as far away as Sweden, Denmark, and the U.S.
Depending on the wing, exposed steel ceiling beams are painted the same blue or orange as the exterior. The bedrooms and bathrooms that belong to the couple and their two small children have floors of recycled orange rubber. Public areas get simple blue linoleum. Concrete walls are painted plain white, and the pine boards used to form them are reused inside and out. Boards drafted into service as decking were only lightly sanded; their surface still shows random patterns of absorbed concrete.
Selgas and Cano succeeded in preserving every single tree on-site. The only timber casualty was an oak branch, broken by a concrete mixer. And with almost 200 plants and trees now added—from ivy to a massive chestnut—the house is already partially concealed. "As time goes by, it will be even less visible," Selgas says with a note of genuine glee. An anomaly among architects, these two pride themselves on work that will disappear.