A Work in Progress
Coinciding with the exhibition La Ricarda: An Architectural and Cultural Project, organized by MAS Context and curated by Iker Gil, architects Fernando Alvarez and Jordi Roig, preservation architects of La Ricarda, write about their work on the house for two decades.
La Ricarda, designed by Antonio Bonet Castellana, is the result of a very particular program that combines a family lifestyle with a place of gathering and social celebration, located in an environment that is key in the way that lifestyle and those celebrations take place. An extremely sophisticated interior, where you can sense a very disciplined behavior by the family and the service, is carefully located by Bonet in a primitive and raw natural environment, of sand dunes near the sea, achieving a complementary relationship between landscape, use, and very exceptional architecture. Upon its completion, in 1963, the house is even more surprising, a complete appearance, anticipating a way of living and building that, while it returned to the essential in many ways (living under the pine trees, walking on the ground), was achieved with unprecedented structural and technological sophistication.
– Ricardo Flores, architect, Flores i Prats Architects
I. A Round Trip
In 1949, Antonio Bonet returns to Barcelona after thirteen years of forced exile in America due to the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). After attending the VII CIAM in Bergamo, Italy, as an Argentinian delegate, Bonet has a layover in his birth city where he receives the job of building a single-family home on a site located next to the La Ricarda lagoon along the Mediterranean seaside in El Prat de Llobregat. Through Joan Prats (1891-1970), instigator of many cultural initiatives during the 1930s, Bonet meets a couple, Inés Bertrand Mata (1915-1992) and Ricardo Gomis Serdañons (1910-1993), who want to build a house that could accommodate family and cultural activities, with a special focus on music.
From that first encounter until the end of the project in 1963, there are numerous exchanges between the architect and the clients–Bonet would live in Argentina until 1963–that have been registered in a very comprehensive set of documents that reflect the friendly complicity between them during the long development of the project. The first design is presented at the beginning of 1950 and the final version in 1953, with the construction taking place between 1957 and 1963.
Despite his young age–he was 36 when he was awarded the project–Bonet already had a commendable body of work. An excellent student, during the 1930s he had collaborated with architects Josep Lluis Sert and Josep Torres Clavé, key members of the GATCPAC and leading architects of the Spanish rationalist avant-garde. He moved to Paris right after completing his studies. There, he was the local architect for the Spanish Pavilion for the 1937 International Exhibition in Paris, designed by Josep Lluís Sert and Luis Lacasa. After that significant experience, Bonet started working at the atelier of Le Corbusier, working closely with the Chilean architect and painter Matta Echaurren and establishing a relationship with Argentinian architects Ferrari Hardoy and Kurchan, co-authors with Le Corbusier of the Master Plan of Buenos Aires (1938).
From those contacts and given the worsening of the Civil War in Spain, he decided to exile to Buenos Aires in 1938, being warmly embraced by a small group of young architects with whom, almost immediately, he started the Austral group. The group introduced itself with a manifesto that reflected the experiences of Bonet in the GATCPAC and the goal of affiliating with the CIAM (International Congresses of Modern Architecture), founded by Le Corbusier in 1928.
From that moment, Bonet would initiate a successful career, being able to develop an extensive body of work that would range from furniture design to urban master plans that were coherent with the spirit of the Austral manifesto and the rationalist ideology. Highlights include the BKF chair (designed jointly with Ferrari Hardoy and Kurchan), the studios for artists in Buenos Aires completed in 1939, a set of houses in Martínez (1941-42), the OVRA development in Casa Amarilla (1943), and the housing development in Punta Ballena in Uruguay (1945-1948), with several summer homes culminating the first phase of his career and gaining international fame. During the following decade and coinciding with the design and construction of La Ricarda, Bonet continued developing proposals that consolidated his prominence within a context of great activity in Argentina. From this period, we can highlight the Necochea-Quequén Plan (1952), the TOSA development (1954), the Master Plan of Buenos Aires (1956-7), the Oks House (1957), and other single-family homes among other projects. Recognized as a fundamental reference for young architects in Barcelona, Grupo R organized an exhibition about his work in 1961. After completing La Ricarda in 1963, Bonet moved permanently to Spain to develop a productive and extensive career in the Iberian Peninsula, focusing on the Mediterranean coast.
