In an ancient city, a young family was bursting at the seams of their apartment. Luca Pagnan, a businessman, and his wife, Elena, a lawyer, felt stuck. They had two children—Cecilia, now 5, and Giovanni, 2 (baby Francesco joined the family in 2015)—and barely a balcony to connect their house to the outdoors. So they began looking for an affordable lot in the city’s dense urban core.
After a search, they found an enticingly large piece of land. But the parcel’s size made it prohibitively expensive. That’s when Luca had an idea: Why not recruit another family to join the enterprise, and build two houses?
When he found a partner for the project through word of mouth, Luca contacted Guido and Martino Pietropoli of Studiopietropoli, and proposed that they design side-by-side homes. Luca knew Guido’s work well: He’d grown up in a house Guido designed in the 1970s.
For the two clients—who didn’t actually meet until they moved into their new homes—the Pietropolis designed two nearly identical houses. Each is freestanding but connected by a shared underground garage and a roofline that forms a common shelter over the paired entrances.
Getting two families to agree on a single design program turned out to be no problem at all, Martino Pietropoli says. While each structure has the same floor plan, the Pagnans’ house is clad in neutral gray tones, and the other has a warm brick-red tinge.
The Pagnans gave the Pietropolis free reign inside as well. Guido frequently collaborated with Carlo Scarpa in the 1970s, and the Pagnans’ house shows evidence of the Venetian master’s influence: unexpected materials and patiently crafted, bespoke solutions.
The Pagnan home—with its uniform floor planks and unbroken panes of glass—lacks the rough tactility and improvisation of many of Scarpa’s iconic projects. It does, however, rely a great deal on wood—teak floors, stairs of teak and larch—a surprising rarity in Italian homes. As Martino explains, in Italy "the house must be eternal, and for Italians wood does not express that."
For the residents, teak and larch offered a different allure. "It feels great to live in a house with so much wood," Luca says. "The warmth of the material is very different from stone and tile."
The Pietropolis drew on another Scarpian tradition to break up the predictable rhythms of the home’s cubic spaces: built-ins that add exuberant and unexpected sculptural elements. The central stairs undulate with varying shades of larch and teak, an effect that carries into the screen of dowel-like strips that encase them.
These one-off designs are impressive, but ultimately it is the connection to the garden that most defines the essence of the home. "They asked us to design a house with virtually no boundaries between inside and outside," Martino says. "And this is what we have tried to give them."
To achieve this effect, the Pietropolis set the floor of the living room flush with the garden. Then they designed enormous casement windows that Martino describes as "very peculiar, so big and wide at the same time." The massive panes help dissolve any sense of separation as entire walls seem to slide open. Even stepping outside, it is hard to say if the rough stone paving of the terrace is a continuation of the interior or the beginning of the garden.
The homes’ twin gardens are separated by hedges, but the lived boundaries are far more porous. "Initially, the idea was to share the price of the land," Luca says, "but in the end, it has been about social relationships—our children playing in the garden together."