Slow architecture: John Pawson’s Casa delle Bottere complex in Veneto
Wallpaper* met with John Pawson during the construction of Casa delle Bottere in Veneto, northern Italy, in 2010. The house, that completed in 2014, was, for both designer and client, an exercise in slow architecture, recognising the time, thought and space required for the birthing of a masterpiece of minimalism.
‘You’ve come to the right place for slowness,’ says John Pawson in the basement of his King’s Cross studio, from which comes the work that has given Pawson a global reputation as the pre-eminent supplier of architectural calm, be it for houses, hotels, offices, galleries, shops or even monasteries. Often characterised as minimalist, the Pawson aesthetic is actually one of considered reductivism, the removal of extraneous detail in favour of an all-enveloping simplicity. Sometimes this purity is juxtaposed with existing structure to accentuate its simplicity. Sometimes landscape is the foil.
The Casa delle Bottere combines the architect’s legendary asceticism with a full quota of cutting-edge low-energy technology. Pawson’s houses have always received more attention than his other works, largely because they seem to prescribe a very particular way of life. Yet as the architect himself gently points out, creating a domestic environment is always a collaboration with a client, an ongoing conversation that brings together their requirements with Pawson’s constantly refined visual sense.
John Pawson in his London studio with a model of the private chapel that forms part of his latest project. Portrait: Tim Gutt
‘They’re trusting you with something they really can’t envision,’ says Pawson, adding, ‘I understand the client’s point of view more and more as I get older. They’re all hugely successful and talented people, and they have their own point of view. And they’re in the business of testing you. You’re doing them a disservice if you give in.’
This house and chapel in Veneto is a case in point. Casa delle Bottere is being built for a family with a sizeable experience of commissioning architecture, meaning that ‘the client had a very realistic programme for design and construction’. With that established, Pawson explains that the building is always ‘very dependent on the client – that’s the whole point of this game. It’s all to do with trust and courage and patience.’
Together with associate architect Giuseppe Cangialosi, of Treviso-based MZC Architettura, Pawson and his project architect Ben Collins have carved a remarkable dwelling out of the Venetian landscape, with the Dolomites rising in the distance. Inspired by both the rough simplicity of local agricultural buildings and the classical purity of Veneto’s most famous architectural son, Andrea Palladio, the Casa is a strangely satisfying hybrid of vernacular pragmatism and rigorous geometry.
The pool, courtyard and gabled roof take shape. Photography: Claudio Sabatino
Set within the landscape, the single storey dwelling is placed above a large basement and courtyard. ‘This house had to reach AECB CarbonLite gold standard sustainability status, so it’s incredibly energy efficient,’ says Pawson. ‘All the materials are recycled, it’s triple-glazed, there are photovoltaic panels – it’s a sort of case study.’ Energy efficiency is of course, now integral to every architectural brief, but Pawson stresses that this particular house takes things further – to achieve gold standard, it must put out just five per cent of current average CO2 emissions for a dwelling. ‘When you start saving the energy lost from hot water going down a waste pipe, you’re into quite sophisticated areas,’ Pawson says. ‘The triple glazing, for example, requires custom-built sliding doors.’
Externally, the house is finished with marmorino slabs, a traditional material in the Veneto region (it was used extensively by Palladio in the numerous grand villas he constructed in and around Vicenza). The 30m-long rectangular form of the new house is capped with an asymmetric roof, clad with custom-made white concrete slabs and supported by slender columns. ‘As a result, every room has a different shaped roof,’ says the architect.
A model demonstrating how a concealed skylight in the chapel will allow natural light to filter in. Photography: Claudio Sabatino
The main entrance is from below, where an excavated basement serves as car port and service area. There, the owners can park out of sight, then ascend to a double height entrance hall in the centre of the plot. To the west are the living areas, beneath the highest point of the roof, while bedrooms are off to the east. The deep eaves on the south façade provide shade from the sun and a terrace on which to eat and play – all rooms open up to the outdoors via those hefty glazed doors.
The roof also features an offset gable with a solitary window overlooking the entrance driveway and terminating the long axis that runs through the spine of the house. This cruciform plan references one of Palladio’s key architectural devices, running from the living area in the west to the master suite in the east, and north-south across the entrance hall at the house’s heart. The axis can be opened or closed off depending on requirements. All the bathrooms have rooflights and all public rooms have a dual aspect, while artificial lighting is discreetly concealed.
A sketch showing the main entrance. Sketch: courtesy of John Pawson and MZC Architettura
The landscaping has been designed by Pawson’s long-term collaborator Jonnie Bell, who has planted rows of oak trees that run with the contours to provide screening and shade. The chapel is designed as an object within this landscape, set apart from the main house and intended for family baptisms and private services. An unheated box with a barrel-vaulted ceiling, above which a concealed skylight allows natural light to filter down from behind the walls, it is deceptively simple, with Toscana Pietra limestone flooring and an altar and benches made from local oak.
‘It’s nice for us to do these spaces,’ says Pawson. ‘Churches have been a learning curve – Cistercians, for example, are the ultimate minimalists.’ The practice’s work on the Our Lady of Novy Dvur monastery in the Czech Republic, completed in 2004, won it widespread acclaim and more religious buildings are in the offering. §
An adaptation of a story originally featured in the October 2010 issue of Wallpaper* (W*139)