II. The Project and its Phases: Space, Time, Technique
At the beginning of 1950, the Gomis Bertrand family receives the first design for the house which proposed an elevated platform over a grid of pilotis, a large palafitte topped by an expansive “butterfly” roof and considerable terraces connected by ramps, from which you could oversee the landscape. After reviewing this initial idea, the clients asked the architect to reduce the dimensions of the house and to strengthen the connection with the landscape of the site, defined by the presence of a forest of pinus pinea and sand dunes. In May of 1953, Bonet travels to Barcelona and presents a second proposal that shows a radical change in the approach to the surroundings and in the technical-formal aspects of the house. While the first project suggested a floating, strong, and autonomous image, the second project proposed a house that expanded horizontally over a large elevated platform, but also closely connected to the surrounding landscape.
Above this ample platform, elevated about 2.1 meters (6.9 feet) from the natural terrain thanks to slopes and stone banks, Bonet proposed a square grid of 8.82 meters x 8.82 meters (29 feet x 29 feet) that organized both the covered areas as well as the exterior areas of the project. With that decision, the architect was able to not only separate the house from the humidity of the coastal ground and dominate the views but also create an exterior space that is complementary and inseparable from the interior one, subject to the same geometric rules.
During the construction of the house (1957-1963), Bonet continued to revise the technical aspects of the project, introducing small modifications, such as the connection to the independent pavilion, the final location for the pool, and other changes, always conforming to the general modular order. A base plan and a model created by the builder (Emilio Bofill, father of Ricardo and Anna Bofill) were the documents that demonstrate this remarkable work in progress.
The roof of the house has twelve modules defined by a vault made out of concrete and ceramic tiles supported by four slender steel columns that are spread out according to the two main axes. The sequence of living room-dining room-kitchen defines the program facing south while the bedroom wing, the garage, and service area define the axis sea-forest. Finally, the independent pavilion houses the main bedroom.
In La Ricarda, Bonet not only evolved the structural system and interior spaces present in his previous works, he also incorporates the use of the square module to shape the exterior spaces, generating a feeling of harmony. Those modules gain relevance when they are connected to the main living spaces of the house, becoming intermediate spaces, halfway between the interior and the surrounding landscape. Thus, the approach to the house can be understood as a “carriage house” while the access to the house is defined by an impluvium achieved through the partial removal of a vault. The living room has its own vault-porch, the children’s bedrooms open up to a nearly enclosed patio, the dining room has a reciprocal space outside, and the service area also has an associated space. The glass corridor, hardly visible at a distance, provides the covered connection between the independent pavilion and the rest of the house, acting as a windbreaker for the garden in the back. Through these spatial approaches, the house is situated between a rhythmic and almost classical expression of the vaults that determine a rational expression, and a harmonic dialogue with its natural surroundings.
In this almost floating ensemble, the façades, free from any structural role, become glass canvases, ceramic lattices with colorful glasses, weightless wooden brise soleils, and shiny traditional ceramic cladding in bottle-green and ochre-honey colors.
III. From the Citröhan to the Domino
La Ricarda masterfully culminates a series of projects based on the systematic use of modules and vaults present since the beginning of his career in the studio of Le Corbusier and even in the Houses of Garraf designed by Sert and Torres Clavé (1933-35). His houses in Martinez (1941-42) were built with a system of concrete vaults resting on bearing walls, but they incorporate the innovation of the beam that, transferring the load to the columns, allows for the lateral opening of the lower spaces. The Berlingieri House, built in Punta Ballena (1947), is defined by a series of vaults rhythmically placed in front of the Atlantic Ocean that incorporates the use of an original double vault to create a ventilated roof, and generating the traditional porch. Previous experiences, such as the Daneri House (1943), or later the Cruylles House in the Catalan coast (1967), will embrace other formal possibilities that are more free.
In La Ricarda, the bearing walls disappear in order to create a system where the structural vaults are supported by four metal columns, beams, and folded plates that follow the profile of the vaults, allowing the space to be open in all directions. Remembering the lessons of his mentor Le Corbusier, La Ricarda can be understood as a hybrid between the Maison Citröhan and the Maison Dom-Ino, both of them with fundamental ideals found in several works by Le Corbusier.
IV. Material Conservation versus Meticulous Restoration
When at the end of the 1990s we had the chance to begin a long relationship with the owners of La Ricarda thanks to the publication of a monograph about the project, we couldn’t have imagined that we would end up being their preservation architects continuing through today, in one of the most fascinating experiences of our career. The first projects aimed to provide a diagnosis of the status of the conservation of the house through an exhaustive study and graphic survey. Along with the confirmation of damages caused by the passing of time, proximity to the sea, and some defects not resolved on time, we confirmed that we were dealing with an unaltered building from the stand point of the original design and that we had a complete set of archival information available that allowed us to gain knowledge of the project similarly to how an archeologist would gain theirs in front of unaltered remains.
