Romina Grillo, Liviu Vasiu: We chose Casa Leme Millán because it creates a parallel autonomous universe. It doesn’t need context or landscape and makes no reference to the outside. It’s like an artificial rock in the landscape, there are almost no openings, and it doesn’t communicate, doesn’t give any hint, or clue to what is happening within. Despite this, it harbours a hidden internal richness. It is controversial to the last and breaks all the typical conventions of how to live or inhabit a house.
WHAT DOES ‘BREAKING CONVENTIONS’ MEAN IN THIS CONTEXT? AND WHAT MAKES THIS HOUSE INTERNALLY SO COMPLEX AND AS YOU PUT IT, AUTONOMOUS?
If we look at other houses in Brazil during this period, many were closed towards the outside. For instance, Telmo Porto by Villanova Artigas was built at more or less the same time and has very similar characteristics. There was a very specific political context in Brazil in the 1970s and during this period, intellectuals, and entrepreneurs, asked architects to build houses in a certain way. They wanted to hide from the outside, from the realm of dictatorship.
However, what we find particularly interesting in Leme Millán house, is that once you are inside, many of the internal spaces are actually experienced as if they were external. Conversely, the courtyard, the space where you arrive, is covered by two big beams, creating a sort of interior. It adds another level of complexity. The house is not only about cutting yourself off.
At one point, the fact that part of the wall is also curved, somehow gives the feeling that it is a fragment of something bigger. It definitely offers more than just a purely introverted existence.
STILL, YOU HAVE A FEELING OF BEING VERY MUCH INSIDE, PROTECTED BY CONCRETE WALLS, DON’T YOU?
To understand the feeling of openness we are talking about it is necessary to look not only at the envelope but first and foremost on how the interior spaces relate to each other and what this layout allows.
Paulo Mendes da Rocha thought about Casa Leme Millán as a container for life, totally against bourgeois models where there is a clear separation between private and the public areas. In its character, it is similar to Casa Butantã. The private life and public life are very mixed together. There, it is even more extreme because the bedrooms are really in the middle of the house and the walls do not touch the ceiling. You can end up losing yourself in a labyrinth of walls. There you really feel that everything is in one pot, you can easily pass through the rooms just by walking from the entry space to the main space. In Leme House the private areas are somehow separated thanks to the stairs. Nevertheless, in both houses the basic ambition is the same. He imagined spaces that could stage a collective life without boundaries. Even though the house is physically closed, the character of interior spaces and the way in which they coexist suggests a continuity with the public space.
Of course, you know you are inside. At first sight, the living room has the spirit of a cave. However, you definitely don’t feel like you are in a bunker. Although, one would have the impression that Casa Leme Millán is made of dark spaces, it’s not really like that. Light has a strong presence in many spaces; it dominates your thinking.
When you’re in an inside space, with only one skylight, I think, the theme of light is much more evident than when you have a space surrounded by glass, like for instance in Farnsworth house. Even though you are closed in a tight box without a view, the light somehow brings you outside.
DOES THE LAYOUT OF THE HOUSE GIVE YOU THE POSSIBILITY TO HIDE OR RETREAT FROM OTHERS? WHEN YOU ARE IN THESE BEDROOMS, DO YOU REALLY FEEL PART OF EVERYTHING OR IT’S ALSO SOMETHING THAT OFFERS YOU A CERTAIN LEVEL OF PRIVACY?
Mendes da Rocha would say that private spaces do not exist, just public spaces with a different way of being public. During our trip, one of the questions that someone asked him regarded private houses. He didn’t really answer the question, he stopped on the word private saying that this does not exist. The word private doesn’t belong to his vocabulary.
To answer your question in a very practical way, for example, when you go to the upper floor, to one of the bedrooms, you go up on this beautiful staircase and arrive at a kind of bridge. On one side there are the single bedrooms, very structured, identical and on the other side there is a master bedroom, which doesn’t have doors. It’s an open space. All the spaces are looking down to the living room. Only the fact that the curved wall is a bit higher than the other part offers any gradation in publicness. This gesture, together with the difference in level - 5 steps, makes it more personal. But it doesn’t have any fixed boundaries.
Let’s say you would be heard if you yelled in this bedroom, but you wouldn’t be seen. The difference of height is enough not to see what’s in the bedroom. So, in this sense, I think a very basic level of privacy is met.
All the other bedrooms, have a door, and they look down to the kitchen, which is naturally lit from above. They’re extremely private, you could say. The master bedroom is the only space that has contact with the outside through windows. But they’re also very protected because of the brise soleil outside. You are not able to see in from the street.
IF IT WAS BUILT OUT OF SOMETHING OTHER THAN CONCRETE, WOULD IT CHANGE COMPLETELY?
