Photo © Bruno Helbling

Crusch Alba Loft

Gus Wüstemann


By David Cohn

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Swiss architect Gus Wüstemann defines his design approach as “program-free architecture,” in which “everything that contaminates the space with a program disappears.” Kitchens, baths, and circulation corridors are anathema to him, as are conventional living rooms and bedrooms, and the walls and doors that define them. In his designs, they are all subsumed into a larger spatial idea. He even criticizes the typical New York loft, seemingly a classic example of program-free living: “Today a loft is just a big space without quality. You put a cube in it, a kitchen or whatever, and it degrades everything.”

Wüstemann commutes weekly between his practice in Zurich and Barcelona, where he has settled with his wife and two children in a 2,000-square-foot apartment in the heart of the Gothic Quarter. Baptized the Crusch Alba (“White Cross” in Romantsch, one of Switzerland’s official languages), this residence demonstrates just what Wüstemann means by deprogrammed architecture.

The apartment, situated on the second floor of a building dating to about 1860, is divided  by a major bearing wall. The existing front half, with three floor-to-ceiling balcony windows overlooking a narrow pedestrian street, easily lent itself to becoming an open living area. But the back was a warren of rooms dimly lit by several tiny patios. After studying dozens of possible solutions, Wüstemann came up with the idea of the white cross. Inspired by the notion of an urban crossroads, he enveloped this cross in white gypsum board and subtle lighting to create an organizational center that fills the rear section with abundant light.

Superimposed over the existing structural shell of the building, which Wüstemann stripped, patched, and varnished, the cross is defined by the planes of its ceiling and white epoxy floor (with radiant heating coils below), and by the running strip of cove lighting that snakes around its edges and beyond. The overall effect is a rich sense of spatial layering in a limited area.

The linear continuum of indirect light is fundamental to Wüstemann’s concept. “[It] suggests depth and a horizon,” he explains. “There is no end to the space; it doesn’t stop. You will never see a light source in my projects, because there’s no horizon.” To emphasize the importance of this detail, he always keeps this discreet illumination turned on, but often dimmed.

Taking advantage of the new floor plan, Wüstemann tucked a breakfast nook and sleeping alcoves into the spaces that formed around the geometry of the cross. Then he created a kitchen along the axis adjacent to the living area, and a bath corridor across that, keeping all of the fixtures, fittings, and appliances hidden in cabinets when not in use. A section of counter lifts up to reveal a six-burner gas cooktop, and pocket doors open and fold back into the cabinetry when it’s time to access the refrigerator, freezer, oven, microwave, and storage. The architect also installed two lavatories behind a sliding door on the right arm of the bath axis. He housed the toilet in a cubicle, and a windowed shower nook at the far end. In the opposite direction, the left arm of the cross opens onto the master bedroom area.

The family can move various sliding and folding doors to define up to three bedrooms and isolate the bath corridor, but they prefer to keep them open. “The kids have foldable mattresses, so they can choose where they want to sleep,” says Wüstemann. “They are ‘camping’ in the apartment.” One of their favorite places is a raised surface off the kitchen, near the master bedroom, where a bathtub is hidden under removable panels.

This concept of loose, flexible living extends to the front of the apartment, where Wüstemann installed new oak floors to define a habitable platform within the shell of the old structure. This expanse of wood continues up the walls to form a low wainscoting backed by a recess that accommodates runs of discreetly hidden fluorescent lights and radiators. The walls, like the ceilings with their exposed beams and typical Catalan rafters and vaulting, are stripped to the original materials — wood, brick, stone, and plaster — and coated with a semigloss varnish to minimize dust and enhance the daylight filtering through the windows. During the renovation, Wüstemann added steel beams to reinforce the ceiling and allowed the scraps and bits of different finishes and interventions to emerge. This includes the salvaged remnants of a plaster fresco, located behind the dining table.

Wüstemann’s scheme is guided by a metaphor of urban space. In an earlier Lucerne loft, he used the idea of a glacier to create an interior “landscape” of ascending levels and descending light [record, September 2007, page 129]. Here, the unfinished walls, marked with time, are extensions of the Gothic Quarter, and the white cross and living platform are elements the family can appropriate freely. “It’s the aura of not finishing, keeping it urban and letting the process be visible that gives a feeling of freedom,” he says. This interpretation of domesticity as an improvised encampment amid historic remains offers an interesting insight into the life of a modern urban nomad, in which a family can commute between two different worlds and feel at home in both.

David Cohn is Architectural Record’s Madrid based international correspondent.

Completion Date: April 2009

Gross square footage: 2,000 sq.ft.

Total construction cost: €;300,000.000

Gus Wüstemann ma eth sia coac
Albulastrasse 34, 8048 Zürich, Switzerland
T/F +41 400 20 15/17
C/Banys Nous 15, Ppal 2, 08002 Barcelona, Spain
T +34 93 393 61 75

September 2010
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