Dominic Bradbury, Journalist & Writer


For Brazilian architect Marcos Acayaba, the Milan House in the suburbs of Sao Paulo has to be the best thing he has ever done. Finished in 1975, with a dramatic and sweeping concrete roof enclosing all of the split level living spaces within, the house has certainly stood the test of time. For the last 35 years Acayaba and his wife Marlene, a writer and expert on Brazilian Modernist design, have made the house their own home and little has changed here over the years.

The house was first designed as a commission for Marlene Acayaba's sister, the psychoanalyst and writer Betty Milan. She gave the architect almost complete freedom to design a home in what was then a quiet, green, hillside spot on the outskirts of the city. 'She gave me carte blanche,' says Acayaba, who was born and grew up in Sao Paulo and soon established himself among pioneering Modernist architects of Brazil. 'She requested four bedrooms and a long swimming pool and her husband asked for a photography studio.'

Partly inspired by the sloping site and influenced by the sinuous curves of some of Oscar Niemeyer's buildings, such as the Church of Saint Francis of Assisi in Pampulha, Acayaba designed the all encompassing, sculpted concrete roof, forming a vast shell over the entire house. Inside the shell Acayaba made use of the shifting ground levels to create three distinct but inter connected platforms with the open plan living space at the centre, then a dining area, kitchen and service spaces on a lower level and finally the bedrooms, which are positioned on a higher zone.

'The design was all about enhancing the relationship between the house and the garden and creating a balance between the two within the site's generous dimensions,' says Acayaba. 'The solution was the reinforced concrete shell, like a vault, conceived as a roof which shelters all the inner spaces and allows them to visually connect to the tropical gardens at either end of the house.'

As the project came to completion, though, Acayaba's sister in law decided to relocate to Paris and never lived in the house. Acayaba himself, who was only 28 at the time, decided to move into the building with Marlene and the two of them made the Milan House their own family home in the December of 1975.

The strength and beauty of the house lies in the epic contrasts between the linear nature of the living spaces and the sinuous curves of the over arching roof, as well as the juxtaposition of the sculpted concrete artistry of the building and the lush gardens that surround the house, softening and enhancing it. The terraces around the pool and the main living level within are unified by the use of red tiled floors inside and out, while many built in and bespoke elements of furniture – such as the concrete banquette – create a sense of simplicity and clarity. In the master bedroom, again there is an impression of restrained minimalism, but enhanced by the rich quality of natural light and the ingenuity of elements such as the vast, pivotting internal wooden shutters to the en suite bathroom.

'The bedrooms on the upper level are closed in by sliding doors and ventilation flaps, which help integrate them with the rest of the interior spaces,' says Acayaba. 'When the house was built there was a garden inside the house as well, between the split floors. After ten years we decided that the indoor garden was not working well and I changed the space to its current shape. That was the only major alteration to the house in 35 years.'

While the neighbourhood of Cidade Jardim has grown and gradually become more built up and developed, the house itself has remained a retreat for the Acayabas from the hectic pace of the sprawling city. The gardens, carefully nurtured by Marlene Acayaba, have become more lush and established, forming a protective natural barrier between this enclave and the world beyond.

The Acayabas also make good use of the bunker studio tucked away under the elevated terrace alongside the pool area. It is a quiet space, conducive to working upon ongoing architectural commissions for residential and public buildings, which are complemented by Acayaba's teaching job as a professor of architecture.

'The ideas that I explored with the Milan House certainly influenced other architectural projects of mine as well,' says Acayaba. 'They were ideas to do with the integration of nature, the continuity of space and the use of natural light. For us, we love the simplicity of the house and the lightness and, of course, all those connections with the gardens.'

Marcos Acayaba Arquitectos –

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