In Madrid’s iconic Torres Blancas tower, Studio.noju has transformed a once tired duplex apartment into a colorful, retro-futuristic home. Designed by the architect Francisco Javier Sáenz de Oíza (1918-2000) and built between 1964 and 1972, Torres Blancas is a notable example and radical style of organic architecture. Creating such an eye-catching interior within this brutalist concrete edifice, is just one reason why Studio.noju’s duplex design captivates the imagination.
Studio.noju was founded in 2020 by Antonio Mora and Eduardo Tazón. “Noju” (an abbreviation of “not just”) is a reference to the studio’s involvement in several fields of design: not just architecture, but also interior design and project design. The Torres Blancas duplex was the studio’s first big design project. Purchased in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, the apartment is the home of both Mora and Tazón (and their dog) — the renovation would, in effect, act as Studio.noju’s “cover letter”. The studio's design philosophy is based around experimentation with and exploration of new materials, and seeks to question pre-established design norms. Mora and Tazón therefore set about testing the feasibility of their ideas through the project.
In a conversation with Antonio Mora, he discusses the design and renovation of this remarkable home.
Demolition and renovation
“We moved from the USA back to Madrid in 2019, with the idea of establishing our own practice," says Mora. "We always loved the Torres Blancas building, a place that questioned the many conventional notions of inhabiting a residential dwelling — it is such an icon in Madrid and Spain. Finding an apartment there can be difficult and the opportunity came about when a family decided to move.”
The duplex as it existed:
Completed in 1972, Torres Blancas is a 71-meter-tall (233 feet) residence with a mix of community living spaces (although there appears to be no definitive consensus on its final build date or height). “There are three typologies of apartment in Torres Blancas and 75 units in total,” says Mora. “A small apartment is around 90 square meters (969 square feet); a medium apartment, the most common size in the building, is around 200 square meters (2,153 square feet); and the duplex apartment, essentially two medium apartments with stairs in the middle, is 400 square meters (4,306 square feet) — there are eight of these. Four are located on the fourth and fifth floors and four on the tenth and eleventh floors. This duplex is more or less in the middle of the tower.”
“The duplex had been through several interventions over the years that were not to a good standard — it wasn’t particularly well treated,” says Mora. “The apartment was originally filled with columns, organic and curving forms — these had been covered behind straight walls in an attempt to standardize the interior, making it easier to furnish. Moreover, the apartment’s exterior spaces had been reclaimed as interiors, so there were no terraces.”
New partitions and windows:
“The first thing we did was seek out and, with some difficultly, find the original floor plans,” Mora continues. “We then overlapped the floor plans of the apartment in its present state with the original plans. As a result, we decided to demolish everything that wasn’t original and protected by heritage building codes. Our idea was to bring back the true spirit of the apartment combined with a contemporary intervention.”
Studio.noju’s approach was very much a dialogue with the building. Beginning with a clean slate, the original features were revealed as part of the demolition process and formed the basis of the design. The spatial layout of the duplex is defined by curved and sinuous lines. Moreover, the building’s character, its light and color, played a role in the renovation.
Original meets contemporary
In a structure with real architectural significance, considered a masterpiece by many, undertaking such an experimental and novel project might intimidate even the most seasoned of architects. “Honestly, we were not afraid of tackling this project, despite it being part of such an iconic building,” says Mora. “Had we been further along in the development of our studio, we might have been more afraid to intervene. We were cautious in terms of the intervention, but were equally certain that we wanted to put our stamp on the apartment. We worked to achieve a balance between honoring Sáenz de Oíza’s original ideas and our own aesthetic approach, creating a place that reflects our personality. All of the building’s facades, concrete structural elements, and common areas are protected. The glass bricks were untouched in any of the apartment’s interventions. As long as structural elements are intact, people are free to alter the apartment interiors as they wish.”
Entry to the duplex is via a small foyer, a semi-circular space that provides a threshold between the building’s common areas and the apartment. A curved panel within the wall can enclose this space. Studio.noju used materials identical to those found in the common areas: Segovia black slate from the original quarry and wine-red wood paneling. A corridor framed with a curving glass facade connects the living and dining rooms. A new staircase leading to the upper floor is a material extension of the kitchen floor — its polished brass handrail was preserved from the original apartment.
