By Henry Stephens
Nestled in a vast forest of cork trees in Portugal’s rural Alentejo region, the secluded Villa Alem by Swiss architect Valerio Olgiati offers an ambitious reinterpretation of the courtyard type, at the scale of a single family home.
Like many other Olgiati projects, Villa Alem was concieved first and foremost as the development of a single architectural idea. In this case, a walled garden, specifically designed to provide an internal environment sheltered from extreme heat and winds present on the site. The building consists of a residence and an external courtyard space, both programs concealed by large cast in-situ concrete walls that fold inward or outward to provide views or shade where necessary. According to Olgiati, “the entire impression created is one of a desert, dry, stony and dusty.” The building is entirely constructed from in-situ concrete of a “slightly reddish hue”.
The walled garden takes central focus in the project, occupying roughly three quarters of the building footprint, with the enclosed residential program constituting the remainder. Initially, the residence was packed around the perimeter of the courtyard, but was later shifted to the north end of the site as the distances required to cross the garden were projected to be beyond the Villa’s occupants. This radical privileging of external space serves as a kind of datum within the project, acting as a frame through which other spatial and programmatic relationships are organised.
Modeled on the Court of the Myrtles at the Alhambra in Grenada, the garden at the centre of the house is arranged as a series of horizontal bands framed by paths and planting. Perhaps the most explicit historical reference to the moorish Court is a central pool defining the main north-south axis of the garden, designed this time for swimming rather than goldfish. The long walls framing the courtyard fold outwards, as if to “open toward the sky”. At the south end of the garden, the short wall folds inwards, providing shade in a subtle nod to the cloistered walkways of the Alhambra.
The folded concrete walls defining the extents of the house give it a strikingly monumental presence and a sense of inscrutability. From an external perspective, it is difficult to discern where courtyard ends and residence begins – rather the mass of the building reads as a single, homogenous volume. Contributing to this effect is the choice of materials. Almost the entire building – from the massive folded walls to the base of the sofa in the dining room – is made from cast in-situ concrete.
The monolithic character of the building is enhanced by the large openings puncturing its external walls, defining the main axes of both the garden and the house. Aside from the cave-like dining room at the north end of the courtyard, the only space within the residence to offer a view outside of the house is the architect’s office. Behind the dining room is a shaded, hairpin-bend hallway connecting to three private bedrooms, each with their own private courtyards. The interior of the house is sparsely decorated, displaying only the boarded internal finish of the same reddish concrete.
Olgiati’s work has always had a strong processional element and Villa Alem is no different, with the placement of openings and thresholds facilitating a carefully staged sense of tension and release – from the dining room, the view to the courtyard and the mountains beyond almost reads like a scenography. For a residence, the Villa Alem is a radical proposition. Through the privileging of the building’s external courtyard space and the manipulation of its perimeter, Olgiati achieves a coherent architectural statement within the confines of a single, sculptural volume.