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House Plan: John Tuomey on Coderch's Casa de la Marina

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In the tenth of a series looking at influential housing plans, John Tuomey chooses José Antonio Coderch’s Casa de la Marina in Barcelona

The eight storey tower building that Coderch designed for working seamen in Barceloneta is an elegant and carefully tuned building.

I like the plan even better than I like the building. My mind’s eye can’t separate this cluster plan from the similar but altogether more linear plan for the Borsalino workers housing by Gardella, from which Coderch’s ingeniously jiggled plan is clearly a linear descendant.

Published sketches show how his apparently un-rational but deeply radical plan kicks off from a perfectly logical spatial layout. The architect rigorously works with the benefits of push and pull, interlocking external and internal areas, and by gradual degrees the scope of a minimal plan is extended.

Diagonal distance introduces spatial complexity into a 75 square metre six-person dwelling. The plan starts to work back into itself. Room dimensions appear to widen as a consequence of this experimental play. Bathrooms and kitchens are turned towards the daylight. All rooms are provided with direct access to the outside air. Structural concrete is deployed ultra-economically. And the structure sets out all this apparently loosened geometry. The lift, stair and edge-wall elements separate the scheme into closely defined parts, each cleanly jointed and sectioned off from the other like butcher’s cuts of meat.

In 1950 Coderch had written to Domus regretting that ‘modern architecture is extremely rare in Spain’. Gio Ponti had replied ‘Don’t let it affect you if commercial architecture holds sway in Barcelona, your time will come.’ Two years later he started working on this design, a public project produced at the same time in his career as the private commission for the Ugalde house.

Coderch used one-off houses to explore possibilities

Coderch had discovered his own way of working. He used one-off houses to explore possibilities, to test ideas for generic housing design. He stretched the limitations of a limited budget. He drew on his fluency as a designer, as well as his architectural literacy, learning from Neutra, Wright, and Breuer, to go way beyond contemporary conventions. He designed every detail, from furniture to fittings, carpets, bedspreads, even selected the plants.

Having cracked it wide open, I only wish Coderch had gone one crucial step further. Equality of accommodation notwithstanding, surely both units, facing different conditions of sea and city as they do, should not be symmetrical in every respect.

John Tuomey is co-founder of O’Donnell + Tuomey

An unbuilt O'Donnell + Tuomey scheme inspired by José Antonio Coderch’s Casa de la Marina in Barcelona

An unbuilt O’Donnell + Tuomey scheme inspired by José Antonio Coderch’s Casa de la Marina in Barcelona

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