House of Sert
Walls and ceilings were consistently painted in white, thus becoming neutral pictorial backgrounds that enabled chromatic accents to be provided by carpets, tapestries, and especially paintings, which commanded all the attention of the vertical plane.
Objects with volume, such as ceramic pieces or statuettes, were placed on ledges or in recesses, also designed to break the vertical plane. Hence, the strategic placing of paintings and objects always responded to aesthetic reasons, no matter what their monetary or sentimental value, and dominated the visual effect from their preeminent position.
Integrating the Object
The immediate victims of Sert's purging of all historical furniture were the pieces with individual names: buffet, chest, cupboard, chest of drawers, etc. These were type-objects originally formed in accordance with their function and the best construction method, and which, owing to their very autonomous nature, had inevitably been made to play out their roles in the distinct decorative style of each historical period.
For example, when 18th-century eclecticism also made its way into interiors, a variety of styles coexisted, depending on the rooms and the whim or extravagance of the owner of the house. This exacerbated the ornamental weight of the piece of furniture and diminished its practical value, which only the simplest and oldest versions in remote country houses managed to maintain.
Restraint and emptiness were among the overall tendencies of the interior architecture by GATCPAC members: their reaction to the eclecticism of the period and the excesses in ornaments, tapestries, and draperies which so characterized Art Nouveau. One of the earliest symptoms of this attitude of rejection was the abundance of built-in furnishings.
Aside from the space that these saved, in Sert's case one could go so far as to speak of a refusal, or at least a reluctance, to design any independent object segregated from an architectural medium. His work includes numerous examples of masonry furniture, either freestanding or wall-attached, and designs of wooden furnishings treated like masonry, on account of their whiteness and the unusual thickness of their shelves.
It was in the small residential development of Punta Martinet where white brick fireplaces took on a significant role. Their position was repeated in five of the six houses, always at the connecting point between the beginning of a staircase or hallway and the living room, so that the latter was approached by circling the fireplace.
This feature is surprisingly shared by the famous "prairie houses" of Frank Lloyd Wright, which are yet so different in silhouette and layout. The fireplace hearth always faced the longest dimension of the room and consisted entirely of a number of ledges and shelves that joined it to the wall.
In this way, it closed off the space — without opacity — at its shorter end. It should be added that the living rooms in all these houses are rectangular spaces that run parallel to a terrace with a view, so that one side is completely glazed.
The design of the different fireplace variations is characterized by a composition of spaces and solids controlled by regulatory outlines, like a facade. In fact, Sert used this ordering device in the majority of his shelf and fireplace designs, where there were potential sections with vertical and horizontal lines for either constructive or functional purposes.
Wall-attached benches are a clear case of furniture design being subordinated to architecture. The fireplaces of the houses at Punta Martinet were always accompanied by masonry benches that lined the entire wall to which the chimney was joined. This feature was clearly inspired by the traditional peasant houses of Ibiza, in which both the porxo, or porch, and the living room (often a porch which found itself indoors, when surrounded by new rooms), always included a long bench.
The bench's function was multiple, as it was used without distinction for family meals, community work, and receiving visits, even for the festeig or courtship of girls of marrying age. Because, conceptually speaking, it was so closely linked to the wall support and so little restricted to seating, the bench mass was occasionally broken up with carved steps to help reach the adjoining rooms, smoothing the changes in level inside the peasant houses.
This is one of the most attractive features of traditional lbizan houses: they grew over time, through a modular system, by which cases, or attached rooms, were added to the walls of the existing house with scarcely any effort made to level them out.
Given the fascination which lbizan peasant houses had for Sert and his GATEPAC colleagues, it should come as no surprise that the architect introduced this bench typology into the main room of each of his houses on the island, which on the other hand, stood out for their perfectly contemporary organization of space.
But what is most astonishing about these benches, long enough to amply surpass the useful size for the domestic get-together, is their abstract condition of minimal yet rhetorical elements, like a bend in the wall or a baseboard that just happens to let one sit down on it.
Their usefulness was only made complete when the entire space was full of people, as occurs during a crowded gathering, when, after the living room area fills up, guests spill over onto the terrace, which in each of these houses is an open-air replica of the living room, with the two running parallel.
What we have then is an enormous bench covered with large made-to-measure cushions, thus increasing the comfort of its Ibizan predecessor. It encourages social life by responding to a living room concept much more open and democratic than the classic urban three-piece suite which, while more or less spacious, invariably leads to conversational crossfire.
It is hardly surprising that Sert decided to add Ibiza-inspired benches to his two houses in the United States (albeit with a wooden structure) 20 years before doing so to the houses at Punta Martinet.
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Jaume Freixa is an architect and professor of Architectural Design at the Polytechnic University of Catalonia in Barcelona. He worked for 10 years in the firm of Sert, Jackson and Associates in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he became head of European projects.
This article is excerpted from Josep Lluís Sert, copyright © 2005, available from Santa & Cole and from William Stout Architectural Books.
The house that Josep Lluís Sert built for himself in Punta Martinet. The fireplace is a freestanding element, and the bench is of masonry.
Photo: Fundación Joan Miró (Archivo Josep Lluís Sert)
Entrance to the Sert House.
Photo: Francesc Català-Roca
Floor plans of the Sert House at Punta Martinet.
Image: Josep Lluís Sert
A masonry shelf, reinterpreting the typical recesses and ledges that are typical of Ibizan traditional houses.
Photo: Ma Lluisa Borràs
A traditional Ibizan village, inspiration for the development at Punta Martinet by Josep Lluís Sert.
Photo: Arquitecturas en Ibiza, Josep Lluís Sert
Inside a traditional rural Ibizan house with a built-in bench and integrated stairs.
Photo: Arquitecturas en Ibiza, Josep Lluís Sert
The Sert house in Cambridge, Massachusetts features a freestanding fireplace, like a piece of white-painted brick furniture that separates the living and dining areas. The architect used side recesses and ledges to display favorite objects.
Photo: Ma Lluisa Borràs
Josep Lluís Sert, published by Santa & Cole.
Image: Santa Cole
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