“We wanted to play with the relationship between the kitchen and dining room areas,” says Mora. “They were closed to one another and our preference was to open them up, linking these two discrete spaces. Originally, Sáenz de Oíza had said he tried to link the dining area with the kitchen, but at the time people did not understand the concept.”
“I think the most experimental part of the apartment is reflected in the kitchen with the metallic, high-pressure laminate you see on the walls,” Mora continues. “Also, the countertops and kitchen furniture use a solid material that allowed us to craft rounded shapes. The lower part of the kitchen reminds us of the concrete balconies with their circular forms. There is an atmospheric amber light that is diffused by the original glass bricks and this is enhanced by the metal finish on the walls.”
One of the original ideas for Torres Blancas was that the building should be seen as a towering vertical garden, full of greenery. “On the terraces, we used a colorful green glazed ceramic tile that covers the entire space and creates the planters and benches. We brought the tiling part way inside the apartment, blurring the limits between the exterior and interior. This highlights the outdoor areas as the true center of the apartment,” says Mora. “We discovered that our apartment isn’t that hot in summer (in comparison with others). We made sure everything on the interior was isolated from the concrete walls. We also installed really good windows and planted lots of greenery, which tempers the effect of sunlight and radiation. When Torres Blancas was first built, it was impossible at the time to install the curved glazing that we now have in the living room and on the second floor terrace with the bathtub.”
Amorphous shapes add depth and personality to the apartment’s interior. “On the ceiling you see a number of molded ‘fake skylights’ that are part of the fluid design,” says Mora. “This idea was taken from the lobby of the building, where there are huge organic shapes coming from the ceiling.”
The upper floor is distinct from the lower floor with oak-lined storage areas, walls, flooring, and ceilings providing a warm, cocoon-like ambience. The apartment’s four bathrooms and powder room are clad in mosaic tiles — each one has a different colored tile that follows the curved geometry of the walls.
The level of detail and craftsmanship seen throughout the duplex is testament to the skillful abilities of the Spanish artisans involved in the apartment’s renovation. “Many of the craftspeople came from my home city of Seville,” says Mora. “Little by little we are discovering that, in big cities such as Barcelona and Madrid, traditional craftsmanship is disappearing. However, we can find craftspeople in southern Spain, where a lot of artisanal traditions still exist. So the woodwork and plastering, for example, was done by artisans from southern Spain. It is a time-consuming process and the project was completed over eleven months.”
“The exterior spaces are my favorite part of the apartment and very much the heart of the house,” says Mora. “Within the duplex, you get the impression that you’re living in a single house, in a space that is calm with exteriors that look like a garden. We enjoy the shadows made by the plants as the sun sets; it’s a happy feeling. It is a pity when you see that many of the neighbors have enclosed their terraces. There isn’t the original impression that Sáenz de Oíza wanted for the building, like a huge tree filled with greenery.”
Francisco Javier Sáenz de Oíza "would have loved it"
“Many people who visit the apartment say it has retro-futuristic vibes,” says Mora. With its colorful interior, amorphous and curving forms, and meticulous details, the duplex would not look out of place on the set of a Pedro Almodóvar movie. The curvy green, plant-filled terraces recall moments from the celebrated Spanish director’s famed 1988 film “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” (“Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios”). “I have been told that the apartment has Pedro Almodóvar aesthetics. I take it as a compliment,” says Mora. “The aesthetic design of Almodóvar’s movies is probably one of the things I enjoy most about his work.”
“We have a diverse mix of people and ages living here, including some who are part of the building’s first generation of residents and then newer generations. I wouldn’t say the building itself is high-end or for wealthy families — it’s a bit of everything in-between,” says Mora.
“The family of Francisco Javier Sáenz de Oíza have visited the apartment and one of his daughters, also an architect, lives here in Torres Blancas. They loved what we have created," says Mora. “One of the biggest compliments was when his daughter said ‘you see the connection between the kitchen and the dining room, my father always wanted to do that and he couldn’t because no one liked the idea.’ She was pointing out things that her father couldn’t do at the time, that we were able to achieve in the apartment. She said he would have loved it."