Stephen Bates’ Casa Voltes won’t stay secret for long. And that’s unforgivable, writes Rory Olcayto
If it wasn’t in Cadaqués I wouldn’t have been been bothered. But why did Stephen Bates have to go and design one of the most beautiful houses in the world - one that’s going to win lots of prizes and encourage loads of architects to make enquiries - in Cadaqués?
Cadaqués is mine, Stephen. You’re not meant to know about it. I’ve been going there for years and the only other British person I’ve ever met there were the ones I was travelling with. Arghhh!
I first heard about Cadaqués 20 years ago, from an Italian friend who had spent a blissful summer there, and vowed to visit one day. I finally made it in 2001 and have been back many times since for long, lazy recharges. If I could, I’d move there. If more British architects knew about it, they would too. You see, outside Spain, Cadaqués is still a fairly well-kept secret. It’s on the Costa Brava but is very hard to get to. There is one road in and one road out; a hairpin-bender that scales and descends a mountain.
Narrow cobbled streets weave through undulating formations of white-painted houses that cling to frozen lava flows, tumbled rockpiles and the remains of older dwellings. Beyond the perfect natural harbour, the sea glistens and the townscape, cubic, crustaceous, rises to a point marked with a gleaming church gable and tower.
Artists used to flock to this once tiny fishing town: Man Ray, Picasso, Duchamp and the rest. They all came, beguiled by Cadaqués’ micro-climate, its fine light, its inaccessibility. Salvador Dali, who spent summers here as a child, loved it so much he transformed a fisherman’s shack in the adjoining village of Port Lligat into a holiday funhouse for he and his wife, Gala. The curious formations of the surrounding rocky coastline made a big impression on the surrealist showman: they appear repeatedly in his painted dreamscapes.
Bates clearly loved the place too. But forget what you know about his firm Sergison Bates’ typical work. There’s nothing Brutal about Casa Voltes. It was completed last November in association with Barcelona practice Liebman Villavecchia Arquitectos. Since then it has been shortlisted for a number of awards, and was recently commended by the jury of the Premi FAD, the Spanish Stirling Prize equivalent, for, says the architect’s website, ‘acknowledging and respecting the qualities of its surroundings and adopting them in an intelligent and elegant manner.’
That Spanish jury is right. Bates says the project, an extensive renovation in the old town, draws on the critical regionalism of Modernist architects who practiced locally. Figures such as Josep Coderch who designed three homes in the town, Federico Correa and Alfonso Milá and British-Italian duo Peter Harnden and Lanfranco Bombelli. The latter team’s Villa Gloria and Casa Staempfli, both in Cadaqués, appear strongly influential, judging from pictures alone.
Casa Voltes is sublime. Two storeys of perfectly white distorted cubic forms, a mysterious, sunlit home. A cave-like cellar, hewn from the volcanic rock, underpins the plan, a magnificent foil to the pristine, stylised spaces above. This is what retrofit is all about: the reuse of salvaged parts - stone, tiles and structural elements - to create something strikingly new. There’s so much to it: externally, walls are white-painted rough stone. Inside, it’s Pawson-white render… But what am I doing? It’s meant to be a secret. Tuscan hill towns are more your thing. Aren’t they.