Casa M was a labor of love that took over three years to build in Melides, Portugal. The team behind its design together with Van Duysen, the actual client, sought to create an enduring monument to design – a sculptural oeuvre camouflaged by the rolling hills, dunes, and cork trees of Alentejo, south of Lisbon, where flocks of storks hover high above it. With an exterior of exposed aggregate (a type of concrete left unsealed to reveal its craggy components) tinted a bone hue to vanish into its sandy surroundings, the compound achieves the opposite effect of its Brutalist forebears, which tended to overpower the landscape. The house is meant to take in the elements – sand, light, wind, sun, air, fog, and the Ocean in the distance – with a non-ornamental attitude letting the sculptural, umbrella-like canopies of marine pines be the center of attention. Sunrise and sunset here dictate the palette of colors and moods, while the structure casts shadows on the walls and on the bare soil as light shifts.
Drawing inspiration from iconic concrete residential structures by modernist masters such as Can Lis in Mallorca by Jørn Utzon, Casa Luis Barragán, and Georgia O’Keefe’s Ghost Ranch, even Casa Malaparte in Capri, the ethereal, unobtrusive structure disappears into the surrounding forest dunes. Embodying Van Duysen’s stylistic aesthetics, the poured-on-site concrete volumes represent the purest expression of the texture-obsessed, materials-driven strain of warm brutalism that has defined the studio work for more than three decades.
Van Duysen’s search for stripped-down essentialism translates into a bare-bone structural language and space. As Van Duyen sees it, it’s a shrine, a sanctuary, a Domus in which he feels protected yet inspired, lulled by unspoiled vegetation, so typical of the area. It’s an argument for eliminating noise and clutter from one’s life, to receding (quite literally, in this case) into the natural environment.
The concept of the domestic hearth was key in envisioning the plan, whose fulcrum – a central living space featuring a cubist fireplace, opens up onto a courtyard characterized by a sort of Hellenic rhythm and balance set by concrete pillars. Casa M’s wings close onto an open space overlooking the mesmerizing natural landscape composed of green pines and vast expanses of rice patties. It’s an open, shaded pavilion in the summer; a shelter in the winter. A swimming pool, embedded in the terracotta-tiled rooftop, adds magic to the residence as its emerald green water mirror materializes out of nowhere, mirage-like.
Casa M’s architectural core is in a continuous dialogue with the outside where sand is allowed to be part of the house itself, blurring the distinctions between indoor and outdoor. The interiors, rendered in Brazilian ipe wood, brown terracotta tiles in a nod to the Portuguese tradition, and sparse furniture, reinforce how the warm Brutalist monolith is hard at its core but soft and welcoming in character. The colors of concrete and cork trees are actually reprised inside with each detail, from the wooden ceilings to fixtures and panels, all the way to custom-made furnishings. In the living quarters, an 11.8-meter glass sliding door, disappearing into the walls, opens onto the central columned space, riad-like, horizon and Ocean in the distance, only a little farther to grab.