Casa Poli: the distant cube in Chile’s Coliumo Peninsula

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(This essay is a ‘case study’ type of essay that includes self authored graphical analyses)

Context 

Located in the Coliumo peninsula of Chile, Casa Poli is a residence designed by Mauricio Pezo & Sofia von Ellrichshausen—principals of their established firm Pezo von Ellrichshausen—that sits heroically, yet solitarily atop a dramatic cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean’s endless body of blue (Figure 1). In the words of Pezo, “the house is a very compact figure placed just on the edge of the cliff, close enough to be able to see the rocks and the waves yet simultaneously far enough from it to feel safe and sheltered”. Coliumo is approximately ten kilometres from Tomé, a coastal town that was home to one of the country’s most important textile factories. Completed in 2005, despite the presence of the occasional tourists, the area preserves a certain rusticity and is still dominated by nature. The building exists within this larger context of an idyllic countryside setting, unspoiled and occupied primarily by rural farmers and fishermen, who became the builders of this constructionally-simple house (Figure 3, 4).

Mauricio Pezo and Sofia von Ellrichshausen use the metaphor of a ‘brick oven’ to illustrate the philosophy of their spatial structure projects; von Ellrichshausen explains that “its a machine that uses raw materials to produce another raw material, creating essentially nothing new.”  They are dedicated to the research of basic structures and spatial relations, of artistic image and architectural representation. They work by building upon the same fundamental ideas that have always been present at the beginning of their work—which is to search for interaction between spaces and people, architecture and life—and progresses by refining the ideas and experimenting with the possible variations of that single theme. Casa Poli is no exception, as it is a continuation of their ideas explored in Casa Gago built in San Pedro, Chile.

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Mauricio Pezo (Left) & Sofia von Ellrichshausen (Right)

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Informality & Dialogue

At first glance, the house presents itself as rather brutal in its concrete, wholly cubic in its monolithic form with equally square openings placed seemingly at a random. A closer analysis suggests that the geometrically abstract shell conceals a latent energy, as it aspires to foster an affinity between the interior which it houses and its outer surroundings; creating an unexpected relationship between the shell and the peninsula which incites a multiplicity of experiences to the inhabitant.

Casa Poli is unique in its function in that the house serves an impermanent purpose, acting doubly as a rentable residence as well as a small cultural centre for artists in residence. Given that the house’s occupants are ever-changing, the architects strived to erase any traces of the sense of domesticity that might linger in the residence. The architects were most successful in achieving this by the introduction of the double perimeter walls. It is undeniable that in the context of the residence scale, these walls would be perceived as especially thick and this allows for all service-related elements and spaces such as the furniture, kitchen, staircase, bathroom,  interior balconies, to be pushed into the walls, protecting the windows from the sun and rain, towards the north and west, which as a result creates a buffer between the interior and the exterior. What this establishes is the spatial flexibility that allows for the interior spaces to be completely freed up to be used in whichever manner the inhabitants wish, resulting in the abstraction of an unadorned space that is free to be arranged and rearranged. Rooms that are as nameless as they are faceless, affording any informal possibility.

Although not pertaining to Brutalist architecture in the sense that Casa Poli lacks the scale nor does it exude the crude sensation of ostracism, it could also be argued that the exterior of reinforced concrete cast insitu (Figure 5) and the wood-clad interiors furthers this sense of ‘domestic impermanence’ in the building, as the harshly artificial texture of the greyish white surfaces acts as a ‘coating’ against any human warmth or natural intimacy; the residues of inhabitation. Its austerity resists personalization, addressing a ferocious geography and the inescapable presence of the Pacific Ocean with all its strength of the natural elements such as the wind, sun and rain. It acts like a defensive lookout on the edge of the cliff with its thick castle-like walls, or even comparable to an abandoned lighthouse far in the landscape. Pezo describes it as “a detached object that in a way is embodying a sense of distance or almost as a forgotten object in the landscape.”

