Renovating Old and New in Barcelona

Originally published in 
Everything Must Go

When Cecilia Tham and Yoel Karaso of Habitan Architects bought their first-floor apartment in an 1894 block of the Fort Pienc neighborhood of Barcelona in 2005, they knew they were taking a risk. Casa Alí Bei was a bargain because it is afectado (“affected”)—–that is, the land is zoned for redevelopment. A baby (Hanna) on the way, the possibility of being evicted, and a tight budget necessitated a canny renovation strategy, yet one that still honored the dazzling turn-of-the-century tile work and ornate moldings. A stone’s throw from Jean Nouvel’s Torre Agbar, the apartment, like the neighborhood, has been reborn as a patchwork of old and new. Tham tells us the story.

Casa Ali Bei

On one side of us is housing for young people and the other is a nursing home—–we’re like the middle-aged in between! Being afectado means the city could technically take over our building to construct similar civil projects, but they would have to buy back all 16 apartments. We really fell for the building and these fabulous original features—–the elaborate decorative plasterwork ceiling and the tiled floors. Plus we have a big expansive view at the back, which is quite precious in the city—–we overlook a soccer pitch built on former railway tracks. (Not that we ever really watch a game!) We were naturally worried because of the zoning—–yes, buying was a gamble—–but nothing has happened for almost 40 years, and maybe it never will.

I was also pregnant with Hanna at the time, and so we needed a place that we could make fun and family friendly without investing a lot of money. The big, big bonus was the price—–which was only U.S. $317,000, half the price of a similar place in this area. We just could have never otherwise afforded such a large home.  

We spent about four months on the renovation, and our plan really stemmed from this possibility that the building might be expropriated—–we want to be able to take the most valuable elements with us if we ever have to leave. Yoel and I didn’t design our kitchen and bathroom to be fitted into any walls; they are more like furniture. So if one day we are kicked out we could redo it somewhere else.

We really love to cook and much of our home life revolves around our kitchen. When we have friends over it’s great to buzz around here; it’s almost like a cooking show. We’re a very equal couple. We wanted the kitchen island to be a single form that we could both use. We can both cook and we can both wash the dishes. The whole thing is really easy to clean as it’s just one main surface that you can wipe down. So the preparation surfaces, the hob [cooktop], and the sink are accessible from both sides. It’s
a simple, fun, form-follows-function principle: Store, wash, prepare, cook, eat. The other end functions as a breakfast table where we eat most of the time. Behind the fridge “tower” is a microwave oven, conventional oven, and dishwasher below. We used materials that create warmth—–the rectangular sink is made of chocolate-colored slate, which looks like it wants to be eaten, and the main structure is birch marine plywood.

We reused the offcuts to make a pattern for the floor of our little guest room, as the original floor tiles were not in such a good state there. Although it’s delicate as flooring, the plywood has a real glow, and it was a thrifty solution. It’s typical for Barcelona buildings from this period that the bedrooms are divided with decorative plaster columns and a cornice to create a curtained-off alcove for the bed, separating it from the more public part of the rest of the room. We opened up our bedroom, but we conserved that feature in Hanna’s room, and now every morning she wants to play dress-up. She also loves the bathroom.

When this building was constructed the toilets would have been outside. In our previous place we had a tiny shower in a tiny bathroom that you could barely stretch your arms out in, so we moved here knowing we wanted to make the bathroom something special. We planned this grand freestanding bathtub-and-sink unit with the same materials as the kitchen. When we first showed the design to the carpenter he of course said, “This is impossible!” In the end we did it, and it’s big enough that we can bathe together with Hanna. You don’t really feel like you’re in a typical bathroom. It’s more like a regular room. We even have a TV over in the corner, and I love to watch Friends in the bath! It’s wonderful for Hanna, too; there is never a problem getting her washed as it’s such a fun environment to splash about in.

What we’ve made for the three of us is a home where you can clearly see the contrast between the old and the new “takeout” elements that harmoniously overlap.

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