written by:
photos by:
August 13, 2009
Originally published in The City Life
as
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.

"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 c
"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."
Photo by 
1 / 6
"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
"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."
Photo by 
2 / 6
The couple took down a wall to create the open kitchen and lounge space where Tham and Hanna play. Wooden panels that aped a Swiss chalet also came down out of the “interior patio,” making the dining room more palatable.
The couple took down a wall to create the open kitchen and lounge space where Tham and Hanna play. Wooden panels that aped a Swiss chalet also came down out of the “interior patio,” making the dining room more palatable.
Photo by 
3 / 6
"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
"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."
Photo by 
4 / 6

The front door hallway flooring features original turn-of-the-century floor tiles in this renovated first-floor apartment in Barcelona, Spain.

Photo by 
5 / 6
Freestanding bathtub and sink unit
"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 - plywood and slate."
Photo by 
6 / 6
"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 c
"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."
Project 
Casa Ali Bei
Architect 

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.

Join the Discussion

Loading comments...

Latest Articles

A third floor addition and whole-house renovation modernized a funky cottage on an unusual, triple-wide lot in San Francisco.
From modern interiors hidden within historic structures to unabashedly modern dwellings, these seven renovations take totally different approaches to San Francisco's historic building stock.
February 10, 2016
Delphi sofa from Erik Jørgensen and gyrofocus fireplace in living room of Villa Le Trident in the French Riviera, renovated by 4a Architekten.
The Aegean's all-white architecture famously helped inspire Le Corbusier; these five dwellings continue in that proud modern tradition (though not all are as minimalist).
February 10, 2016
San Francisco dining room with chandelier and Eames shell chairs
Brooklyn-based RBW's work—from diminutive sconces to large floor lamps—shape these five interiors.
February 09, 2016
Glass-fronted converted garage in Washington
These garages go behind parking cars and storing your drum sets.
February 09, 2016
Modern Texas home office with sliding walls, behr black chalkboard paint, concrete walls, and white oak flooring
From appropriated nooks to glass-encased rooms, each of these modern offices works a unique angle.
February 09, 2016
picnic-style table in renovated San Francisco house
From chandeliers to pendants, these designs make the dining room the most entertaining space in the house.
February 09, 2016
Midcentury house in Portland with iron colored facade and gold front door
From preserved masterworks to carefully updated time capsules, these homes have one thing in common (other than a healthy appreciation for everything Eames): the conviction that the '40s, '50s, and '60s were the most outstanding moments in American architecture.
February 09, 2016
Modern living room with furniture designed by Ludovica + Roberto Palomba
These oases by the sea, many done up in white, make stunning escapes.
February 08, 2016
A Philippe Starck standing lamp and an Eames chaise longue bracket the living room; two Lawrence Weiner prints hang behind a pair of Warren Platner chairs and a table purchased from a River Oaks estate sale; at far left of the room, a partial wall of new
Texas might have a big reputation, but these homes show the variety of shapes and sizes in the Lone Star State.
February 08, 2016
Montigo gas-burning fireplace in spacious living room.
Built atop the foundation of a flood-damaged home, this 3,000-square-foot Maryland home features vibrant furniture placed in front of stunning views of a nearby estuary.
February 08, 2016
Studio addition in Seattle
An architect couple sets out to transform a run-down property.
February 08, 2016
West Elm coffee table, custom Joybird sofa, and matching Jens Risom chairs in living room of Westchester renovation by Khanna Shultz.
Every Monday, @dwell and @designmilk invite fans and experts on Twitter to weigh in on trending topics in design.
February 08, 2016
modern lycabettus penthouse apartment living room vertical oak slats
For the modernists among us, these spare spaces are a dream come true.
February 08, 2016
The square fountain at the courtyard's center is a modern rendition of a very traditional feature in many Middle Eastern homes.
From a large gathering space for family or a tranquil sanctuary, these seven designs feature some very different takes on the ancient idea of a courtyard.
February 08, 2016
stdaluminum 021
Since windows and doors are such important aspects of your home, it’s always a good idea to take the time to evaluate how they fit within the lifestyle you want. Whether you’re in the middle of constructing a new home, or you’re considering replacing your current setup, there are multiple elements to consider when it comes time to make the final decisions. Milgard® Windows & Doors understands how vital these choices are to the well-being of your home and has developed ways to turn the process into a journey that can be just as enjoyable as it is fulfilling. Not sure where to start? We gathered some helpful insights from their team of experts to help us better understand what goes into the process of bringing your vision to life.
February 08, 2016
modern fire resistant green boulder loewen windows south facade triple planed low-e glass
These houses in Broncos Country prove modern design is alive in the Rocky Mountains.
February 08, 2016
french evolution paris daniel rozensztroch living area eames la chaise butterfly chair moroccan berber rug
A tastemaker brings his distinct vision to an industrial loft with a centuries-old pedigree.
February 07, 2016
senses touch products
The haptic impact can’t be underplayed. The tactility of a material—its temperature, its texture­—can make the difference between pleasure and discontent.
February 07, 2016
senses taste products
Ambience is a key ingredient to any meal—materials, textures, and mood all impart a certain flavor.
February 07, 2016
senses smell products
The nose knows: Though fleeting and immaterial, scent is the lifeblood of Proustian memories, both evoking and imprinting visceral associations.
February 06, 2016
design icon josef frank villa beer vienna
Josef Frank: Against Design, which runs through April 2016 at Vienna’s Austrian Museum of Applied Arts/Contemporary Art, is a comprehensive study of the prolific architect, designer, and author.
February 06, 2016
senses sound products
From an alarm to a symphony, audio frequencies hold the power to elicit an emotional call-and-response.
February 06, 2016
Italian Apline home with double-height walls on one facade.
Every week, we highlight one amazing Dwell home that went viral on Pinterest. Follow Dwell's Pinterest account for more daily design inspiration.
February 05, 2016
A built-in sofa with Design Tex upholstery marks the boundary between the two-level addition and the bungalow. Leading up to the master bedroom, a perforated metal staircase, lit from above, casts a Sigmar Polke–like shadow grid on the concrete floor.
From a minimalist Walter Gropius design to a curving sculptural stair, these six stairways run the gamut.
February 05, 2016
distant structure lakeside prefab norway facade stones green roof
Dwell has traveled all over the world, from Tasmania to Indonesia, to report on modern houses.
February 05, 2016
modern lycabettus penthouse apartment master bedroom atrium
Get ready for a weekend of rest with these sleepy, little cocoons.
February 05, 2016
lamp show 99 cent plus gallery 0
At Brooklyn's 99¢ Plus gallery, 30 artists and designers re-imagine the lamp in an illuminating light show.
February 04, 2016
Hidden storage stairwell with raw brass hardware
Having ample space to stow items is a daily struggle—peep these modern homes for some ideas on maximizing your square footage.
February 04, 2016
modern fairhaven beach house blackbutt eucalyptus living room Patricia Urquiola sofa
Whether it's along a coast in Australia or the French Alps, wood provides a natural touch in these interiors.
February 04, 2016
Glass and steel sculpture in Printemps store of Paris.
In the Paris' venerable Printemps department store, two Toronto-based firms were tasked with enlivening a new atrium and creating a unique experience for visitors. YabuPushelberg, partnering with UUfie, designed this stunning steel "sail" embedded with vibrant dichroic glass.
February 04, 2016