The Chen House in North Taiwan, design and constructed by Finnish architect Marco Casagrande and Taiwanese architect Frank Chen, was built for an older couple who wanted to retire to the country and grow bamboo and cherry trees – on a flood plain also beset by hurricanes and earthquakes. The house is a light structure constructed almost entirely of mahogany on simple concrete posts. Casagrande quotes Brecht: Last night I saw a terrible strorm in a dream. It ripped off the scaffoldings and crushed the iron joints. Though what was made of wood, bent, and stayed still. Some of Casagrande’s earlier work is as much art as architecture, and has dealt specifically with the destruction of buildings by time, by the elements, by social and economic change, or all of the above (see project at bottom). The Chen House, too, is built to withstand the elements but also with its inevitable destruction in mind – as a future ruin. The style of the house dates from a period when Taiwan was under Japanese rule and houses were built in a more traditional Japanese style. More recently most houses in Taiwan have been made of brick imported from China’s Fujian Province, but Casagrande and Chen wanted to return to the earlier method. Wood better withstands earthquakes; water from flooding passes beneath the low stilts; and by opening windows to promote cross-draft, a hurricane passes through the building more safely than if the building were to try to resist it. The house is situated in Sanjhih, Taipei County, in the Datun Mountains.
Below, Casagrande’s “Land(e)scape” project in Finland (co-produced with Sami Rintala), more commonly known as the “walking barns,” dealt with the abandonment of traditional Finnish farm buildings after people drifted to the city and agricultural practices changed. Casagrande and Rintala constructed barn houses which, now functionless in their environment, somehow seem able to get up on stilt legs and walk somewhere else – the city, perhaps – but which are ultimately animated only by fire.
Click below for an article on the house by Catherine Slessor in Architectural Review, reprinted from Casagrande:
Rural Retreat: A robust response to a challenging environment.
By Catherine Slessor, The Architectural Review, March 2009
Finnish architect Marco Casagrande first came to the AR’s attention when his remarkable “walking” barn houses, designed in partnership with fellow finn Sami Rintala, were honoured in the inaugural AR Awards for Emerging Architecture (AR December 1999).
Conceived as a meditation on the decline of Finnish rural life, the project – punningly entitled Land(e)scape – involved hoisting a trio of redundant timber barns on to spindly stilts to make them look as though they were walking out of the countryside and migreating to the city. In a final nihilistic flourish, the structures were set on fire and transformed into blazing memorials to the loss of a pastoral idyll.
Casagrande is now in partnership with Taiwanese architect Frank Chen, and together they recently completed a house in the north of Taiwan, near the Datun Mountains. Set on farmland next to a river and surrounded by tree-covered hills, the remote, rural site has echoes of the walking barns project. Yet for all its bucolic charm, the environment can be harsh, with intense heat in summer and frequent typhoon winds, componded by periodic flooding from the river and seismic activity.
The commission came from a retired couple who wanted to leave the city and embrace a simpler, rural lifestyle, farming cherry trees and bamboo. When approached to design the house, Casagrande was living in an abandoned tea factory in the area and had become familiar with the locale.
Though climate and site conditions are challenging, he regards his design as an adaptive, responsive entity, capable of ridingthem out “like a boat”. To protect against flooding, the house is raised above the ground on a platform, which also acts as a terrace, extending the living area. The main volume, which contains living and sleeping quarters, is a narrow, single-storey wedge, buttressed along its long, east side by a smaller structure housing a bathroom, kitchen and sauna.
The arrangement neatly demarcates served and servant spaces, but equally importantly it also enhances structural stability in the event of an earthquake, the smaller body acting to brace and support the larger one.
The roof and walls of the main volume project out at the wider north end to form a sheltered enclave for al fresco dining. The roof is also brought into play as a sun deck, accessed by an external flight of stairs.
Perhaps because Casagrande helped to build the house himself, constuction and materials have a rough-edged simplicity and honesty of expression. Nothing is fudged or covered up; you take it as you find it.
The timber frame is clad in horizontal timber planks, giving the house a barn-like appearance that chimes instinctively with the rural setting. In some parts of the wall, gaps are deliberately left between the planks to aid natural ventilation and help deflect stong winds.
A freestanding brick heart anchors the living area, and strategically placed glazing frames and defines vistas out to the landscape. A strip of windows at floor level, for instance, is designed to offer views only when occupants are seated on traditional floor cushions.
For the cladding, Casagrande choser meranti, a tropical hardwood with a reddish hue resembling Canadian pine. Though strong and economical, with good moisture and insect resistance, it tends to be more commonly used in Taiwan for formwork because of its rustic appearance.
“When Taiwan was under Japanese rule, there was a vigorous culture of building with timber”, says Casagrande, “but now brick imported from China’s Fujian province has become the norm. In this project I wanted to reconnect with an older building tradition and make use of so-called disregarded materials.”
The timber also underscores Casagrande’s notion of the house as a lightweight vessel, capable of weathering difficult conditions with ease and elegance.