This House in Buenos Aires Now Encloses a Small Jungle After Some Clever Carving

Built at the turn of the 20th century, Casa Leiva by local firm Giusto Van Campenhout features a central courtyard with a classical oculus rendered in workaday concrete.
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Patricio "Pato" Martinez discovered his new house next to a dilapidated industrial building on a leafy street in Chacarita, the neighborhood du jour for young Buenos Aires creatives. The slightly shabby "casa chorizo" (a historical style characterized by outdoor hallways) still had its original early-20th-century details.

And shopworn as it looked, the single-story structure was solid—plus, at 1,800 square feet, the lot was unusually large. Pato took the leap, bought the building, and called on his old friend Santiago Giusto, who runs a Brussels- and Buenos Aires–based architecture firm with his business partner, Nelson Van Campenhout, to renovate it. For Giusto, it was a chance to update a distinctly Argentinean building as his first residential commission in his home country.

Design firm Giusto Van Campenhout transformed the historic home in Buenos Aires and strove to open up the compartments but retain historic details, including the facade. "We worked with two principle rules during the whole process: We could subtract material from the original building, but the only thing we could add was glass," says Giusto.

The resulting home is overflowing with greenery—and it's the perfect place for its owner, Patricio Martinez, and his girlfriend, Nati Malamute, to unwind.  

"The first stage of the project was to understand what the function of the existing structure would be. How could we work with it and give it new meaning?"

—Santiago Giusta, architect

Tall glass doors give the bedroom a sense of being nested in the plants outside. 

When I visited the completed home late last summer, Pato ushered me through the restored front door into his living room, an inviting space with high ceilings, tall doorways, and recycled wooden floorboards. A creative director by trade, he has filled the room with just the right amount of furniture to make it cozy without feeling cluttered and given it a warm, autumnal color scheme.

A mirrored wall in the courtyard bounces light into the living room, where a Sticotti lamp stands next to a desk by Buenos Aires designer Antonella Marini. 

It’s an ode to Argentinean design: Two reproduction BKF (butterfly) chairs by Sticotti in burnt brown and black leather take center stage adjacent to the sofa. Pato’s dog, Helmut (as in Newton), has developed a penchant for it despite Pato’s repeated attempts to shoo him off. 

A varied collection of artworks is displayed throughout the house, reflecting Pato’s eclectic aesthetic sensibilities and those of his girlfriend, Nati Malamute, who runs a gallery that represents contemporary Argentinean visual artists. But we don’t linger for very long before stepping into the heart of the house—which means going back outside.

"I wanted sunlight, good ventilation, and an intimate relationship between the interiors and exteriors," Patricio says. 

Through two huge glass-and-steel doors, we enter a verdant courtyard. Overhead, the designers replaced the roof in the center of the building with a concrete slab that features a circular cutout—a classical oculus rendered in workaday concrete.

A mirrored wall accentuates a sense of boundlessness while reflecting light into the surrounding living spaces. It’s dramatic—and a little eccentric—but the protagonists are really the plants selected by Ignacio Montes de Oca, a rising landscape design star in Argentina. Stalks strive upward from beds, while vines slink down from the roof through the circular opening, giving the space a languid, feral ease despite its rigid geometry.

When nature calls, the primary bathroom, which looks out onto a patio planted with ample greenery, is ready. The rusticated marble sink basin was shaped by Guillermo Ciocca, a designer based in Córdoba, Argentina.  

At the rear of the lot, the home’s one bedroom and primary bathroom have walls of glass looking into the small patio but are shielded by vegetation. "I was open to a house that perhaps didn’t have all the creature comforts of a modern apartment and would require me to have a proactive attitude toward maintenance and convenience," Pato says. 

"Allowing myself to feel a little too hot or cold, run the risk of getting wet, and otherwise be in situations generally considered a bit uncomfortable were all fine—they make me feel alive.’’

Landscape designer Ignacio Montes de Ocafilled the house with native South American plants. A rising star in Buenos Aires design circles, Montes de Oca drew inspiration from his northern home province of Misiones and its tropical vegetation, adapting a lush jungle look to the temperate local climate. He chose plants that would eventually grow to engulf the house. 

Stepping into the kitchen, which has wooden countertops and a casual, lived-in atmosphere, Pato pours me a coffee and I pull up a chair—one of Argentinean design studio Ries’s wooden Orno models—and we spend a couple of hours discussing the project. 

The table in the well-lived-in kitchen is a loose replica of a Donald Judd design made by a beloved 70-year-old local carpenter whom Pato knows only by his first name, Gustavo. A Ries chair sits opposite the dining table, while a painting by Josefina Alen hangs above the sink. 

The guiding principle was that material could be subtracted to modify the building’s existing layout. Removing key walls provided more light and airflow and provided the pathway we took through the building, in addition to the original outdoor hallway. "We approached the renovation as a continuation of the house," says Giusto, "like Lucio Fontana or Gordon Matta-Clark, who worked with the idea of subtraction of materials and not so much the addition of new elements."

"We were working with a casa chorizo, which is a distinctly Argentinean type," says Giusto. The equivalent of a tenement, these buildings, which date mostly from the turn of the 20th century, were designed to house multiple families in separate rooms with a shared bathroom. 

At the rear of the kitchen, a glass door leads out to a painted steel spiral stairwell that accesses another green haven, a wood-decked roof terrace. From here you can see housing blocks rising above the rusted metal roof of the factory next door. The skyline is unmistakably Buenos Aires. "I liked the idea of living in an urban house while being nestled in the serenity of plants," Pato says. "Here, I can drink a cup of tea at night and not hear the noise of the city." The best of both worlds.

Pato’s dog, Helmut, snoozes in the luminous bedroom. "The only fixed idea I had was that I wanted to preserve the essence of the original house in terms of its aesthetics and the size of each room," says Pato, who, despite being nervous about fixing up his first house, gave his team a lot of creative license. 

Project Credits:

Architecture: Giusto Van Campenhout and Marcos Asa

Landscape Design: Ignacio Montes de Oca / @igmontesdeoca

Photography: Javier Agustin Rojas / @javieragustinrojas

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