It Takes a Villa
Enric Ruiz-Geli’s firm Cloud9 designed the suburban house of the future—it also happens to be sustainable.
For the architectural tourist, the very mention of Barcelona brings to mind the fantastical world of Antonio Gaudí. Despite the 21st-century gloss of a sleek, high-tech, economic hub, Catalonia’s capital city’s greatest design export remains the eccentric turn-of-the-(last)-century designer. From high above the city in Gaudí’s Park Güell, a hallucinatory vertical landscape of tiled grottos and organically unfolding gardens, the view is bullied by the Sagrada Familia, the architect’s über-basilica, which has been under construction since the 1880s. In the Eixample—a neighborhood of broad avenues and octagonal intersections developed to connect the city’s ancient center with once-outlying towns—the sidewalks in front of Gaudí’s Casa Batlló and Casa Milà are clogged with throngs of ice cream–eating tourists.
A few blocks away from these celebrated structures, in an alien cube set within a garden courtyard, Gaudí’s heir apparent, Enric Ruiz-Geli, is quietly plotting the next Catalan design revolution. Ruiz-Geli’s firm, Cloud9, works at the outer reaches of designand technology’s intersection—turning complex, data-powered projects into effortless and eminently livable buildings. At 38, Ruiz-Geli is transforming Le Corbusier’s dream of machines for living into living machines.
Ruiz-Geli’s most recently completed project, the Villa Bio, is situated a little over an hour outside of Barcelona in Llers, a green, hilly, sun-bathed sprawl near Figueres (hometown of everyone’s favorite mustachioed surrealist, Salvador Dali). The area reads like a textbook Mediterranean suburb and feels oddly similar to California’s faux-Mediterranean enclaves—from the gleaming new terra-cotta tiles and white stucco walls down to the perfectly manicured lawns, swimming pools, nosy neighbors, and stringent normativa (or community building rules).
The Villa Bio is trapped in a contextual oxymoron—given the neighbors, it’s utterly out of place, but one look at the natural surroundings tells you which house fits right in. Two years in the making, it was no easy task to make the most of client Carles Fontecha’s small piece of land. The sloping coiled snake of a plan, with underground garage and a 50-foot cantilevered section, is no small feat of engineering. The result is economical, beautiful, and environmental. The Villa Bio is a firework of astute solutions that exemplify what the sustainable suburban home of tomorrow can be today.
“We were not looking for a green label,” explains Ruiz-Geli in rapid-fire English, “We wanted a truly modern house that could seamlessly integrate in its environment. Gaudí was interested in nature in formal and spiritual terms. At Cloud9 we’re interested in the performative dimension of nature—how it grows, lives, and transforms. We strive to cultivate this organic dimension.”
Indeed, the Villa Bio’s shape grew directly out of the land, echoing the sloping hillside forest that sits beyond the property line—and honoring the client’s request for a home without stairs to accommodate his two young children and disabled father. From the street to the back of the house, the floor rises almost five feet, following the land’s topography. The slope is re-created for the rising section that leads back to the front of the home (now at an elevation of almost ten feet). Step out onto the hydroponic rooftop garden and the sloping spiral plan takes one more elongated spin, terminating atop the master bedroom. The aromatic garden is one of the home’s prime sustainable features—absorbing excess runoff and protecting the house from the tramontane, a strong wind that blows in the region.
Though each element of the Villa Bio plays an important role in furthering Ruiz-Geli’s organic approach, none is more pronounced than the home’s windowless concrete walls. The fortified panels act as beams, enabling the 50-foot-wide structure to literally hang in the balance. They are also essential to the home’s ventilation. Small portholes with thick glass light fixtures enable the flow of air, while keeping the neighbors out of sight.
Entering the unfurling inner space, one is struck by the harmony of the whole. Light pours in through large windowpanes at the front and the back of the building. Light amplifiers in the ceiling are equipped with energy-saving sensors that reproduce the chromaticity of daylight. “It took us some time to adapt when we moved in,” says Fontecha, who works as an expert in security systems. “With all this transparency, we were worried about our privacy.”
However committed to the Cloud9 design, social acceptance in the tightly knit community was a matter of concern for Fontecha. Friends found the design “rather extreme,” and the villa was the talk of the town, attracting unconvinced neighbors through boca a boca (word of mouth). “Throughout the construction process, this building has been called everything,” sighs Ruiz-Geli. “A bunker, a ski ramp… Big Brother!”
The finished home is a different story. “Now people just love to have a coffee on the rooftop,” says Ruiz-Geli proudly. “They marvel at all the green around, because they don’t have that at home. Everybody wants to go hidroponico. There’s Disney architecture everywhere destroying the countryside, but then you meet someone like Carles who understands what you’re doing and trusts you.” He pauses and reflects, “It’s like being a hacker in the system.”
When asked where Cloud9’s heady mix of theory, craftsmanship, and technology comes from, Ruiz-Geli responds with an unexpected answer that perfectly illustrates the kind of paradoxical character he is: “Robert Wilson.” As in Einstein on the Beach Robert Wilson? “Yes. We worked on his stage design for five years. It helped me grasp one of the things that interest me most: the time factor—that ephemeral, performative dimension of architecture.”
So this is what fuels Ruiz-Geli’s crusade to bring the best of avant-garde architecture to life in Catalonia: a democratic process where the understanding of social norms, bureaucratic rules, and building conditions oscillates with a love of technology, awareness of nature, and pure idealism. This unique harmony gives birth to buildings that are bold and livable and, above all else, fuse effortlessly with their environment. We are only left to wonder if the ice cream–eating tourists will follow.