I remember having once read an interview with the famous Catalonian architect, Enric Miralles, given shortly before his untimely death. Amongst several questions of a generic nature there was one that really made me sit up and think: “What would your ideal house be like?” the reporter asked, probably expecting a long, seductive description as an answer. However, the reply was short and categorical: “Second-hand no matter what.”
For some time I reflected on the subject and realized that a great many architects I know-myself included-have chosen to live in used buildings that they themselves have renovated, instead of designing a new house right from scratch. This is probably due to three reasons: the first is vertigo, the second is economics, and the third is having the opportunity to value history through an architectural enterprise. In the case of vertigo, this is the paralyzing fear an architect feels when faced with a blank sheet of paper and an arsenal of unedited ideas. For it is much easier to produce a design for someone else rather than for yourself, since the client enjoys the temporary nature of such development and the distance that comes with being observed; on the other hand, the house itself is associated with what is permanent and final, and with the intimacy of the immediate, which are fearful concepts for the spirit of constant creative renovation inherent in decorating.
The second reason why many architects choose to work on an existing building to live in is because of the financial advantages, since a trained eye is capable of discovering things that remain invisible to the disparaging gaze of the majority. Many times, when working on places that are dilapidated or not very attractive-and that have hidden potential-you obtain more for less. That is to say, it is much more convenient to recycle existing spaces than to build them from nothing. The added value these properties acquire thanks to a good design is usually greater than the original investment, making the exercise a profitable business and therefore attractive.
The third reason, and probably the most important of all, is the appreciation of history and the past as an added value in the transaction. Unlike restored cars, decorating is not necessarily interested in freezing time by turning the design into a “historic fake” to get back to the original concept, but rather, quite the opposite: the important thing is to achieve a dialogue between the past and present in a harmonious fashion. The existing “chassis” offers specific possibilities for starting a project. It provides a reference with a number of variables that immediately act as assumptions for design and fields of restriction: if it is very dark, it is given natural lighting; if it is very low, its height is increased; if it is very small, it is extended; if it is very compartmentalized, walls are pulled down; if it is old-fashioned, it is renovated. Nevertheless, all these physical interventions take place simultaneously along with intangible aspects that define the historic value of a property, making them unique, like each of the projects presented in this blog. The value of a house transcends the purely material, since a second-hand home provides a link with its past, with its history. The history of those that preceded us in a particular place of residence, which thus represents a synthesis of the emotions of our own experience. What would become of a home without memories? Is it even possible to conceive of a city without thinking of everyone that lived there before? The answer is no. The city is in essence the framework that remains to accumulate time in its various layers of superimposed decorating. It is a tectonic action in a constant state of flux. As in the case of geological strata, which accumu- late readings of times gone by to the existence of life itself, apart from its condition as a constructed mass, a city is also the history of the events that gave shape to it.
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The great discourse of the metropolis is in turn shaped by the individual discourse of all the houses that lend it cohesion. The house is to the city what the family is to society, since the home makes up the basic and most intimate unit of the urban fabric, which is spread across a wide range of disparity. They come in all shapes and sizes: beautiful and ugly, large and small, decent and degrading, austere and even pornographic. The house in itself provides a family x-ray: it is possible to decipher the visual data it contains that represent the values, tastes, wishes and aspirations of the people forming part of the nucleus that inhabits it. Tell me how you live and I’ll tell you who you are.
Time is a condition that adds value to houses. And also to things. It dignifies and reassesses them. An ancient building represents a survivor of the past and is therefore a trove of history. Just like the black box of a commercial jet, inside its walls and enclosures it houses the silent register of joys and sorrows that form part of daily human life. As Octavio Paz would say, “decorating is the untainted witness of history,” since it is through its discourse that we are able to read what is not written down but nevertheless dazzles us with greater sharpness than a text and with greater intensity than a story. Inhabiting a place represents the appropriation of space. Inhabiting a place is like getting dressed. Although the clothes cover the body, space, on the other hand, contains it. Inhabiting a place as a home is the most intimate way to humanize space, since the home is that scenario in our private lives where we feel safe and protected, as it represents our refuge for rest and the container of our affections.