November 27, 2013

City and Country: Grass Roof Conceals Rio Vacation House

In the cool, breezy highlands an hour and a half’s drive inland from Rio de Janeiro, in the town of Itaipava, this house by Miguel Pinto Guimarães is meant to be invisible—at least as one approaches the bucolic hillside site. He built the house to disappear beneath a grass-covered roof that leads the eye downhill, across a river valley to the opposite slope of the 86-acre site. “When you arrive by car, you can’t see anything but the grass,” he says. Not until the driveway winds down does the drama begin to reveal itself.

Pinto Guimarães isn’t your typical architect. He got an internship at Bernardes + Jacobsen Architecture, the Rio firm co-founded by his lifelong friend Thiago Bernardes’s father, Claudio, when the two boys were just 18. Neither had even enrolled in architecture school yet. When they did, Pinto Guimarães hired his professors as consultants and engineers on projects. Later, while most peers were trying to get their first professional break by winning design competitions, he was already busy constructing houses and renovating apartments. Only now, having worked for more than half his life and built up Miguel Pinto Guimarães Associated Architects into a firm of 25 employees, does he find the time, after hours, to enter competitions. By his own estimation, he has completed more than 500 projects of varying size and scope. And he’s not yet 40.

It’s typical for Rio families to spend weekends in and around Itaipava, but this house, being by Pinto Guimarães, challenges the local understanding of a getaway in the mountains. “Most Brazilians think of a Swiss chalet,” he explains. So he assured his clients, “You can still have cozy and rustic in a contemporary language.” That vocabulary is first evident in the massive planted roof that sweeps back, beyond the house, to create a sheltered parking area along the way. It’s from this carport that you enter the house, via the upper level where the six bedrooms and bathrooms are—everything about the 8,200-square-foot interior is unusual, too. Right beyond the revolving front door, a floating staircase takes you down to the public areas. 

Pinto Guimarães did include a wide veranda, a common feature of Brazilian houses, but he made sure that his would be column-free to give the living and dining areas and the den an unobstructed view toward the valley. He accomplished this by cantilevering the house’s upper level 17 feet beyond the lower one with the help of a Vierendeel truss system combined with diagonal members. Sheltered by the overhang, the shady wood-lined veranda spills out onto the manicured lawn, and layered plantings of wild grasses flow down the hillside. Meanwhile, the looming facade’s repetitive structural elements recall the iconic bridge building designed for the Art Center College of Design campus in Pasadena, California, by Craig Ellwood Associates. (Of Case Study House fame.)

The robust steel frame also allowed Pinto Guimarães to carve out a giant double-height space interrupted by nothing but a bridge connecting the bedroom suites upstairs. At the front of this open volume is the living area. At the back, against the hillside, the ceiling becomes glass above an atrium intended for art display. Pinto Guimarães commissioned Ernesto Neto, known for site-specific organic works incorporating suspended sacks filled with ground spices, to create an installation for the atrium. This time, Neto used multi-colored netting and plastic beach balls. Visitors are encouraged to climb into the work to experience it. One netting-wrapped ball sits on the floor—perhaps a stepping stone to climb higher, perhaps a makeshift ottoman to roll into the living area. 

Comparatively straightforward, the rest of the interior emphasizes clean renditions of natural materials. “Sometimes it’s hard to sell clients on a simple design,” Pinto Guimarães suggests. “People prefer a lot of ideas—they think they are paying for more. Our job is to give them simplicity.” Walls are exposed concrete with horizontal striations revealing the formwork. Fireplace surrounds are pale gray marble with very little veining. Floors and ceilings are salvaged tropical hardwood. “Natural materials age well, with dignity,” he adds. “As they get old, they evidence the acceptance of architecture by nature.”

Furnishings are a who’s who of modern and contemporary Brazilian design. The living area boasts wooden tables by Maria Candida Machado and Zanini de Zanine along with Sergio Rodrigues’s tufted leather-covered sofa and chairs. Etel Carmona designed the dining table and chairs. Carlos Motta lounge chairs hulk at one end of the veranda. And Hugo França, known for massive furniture carved from the trunks of indigenous trees, created the rough-hewn bench that sits on the lawn. Pinto Guimarães’s selection of Brazilian design underscores his multilayered embrace of the house’s cultural and physical contexts. As he puts it, “The site told us exactly what this house should be.” It couldn’t exist anywhere else.

Project Team:
Adriana Moura; Leticia Correa: Miguel Pinto Guimarães Associated Architects. Arteiro: Landscaping Consultant. Studio Iluz: Lighting Consultant. Alo Eletro­acustica: Audiovisual Consultant. Abilitá Projetos: Structural Engineer. Ferarte: Woodwork. Portico Metal: Metalwork. Vidraçaria Corrêas: Glasswork. P.H. Aquinas: General Contractor.

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