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A new direction for local architecture

Having been likened to a fort and a substation, this residential villa by MODEL (ex-Grech&Vinci Architecture & Design) poses a relatively new concept within the Maltese architectural landscape. Sarah Micallef speaks to the team behind the minimalist building reminiscent of Spanish and Portuguese design, and discovers that simple doesn’t always mean easy.

Coming across this villa in Ta’ l-Ibraġ, with its minimal design and largely windowless façade, flanked as it is by blocks of apartments, you’d be forgiven for thinking it looked a little alien. Having been called everything from a fort to a substation, Simon Grech, Andrew Vinci and Alan Galea, the team behind the imposing building at MODEL (ex-Grech&Vinci Architecture & Design) admit that the villa presents a relatively new concept for architecture locally, and whatever your impressions might be, may serve to surprise you.

“Opposite to what it looks like on the outside,” says Alan Galea, “it’s extremely open once you walk in. from the outside it looks very solid but from the inside it’s the opposite.”

Andrew Vinci explains that the client’s brief was to have a space that is ideal for entertaining with an emphasis on privacy. “The house is surrounded by four storey apartments that overlook it. Our client likes to entertain but at the same time wanted her privacy. The brief was for her to have an easy space with everything at hand, but also have this very solid house which is, at the same time, very well lit,” he asserts.

Speaking of the lack of apertures, he goes on to explain that aside from achieving the modern and minimalist effect both the design team and client were after, the choice was also a result of the surroundings. Andrew states that in this context, windows were unnecessary because “there weren’t really any views to look at,” and explains the team’s alternative method of bringing in light: “people imagine it is a very dark building. The use of a skylight, double height in the beginning, and the rooms upstairs which have their own private yards, bring in light. The client wanted it to be modern and minimalist, so it made sense to make this a very minimalist and closed up building, which you could enjoy the spaces and the volumes of from within. It is very inward looking.”

The house is laid out in three layers. The basement comprises a games room and a gym leading out onto the front garden. A stairwell comes up from the garage and leads into the side garden and pool. The ground floor, on which the client wanted everything within reach, includes an open-plan kitchen/living/dining, pantry, guest toilet and master bedroom. There are then two bedrooms connected by a bridge, each with their own ensuite and courtyard upstairs, which look onto a double height. A skylight runs through the top, creating ambient light.

“From the outside, it’s very private, but from the inside there isn’t a progression of spaces like for example a hall going into another room, and so on – it is all open,” Andrew says.

"A home is a place where you should feel safe and comfortable, and I think we managed to create that. Like a fortress or a castle, it protects the people inside. This is a modern day version"

Another important aspect of the design was the client’s dogs. “The couple that lives there have three westies and two Yorkshire terriers, and they were actually a very important element. The client wanted to make sure that they could access the entire ground floor – in fact there is a dog pen and one of the slit windows has a small door from which they could slip out and the client could control where the dogs would be.” This also had an impact on the materials they could use, Alan laughs, “it affected our choice of materials for the floor – we had to test materials to make t=sure they wouldn’t stain!”

Gaining inspiration from Spanish and Portuguese architecture, the team at MODEL designed the space with a modernist aesthetic in mind, and while admitting the style is relatively new to the Maltese Islands, believe that it’s is a natural fit. Andrew maintains, “some of our favourite architects are Spanish and Portuguese architects who come from the same band of the world, and their architecture responds very much to the most beautiful thing we have on our island, which is the sun, as well as the play with simple shapes and volumes. I personally can’t understand why a lot of design locally hasn’t gone down the same road – creating simple, minimalist buildings that respond to the solar power we have.”

Looking back at the planning process, the architects confide that they were frequently met with scepticism regarding the simple, windowless design. They even had comments at design stage suggesting it was “a bit plain”, they laugh.

Despite this, Simon Grech ventures. “in effect, it is very close to our vernacular architecture, which is the simple farmhouse – featuring simple volumes and bringing light into the space through courtyards, high volumes and thick walls.” In this sense, one could describe it as a modern take on the traditional Maltese farmhouse. Andrew seconds this view, asserting, “one of my lecturers who has just recently passed away always used to tell us – though I didn’t see it that way at the time – to go out and look at old Maltese farmhouses. Years later, I think he was right.” As the team knows only too well however, despite its perceived simplicity, as they go on to state, “simple isn’t always easy.” Alan maintains, “people tend to see a white box, but it’s much more than that. There was a lengthy thought process to the design.”

