It wasn’t really my intention to enter the development from the back – if that’s the right word for it, seeing that this is the original entrance. The combination of the massive infrastructure and my own vulnerability as a cyclist makes me turn down the small alley at the rear.
I recognize the gate. It creaks at the hinges as I push my way through, instead of just yielding to the touch as it used to. Apart from that, the place seems more or less unchanged: a random mixture of pragmatism, common sense and creativity. An old, tarred shed houses the white plastic chairs of summer; I can see them waiting patiently behind the windowpane. The DIY-culture has produced what looks like a compact catalogue of all the windows and doors of former times. Here the activist’s ‘Casa Valhalla’ appears side by side with the architect’s simple version of a slender, two-storey home, complete with facade and roof in the same metal sheeting. All the houses are facing what used to be a view. As they stand there close together holding hands, this uneven bunch of two-storey homes present a striking united front with all their lopsided patchiness and wealth of detail.
What used to be a precise boundary against the wildness of the green common is now a frayed edge with cracks opening up, offering scattered glimpses of the rest of the development with its more or less orchestrated randomness. A new kind of spatiality emerges between the controlled and the uncontrolled. To my surprise, there’s a pleasant atmosphere in the narrow street at the back. The facades are not completely aligned but meander in and out down the length of the street, intersected by passages and the occasional glimpse of a back garden. One displacement makes room for a bench, another frames the entrance of a house – simple measures that provide visual variation and divide the immediate environment into smaller spaces with room for everyday life and potted greenery such as sage and fig trees. The displacements seem to mirror the proportions and uneven rhythm of the opposite houses. Tiny bends and angles create spaces where you can meet your neighbours and opposite neighbours, thus adding a familiar Mediterranean touch to the scene. Underneath it all is the paving: a coherent carpet that flows in through cracks and recesses, connecting residents across and along the length of the space.
One building in particular catches my eye. Opposite the architect and the activist rises a slender wooden structure in four and a half storeys. In spite of its height, which is more than double that of its neighbours, the new building doesn’t appear oversized. It is roughly as wide as the duo across the street, but while they stand close together forming a line, this one is divided by vertical shifts that mirror the opposite facades. These shifts continue upwards across the entire facade – rather as if the existing houses have left their imprint on the newcomer. The dwellings – between seven and nine in total – appear as separate houses stacked on top of each other and combined into one overall form. The effects are simple: small, subtle shifts provide variation and help downplaying the scale of the building. Some flats are two storeys high and span the entire width of the facade. Others are smaller units that recede like empty shelves, revealing an almost invisible glass facade at the back. A few have balconies that look like pulled-out drawers overgrown with vegetation – a far cry from the slapped-on boxes you see everywhere else in the city. Windows and doors are simple and often framed by shutters that add depth and a sense of scale to the facade. By harnessing the many potentials of wood, the architects have achieved great variation and, despite playing with different expressions, have managed to create a coherent and well-proportioned structure. The design is capped off by paraphrasing the distinctive gables found all around the existing development. The architects even seem to master this much-tried architectural device, using it as a way of referencing and acknowledging the existing without resorting to commonplace imitation.
I’ve been invited to see one of the dwellings: an unoccupied flat on the second floor. Rather to my surprise, everything in the stairwell – floors, walls and ceilings – is made of concrete. The stairs themselves, with their irregular design, cut diagonally into the heavy walls forming a sort of orthogonal snail shell. Soft light filters down through the space, creating uneven reflections on the slanting walls. This heavy core supports the rest of the house, which is designed as a large bookcase made of wood. On the second floor, I am met by a door in plywood – the only thing that seems to break the consistency of the space. I step into a low-ceilinged entrance hall and am rewarded with a framed view into the rest of the flat, promising other, more generous, spaces beyond. The hall is like a box made entirely of plywood. Grooves in the material show the walls to be crammed with cupboards and drawers in a variety of sizes. One of the cupboard doors opens into a bathroom whose floor and walls in polished concrete seem inspired by the heavy stairwell outside.
A further inspection reveals the entire flat to be lined with wood. A narrow but double-high room opens up inside. In here, a simple kitchen counter is tucked up against the wall of the hall, below the bed loft’s navigation bridge with stairs leading up to the platform. The west-facing view is framed by a large window section, whose shape seems to mirror the activist’s windows across the road. It also reminds me of Louis Kahn’s Fischer House. This is the heart of the dwelling. Two alcoves – one facing the street and one facing the courtyard – open into the double-high main space; small cubicles with built-in cabinets and a bed, which is all you need, really. However, there’s something puzzling about the uniform materiality that makes me feel at home but also slightly claustrophobic. I guess time will show if the residents will feel tempted to paint the walls or they’ll be content with living in this wooden box with its catalogue of ceiling heights and storage options.
Moments later I’m back in the street again, feeling elevated. This whole development has a human scale; a scale that the rest of the new city seems to have forgotten about. There’s a kindship and correlation between what is designed and what is not. Which just goes to show how a careful reading of the context and its qualities can inform a project, enhance it and anchor it to a place by engaging with what is already there and adding new layers to the city.