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From Arab baths inspired by Moorish architecture to Gothic cathedrals by the sea, Palma de Mallorca in Spain hosts history through its architecture. In its landmarks, streets, facades and city planning, the Mediterranean island follows a narrative defined by design elements. Even in the most common alleys of the old city of Mallorca, one is transported to the middle ages, solely because of the architecture. While the city doesn’t boast of the elemental history weaved together, over time, in its built fabric, one cannot miss the round arches, stone detailing, and timber ceilings in these buildings. Due to these visible features of Mallorca's built environment, any modern-day additions create a distinguishable layer. So, when the architects at OHLAB approached the restoration of two residential buildings in the old city to create Can Santacilia, these factors guided their approach. The prominent question, then, was how to restore the old partially protected structures into a residential building that would host modern amenities in a historic shell of Spanish architecture.
Adding to their dilemma of preserving the history of the building were the multiple layers of periodic architecture found in the structure. Though the building, visible from Plaça Tagamanent, was registered in the city archives in 1576 as Can Santacilia, the initial study led the architects to realise that the building actually dates back to the 12th or 13th century. Over years of its existence, the structure has undergone many modifications. The 17th century state of the building, which underwent a reform in the 18th century and alterations in the 20th century, was the canvas for the Spanish architects to work on. Due to the multiple modifications and additions the buildings had undergone, it was a challenge for OHLAB to distinguish the original additions from the later ones. While architects, in general, struggle with the restoration architecture of a historic building, to its current era, at Can Santacilia, many centuries of the past had to be uncovered, documented, dealt with and revived to co-exist with modern times.
"The main courtyard was not in good condition, but it had a structure that deserved to be recovered, additionally his main facade preserved part of the 18th century decoration. In conclusion, although the buildings had a history of more than 400 years, we find them largely transformed and distorted," share the architects.
Addressing their historical responsibility towards the building, OHLAB further adds, "We didn’t try to erase and hide the alterations that occurred throughout the history in order to recover an ideal past that we don't really know, instead we tried to discover different stages and interventions, recognising elements of value in each of them." The renovation project aimed to transform the two buildings into a residential space of 3,300 sqm with 15 dwellings and common areas.
Juggling between the project requirement for residential architecture with modern amenities and the difficulty to integrate that into a 17th century protected facade and volume, OHLAB transitioned this limitation into a potential. Taking the spatial planning of the old building, they created interconnected volumes that generate unexpected spaces. The main courtyard, with design details of the poorly preserved Spanish architecture, was given a renewed face emphasising its original features. In the intervention between the old and the new, the architects created a social core—a rare element in the residential buildings of Mallorca—that helps connect the two different buildings in a union.
For the architects, the construction phase was far more exciting than the initial stages. Many elements from earlier periods were unveiled during this phase. The architects mention finding a polygraph—portraying the history of conquering Mallorca by the Christians—dating back to the 12th century in some part of the building. They also encountered intricately detailed wooden ceilings and Jewish inscriptions in the old structure. The whole process of restoring Can Santacilia was action in process for the architects, solving new constraints as they came.
However, with the completion of the project, the architects have etched a new chapter for the buildings, holding elements of time that have passed through it, but also accommodating enough space for the contemporary and new. Helping them in this quest was the material palette comprising natural, local materials, emphasising the Mediterranean essence, specifically antique bronze pieces, local stones, mirrored cloths, porcelain details to local linen, and cotton textiles. While the structural shell builds on the historical responsibility of the architects, the interior design introduces the niche of modern and contemporary additions.
Using mirrors in large spaces and small detailing, OHLAB brings contemporary design into the project as an element of scenography. Therefore, newly added furniture, lighting, staircase and walkway spaces remain in the structure as an artistic foreign entity, that doesn’t detract but amplify the characteristics of traditional architecture in the buildings. The white sculptural spiral staircase and the wooden walkways remain examples of how modern design elements have been incorporated into the project.
Like many Mediterranean islands, Mallorca's culture is an amalgamation of things absorbed by the city through years of colonialism. Therefore, their culture is a blend of multiple characters, contrasting with their own culture. However, the restoration of Can Santacilia brings forth a new concept of co-living. While co-living is defined as a practice of living with other people and sharing facilities, here it extends a different approach. A practice of living with historic and traditional elements, one where yesteryears are viewed not through the frame of museums but experienced by living amid them. Can a practice of such nature narrate a new perspective for picturing history?
Name: Can Santacilia
Location: Palma De Mallorca, Spain
Area: 3300 sq.m
Architects: OHLAB / Oliver Hernaiz architecture lab
Team: Paloma Hernaiz, Jaime Oliver with Rebeca Lavín, Robin Harloff, Maria Bruna Pisciotta, Mercé Solar, Luis Quiles, Silvia Morais, Ángela Suárez, Wiktoria Ginter, Camila Ospina, Pedro Rodríguez, Laura Colomer, Eusebiu Spac, Agustín Verdejo.
Building engineer: Jorge Ramón
Structure: AMM Technical group
Facilities Engineering: AMM Technical Group
General Contractor: Diazgar
Kitchen design: Espacio Home Design
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