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In addition to that, Casa Poli utilizes this wood to install movable walls, as von Ellrichshausen explains “We then used the same battered wood of the frames to wrap the interior and to build sliding panels that function both as doors to hide the services of the perimeter and as security shutters that cover the windows when the house is left alone.” which further advances the idea of an adaptable house depending on its intended functionality (Figure 27).

Furthermore, the lack of ornamentation on all the four sides of the cube, echoes the values confronted by the 19th century influential Modernist architect from Austria, Adolf Loos. The absence of ornaments conveys the idea that the house is of a multitude of purposes and functions—in that sense, bringing up an informality that allows the monolithic cube to be moulded into any shape depending on its required function. Adolf Loos stated in 1898, “Search the beauty in the pure form and don’t allow it to depend from the ornament.” This was carried into the interior as well, which was not opulent by any means, embellished only with white paint and not betraying what was seen in the outside in terms of materials. This ‘informality’ that boasts its flexibility to accommodate any given purpose and inhabitant, aims to continue this dialogue between the shelter and the landscape. Casa Poli is positioned precariously in the extreme terrain of the cliff, offering an inherent degree of both protection and danger. And despite the obvious contrasting opposition between the man-made object and the natural landscape, there is a perceptible continuity—almost seamless—between the rough concrete and the jagged formation of the granite rocks (Figure 6). This then emphasizes the sense of gravity; the sense of rest, the sense that the concrete cube is perched safely and with a calculated stability within the extreme landscape of the cliff’s edges, which contributes to the aforementioned semblance of Casa Poli being akin to an abandoned castle lookout or to an abandoned lighthouse.

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The models (Figure 7) elucidates the construction process of the house, with layers of concrete poured stacking on top of another. As it was built by farmers and fishermen in a remote location, von Ellrichshausen mentions that “all the accidents and all the drama of the construction is part of the expression of the building.” Casa Poli has become a place not only the extreme condition of doing art is present, but also the extreme experience of being in nature (Figure 8).

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This traced site plan depicts the extremely prominent location of the house, on the edge of a cliff. It is close enough for the inhabitants to be able to look at the waves crashing down on the rocks, yet also perched far enough to feel secure and riveted to the ground.

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This traced drawing of a sketch plan produced by Pezo von Ellrichshausen shows their initial response to the project; a thick-walled cube organized in a square floor plan segregated by an asymmetrical cross. This cross is a pure example of the architects’ philosophy in design, where they ‘experiment’ with various possibilities within a given limit (with the limit being all the possibilities of using a cross to organize a cubic floor plan).

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These traced plans show the double thickness walls being used to house the inner balconies, staircases and other service elements.

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Figure 20 – Traced (Below) Diagram of First Floor Plan and (Above) Second Floor Plan. This diagram illustrates the thickness of the walls, in poche.

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This traced diagram illustrates how the front part of the house acts as a ‘magnifying glass’ for the rear interior, capturing fragmented views of the landscape.

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Figure 23 and 24 are traced drawings of a photograph (later digitally edited) that depicts the fragmented views seen from the interior, delivering almost a sense of ‘vertigo’. It also shows how the receded windows act as a buffer between the inside and the outside.

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Reflection

Casa Poli is a structure that attempts to emphasize the unique dialogue between itself as a shelter and its the extreme surroundings. It exudes a spatial informality facilitated by the house’s ease of high changeability and adaptability, made possible by the movable walls, the separation of usable and service spaces, a rudimentary logic of circulation that is organized by the house’s cubic floor plan.

The exceedingly thick walls plays a major role in delivering the ideas of Pezo von Ellrichshausen, as it allows service elements to be ‘hidden’ amongst it, freeing the rest of the interior spaces. Furthermore, it also acts as the intermediary between the rough condition of Casa Poli’s surroundings and the transient inhabitants and their transient purposes.

In addition, in its dynamic dialogue with the cliff, Casa Poli’s materiality participates in allowing the interior spaces to be free of any sense of domesticity, fit for the double functionality that the house was designed for.

Personally, Casa Poli has provoked philosophical design questions along with exhibiting how the physicality of form, material and scale can play a part in the synthesis of a structure that takes advantage of the site as much as the site and nature dominates it.

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