Untitled, by Bryan Adams

Issue No.5 of OPENHOUSE magazine features the Neuendorf House in Mallorca, designed by John Pawson in partnership with Claudio Silvestrin. The project was completed nearly 30 years ago and has the distinction of being the office’s first house. Below is an account of a visit made in the autumn of 2009, in the course of research for Plain Space.
‘The landscape lining the highway out of Palma becomes wilder and dustier as we head south. The client driving us — a native Mallorcan who grew up here — observes that he has only been down this road half a dozen times in his life. As a businessman who travels extensively within the island as well as globally, this seems a significant admission, especially since we are only ten or fifteen miles outside the capital. Beyond the billboards and hoardings, the red earth is littered with small houses and groves of tangled olive and almond trees, rising to a line of rough ridges on the horizon.
We have arranged to meet the German housekeeper at the Santanyi petrol station — apparently it is easy to get lost, as did Claudio Silvestrin, the other author of the project, bringing members of his office on a study trip a few years ago. Following the housekeeper’s car, we leave the main road and wind along a narrow track, passing the entrances to other houses. Finally the ochre volume, familiar from so many photographs, appears on the crown of a low hill. We park outside the main house and walk back down the slope in order to approach as the architects intended.
The attenuation is astonishing. To the right is the tennis court, located in a vast excavation, its surface the same brilliant orange as its walls. Entry involves a theatrical descent between narrow walls, past a basin set in a full-height groove. With each successive step, the acoustic tightens. This is the first of a series of finely calibrated experiences of enclosure and compression that are all the more powerful given the vast, undomesticated landscape that is the house’s context.
We continue up to the house, entering via the iconic courtyard. The composition is emphatically vertical and achieves a quality of proportion in outside space more usually associated with interiors. The exaggerated height of the walls is dramatised by the narrow slot whose edges make the thickness of the mass legible. A modest countering horizontal is added in the form of a bench, set low to the ground. The contrast between unmediated space and the world within the walls is underlined by the glimpsed view of sky and landscape through the gap. Every gesture is read more acutely because there are so few.
As the design brings together certain conventions of interior and exterior spaces, so it plays with the opposition of raw nature and the formality of architecture. This goes further than simply sourcing local limestone for the bench. Pigments from the soil have been used to colour the render. The resulting intense reddish orange hues mean that the blue of the sky — and thus the duality of earth and sky — acquires a startling intensity. Much of the wall surface here is new and the effect of the smooth, subtly modulating tints is both visually spectacular and compellingly tactile. After the melancholy images on the office server, taken when John visited the place with Calvin Klein one grey November afternoon a few years back, I was not expecting this fresh exuberance.
A large, regular opening from the courtyard leads into a semi-enclosed living area overlooking the pool: an attenuated tongue of water projecting out into the landscape. Today the sky is the same impossibly brilliant tint as the azure water. The geometry inexorably pulls one along the stone slabs to the far end, with its full-storey drop to the children’s splash pool and waterfall below. The steps that run to the side of the main pool are framed to one side by smooth earth-tinted render and to the other by rough stones and mortar — another articulation of the subtle gradations of architectural control. All around are the trees typical of the area, whose large withered pods look like so many dead blackbirds hanging from the branches.
Climbing to the roof, one is reminded that the open terrain surrounding the house has no softness to it, instead the prospect has an exhilarating, elemental quality. One quickly appreciates the important role architecture plays in ‘placing’ its inhabitants in such a landscape. One appreciates, too, the achievement here of a design that provides the reassurance of enclosure without a loss of scale and that draws frames which allow the viewer to see more clearly, rather than simply to see less.’

The following text was written as a foreword to a recently published volume of work by the photographer Bryan Adams (Steidl, 2016):

‘Etiam capillus unus habet umbram suam’
The smallest hair casts a shadow

— Francis Bacon

Perhaps more than most, I am familiar with the concrete pleasures of physical space. Making a building involves immersing oneself in the sensuous but also legible conditions of proportion, geometry, mass, surface and light. At the beginning of a project, when the design is still a series of ideas, this immersive experience necessarily happens in the head, but it has concrete, tactile qualities nonetheless: I would never describe the imagined reality of architecture as abstract.

The pleasures of abstraction are different. Things can become interesting when the nature of what you are looking at is uncertain. What is the subject? What is the perspective? Without a readable context and a means to work out scale, the collateral information necessary for even the loosest interpretation is lacking. Is this something small and close or vast and distant? Are these marks made by man or by nature?

We are used to decoding being the natural consequence of seeing, but in these circumstances, understanding in a literal sense stops being the point. The instinct to characterise falls away. The simple act of looking becomes a form of meditation. In the absence of any conventional resting point for the gaze, the sensitised eye is free to register the smallest details and variations of tone, texture, shadow and pattern.

One might assume that this condition of unknowability keeps the viewer on the surface of things, but the reality is that it opens up the possibility of going deeper. One realises how much there is to see in an apparently calm visual field, at the same time as one appreciates that simplicity and richness are not inevitably contradictory states.

— John Pawson


Max Gleeson