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A Cave for Living, Built From a Traditional Spanish Toolshed

By Nancy Hass

The exterior of the Purple House, one of two structures built by Mar Plus Ask among the centuries-old olive trees of the Tramuntana Mountains in Mallorca.
Piet-Albert Goethals
The exterior of the Purple House, one of two structures built by Mar Plus Ask among the centuries-old olive trees of the Tramuntana Mountains in Mallorca.

When the 34-year-old Spanish architect Mar Vicens turned 16, her father got on his Vespa to begin the task he had undertaken for each of his three children: searching for a bit of property for her in the Serra de Tramuntana mountains on the northwestern coast of Mallorca. Although based half of the year in Valencia — Spain’s third largest city, an hour away by plane — the family also has roots going back generations in Mallorca, the largest of the Balearic Islands. The Tramuntanas, named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2011, are sui generis, from both a geological and an aesthetic perspective: Fifty-five miles long, with summits of up to 4,700 feet, the onetime coral reefs from the Miocene era have eroded into sharp peaks that are sheared cleanly off in many places, dropping vertiginously to the sea.

While Mallorca’s southern beaches have been host to a massive Pan-European party scene since the 1970s, the Tramuntanas remain craggy and unspoiled. The ancient villages that punctuate the cliffs — the island was settled in prehistoric times and claimed over the centuries by Phoenician, Roman and Moorish invaders — have long attracted cultured bohemians, including the British writer Robert Graves, who in 1929 moved to the town of Deià with his lover, the American poet Laura Riding, and mostly remained there until his death in 1985.

More than a thousand years ago, Arab settlers cut paths through the mountains (the trails are still used by intrepid hikers) and began building elaborate stacked-stone terraces. They also created sophisticated irrigation systems that transformed the arid landscape, which receives more rain than the rest of the island, into verdant, vertical Mediterranean farmland. Almond, fig and carob trees flourish beside the boulders, and countless productive olive trees, most of them several centuries old, grow on the hills. Sheep wander through the rock formations, keeping the grasses in check and providing organic fertilizer. Much of the mountains’ arable land has been split into small parcels owned by Spanish families; each has a few acres of orchard to cultivate, which must be done by hand because the terrain is too rocky to get machines up the paths; the resulting olive oil is prized for its smoothness and lack of acidity.

Piet-Albert GoethalsA large stone serves as a focal point for the Pink House. The fireplace often burns during the day to reduce the house’s humidity.
A large stone serves as a focal point for the Pink House. The fireplace often burns during the day to reduce the house’s humidity.

Although there are few permanent residences here, many of the properties have tiny one-room shacks, some partly built into the rock. With thick stucco or stone walls and tiny window openings, they are mostly used to store tools — or, perhaps, a cot for naps on hot summer afternoons. Each Sunday, after a week of harvesting, families travel up the mountains to assemble a paella, eating outside on spare wooden tables in the afternoon sun.

Through the years, Vicens and her relatives would ascend from their vacation home below to enjoy the tranquillity and view from her two-and-a-half-acre plot. There was one rough-hewn toolshed on the property when they bought it — a local family harvests the olives for them — but little else. Armed with a sketch pad, a book and a bottle of wine, they would watch the ocean below, occasionally rising from their chairs to collect a few figs.

SIX YEARS AGO, after Vicens met Ask Anker Aistrup, the 39-year-old Danish architect with whom she co-founded the studio Mar Plus Ask in 2015 (which recently relocated from Berlin to Valencia and Mallorca), the couple began conceptualizing a cottage that would enable them to stay on the mountain overnight. They were determined that the project honor the vernacular of the Tramuntanas, remaining as simple — and as compact — as those tiny traditional huts. “This place is a rare example of where man has given more beauty to nature than he has taken,” Aistrup says. “You want to continue that.”

Ultimately, their plan comprised two minuscule off-grid structures, each a mere 120 square feet or so, which together provide the rudiments of living, at least for short stretches. Both of the buildings, which took them four months to complete and were finished last year, enshrine the disciplined approach of the architects, whose practice focuses on minimalist residences built with natural materials throughout Spain and European cities such as CopenhagenStockholm and Berlin.

Piet-Albert GoethalsThe Purple House, built hundreds of years ago as a toolshed.
The Purple House, built hundreds of years ago as a toolshed.

The first structure — named the Pink House, after the colour of its stucco interior, chosen to complement the matte green underside of an olive leaf — is built from stacked stone and incorporates several large rock outcroppings on the hillside. “We did not want to move anything,” Aistrup says. “You want to let the site dictate what you do.” The uniformity of colour brings out the velvety texture of the stucco and underlines the contrast between cavelike primordiality and hypermodernism. The floors are poured concrete in a matching hue, and the entrance is a nine-foot-high archway over which a huge teak slab slides closed at night. Inside, there’s a double bed in a corner niche beside a window with views to the mountains, and a boxy fireplace that is often lit and kept low (even in summer) to regulate the humidity caused by the difference in temperature between the warm outdoors and the cool interior. Much of the space is consumed by the giant rock around which the structure is built, as though it were a monumental sculpture. A spout is installed high on a wall beside it, creating an open shower illuminated by a skylight: Water collected on the roof feeds through a stone filter before cascading down. Outside, a piece of stone they found on-site has been made into a sink and rigged to the other side of the rock formation. There is no living room, though they plan to install a long teak table amid the trees. “You live in the light,” Vicens says.

About 30 feet away lies the Purple House — the interior colour intended to echo the darker, glossier side of an olive leaf — designated for cooking and eating. Modified from the original shed on the property, which was also made from stacked stones and sunk into a rock formation, it’s a challenge just to enter: You have to thread your way through jutting chunks of stone to reach the teak Dutch door that replaced the old structure’s sole small window. The couple poured the cement floor between the existing rocks, so the surface is smooth and rough in equal measure, further blurring the boundaries between inside and out.

Like similar structures in the Tramuntanas, the former shed had walls that were two feet thick to insulate it. Those made the space too narrow to install a kitchen, so the couple came up with a novel solution: They cut a 4-by-6-foot section out of one wall, thus creating a counter wide enough for a sink and plumbing, then installed a large frameless window above it that seems almost invisible. In addition to a small bathroom, there is a refrigerator powered by solar-roof panels, a tiny table and an alcove in the rock to store a few dishes. On the cement counter sit two propane burners for simple meals.

The couple now has a 1-year-old daughter, Sol (“sun” in both Danish and Spanish), and on some summer weekends, Vicens’s two older brothers bring their children from their own plots nearby. In the evening, after the last candle has burned down, everyone does what they have always done here in the mountains: very little, taking in the silence and the scent of olive and lemon on the breeze. “What evolved here over a thousand years is a response to scarcity rather than excess,” Aistrup says. “That makes it different. It dictates everything.”

Produced by Siska Lyssens.