Three summers ago, architects Antón García-Abril and Débora Mesa went on vacation with their four kids to the Mediterranean island of Menorca. During their wanderings around the Balearic landscape, they stumbled on an abandoned sandstone mine near a local farm. Captivated by its material qualities—they conduct experimental research as principals of Ensamble Studio—they decided to acquire the land for an unusual excavation project. The architects wanted to convert the grotto into a place to live with the least possible disturbance, giving rise to Ca’n Terra, meaning "house belonging to the earth" in Catalan.
Through October 31, Ca’n Terra is available to tour virtually through T-Space, the Rhinebeck, New York–based gallery established by the Steven Myron Holl Foundation. The digital tools that Ensamble Studio used to survey, draw, and document the site create a virtual exhibition even while the pandemic keeps most cultural venues shuttered.
"Our goal is to touch the space very gently, to add the necessary elements to make it inhabitable and therefore preserve it and give it new meaning and new life," Mesa says. "It’s a project that found us. It’s something we came across; we found meaning in it, and once we saw it, it was probably the architect in us who just couldn’t ignore it."
"The island of Menorca is filled with these very porous stone quarries," Mesa says. "We found one that was abandoned, and we just couldn’t refrain from purchasing the land where this quarry was and then intervening in it, without really having a reason behind it except that there was a lot of potential there to be worked with and to be explored."
Mesa and García-Abril live in Boston, where García-Abril is a professor at MIT, and visit Ca’n Terra when they can—on vacations and with their studio. "It’s become like a spiritual retreat and a laboratory," says Mesa. "It’s a space that we keep transforming and we keep visiting to learn how to better adapt it. The project is not finished, in a way. It doesn’t have a finishing date. We need to live in it, we need to experience it to see what makes sense to continue adding more touches to it."
The interior accommodations are spare: a hammock between rough-hewn walls, mattresses and pillows on stepped cuts of sandstone, a table and chair within a carved crevice, a sink installed between an opening of rock. Yet the extensive space makes room for minor design indulgences as well. A pool cut into a grotto, lounging areas and long couches fitted into rectilinear openings, a slim elemental railing, and an extravagant L-shaped standing desk form elegant compositions along stretches of exposed rock.
"There’s not a traditional organization of function and spaces," Mesa says. "What we did [allows] a lot of flexibility in how functions happen, so we haven’t assigned a fixed place to rest, eat, or socialize. In a way, the quarry serves as a canvas where activities can happen in different places throughout the year, throughout the day."
The initial process of adaptation took place for over a year. The 19th-century mine had evidently been used by soldiers during the Spanish Civil War to store ammunition, and, they think, as a refuge. Furniture and personal objects remained, left open to the elements, and wildlife and animals from a nearby farm had freely wandered through. Using an existing well, solar panels, and an aerobic septic system, they powered equipment and sustained themselves as they removed a century’s worth of debris with excavators, power washers, brooms, and shovels.
"Extracting stone is perhaps one of the most primal modes of construction," continues Mesa. "What we’re interested in is something that is industrial at some point and has a vision of exploiting the land suddenly can become a space that nature can claim back, or a space that has other uses, other functions, other values, other lives. What is a pity for us is to make such an effort of excavating and extracting the material and then not seeing the value of what is left behind."
Aiding their conceptualization of the interior plans, Ensamble used a 3D laser scanner to capture high-precision 3D information with infrared light. From that, they created the model and drawings. "The discovery was a shock and also an act of faith," García-Abril notes during an online tour for the T-Space exhibition.
"What we found was a dark hole [where] we couldn’t even breathe," says García-Abril. "Here started the technology part, the architectural process, where we were capable to laser scan everything…We discovered through these prints the beauty of that space, how it was going to vibrate, and the amazing uncertainties that a man-made construction, without willing to be architecture, could contain as a space."
By cleaning the quarried walls, they restored the stone’s natural off-white color, allowing it to reflect greater sunlight into the volumes. Pouring concrete in parts of the ground gave them an even, smooth floor, and reinforced plastic sheeting hung on a metal armature creates a thin, translucent membrane between inside and outside, keeping out dust and animals—and balancing temperature and humidity.
Because of the quarry’s inextricable connection to the exterior landscape, temperature variations throughout the days and seasons make some areas more hospitable than others. "So we wanted functions to move through the space and also react to the outdoor conditions," says García-Abril.
To improve natural lighting and ventilation, the architects carved a square aperture through the ceiling of one quadruple-height volume. The excised stone fell into the quarry, bringing a tree along for the ride. It began growing on the cut-out plinth, lit from the skylight above, creating a charged, luminous moment that expresses the potential for breathing new life into an abandoned mine.
Project team: Javier Cuesta, Borja Soriano, Alvaro Catalan, Massimo Loia, Marco Antrodicchia, Sebastián Zapata, Arianna Sebastiani, Claudia Armas, Ekam Sahni, Yu-Ting Li, Joel Kim, Gonzalo Peña, Yvonne Asiimwe, Mónica Acosta.
Builder: Ensamble Studio, Materia Inorganica
Consultants: Urculo Engineering
Photos: Ensamble Studio
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