On Location: An ancient building meets minimalist style in this renovated Spanish home.
GIRONA, Spain — On balmy weekends, Anna Noguera, her husband, Juan Manuel Ribera, and their two children often roll the long table from their kitchen out onto the adjacent veranda, where they dine on razor clams or other regional delicacies. This rooftop porch, or badiu as it’s called in Catalan, is centuries old and lined in local stone flecked with prehistoric fossils, but the table, designed by Noguera, an architect, glides outdoors on skate wheels. A similar ancient-modern sensibility pervades the entire house, now the family’s weekend getaway, someday to be its full-time home.
Twelve years ago, shortly before the birth of their first child, the couple got the idea of moving from Barcelona, 65 miles northeast, to Girona, where Noguera, 50, grew up. “We love the quality of life here, it’s a quieter, easier city to raise a family,” said Ribera, 46, a tourism analyst and strategist. The small riverside metropolis, ringed by medieval villages and picturesque farmland, is near the Pyrenees and Costa Brava. It’s also a university town where fragments of Roman ramparts weave through medieval alleys; Iberians, Visigoths, Jews, Moors and Napoleonic forces have all left their mark.
Right in the historic core, the couple purchased a 5,400-square-foot stone building in 2000, for $396,000. They planned to house Noguera’s architectural office downstairs, with a duplex for the family above. But a decade passed before they could complete the renovation.
The trapezoidal building, with piecemeal additions and a warren of apartments, was in failing condition. Yet tenants remained until authorities identified the risk of collapse. Later, the discovery of the walls of a first-century Roman villa halted construction while archaeologists investigated.
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As Noguera contemplated the layers — and navigated the restrictions on modifications in the old quarter — she wondered “which history” should be saved or restored. Should buildings be unchangeable merely because they’re old?
Undeniably, there were remarkable finds: Inscribed lintels named a 16th-century prior as creator of the building. Perfume bottles and ceramics were also unearthed, along with a cannon ball and bomb shard, likely of Napoleonic vintage.
But not every discovery was a treasure. One roof beam was concrete masquerading as wood, another veneered steel. And the building’s odd form, merging rectangular and wedge-shaped volumes, had an ill-placed stair and awkward layouts.
Surprisingly, the city allowed Noguera to streamline the geometry and demolish a bulky addition. But when she wanted to expose, rather than stucco over, the facade’s irregular stones, she had to challenge local mandates. (She ultimately won.)
On the interior, though, she had free rein. Scrapping partitions and repositioning the stairway, she played contemporary materials, concrete and dark steel plate, against traditional stone, oak and terra cotta. “I wanted to reinterpret the old through dialogue with the new,” she said, describing her desire “to recuperate some of the original 16th-century character,” which had a starkness that resonated with her minimalist style. One example is a weathered stone basin she found on site and installed beside the smooth concrete bathtub she created. Outside, she restored the 15,850-gallon cistern to feed a wisteria-shaded garden and black concrete swimming pool, and lined a courtyard in stone salvaged from the demolition.
The $900,000 renovation reflects both the building’s long evolution and the family’s unfolding story. During the project’s 10-year gestation, the children became rooted in Barcelona while Ribera built a career there. So until the anticipated high-speed rail links his workplace to Girona, their primary home remains a small Barcelona apartment, and Noguera’s future office serves as guest quarters. But on the weekends when they dine on the badiu, plunge into the pool and relax beneath the wisteria, Ribera said, “We dream about moving to Girona.”