A Holiday Retreat In Portugal That Encourages Simplicity, Space And Silence

Perched on the highest point in Mainland Portugal surrounded by vineyards, olive trees and pines, Gateria is a split-level home-away-from-home. Designed by architect Vasco Matias Correia of Camarim Architects the brief was to create a second home for a British couple who wanted a retreat to contrast their busy London life. To compliment the stunning views across the southern tip of Serra de Estrela, they wanted space, open air and a home which emanated and encouraged silence and peace.

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Though the brief encouraged simplicity but incorporating these values into the design was not. The plot was on a steep, uneven hillside and the house needed to be open and spacious without being an eyesore on the landscape or ending up as a soulless box.

The solution seemed to be to interfere as little as possible – to allow the house to flow naturally across the hillside, with different spaces on different levels, to allow as much light as possible and create organic areas which would lend themselves to either intimacy or social gatherings. Vasco incorporated materials which tied in with the regions traditional slate buildings to create the entrance and from here the building splays across the hill. This sturdy connection with the ground is aesthetically pleasing but is also beneficial for the day-to-day heating of the house. Using the earth’s thermal mass to balance the temperature in the house, Vasco has managed to find a balance between beauty and functionality, as air flows as gracefully through the house as its relaxed inhabitants.

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We spoke to the architect himself about briefs, beauty and balance.

The Plus: What were the complications when designing a home on such an uneven landscape?
Vasco Matias Correia:
The plot is quite steep – it falls 11 m within a length of 45 m – and it goes on falling to the bottom of the valley, about 1 km away. The first challenge was to plan a house, which by nature should be horizontal, on a steep site. The second challenge was to avoid an easy answer i.e. a cantilevered box. The clients had asked for a house open to the outside, and so we cleared our mind of references and focused on that. After some time spent on the site and a lot of discussion and sketching we came to the self-evident solution: if the house follows the topography, every space will be physically open to the outside. Suddenly, each space becomes an artificial projection of the ground beneath, and all spaces combined form a mass that is an expression of nature, in its complexity and randomness. So the concept for the house developed from a radical, uncompromised interpretation of a very simple request by the clients.

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TP: Part of the client brief was to build something which contrasted their London life – how did you interpret this?
VMC:
What’s happening in many large cities – and this is particularly evident in London, which has the highest concentration of ghost billionaire inhabitants – is that speculation is driving people out of the city centre and into ever smaller apartments. We’ve lived in London ourselves and we came to realise that substantive luxury lies in space and openness. This may seem like a cliché, but it isn’t so if you develop the design considering it seriously, from the general ideas down to every detail. Seen from the inside, House in Gateira unfolds and stretches in opposite directions, offering surprising views of the mountain in the far, an olive tree at arm’s reach, a vineyard. Different types of openings give every space a porosity that lets perceive natural light, the passage of time, seasons. One could say that the house is not only open to the outside: it acts as a device to enhance the perception of nature. We love big cities, but in a way all we’ve done here is a reaction to life in a big city.

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TP: How do you balance beauty and functionality?
VMC:
The very idea that beauty and functionality have to be balanced, as if they were opposite forces, seems like a misconception to us. When we were studying architecture we went on a trip to Paris, and on the last day we took the train to see Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye. This had a huge impact on us; I sometimes find myself walking through the ramps, sitting in the living room, laying in the master bedroom: as if I never left. One striking aspect of Villa Savoye is that its beauty is inseparable from its functionality: beauty is the outcome of the interpretation of Emille Savoye’s brief, shaped by a cultural and technological context that Le Corbusier elaborated passionately. To come back to your question, we see beauty and function, space and matter, surface and construction, and so on, as extensions of one another, and by design we aim to erase the difference between them. When this happens, there’s just you, the work, and nothing in between.

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TP: Can you explain the eco elements of the house?
VMC:
The fact that the house embraces the terrain so intimately means that we benefit from the earth’s endless thermal mass in every space. We’ve put a patio in the centre of the house to create an air current that keeps it cool during summer and drives direct sunlight during winter. The swimming pool bends around the house and captures winds coming from the valley, effectively working as an evaporative cooling device during the hot summer days. Heavy wooden shading protects all the windows.

TP: What do you feel you learnt from the project?
VMC:
I think we became more aware that we really want to look at each project very independently, freed from preconceptions, and that not knowing where we’ll end up is a sign that the process is going in the right direction.

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TP: How does this project differ from your other projects?
VMC:
We start every design by analysing the brief, the site, the building constraints, compiling and combining all this as pure data to which we then give shape by means of an experimental, iterative process, trying to find a hidden evidence, a concept that drives the design but is open enough to evolve, to react to external forces and to our own provocations. This process inevitably leads to disparate results, so finally it’s not easy to find a common trait among our projects, at least not on the surface. On the surface, I’d say that this is our most sculptural work so far.

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TP: What’s next for you?
VMC:
We’re working simultaneously in very different projects, for very different clients, partly renovations partly new buildings, in Lisbon and beyond. We find all our works exciting, so we’re lucky in that sense. On a more conceptual level, I think we’re gaining a bigger awareness of history – the recurrent themes and strategies in architecture, how to employ them but also how to transgress them – and that’s liberating us from the everyday noise and allowing us to reach a greater intensity and meaning with our work.

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