The house/studio of Josep Lluís Mateo should be seen not as an isolated building, but more generally as the demonstration of a broader approach to contemporary architecture. This building is a work that defies all existing classifications. It is not that it questions a formal or conceptual approach; it seems rather to form part of a movement which, in the last 30 or 40 years, under different names (realism, postmodernism or even deconstructivism), has challenged modern certainties. It is actually the genre of the work itself that challenges us. Indeed, this work seems to situate itself at the limit in every respect. At the territorial limit, first and foremost, as it is situated in the fold where the densely built Barcelona Plain that slopes gently up from the sea suddenly rises and gives way to the steep, wooded slopes of the Serra de Collserola National Park. Then, at the topographic limit, as the building marks an abrupt leap of some seven metres in the terrain between a wooded valley and the residential neighbourhood. It also stands at the limit between architecture and structure, as it is at once the pedestal of a house, a retaining wall for a street in a residential district, and a work space and dwelling. Finally, it is at the limit between different time scales, on the one hand injecting new life into an early 20th century villa, which it empties of structure, and, on the other, transforming a small factory from the same period, taking possession of its structure.
In the studio, one of the sensations that overcomes visitors is never quite knowing where the building starts and where it ends, of finding it difficult to decide whether they have entered the building or are still outside, or whether they are permanently between the two. Of course, this sensation varies in intensity. In-between may be simply a step or a walkway, but it can also extend to a foyer, a stairway, a small garden between the street and the house, or a completely glazed inner courtyard or an open-air yard enclosed by a wall, painted banner-like in a white as light as the plastering of the house and a green as shady as the woods beyond. Often, this in-between finds its way into the different layers of the same façade: iron grilles for privacy and swatches of glass against climatic impact, for example. But it is also evident inside the building where the different architectural elements articulate and modulate the various limits, effacing the boundaries between interior and exterior, inside and outside, public and private, controlled environment and natural environment.
This articulation of limits happens at several scales. Firstly, at the level of the actual materials: the reflective, translucent, transparent or even shimmering glass panels that form a climatic limit between the studio and the street, an acoustic limit between two indoor spaces, a visual limit between two office spaces ; or the iron grilles that form the limit between the protected space of the office and public space. It also happens due to the effects of these materials: the meshes of a grille which, depending on the perspective, allow views of the outside or offer a completely opaque façade; the glass under the studied interplay of the changing light, its transparency or opacity shifting by day and night. The chromed surface of a lift, according to the perspective, reduces a space to a surface, merges—by integrating the spectator—a back with a front, or dematerialises a solid body. This articulation is further reinforced by the colour that removes, narrows or expands a passage. This superposition of different forms of spatiality, visual and physical, virtual and real, is finally reinforced by a series of micro-technologies: a lift, a service staircase, secret doors and a series of glass or wooden sliding doors that modulate these spaces, resourcefully transforming a series of offices into different routes.
This approach is not only applied to the floor plan; it extends to the section, too. The studio laid out around a covered inner courtyard in a series of spaces structured by a succession of limits, but also open to each other. The distinctions operate by means of the different levels of the floors, the geometries of the two buildings (particularly evident in the glass-roofed one), the circulations—gallery around and stairway at the centre of the courtyard—and the ways of looking. At the entrance, the views divide in two directions: one off into the distance, over the wooded hillside, across the terrace of the architect’s home (also the roof of the studio), making its way right through the building, through the inner courtyard with its stairway, and then through the work space, to finally reach the shady courtyard, separated by a wall from the wooded hillside. The bright light of the entrance is replaced by the deep shade of the trees. Whereas the gaze follows the slope of the land, circulation runs parallel to it. It is not just the spaces that are modulated by the interplay of limits; the different forms of perception and movement through the building, too, articulate different forms of relations and create other time frames of perception.
