One of the first things we told our architects is that we intended to have a “monastic” house. That word seemed to resonate with them, and other people we described our concept to, although in truth I have a kind of fuzzy idea what the term means. Maybe “monastic” is a fuzzy term. I don’t even know where I picked it up and for a brief moment I worried that I had made it up. Google “monastic architecture” and you literally get monasteries, which come in many different styles, some frenzied and chaotic rooms as well as the minimal, spare and serene spaces we envisioned. We’re not interested in religious iconography. (Maybe a small santo here and there.) But we mainly wanted something simple, yet with strong, expressive architecture that was in harmony with its surroundings, and so we stood by the adjective.
The last thing I was thinking about was sensuality.
Then I read Casa Alta, a book that came out this year to document the 30-year transformation of a massive courtyard house originally built in the 12th century as a Muslim defense tower, in Bornos, Spain. Since we’re in the middle of our own Casa Nana, it made sense to grab this particular book. I expected design inspiration. I got more.
Under the care of a Spanish architect and his wife (who is a gardener), residents of San Francisco in search of a summer home, this Andalusian paradise is a work of art and a monument to the taste and intellect of its owners. Victor Carrasco, the architect, died unexpectedly in 2005, but his wife, Elizabeth McMillan, writes eloquently and at length about the project. Carrasco himself left behind a beautiful essay called “The Private Garden as Paradise.” In it, he opines that the elements that we thought of as serene and monastic also convey a distinct sensuality.
Some of Cassasco’s own perspective is shared in the beginning of the book. He reflects on the area’s rich history: “The Romans occupied the area for 400 years, the Visigoths for 200, and the Arabs for 800. Islam invaded the Iberian Peninsula in 711 and stayed there until Ferdinand and Isabella forced them out of the Alhambra of Granada in 1492,” Carrasco writes. This history lesson leads unexpected into this:
“…perhaps one of the area’s most precious legacies of Islam is the incorporation of the private garden, however small, into a sensual lifestyle. When I want to escape the sensual desert of America, I find refuge tucked away in a remote little village in southern Spain,” Carrasco continues.
Right now, our Casa Nana is dust, rocks, unfinished walls, and some drawings. Our architects had visited southern Spain before drafting our plans, and I like to think their trip inspired our design. Still, their computer-generated renderings all give Casa Nana an antiseptic look. We’ve had to use our imagination to picture a finished Casa Nana with its greenery growing up the sides of walls, the ponds trickling, and under the shade of a palm tree. Carrasco put in words what I only struggled to say, and correctly contrasted life in the United States to the privacy, serenity, and yes, sensual aspect of living in a courtyard house.
Carrasco says the English word paradise can be traced to an ancient Persian word pairidaêza, which referred to an enclosed, private garden, or even to the sublime bliss of the Garden of Eden. He later quotes a poet from Córdoba, whose words influenced Casa Alta itself: “There is no garden of paradise except in your own home. Do not think that tomorrow you will enter the eternal fire: You do not enter hell after having lived in heaven.” To which Carrasco adds (and it reads much better in his original Spanish): “Cuando yo muera, no quiero ir al cielo, quiro ir a mi casa.”
Right at the start, I’m enjoying the book on many levels, and then, deeper in the book, Carrasco’s widow describes the interior. Victor saw that the house evolved slowly as they acquired furniture and antiquities. So at first, the house was fairly Spartan. McMillan says she loved the “primitivism of the empty house.” But “the monastic simplicity inspired our friend Peter to refer to his bedroom as his ‘cell.’ ”
Monastic! They really are speaking my language. That one sentence reaffirmed my earlier conclusion: For anyone with any romance in their souls, especially if they’re considering a courtyard house, whether in Mérida or southern Spain, Casa Alta is inspiring reading written by kindred spirits.