Sumit Singhal loves modern architecture. He comes from a family of builders who have built more than 20 projects in the last ten years near Delhi in India. He has recently started writing about the architectural projects that catch his imagination.
A2 House in Siena, Italy by VPS Architetti
June 5th, 2014 by Sumit Singhal
Article source: VPS Architetti
The property is located near Castelmuzio, a small medieval hamlet in the Val D’Orcia region near the Renaissance town of Pienza. The Pieve (Church) of Santo Stefano in Cennano is located to the west of Castelmuzio along the Pieve country road.
The church was constructed on a sacred Etruscan site, evidenced by the many graves, urns and inscriptions unearthed in the area. The site later became a pagan temple and finally a Christian church, located along an important medieval pilgrimage route and rebuilt in the Romanesque style in the second half of the 12th century. The three apses have survived while the interior is now a single nave. The Parish declined in the 14th and 15th centuries until it was completely abandoned. The church was restored in more recent times.
The property annexed to the church (perhaps once used to host pilgrims along the pilgrimage route and more recently as a farmhouse) was already included in the Leopold Cadastre from 1865 but was presumably built in previous eras. Located in an olive grove that continues to produce oil, the building is connected to the religious structure by a sandstone arch, contemporaneous with the Romanesque church. The three historic apses form a dramatic backdrop for the house’s patios and exterior spaces which include a small, detached library/work/meditation space.
The program called for the design of a weekend home (540 square meters/5800 square feet) on three levels to be used for the social and artistic life of the owners – a film producer and an art collector. The project called for the transformation of the farmhouse into a residence, adapting the structure to the clients’ requirements by redesigning the interior layout, restoring and renovating the facades, and providing new mechanical systems. There was no increase to the existing historic volumes. A series of service volumes in very poor conditions were demolished to reveal the building’s original structure.
The ground floor was conceived on various levels to connect the west entrance, on a higher level, to the olive grove on a lower level to the east, thus creating a spatial sequence opening to the dramatic Tuscan landscape with uninterrupted views to the Church of S. Anna in Camprena and Pienza. Two separate living areas are located on two different levels; the dining room and kitchen are connected by openings that allow the perception of the entire spatial sequence. No changes were made to the existing load-bearing wall structure; interior openings were modified both for circulation purposes as well as for creating complex visual and spatial experiences.
The second floor is accessed both by an interior staircase recessed into the depth of the wall to the right of the entrance as well as by an exterior stair leading directly to one of the owner’s office spaces. Another office, with a full wall built-in bookcase facing an oversized fireplace, is the fulcrum – conceived of almost like a “piazza” – for the distribution of the smaller office and the master bedroom; stairs on both sides lead to 3 bedroom/bath suites located in attics on different levels. Again on this level, the new layout respected the load-bearing wall structure, which becomes a significant spatial and architectural feature. The project seeks to enhance and exalt wall thicknesses, structure and direction. Openings are conceived as very precise cuts in the masonry structure.
Differences in wall alignment are highlighted by setbacks and additions incorporated into a geometry relating to door and window openings and built-in furnishings (such as bookshelves and niches), obtained by addition to or subtraction from the masonry mass. Some pre-existing elements, such as ceiling and wall structures, were restored and incorporated into the overall design like fragments harkening back to the building’s previous history within a new system of spatial relations regulated by a series of interconnected local geometries and symmetries.
The east exteriors are organized as a series of terraces that seek to optimize the different slopes and levels near the building. Changes to exterior openings were limited almost exclusively to regularizing and reopening existing doors and windows. Facades and roofs were mostly restored and preserved using local traditional materials and techniques, deployed with a distinctly contemporary feel.
This was a conscious design choice that sought to “contextualize” the project, rooting it in place and history without resorting to facile and ineffective picturesque assimilations, a very common strategy in the reinterpretation of historic structures. The use of local natural materials (wood, stone, masonry) contributed to decreasing the direct and indirect impacts of construction.
Particular attention was paid both to wall insulation, which achieved higher values than those called for in Italian codes, as well as to roof insulation by working with the depth of both existing and new wooden structures and roof or floor sections. The floor heating and cooling system – powered by solar panels and heat pump, which in turn may be powered by PV – reduces energy consumption (given the 4-5 meter/13-16 feet ceiling heights and the large interior volumes to be heated/cooled), focusing on renewable energy sources and providing interior comfort well above what can be achieved with traditional fan coil systems.
VPS Architects, based in Sardinia, was formed after a decades-long professional collaboration of partners Giuseppe Vallifuoco, Mirco Pani and American-trained Ilene Steingut. VPS specializes in architectural and urban design and planning, adopting a collaborative and non-hierarchical approach to creating an integrated vision of all the elements – physical, social, economic – involved in the planning, design and construction processes.
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