A Refuge in a Device

architect Idis Turato
project Nest and Cave House, Opatija, Croatia
written by Emil Jurcan

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Through a number of conversations, sketches and diagrams, and after intense exploration and research, it was decided that the house has to unite elements that are otherwise rarely combined in architecture: the sense of being protected, the introvert quality of a cave, the warmth of a safe home and the feeling of levitation, of being in a bird’s nest on the top of a tree with a view of the horizon and surroundings.


With this desire, architect Idis Turato commenced designing the family house near Opatija, right by the main road. The steep terrain enabled placing the basement ‘cave’, the house’s ‘night’ zone completely underground and, covered with monolithic pieces of stone and with a roof made of greenery, it became totally camouflaged in the terrain and disappeared inside. Above it, at road level, a simple sheet metal elongated block was set and protrudes as a console above the ‘cave’, thus directing view (like binoculars) towards Rijeka on the other side of the Kvarner Bay. This elongated block, constructed as a spatial grid with horizontal and vertical sides that are supports, intertwined steel bars and literally formed a ‘nest’ for the ‘day’ rooms of the family house.


Nevertheless, this nest is not placed on a tree top, but along the main road, and this minimalist white cube sends a clear message: ‘Here, beneath the road level, there is a house.’ Also, the whiteness and elegant linearity of the ‘nest’ sends a clear message to observers from the sea as well: ‘Here, on the Učka cliff, there is a hovering object.’ With this, a paradoxical connection of protection and symbol has been created, the first in relation to earth and the second in relation to passers-by. Although architecture of symbol has been known since Venturi, Scott Brown and Izenour’s reading of Las Vegas, what contemporary (semantic) capitalism enables, as opposed to former versions, is that the symbol is not only a place of capital, but it also becomes a place of life – a hide-out. 


One obvious thing that one should understand about the transformation of a hide-out into a symbol is the fact that during this mutation, the house loses any connection with the idea of a machine for living. Exceeding the machine treatment of life functions in a flat was furthered to the largest extent by the architecture of the ‘case study’ houses in California of the late 1950s within which modernist housing architecture reached its final stage, the stage in which the monumentality of the avant-garde finally became domesticated. Therefore, it is no wonder that Turato, when he was erecting the console, imagined Pierre Koenig and the famous House #22 that hovers above Los Angeles.


However, for the complete transformation of a hide-out into a symbol it is not enough to discard the machine; it is necessary to efficiently replace the machine with a device. More precisely, to replace the machine for living with a device for (the experience of) living. And this house takes the transformation most seriously; the above-ground device is equipped with three (the minimal number in forming a cell) openings that are strictly specialized for absorption of different elements into the interior of the hide-out – one for the body to enter, the second for light to enter, and the third for the panorama to enter (or, for the eye to exit). In other words, the minimalist line-shaped volume of the above-ground section of the house is added to by one protrusion where the entrance door is placed, a second protrusion on the roof above the staircase has a light well, and a third opening at the end of the console has a glass surface.


With the symbol being successfully equipped with elements for absorbing exterior stimuli, the house becomes a perfect device for experience, entirely independent of human activity and entirely dependent on exterior inputs – in this case, the view and light, or the sea and sun. And the lightness of its manipulation with simple architectural language is a potential inspiration for all who imagine and look for a refuge in an apparatus.