Building a house with Max Núñez is like climbing a peak in the Andes with a seasoned guide. The summit looms and the rocky terrain feels treacherous to the novice, but the leader inspires enough confidence that hikers suddenly take real risks, no longer worried about a fall. That was certainly the case for the owners of a property in Cachagua, Chile, a remarkable but precarious Pacific bluff with a 25-degree pitch. Like an expedition leader, Núñez encouraged his clients to go bold and tackle the topography head-on.
The clients, a 40-something couple with three children between the ages of 10 and 20, were up for the challenge. They had been through the homebuilding process before—a more conventional dwelling in urban Santiago, over two hours away—and wanted something very different for their weekend getaway, explains Núñez. “They selected the site because they were ready to try a new way of living.” His studio, Max Núñez Arquitectos, was the perfect choice for a departure and for this particular location. Núñez had first earned renown about 10 years earlier, co-designing (with Bernardo Valdés) a daring house set in the Andean foothills, with a massive concrete cantilever containing a bedroom and topped by a pool. Critics praised its canny blending of indoor and outdoor space and subversion of the standard domestic program.
He achieved a similar feat here, designing a cast-concrete structure clad mainly in low-iron glass with slender aluminum framing. The 3,660-square-foot house spans the full slope, stepping down in tandem with the dizzying angle of the beachfront bluff. Núñez conceived the floor plan not as discrete rooms so much as a series of levels varying in size and ceiling height, some enclosed in timber-clad boxes that pierce through the rakishly canted roof plane. “The concept was to create a home defined by the existing site conditions and the incredible slope,” says Núñez. By eliminating hierarchy and order in favor of formal ambiguity and pure sculpture, the diagonal volume shakes up what he calls “the monotony of the open plan.”
To say the least. The elegant yet exuberant space is filled with surprises. Upon passing from the carport into the large foyer, located on the topmost interior level, one’s view of the ocean is obscured. Only after descending the long, railingless staircase to the glass-enclosed lower-level living area does the forward view open up again, and with considerable drama. Adding to the novelty, no two conditions or design details repeat along the way. Each of the home’s 15 exposed-concrete columns is unique in shape. And how about the mezzanine seating area set atop…the kitchen cabinetry. Also note the stainless-steel backsplash that segues straight into a stair riser. Despite these theatrical indulgences the floor plan and circulation sequence are organized to be intuitive and livable, making the interiors feel highly efficient—an essential quality in a house with so many stairs.
The restrained palette contrasts beautifully toned concrete slabs and columns with Platonic solids of natural-finish lenga—a local wood similar to American cherry (and often erroneously called Patagonian cherry). The slightly red-tinged timber was used to build the kitchen cabinetry and to clad, inside and out, the boxy volumes housing the three bedrooms. The assemblage feels inspired as much by midcentury Hollywood hillside homes as by the dynamism of a Corbusian villa. The clients furnished the home to follow suit, with beachy hues and natural textures such as the living area’s linen sofas and wood-trunk side tables.
Blurred boundaries and a flouting of convention, both in ample evidence here, are recurring themes in Núñez’s work—not only his houses but also other buildings, such as the Museo Regional de Atacama now under design or his handsome MAD building for Santiago’s Grange school, which was included in a recent show on Chilean design at New York’s Center for Architecture. Each offers a surprising interplay of interior and exterior space, and each raises new questions about the relationship between site and topography. (Not unrelatedly, Núñez notes that he finds solitude and inspiration in his frequent treks to Patagonia.) But his work is not merely about the artistic statement: Núñez also uses materials and detail to teach his followers how we can live comfortably and harmoniously, even on the edge of the precipice.
Project Team: Stefano Rolla: Max Núñez Arquitectos. Mac Ingenieria Estructural: Structural Engineer. Francisco Alvarez: General Contractor. Max-A: Landscape Design. Estudio Par: Lighting Design. Valdés: Cabinetry Fabrication.