Where the Wild Things Aren't

Originally published in 
In Vieira do Minho, a small village in northern Portugal, Guilherme Vaz designed a fortresslike retreat that embraces the natural landscape while keeping it at bay.
Project 
The Valley House
Architect 

“Nature to me is something quite frightening,” says the diminutive Guilherme Vaz, as we walk around the expansive site of the Valley House, a weekend home the young architect designed for his father in the village of Vieira do Minho in the north of Portugal. “Nature is so strong here. I wanted all the natural things to be on the outside.”

Vaz, whose practice is in Porto, harbors a city-dweller’s skepticism of nature. It may be beautiful, but it is also full of bugs that might trigger anaphylactic shock in your children. Vaz is not one to speak platitudes about blurring boundaries between inside and out, and in many ways, the Valley House is a bulwark of sorts: What is artificial is contained within this concrete shoebox of a building, and what’s wild is kept out, observable from generous terraces and huge windows.
 
Vaz took on this project while he was still a student, and his psychiatrist father proved an ideal client for an ambitious young architect. “He wasn’t really very interested. I would say to him, ‘I’m thinking of maybe four rooms instead of five.’ And he would say, ‘Oh,
okay.’” The project’s protracted gestation also meant that Vaz had time to get influences out of his system. (He admits to having one Glenn Murcutt–inspired version of the house.)

At first, the Valley House seems absurdly long. The entire living area is housed on one level, allowing the low structure to stretch across the northern boundary of the site. It is a concrete tube pointed directly at a spectacular mountain range to the east of the valley.  Vaz initially wanted to keep the house that originally existed on the site, but severe dilapidation rendered it physically unusable. The old structure did, however, help to define the eastern end of the Valley House.  “The old house was in the best location,” he says. It sat up on an embankment with stone retaining walls to the south and north. Stone walls are characteristic of this region, which is known for its dramatic topography and irrigation.

The concrete exterior of the house is rough—partly due to the inexperience of a local builder and partly due to the architect’s intent—and the rugged finish makes the side of the house look like another retaining wall. With its simple rectangular form, the house has an infrastructural presence in the landscape, making it appear as if the house itself is holding back the steep hill. A rooftop swimming pool sits on a neat rectangular lawn punctuated by concrete chimneys. In this way, the Valley House’s integration into the landscape is both fluid and artificial. Vaz’s father, however, preferred manicured lawns (served by sprinklers) to the architect’s original intention of allowing wild grasses to grow up around the house, which slightly compromises the artificial vs. natural separation that the house is trying to accentuate.

Despite its unconventional planning, the house shares many characteristics of the area’s rural architecture of retaining walls, agricultural sheds, and, in particular, the square granite water tanks that stand in the adjoining fields. But it took drafting several plans before Vaz lit upon the house’s defining feature: a veranda, inspired by the outdoor spaces accessible to every room on the first level, common to many of the farmhouses in the area. Vaz translated this into the generous corridor that runs along the south façade of the Valley House and is glazed in full-height windows that open completely.

The traditional two-story veranda farmhouse, with animals sheltered on the bottom level, also provides a vernacular rationalization for what looks like a typically modernist entrance sequence: a concealed ground-level garage and an unremarkable staircase leading up to the second story. The depth of the south-facing veranda also serves a functional purpose, allowing the low winter sun to shine in through the leaves of several trees recovering from years of brutal pruning by farmers; during the hot summers, the high sun does not encroach. The veranda is the heart of the Valley House, and every room is accessible from it. Four bedrooms are arranged in two self-sufficient modules behind doors on the north wall of the veranda; the kitchen sits to the west.

Vaz describes the house as ascetic, and his father as someone who is not much interested in interior decor, and this is reflected in the house’s bare neutrality.  But this mood belies the gregariousness of the house—the veranda, the pool, and the generous kitchen with its inviting hearth suggest a place of entertaining and communal family life rather than a weekend escape for a loner psychiatrist and his word processor. It feels like it has been made as a place of communality—the bedrooms are all the same and are very modest (“like monks’ cells,” says Vaz), and when you get up in the morning you wander from your room through a small lobby directly onto the veranda.

The house does, of course, have this social life too, with Vaz, his wife, and their two sons visiting regularly. But the detail-less interior, the gray, the bare-bulb light fittings (designed by Álvaro Siza), even the Tugendhat House doorframe, make the house feel austere. And yet this is the distinctive character of the place: It has a contemplative interior but a sociable exterior.

An authentic country retreat, the Valley House is designed to be part of its site, but does not pretend to be part of nature. In this respect Vaz has learned much from his former employer, legendary Portuguese architect Eduardo Souto de Moura. It was Souto de Moura and Siza who reintroduced drystone walls to the architecture of the Iberian peninsula, and created a modernism that was rooted in the materials and topography of Portugal. The DNA of this house’s architecture is to be found in Siza’s Leça da Palmeira swimming pools and Souto de Moura’s seminal Casa Bom Jesus, both projects that superimpose concrete on stone, and make nature a place of human inhabitation. Vaz’s house, likewise, is a place from which to watch the surroundings, be amongst the sounds of birdsong and the rushing water from nearby rivers, and very probably sip something cold on the veranda while wirelessly connected to the Internet.

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