This studio seems, then, to echo a modern tradition of the open, transparent house, a place of passage for all kinds of movement and circulation of people, information or energy waves that move through it. Glass and mirrors reflect these movements, unable to grasp them, frame them, or curb them, thereby emphasizing their transience. Walls and doors become mobile. The space is, then, a passing place, a place of exchange, the very opposite of rootedness that adapts so poorly to the logic of the modern architecture studio that has to adapt, physically in this case, to the different demands—economic but also organizational—of the discipline. In these spaces, there is, apparently, no function—no work station, no meeting room, no post for a secretary or an office manager (managers, we should say). Quite the contrary; it is the function that morphs by means of changing use. The furniture, just like the walls, the sun blinds and, in a way, even the main stairway, which seems to be held in place by just two screws that could be detached at any moment, are constantly moving or, rather, allow for potential movement.
The tendency seems quite the opposite in the architect’s home, a small picturesque villa with a turret and a gable on the street, dating from the early 20th century and standing to one side of the studio. It seems to belong to an antithetical world. Unlike the transparency found in the studio and the impression of a constant state of the in-between with no specific function, the house is characterized by a series of clearly defined limits: a private garden concealed from the street by a high wall of weathering steel and an entrance hall that organizes the main spaces. These clearly laid-out rooms, with a well-defined programme, are separated by a succession of doors that point to privacy. Whereas the studio is modulated by a series of thresholds that organize views and movement through different spatial atmospheres, one after the other, the house divides, distinguishes and individualizes the various clearly separated spaces of the residential programme. Sliding doors are replaced by hinged doors, grilles by walls, structural street-front openings by French windows. As opposed to the spatial conception of the studio, where the relations between inside and outside, private and public, intimate and impersonal, secured and non-secured, hinge on micro-technologies that transform clear, unitary limits into a succession of thresholds, the house presents highly individualized rooms, as they were designed at the start of the century, as unitary spaces offering a backdrop to all kinds of relations: social, legal, energetic and, above all, aesthetic. In the studio, a modulation of different atmospheres; in the house, a layout of delimited spaces. In one, a succession of multiple, complex in-betweens; in the other, precise boundaries between the inside and the outside.
However, this reading based on opposition is both biased and an excessively dialectic simplification of the setup. The studio and the house are inextricably linked, because they are part of the same property, based on the same foundations, respond to a single programme and form part of the same intervention. On the first basement floor, the office spaces partly occupy the basement of the villa, and villa and studio share retaining walls on the street side. This means that the arrangement of the inner spaces—individualized and differentiated in the villa, open and transparent in the studio—does not follow historical contingency, since both are governed by the same bias of emptying historic buildings of their inner walls while retaining the outer façade. What characterizes the house/studio is not so much the opposition of biases as the exploitation of the potential offered by modern techniques—materials, construction, micro-technologies—that address the limit in all its dimensions, from the monolithic, multi-functional wall to its dissolution into a series of structural, climatic, visual and acoustic thresholds, and others. It comes as no surprise, then, if these biases are abused. So, the garage is integrated into the house’s entrance hall, two-storey bookshelving links the living room and the corridor to the bedroom, and, on the valley side, the long window defies the house’s massive wall. In the studio, conversely, the succession of private offices is linked by a series of secret doors, and the openings on the valley side are framed by French windows.
While different, partially opposing types of references are revealed in the house/studio, what concerns us is not so much their specific origins and meanings, or the purity of their implementation, as the potential of the references themselves. The studio, then, relates to modern space only insofar as it allows for flexible arrangement, and the house relates to traditional private space only in that it allows a high degree of differentiation of everyday spaces. This architectural approach that breaks with formal and historical preconceptions to engage with the reality of the situation and its potential is not exclusive to this unique work; it reveals itself in other buildings, other situations, at other scales, with other means, from the house to the city, and from the interior to the territory. So, if the studio/house situates itself at the limit, it is not metaphorical—it is quite real; its framework of reference has ceased to be solely the building to become, more generally, an environment that is as ubiquitous and versatile as it is dispersed and miniaturized, with limits which need constantly to be restated.
Text by Laurent Stalder