E milio Ambasz is widely lauded as a pioneer of site-sensitive, green architecture that seeks synergy between a building and the landscape, and he has realised a great number of expansive public projects around the world. One of the first buildings that he designed, however, as a teenager growing up in Argentina, was a house. “I would claim that my interests are all centred on the notion that we build places to dwell,” says Ambasz.
From the age of nine, Ambasz knew that he wanted to be an architect and designer: “Talk about a child with an idée fixe,” he says. Since then, as well as architecture, Ambasz has also embraced parallel careers as a curator, product designer and furniture designer. Today, he balances a busy work and travel schedule that takes him between his studios in New York and Italy, along with time in Spain and Monaco.
His own home near Seville, Casa de Retiro Espiritual, is set in a sublime landscape of hills, lakes and mature trees. It is both a “machine for contemplation and an object to contemplate” and has been described as his “autobiography”. Woven into the topography itself, the most visible element of the “Retreat” is a sculptural pair of two tall white walls, set at right angles to one another, forming a V-shaped structure holding a staircase, which leads to a high balcony looking over the bucolic surroundings.
Work on the house began in the early 1970s but it continues to evolve over time, with new additions and follies. “I breed horses there and have built an open-air chapel, with the sky as its glorious roof. I have also built an artificial grotto inside a handmade berm, where we can take refuge from the sun.”
“I have devised an architecture that respects the landscape, integrates it with the building and gives back to the community”
The “Spiritual Retreat” is a kind of manifesto of how architecture can coexist with the landscape. “I never build underground. I always build above ground and then we cover the roof and some walls with earth to insulate the house.” It is an eco-sensitive design philosophy that was ahead of its time back in the 1970s but has now been widely embraced and adopted, leading to other residential commissions such as a house, estate and art gallery among the mountains of Montana, where the only visible element is a semi-circular façade sitting gently within a meadow. Ambasz says: “I have devised an architecture that respects the landscape, integrates it with the building and – more importantly – gives back to the users and the community as much as possible of the land that the footprint of the building has covered.”
Ambasz’s work also respects key principles gained from his two great mentors: the Argentinian architect Amancio Williams and the Mexican master, Luis Barrágan. “In the case of Williams, it was his commitment that every project must contribute an original and better solution to the problem at hand,” says Ambaz. “In Barrágan’s case, his deep belief in an emotional architecture that should move the heart.”
There have also been many larger cultural and commercial commissions, including the Lucile Halsell Conservatory in San Antonio, Texas, the Prefectural International Hall in Fukuoka, Japan, and other major projects explored in a new monograph, written by Barry Bergdoll and published by Rizzoli, called Emilio Ambasz: Curating a New Nature.
Currently, Ambasz is working on a museum in the south of Spain as well as a tourist settlement in Sardinia, which includes villas, residential buildings, hotels and three chapels. Such projects will continue to explore the relationship between architecture, land and art. Ambasz says: “I believe very strongly that we must make peace with nature and integrate it into our architecture. To not do it will subject us to a formidable opponent.”
Cover image: Casa de Retiro Espiritual, Seville, Spain, 1975. Photo: Michelle Alassio
Emilio Ambasz, Curating a New Nature by Barry Bergdoll is out now