Milan House: A Tropical Modernist Masterpiece in São Paulo

Photography By Nelson Kon

Milan House is located in Cidade Jardim, an affluent neighbourhood in central São Paulo. Completed in 1975, Milan House has lush planting that has grown to conceal the house from the street. Architect Marcos Acayaba skillfully transformed the site’s contours and developed the design so that each complements the other. The design dynamically embeds and organises functional spaces into three interconnected split-level platforms underneath an all-encompassing concrete shell.

Marcos Acayaba received the commission in 1972, when he was 28 years old. The original client was his sister-in-law who relocated to Paris after the house was completed. Marcos and his wife bought the property, moved in and have stayed there ever since. It’s an architect’s dream house which eventually became his own residence and a defining project at an early stage in his career.

Marcos started his professional life as one of the architects from the Paulista School, and Milan House is a good example of the São Paulo architecture of the 1970s. But then, from the 1980s, his projects evolved with their own characteristics, different geometries and with the use of diverse construction techniques, while the school of São Paulo remained faithful to the theme of reinforced concrete and orthogonal geometry.

The garden establishes a tranquil atmosphere beyond the entry gate. A few steps up from the covered parking area, a swimming pool welcomes visitors offering the best view of the house. A concrete shell appears to spring weightlessly from the mature vegetation. As we talked by the pool side, Marcos explained, “The built area of the house in relation to the plot area was not large, which allowed us to predict the future existence of an expressive garden. So I decided on the curved roof to have minimum obstacles to the view of the garden from inside the house.” The curving concrete shell structure anchors the residence into the landscape and gently touches the ground at four points. This strategy proves effective in constructing a transparent living space that is physically protected from the natural elements but is visually connected to the surrounding landscape.

We entered the main living space, which occupies a middle platform, through sliding glass doors from the deep covered terrace facing the swimming pool. Its generous scale contributes to the feeling of being connected with the surrounding landscape beyond the perimeter glass enclosure. An in-situ concrete alcove, including a discreet fireplace, bookshelves and a deep red-cushioned sofa bench adds domestic elements to the room. The alcove also borders an area of green lawn visible from the living room where Marcos entertains family and friends. He fondly recalled the days playing football with his students from Faculdade de Arquitetura e Urbanismo da Universidade de São Paulo (FAU-USP) on this lawn.

Marcos was a pupil of Vilanova Artigas, the founding figure of the Paulista School, who eventually became his friend, although he never actually worked with Artigas. Marcos taught at FAU from 1972 to 1976, returned to FAU in 1994 then compulsorily retired in 2014 when he turned 70. However, he’s still teaching at FAU as a guest teacher.

Marcos shared important lessons he had learnt as we toured the house. He also said, “For me, ‘to inhabit is an activity’. The house must be transformed continually, adapted to the climate changes in the seasons, and even daily.” He added that this had been an idea elaborated by German philosopher, Martin Heidegger, in his book “Bauen Wohnen Denken” (“Build, Inhabit, Think”) from 1951. To live comfortably in the tropical climate of Brazil, airflow control is an essential feature of the house. The bathrooms are enclosed within two rectangular concrete towers painted in coral, whose height is set about 60 cm below the roof’s apex. Marcos cleverly used pivoting glass panes for warm air to escape from the living space under the expanse of the curving concrete shell on top of these towers.

Marcos believes the dynamics of space will result in a continous circulation in and out of the house. He then took me around the garden to experience the seamless path and pointed out a gutter system to collect rainwater which was added to both ends of the curving concrete shell three years ago. He said a drought had affected much of the garden so this adjustment was necessary to maintain the longevity of the mature plants. When asked about the safety issues in designing split-level platforms - where guardrails turn into wide concrete benches and stair handrails are noticibly absent - Marcos confidently shared his own family’s accident free experience which now includes his visiting grandchildren. He continued, “My daughters were born and raised in this house. We never had safety problems, because from the beginning we always taught them and conveyed the notion of danger and safety. Children learn easily. The stairs are wide with a low incline, like the spiral staircase in Niemeyer’s Itamaraty Palace.”

The concrete shell’s overhang provides enough shade and privacy for all the bedrooms, while offering direct views of the lush garden. Marcos’ ingenious design solution is a long natural air vent underneath the concrete bay window in each bedroom which can be opened and closed according to the occupant’s desire. Four bedrooms occupy the highest platform inside the house and are equipped with rotating wooden panels above the wooden sliding doors. Each panel spans the width of each bedroom and is easily operable by the occupant to modulate airflow and indirect natural light from the living space. The opening and closing of the bedroom’s wooden panels into the living space reminds me of the spatial transformative qualities explored and realised in the 1924 Schröder House by Gerrit Rietveld in Utrecht, Netherlands.

As we descended to the dining area on the lowest platform, Marcos described how, many years ago, they had removed an indoor garden in the centre of the house because the plants couldn’t thrive and because they also encouraged mosquitos and other insects into the house. Now, it has become a sitting area furnished with Marcel Breuer’s Wassily chairs and Le Corbusier’s Chaise Lounge LC4. From the dining room, an adjacent kitchen and service area are organised in parallel to a secondary hallway leading to the covered parking outside.

Marcos collects and displays art throughout the house. He mostly owns works by Luiz Paulo Baravelli, a friend and former classmate from FAU, and also works by Babinski. In the living space, there is a blue monochrome painting by Cassio Michalany prominently displayed against one of the coral towers. He concluded the house tour by saying, “We like art very much. It is important in our daily life to be surrounded by beauty, works of art, architecture and garden.”

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Henry Gunawan Tjhi
Henry leads HGT Architects in producing designs and studies in the field of architecture, interior design, adaptive re-use and master planning. His research covers issues of spatial, material and atmospheric qualities in architectural design.
Nelson Kon

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