For the refurbishment of a Madrid apartment, a Spanish studio looks forward by looking back

Madrid – While envisioning the refurbishment of a penthouse in the centre of Madrid, architects Gonzalo del Val, Daniel Fernández Pascual and Alon Schwabe referred back a couple of decades in their city’s history to position the forward-looking narrative of the design.

At the end of the 1990s, Spain’s real estate market experienced unprecedented growth. The closer to the centennial the country got, the more buildings took shape, and the higher prices rose. Spaniards soon found themselves trapped in a market bubble that lasted nearly a decade and reached its absolute height in 2007. That bubble burst, like so many others, in 2008.

Speculative housing markets and massive public works programs in place during the latter half of the 20th century greatly impacted Spain’s economy, and in turn made proposals to achieve urban sustainability standards set out by the 1992 Rio Summit untenable. Today, Spain is again witnessing an upswing in property values, building and purchasing. In Madrid, prices grew by 12 per cent in 2017 and the number of sales transactions increased by 92 per cent. The numbers still aren’t where they were in 2007, but progressively sharper inclines year after year indicate a bigger playing field to re-evaluate residential typologies. Estudio Gonzalo del Val set out to widen those very parameters through spatial strategy and use of materiality.

‘The functionality of the domestic space is related to the pre-existing typology of the nineties and the memory of that which remains in the house,’ said del Val. ‘Traces of that style are latent in the structure of the building: many of the houses built during the boom resorted to recurrent and repeated spatial elements without addressing particular user concerns. This is due to the fact that many buildings functioned to serve stereotypical family models. Our proposal adapts to the wishes of new users and overlaps the existing typology without spatial prejudice.’

To resolve the shortcomings of the original layout, the team deliberated the functionality of every corner of the apartment. They created structure in the previously corridor-less interiors through clever circulation spaces like a semi-circular studiolo that connects the living room and bedrooms and a pentagonal hallway that leads into a bathroom. Additionally, a ‘hidden chamber’ stores away the infrastructure of the penthouse. Housing pipes, ducts, cables and the like, the storage room adds a layer of sound insulation between rooms.

However, it’s not the refurbished layout, but the consideration for and use of surface materiality – cork and recycled rubber – that makes the project stand out most. The architects pondered whether houses would one day be able to respond to the stressors of climatic change the way southern European cork trees, for example, could. They also asked themselves what building materials would still be viable by the (still seemingly distant) time humans start to take full account of their waste output.

We sought to ask ourselves what materials now ‘make up’ our present and how can they be configured for the near future

‘With the materiality of this project, we didn’t intend to solve a problem about sustainability, but rather we sought to ask ourselves what materials now ‘make up’ our present and how can they be configured for the near future,’ del Val explained. ‘Discarded materials – the new raw material – must be reconfigured and assembled in an innovative and creative way to be part of everyday design.’

Del Val, Fernández Pascual and Schwabe's work is not only cognizant of present user needs, but the future implications of the space and its material construction. It’s foresight that sets the residence apart in its urban context, and shows the value in designers looking back to look forward.

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