"People tend to see a white box, but it's much more than that. There was a lengthy thought process to the design."

Andrew goes on to expand on the different thought processes involved at the design stage of the deceptively complex villa, explaining, “the building is very site specific. It is responsive to the need for privacy, and despite the fact that it looks simple, there were a lot of considerations, like how the sun would enter throughout the day, creating a breakfast side and a dinner or entertainment side, so to speak; the orientation and the location of the courtyards of the bedrooms and the skylight were all studied to bring in certain kinds of light at different times of the day.”

Simon chimes in, “it plays a bit of a trick on people. When they see the building, they tend to expect something very closed and claustrophobic, but then it is the complete opposite when you actually go in and experience it. It was the concept we had started out with in the beginning, and I think we were quite successful with that.”

Achieving a project of this sort also takes a certain kind of client, the team confesses, maintaining that they were lucky enough to be allowed to carry out their initial vision. “She trusted us a lot. He would even ask, up till the very end, whether we could put a window in the front, and I’d say ‘why would you want to put a window on the north side of this building when the only thing you’re going to look at is a block of flats in front of you?’ to which she’d have to agree. Let’s just say you don’t get many buildings of this sort in Malta,” Andrew states.

He goes on to mention another particularity of the villa: the absence of a washroom. “One thing we asked the client to omit from the building was a washroom. Clients usually want to build to the maximum, so we pleaded with her to keep it a nice, clean box. She was very happy with that as she likes everything at hand, so her washroom and utility area is in the pantry, just behind the kitchen. This way we could have a skylight running across the roof, without being shaded at any point of the day.

When it came to the choice of materials, the team stuck to a simple palette, and kept it as raw as possible in order to achieve somewhat of an industrial feel. Alan explains, “materials included exposed concrete, white plaster, perforated steel for railings and stairs, and oriented strand board (OSB) for a wooden texture. The structure was all thought out and incorporated into the design of the interior, not to be covered up later. You can read the building as soon as you go into it.”

Associating it with the modernist architectural movement owing to the fact that form follows function, Andrew discusses how the team balanced aesthetic appeal with practical usage of space within this unique building, maintaining, “it was very much planned strongly around our client’s programme of how she wanted everything laid out. The aesthetic followed that. They’re tied together.”

"The structure was all thought out and incorporated into the design of the interior, not to be covered up later. You can read the building as soon as you go into it"

Simon goes on to liken it to a fortress or a castle, protecting the people within: “the starting point was a building without windows. Of course, we did puncture the façade, but I think we got very close to that first idea. You are creating a space which is yours and is as uncontaminated as possible. You forget what is around you. A home is a place where you should feel safe and comfortable, and I think we managed to create that. Like a fortress or a castle, it protects the people inside. This is a modern day version.”

And that’s not all. The light-hearted trio also jokes that it’s interactive, too. Alan recalls, “I recently had a funny comment form someone who just bought a flat opposite it. He said now when there’s the world cup, he can project the games onto it from the balcony!”

Jokes aside, despite the challenges it posed on the way, they maintain that they are pleased with the way the project materialised, even gaining recognition abroad. “It is nice that it was acknowledged on an international spectrum, having been featured on a number of well-known design sites side by side with our favourite architects,” says Simon.

As for the future, the team has one focus: to continue creating “buildings that work, that are simple, and that people can relate to and enjoy.” With construction having slowed down considerably, there are fewer new builds and a greater focus on remodelling work. Andrew, Simon and Alan maintain that many of their future projects lean toward interiors and remodelling of existing buildings, but are hesitant to state a personal preference, explaining that each has its own benefits.

Simon maintains, “I’m quite keen on renovating old buildings and adding extensions to them. They propose problems which you have to solve and work around. Our approach is respecting what there was of quality and introducing something modern that talks about a time, that is worthy too.”

Alan chips in, stating, “they’re two totally different approaches. When you walk into an older place you pick up on what was left by the previous architect, and try to respect that and build on it; whereas with a new building you’ve got more freedom, in a sense.”

According to Simon, it’s all about context. “For every project, you have tot understand your context: your environment, who you’re building for and so on. Renovating an old building is creating a complex context, and that’s what I find interesting,” he says. As for new builds, Alan maintains, “new is beautiful when you see a complete creation of your own taking shape. It’s a really nice feeling to see the finished product.”

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