This Architect’s Beautiful Homes Solve the Problems of Modern Design
Photographer: Salva Lopez for Bloomberg Businessweek
In 2004, Spain was in the middle of a building boom of unprecedented proportions. Billions of dollars from cheap euro zone loans were flooding into bridges, opera houses, civic centers, and other municipal projects, and the country’s architects were hopping on what amounted to a gold-plated gravy train.
Not Fran Silvestre. The Valencia native left an apprenticeship in Portugal with the Pritzker Prize-winning architect Alvaro Siza and moved back to the coastal city to build gleaming white single-family houses. Small ones.
“Working with a public administration is incredibly hard when you’re a young architect,” says Silvestre, 41. “And even with a giant house, it’s impossible to work on new ideas or to change people’s mentalities.” Small houses afforded him the freedom to learn on the job: “It’s easier to have control and to try new things,” he says. “An opera house is a big project. But it’s also a big problem.”
In less than a decade, the bridge-building industry had collapsed along with Spain’s economy, and Silvestre’s career had taken off, thanks to his minimal, highly innovative designs and his partnership with interior designer Andrés Alfaro Hofmann.
Silvestre and Alfaro Hofmann have pioneered a holistic approach to architecture, unifying everything from the roof line to the door handles to create an almost perfect whole. “Here in Europe, it’s very strange for one interior designer and one architect to work so closely together,” Silvestre says. Seated in a white conference room in his suburban Valencia office, Silvestre smiles easily and retains a boyish demeanor. “Andrés knows a lot—he might help me with the exterior, even. It’s really a shared creativity,” he says. “When we start on a project, first we make a model, and the discussion is much more about the [exterior] than the interior design. Sometimes Andrés will say, ‘OK, I don’t like it very much,’ or I’ll say the same thing to him. But we never fight, we only talk.”
At Silvestre’s House on the Cliff, built in 2011 on a thin, sloping shard of land overlooking the Mediterranean, Alfaro Hofmann worked with him on finishes and floor plan, but he also helped design the interior to correspond with the landscape. The kitchen features a long rectangular window that frames a rock face, effectively co-opting the view into its design. It’s a neat trick. And rather than allow workaday appliances to interfere with the aesthetic, Silvestre and Alfaro Hofmann created a system to tuck everything—including the stove—behind white paneling.
Silvestre and his team are at the forefront of a phenomenon that’s slowly gaining traction around the world: the integration of interior and exterior design. The concept itself is as old as architecture. Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio often designed the interiors of his houses, and more recently, Frank Lloyd Wright crafted the complete insides of his homes down to the tables and chairs. “The principle of relating the interior to the exterior was most clearly articulated with modernism,” says Sandy Isenstadt, a professor of the history of modern architecture at the University of Delaware. But by the 1970s, that philosophy had fallen from favor.
Now, though, as a certain subset of global buyers has begun to embrace minimalism, the phenomenon is back. “You first saw the change in hotel rooms and public spaces, which introduced people to the notion that clean lines and simplicity could also be comfortable,” says Aaron Betsky, dean of the School of Architecture at Taliesin, founded by Wright. Designers have begun to bring that ultramodern look into living spaces.
“We’re at the point where the current generation of people with means wants to build these houses,” Betsky says. “Very few of these people would dream of living in a colonial or faux-French or Spanish Revival-type house.”
Silvestre’s boxy, modern aesthetic may look familiar at first. Glassy white houses are nothing new, nor are white walls, clean lines, expansive views, or kitchens that don’t appear to be designed for human use. But Silvestre, through his partnership with Alfaro Hofmann, has managed to create homes with shapes and layouts that are truly novel. “He’s stretching and pushing the idea of white walls and geometry,” Betsky says. “He’s taking the idea of a country home to new heights.”
Almost immediately after setting up shop in Valencia, Silvestre began to work with Alfaro Hofmann, who already had a studio nearby that designed furniture and residential interiors. The two had been introduced by one of Silvestre’s professors and had worked together on a furniture line one summer while Silvestre was still in school. When a client needed an architect, Alfaro Hofmann suggested Silvestre; instead of simply handing him the commission, he suggested they work together on the house. Since that first project, he’s collaborated on almost everything Silvestre has done.
Some of Silvestre’s best designs are born out of necessity rather than whimsy. Take the Balint House, a sinuous, two-story home with a curved roof in Bétera, a suburb of Valencia. “The owner first came to us and said, ‘I want a house that I’ve never seen before,’ ” Silvestre says, but then they almost immediately hit a snag: The zoning allowed for a structure of 300 square meters (3,229 square feet). “But the owner wanted a house with 1,000 square meters,” Silvestre says. When the client learned about the restricted zoning, he said to the architect, “I can’t build here. I’ve made a big mistake.” After studying the language of the regulations, Silvestre discovered that the attic and basement wouldn’t count toward the overall square footage. The resultant design looks like a spaceship, with a dramatic curved roof, a large basement filled with natural light, and an open core illuminated by skylights. And it’s almost three times as large as it appears.
With only a few exceptions, Silvestre’s houses are built for a Mediterranean climate and provide a total integration of indoor and outdoor spaces to maximize usability. Entire sides of buildings slide open onto lawns, and second-floor terraces that run the length of a house are large enough to function as de facto extra living rooms.
Of course, a home that looks perfect isn’t necessarily one that’s comfortable to live in. Those floor-to-ceiling glass windows look stunning when they’re showcasing a perfectly made bed, but less so when that bed is surrounded by piles of dirty laundry.
Silvestre has a solution for this, too. Back in his conference room, he bounces out of his chair to retrieve a glossy white rectangular box with grooves at the top and in the middle. At first glance, it looks like a small modernist sculpture. But when opened, it reveals a container for a toilet brush and extra rolls of toilet paper. His studio engineered a way to make the two ugliest parts of a bathroom disappear. “Normally, these things are sitting out in your house,” Silvestre says. “They’re not very nice to look at, and they’re not very clean.”
He brings out another prototype, a square panel meant to replace a door handle: Rather than a knob having to be turned, he’s figured out a way to simply press a door to make it unlatch and swing in either direction, removing the hardware entirely. “It’s a question of quality of life,” he says. “Five years from now, I hope you’ll arrive in a house and see a door handle and think, Oh, it’s so last century.”
Silvestre’s practice is experiencing explosive growth. It took more than 10 years to build his first 20 houses; now his studio is building, or in the late stages of designing, 24 more, which it will complete in the next year or two. “It’s a quiet revolution,” he says.
The company, in collaboration with Alfaro Hofmann, is also developing furniture to be sold wholesale and has begun to expand the scale and scope of its projects. Silvestre recently completed the design for a client in Ukraine, and in 2011 he won a competition to design a wind tower in Valencia, which he has yet to build.
Silvestre has an affluent clientele, but compared with his counterparts in the U.S. or U.K., his prices are affordable. He estimates that his houses cost about €1,000 per square meter, or $104 a square foot, to build. A 5,000-square-foot house replete with Silvestre’s high-end finishes would run $520,000, not including the price of the land. “Americans are surprised, because to make a project in Spain is supercheap,” he says. “I imagine that for us it’s equivalent to producing furniture in China.”
Silvestre’s, goal, he says, is to improve the quality of his clients’ everyday life. “It’s so vital that we can be quiet and relaxed, without anything to disturb us,” he says. “That’s why I love the continuity of materials and design. That’s why it’s so important.”