Concrete gives it a sort of unity, so you don’t actually talk about the construction of this house. If it were made from wood, the construction itself would be much more present, you would not be able to ignore it. Well, of course, one could say, we could just put plaster all over and it would be the same. I would say yes and no. Spatially it would be the same. But I mean, the fact that the concrete is exposed, and it also has this directness, it helps understand the thinking of this project, it makes it much more honest.
Actually, we asked him why he always used concrete. He answered very simply: concrete is the only material that would allow these ideas to be built - and we feel this is true. How could you do this otherwise? With which material could you do it - from the beginning to the end? Everything is just a unique gesture, you have double height space, walls, floor, ceiling, made in a single pour, it would not be the same in another material.
IS THERE SOMETHING THAT DOESN’T REALLY FIT AT FIRST GLANCE?
For example, the swimming pool is kind of a weird element. Firstly, it’s the only space that is completely outside and secondly its placed directly in front of the house, which is strange given that the pool is often the most intimate space of a house, where you bathe and expose yourself. I don’t think this was by chance. It’s a totally conscious decision to subvert social conventions.
Another contradiction is that the spaces used by the housekeeper have windows towards the outside whilst the rest of the house goes without. In fact, these service spaces have more windows and generally a greater luminosity than the main living spaces. Of course, this was not just for reasons of atmospheric concept. During this period, I think architects would have argued that it was their way to remove social hierarchies and provide those who are working with totally suitable and good spaces. Now I think it’s irrelevant, it does not impact on the architecture but then, it’s an example of an architect making a sort of political statement, even in times of repression.
IF YOU TAKE OUT EVERYTHING THAT IS RELATED TO THE HUMAN SCALE, THE KITCHEN, THE BED, CHAIRS, WHAT REMAINS - IS THERE AN INHERENT SENSE OF DOMESTICITY IN THESE SPACES?
Leme House is very monumental and abstract. It doesn’t really relate to the dimensions of the human body. Paulo Mendes da Rocha wanted this house to be like a stage, that either exposes social life or underlines the publicness of private life. That is why it relates to the public scale and not to the private.
We always ask ourselves, what is domesticity? One of our conclusions, after many diverse study trips and much personal research, is that it doesn’t matter. Domesticity is personal and related solely to a human being’s way of life and we think, as species, we have the capacity to really inhabit and occupy any type of space. So, if you took your furniture and just put it in the main hall of Zürich railway station you could live there. This applies to any natural or man-made space; it becomes domestic just by the way you use and appropriate it. As far as we are concerned, space is never domestic in itself.
WOULD YOU CALL THIS HOUSE BEAUTIFUL?
Generally, beauty is not something that can be easily agreed upon. For us beauty happens when we don’t get bored. So, it has to have a of sort of mystery and this mystery is often a product of a great instinct, a great idea, or a great intellectual work. It requires a lot of self-discipline and an ability to pull back, be critical and to understand - asking yourself if what you do is good enough and so on.
However, even if you can successfully think in this controlled way, a complete, absolute, and abstract concept will in the end be a bit boring and very dry. This is true even if you could speak about it and are able to describe it in many ways. On the other hand, creating just beautiful spaces, that are without a story is again a little boring. There must be something that goes beyond both pure concept and pure aesthetic beauty.
In the end, something that you don’t know and therefore something that you don’t truly understand is very interesting and can lead to a great richness. Leme House is beautiful in this sense. Its ideas are supported by a complex, and unique view on the world. It’s not that Mendes da Rocha didn’t have a concept; it’s just he chooses not to speak about it so much. He had the innate capacity of creating amazing spaces in a very natural way; simple, direct, effortless. Being in this house, one never feels the work behind it, it is never excessively intellectual, you only sense the beauty of something that is both emotionally mature and mysterious.
WHAT WOULD BE THE OPPOSITE TO THIS HOUSE, WHAT WOULD COME TO YOUR MIND?
If we wanted to just counter the introverted aspect of this house, John Lautner’s Acapulco Arango Residence would be a good choice. It creates a unity with the landscape and completely blurs the boundaries between inside and outside.
The landscape becomes the house, and the house becomes the landscape.
Lautner opens up the possibilities of how to look at landscape, how to include landscape, cut off landscape, add to it and divide it, connect it and so on. His house permits a way of reading landscape that creates its own kind of culture. This, of course, gives the feeling of infinite possibilities. It offers a much more relaxed, and in a way multiple choice way of living. Lautner’s is dreamier. We find less of these attributes in the houses of Paulo Mendes da Rocha. Leme Millán House is more like an idea. Rocha is more ideological; he gives form to pure ideas, which can be a little unforgiving and require more effort to digest.