January 1, 2010

Pattern Language: Xpiral Designs An ‘Inverted Penthouse’ In Spain

An inverted penthouse. That’s what Javier Peña Galiano calls a duplex his architecture firm, Xpiral, designed in the southeastern Spanish city of Murcia. Throughout the 2,900-square-foot apartment, he played tricks with what’s up and what’s down.

The subterfuge starts immediately inside the front door. Peña tiled the foyer’s walls and ceiling in round blue mosaics, like an upside-down swimming pool. At the center of his aqueous metaphor, a shimmery staircase made of perforated stainless steel is suspended from the upper level. This quirky flourish of vertical circulation hangs in midair, stopping short of three hefty wooden slabs stacked like butcher block to make up the bottom steps—”fighting gravity,” as Peña describes it. “The stair is an alien that invades the surrounding space, bringing focus and order.”

Luckily for the owners, a couple with two sons, Peña became involved in the design of the apartment shortly after the building broke ground. He was therefore able to modify interior fixtures and finishes—even the windows and sliding doors—to the couple’s liking. In addition, since the duplex was originally intended to be two separate units on the fifth and sixth stories, there was no connection planned between them. So he worked with engineers and contractors to determine where the concrete slab could be cut to fit a stairwell and if a section of floor in the upstairs study could be removed and replaced with translucent laminated glass to bring more daylight into the dining area below. In a move worthy of Gordon Matta-Clark’s artistic buzz saw, Peña also cut out sections of the living area’s ceiling to reveal the gridded waffle slab. Its hollowed-out chunks suggest gritty coffers, a rough counterpoint to the rest of his design, which is lighter, delicate, colorful, and much more elaborate.

The owners consider the lofty living-dining room, the spacious kitchen, and the terrace shared by both to be the nucleus of the apartment, hubs for frequent entertaining. The rest of the lower level is given over to the private realm, with a master suite and the older son’s bedroom and bathroom. Upstairs are the younger son’s room and bathroom as well as a study opening onto a roof terrace.

Peña says he treated the apartment as a “sequence of landscapes” radiating from the swimming-pool foyer and its dangling staircase. Variety and what is sometimes an offbeat combination of materials are what distinguish each of these interior terrains. “We manipulated materials with CAD-CAM technology to distort them and make them more surprising, everything from stainless steel and wood to glass and ceramic tiles,” Peña explains. “They create continuity and contrast.”

In the living-dining room, red polished travertine flooring anchors modern and contemporary furniture. The kitchen is all cool, luminous restraint, as a softly backlit ice-white stretched ceiling floats above black anodized-aluminum cabinets, satiny stainless-steel appliances, reflective white back-painted glass walls, and blue glass-flecked ceramic floor tiles. Surrounding the foyer’s wood-block steps, rough-cord weatherproof vinyl, typically seen in doormats, stretches from wall to wall.

The foyer is also where Peña introduced his most interesting intervention. He digitized the striations of a slice of pine and enlarged them; CNC milling machines then translated the design into a veneer pattern rendered in oak, pale beech, and reddish-brown iroko, the same three species as the wood-block steps. In the foyer, he wrapped the front door and nearby walls in the supersize grain. It crops up again in the living-dining room and the bedrooms and bathrooms—covering doors, walls, and sections of ceiling to conceal ventilation ducts.

Joining the materials mix upstairs, exposed ducts shimmer against a ceiling of perforated plasterboard tiles that give the effect of porcelain, and cutouts for skylights are painted bright red. Nearly every element comes together for someone seated at the desk in a corner of the study: the perforated plasterboad overhead, the travertine underfoot, the grain-pattern veneer on a nearby door, the perforated stainless steel and blue mosaic tile in the stairwell, right outside. “We created a perception that is sculpturally rich, where layers of materials make each small space a part of the whole,” Peña explains. In this case, perception is indeed reality.

Photography by David Frutos.


Malte Eglinger: Xpiral. Ingepro Ingeniería y Proyectos: Structural Engineer. Medeco: Metalwork. Faysam: Woodwork. Portico & Aldaba: General Contractor.

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