Bending the Rules
Casanueva Arquitectos figured out how to transform a summer cabin in northern Spain into a year-round getaway
Raul Barreneche -- Interior Design, 10/1/2011 12:11:00 PM
There are extreme makeovers, and then there is Carlos Casanueva Galán's overhaul of a 1970's prefab wooden cabin in the lush, green north of Spain. The transformation from humble cabin to futuristic living capsule was ingenious at every turn, tailored to the needs of an expanding family from Madrid. What had originally attracted the owners was not the architectural merit of the cabin-a summer-only affair complete with avocadogreen floral wallpaper-but the idyllic setting: a forested hill in Arnuero between Bilbao and Santander, 2 miles from the Cantabrian coast and just outside the mountainous Parque Nacional Picos de Europa. However, proximity to an estuary meant that zoning regulations prohibited both additions and tear-downs. The law said nothing, fortunately, about rebuilding the cabin without first demolishing it. As if that were possible.
Casanueva Arquitectos's clever end-run was to build a cage of steel ribs and beams around the cabin, then cover them with corrugated aluminum sheets. Once it was out of sight, protected from the elements, Casanueva grabbed a sledgehammer and attacked the wooden structure-a process that lasted a few weeks. When the cabin was completely demolished, a structural frame for an entirely new house was already in place. "Quite a trick," he says drily. The exposed steel had the look of an upside-down boat. To build it back out, the architect himself transported the necessary materials between various manufacturers and suppliers and the site, logging an estimated 25,000 miles in his car.
The new lozenge-shape volumes draw from the architecture of both Zaha Hadid and the vintage American roadside diners that Casanueva admires for their gleaming curves and cozy scale. His goal was "something a little retro that paid homage to Spain in the 1970's," he says. "Also gentle colors and shapes, a kind of sensuous container that echoes the hillside and the river." The smaller of the two interlocking volumes contains a living-dining area, facing a sunny south-facing terrace through a glass wall with a sliding door, plus a double bedroom. A wider volume behind houses a double bedroom suite at each end, flanking the open kitchen, a room with a single bed, and an additional bathroom. That adds up to 1,700 square feet, enough for rotating family groups to enjoy the house year-round- there are grandparents, four adult sons, and their wives and 10 children.
Casanueva wrapped the exterior in materials that would not only echo the texture and ruddy color of the trunks of cork and pine trees, surrounding the property, but also produce the curving rooflines he was after. "It couldn't look like a white clamshell on the hillside," he says. After considering wood (expensive to maintain), concrete (bland), and Cor-Ten steel (sure to streak and stain with rust), he settled on a compound colored with custom pigments. The compound was poured, much like precast concrete, against hammered steel plates to create an imperfect texture resembling tree bark or natural stone. Meanwhile, he selected blocks of real limestone for the house's windowless facades. The result, he says, is "deceivingly simple."
Though the exterior nods to the era of the original cabin, interiors have been distinctly pared down. Casanueva stuck with all-white finishes to emphasize the nautical quality of the narrow volumes, exposed curving ribs, and elongated porthole-style windows. Because the owners prefer the aesthetic of a wooden floor but worried about wear from postbeach sandy feet, he suggested settling for white plasticlaminate flooring with a convincing wood grain. Plastic laminate also clads kitchen cabinets.
Furnishings throughout include pieces in the mode of Verner Panton and Eero Saarinen, but the sculptural curves of the ceiling and walls and the framed views of the forested hillside keep the interiors from feeling overly slick. "I like a mix of the minimal and the organic," Casanueva says. He also likes to play down the effort and innovation behind his extreme renovation: "It's always easier to create architecture when you don't have a blank slate."
As the third-generation head of his family's firm, Casanueva is a hands-on architect. He has pitched in with electrical work, plumbing, roofing, and welding on multiple projects, and he once again rolled up his sleeves. After cutting slabs of compound cladding at the factory, he used a lever system to drop them, alongside the limestone, into a galvanized steel substructure on the exterior of the house. "It's been an adventure. I ended up with burns and bruises lots of times," he says. Now he has enshrined the clothes he wore on the job in a vitrine at his studio. They're a badge of honor for physical labor that kept construction costs for the entire project down to the equivalent of $320,000.
Photography by Duccio Malagamba
tres d: lighting consultant. punto arquitectura: structural engineer. metal tec norte; montaj es rigusa: metalwork. herma nos palaz uelos: kitchen contractor. tall eres maz o; ventanas esbal: window contractors. construcciones y obras herma nos portilla: general contractor.
IKEA: TABLES (LIVING AREA); STOOLS, CABINETRY, DRAWER PULLS, PENDANT FIXTURES (KITCHEN); LAMPS (BEDROOM).
SIEMENS: DISHWASHER (KITCHEN).
SWEDESE MÖBLER: COATRACK (BEDROOM).
ALUMAFEL: CUSTOM WINDOW FRAMES.
VIDRIOS TOYSAN: GLASS.
MARMOLES MARTÍN SANCHEZ: STONE SUPPLIER.