Monday, May 08, 2006

Casa Tóló

Casa Tóló in Lugar das Carvalhinhas, Portugal by Alvaro Leite Siza Vieira

Photographs are copyright Fernando Guerra |

The Casa Tóló by Alvaro Leite Siza Vieira, son of internationally-known architect Alvaro Siza, is one of the most striking houses in recent history. Rather than appearing like a house, it brings to mind the remains of a distant culture or even some sort of bunker. Its form is inexplicable, a series of stairs and platforms hugging the side of a steep hillside in northern Portugal.

Probably the most famous "stair as house" is the Casa Malaparte on Italy's Isle of Capri by Curzio Malaparte and Adalberto Libera, and made famous in the Jean-Luc Godard film Contempt with Brigitte Bardot. From the main access, a gradually widening set of steps leads to the flat rooftop and unencumbered views of the Mediterranean. Where the Italian house has a clear dichotomy between inside and outside, above and below, the Portuguese house is less clear. To be sure, one wouldn't mistake outside from inside, but the steps above are echoed in the steps inside and below. In other words, the inside and outside realms are parallel creations, rather than exclusive realms. On top, the stepped platforms become outdoor rooms, extensions of the spaces inside.

According to a feature in this year's Architectural Record Houses, the architect was faced with a budget of only $150,000 for a roughly 2,000 square foot house, equaling spending of less than $10/sf, a staggering situation for the architect. Certainly, by following the 33-degree slope so literally, money was saved on excavation. Furthermore, glazing was used selectively for overhead light and mountain views, and the palette was kept to a minimum, apparent in the interior photographs. But if dollar signs have any relationship to experience, this house shows that the former need not be high to increase the latter.

Siza Vieira has created a house that is remarkable in many ways: its lack of front and back characteristic of most houses (and buildings in general), its intimate relationship to the difficult site, and the relationship to itself, mentioned earlier. Like a lot of great architecture, it also achieves something difficult: the appearance of being both fresh and timeless at the same time.