Thanks to that diagnosis, we could propose a plan of action that could tackle the different phases of preservation based on the principle of “minimum intervention” and the defense of the material authenticity. The first intervention, and probably the most important, was to focus on the vaults to guarantee the stability of the house. During the second phase, we focused on the restoration of several elements of the façades. Currently, we are working on the preservation of the building’s structure and infrastructure. In each one of those interventions we have established a very rigorous working process, where the material and functional analysis, survey, and research have been key to be able to then act accordingly.
The roof vaults are essentially formed by two independent layers: a lower one, structural, made out of 10 cm. (3.9 inches) of reinforced concrete made lighter with ceramic elements, and an exterior layer that seals the ventilated roof and guarantees the water tightness. The inadequate functioning of that ventilated roof as well as the problems with the expansion joints and the wear of several elements caused multiple infiltrations and damage. (6)
The goal of the first phase of the restoration focused on reestablishing the proper functioning of the roof improving its thermal and waterproof qualities. To achieve this objective, the upper layer of the vault was demolished and rebuilt in order to restore the lower structural layer where we had observed the rusting of the reinforcement. This job was done with extreme care and custom fabricating the ceramic elements to match the same size, color, texture, and shine of the original ones that are currently not available industrially.
The next phase was the restoration of all of the vertical enclosures of the façades. The folded brass profiles, oxidized with liver of sulfur, used in La Ricarda were an exceptional solution for the period in which they were built in Spain. There were some precedents found in central European projects between the wars, mostly in institutional buildings. The brass had adequately responded to the aggressive sea environment, developing its characteristic green color.
However, the interior framework of the steel profiles that are used to reinforce the frames were rusted, which had caused expansions and exfoliations of the elements, seriously damaging the frames, making many of them unusable. Our work concentrated on recovering all of the frame parts that could be reusable, the faithful reproduction of the damaged sections, and the improvement of the future durability introducing new support frames made out of high-strength stainless-steel. (9)
To intervene in the fragile heritage of modern architecture and restore it in a contemporary way might seem a paradox, because to comply with sustainability parameters such as energy efficiency as well as thermal and acoustic insulation we would run the risk of disfiguring the buildings or them being condemned for not having been designed to meet the current standards. Our attitude has always been to search for the balance between the faithful return to the original model and improvement for future durability and stability qualities.
During all these years, the expenses of the restoration of La Ricarda have been paid by the heirs of the Gomis Bertrand. Having addressed the problems that threatened the house twenty-five years ago, there is a need now to focus on the restoration of other elements and on the preservation of the elements that have already been restored. In contrast to the interest of the professionals, students, and fans of modern architecture that continue to visit the house, there is a lack of interest by cultural institutions, public and private, of Spain. To keep and preserve the modern legacy of the twentieth century is as important for future generations as is the preservation of everything that is considered “old.” International examples such as the Robie House in Chicago, Fallingwater in Pennsylvania, Villa Tugendhat in Brno, Sanatorium Zonnestraal in Hilversum, or the library in Viipuri should be the reference. La Ricarda must be saved!
Fernando Alvarez Prozorovich is a licensed Architect from the Escuela de arquitectura y urbanismo de La Plata, at Universidad Nacional de La Plata Argentina. He is a professor at ETSAB-UPC in Barcelona, where he teaches and coordinates several programs. He has co-authored several books, including La Ricarda (1996), Antonio Bonet 1913-1989 (1996), Bonet Castellana (1999), Antonio Bonet. El Poblat Hifrensa (2005) and more recently, Historia del arte y de la arquitectura 1930-1989 (2015). His work has been published, in Quaderns, DC, DPA (Departament de Projectes arquitectònics), Vitruvius, Summa, Tectónica, and Documenta, among others.
Jordi Roig is an architect and the cofounder of Barcelona-based Jordi Roig Arquitectes Associats. He is also a professor at ETSAB-UPC in Barcelona, where he teaches architecture studios. Between 2007 and 2015 he was a partner at TAC, Taller de Arquitectos Colaboradores and between 1998 and 2006, he was a founding partner at Nogué. Onzain. Roig Arquitectes Ass. (now ONL arquitectes).