“Mustique Mystique” by Hamish Bowles originally appeared in Vogue
Photography by François Halard
WHERE FANTASY IS THE LOCAL VERNACULAR, THIS COOLLY MODERN, MULTI-PAVILION HOME — WITH NO CORRIDORS, NO SENSE OF INDOORS AND OUTDOORS — IS A KIND OF LANDSCAPE IN ITSELF.
The entrance gates are barred with candy canes of spun Venetian glass in shades of Caribbean blue and Atlantic green, and the tropical orchard beyond is planted as thickly as an Henri Rousseau jungle. The promise of architectural adventure hangs as heavy in the air as the scent of frangipani. We are, after all, on a jungle-shaded hillside lane on the island of Mustique — where fantasy is the local vernacular. And they don’t come more fantastical than architect Raffaella Bortoluzzi’s Lagoon House, which perches like a flight of winged prehistoric creatures alighting on a cliff face high above one of the island’s most beloved palm-fringed bays.
Bortoluzzi, 48, first studied architecture in her native Venice, where the approach was traditional; then in Lisbon, where it was experimental; and finally at Columbia University, where it was conceptual. She stayed in Manhattan to work with Richard Gluckman, who was then designing many of the galleries in Chelsea (as it was fast transforming into Manhattan’s art central), ringing subtle changes on “all these white boxes,” as Bortoluzzi remembers. “He was a great teacher,” she adds, “and I learned a lot about detailing, and trying to hide all the things that nobody wants to see in an architectural space.” From there she went to work with Rafael Viñoly, then creating the five-building Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, intriguingly top-lit with fretworks of beams and glass. Vinoly was “very open to experimenting with forms and materials and shapes,” says Bortoluzzi. “Every project by Rafael is something completely different. I was really lucky to get these two such disparate teachers.”
All these histories find expression in Lagoon House, commissioned by the cultural philanthropist Maja Hoffmann. Bortoluzzi set up her Manhattan-based Labo Design Studio on the strength of her first project for Hoffmann — an ambitious rooftop extension for a downtown apartment. Since then, the architect’s American work has included an astonishing bluff-side house for decorator Muriel Brandolini in Hampton Bays, and an exquisitely crafted Lower East Side loft for her friend the designer Federica Tondato.
Hoffmann called on her again after acquiring a dramatically sited James Bond-looking house, composed of red marble and waterfalls, in Mustique in the early 2000s. Bortoluzzi transformed the property so that it now melds seamlessly with the landscape, echoing the indoor-outdoor concept that the great Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa introduced in the 1960s to redefine contemporary tropical living.
Shortly into the remaking of her main house, Hoffmann began thinking about an additional guest complex for friends and family, and bought a nearby site for the purpose. Her brief to her architect was to think “bold” and work in a strictly “unidentifiable style! We wanted to create a new, human house,” Hoffmann adds, “and not a fortress on a hill.” This time around, since the original project had required Bortoluzzi to live on the island for a year, and presented numerous complications, it was decided that Lagoon House would be prefabricated. This meant that, although it took “forever” to prepare the site, with elaborate land-grading to transform the cliff face into a series of terraces, its three ready-made pavilions went up in less than a week.
“What makes Mustique so charming is that everybody builds their own dreams,” says the architect, who had the opportunity during her extended stay to explore the charming but less adventurous architecture of neighboring islands in the archipelago — where many houses are built using corrugated iron to protect against the ferocious elements — as well as Mustique’s idiosyncratic and rarefied offerings. Ever since Colin Tennant, the third Baron Glenconner, bought the island in the 1950s for £45,000, poured his resources into its transformation, and gifted a handsome parcel of land to his friend Princess Margaret, it has been a sought-after retreat for celebrities, including Mick Jagger and David Bowie, with wildly diverging tastes. Bortoluzzi remembers “the person who wanted a French castle, and another who wanted a Venetian house.” One homeowner even brought over a battalion of Moroccan craftspeople to create a Moorish-hilltop fantasia. Bortoluzzi herself most admires Bowie’s Balinese compound (which he described as “a whim personified”) and a Zen-like Japanese-inspired house with one wall completely missing to frame the view. “I don’t know what happens in the rain,” Bortoluzzi says, laughing, “but it’s very beautiful!”
For Hoffmann’s guest complex, the architect, who relishes new materials, commissioned the metal fabricators Milgo/Bufkin, who frequently work with sculptors, to produce dramatically textured zinc casing — referencing those corrugated-iron roofs — for the three new buildings. Inside Lagoon House, she created custom-made wall treatments and units fabricated from recycled palm wood and poplar, carved like waves to reflect the undulant movement of the rooftop, or textured like the woven cane-work of a villager’s basket. Outside, a retaining garden wall of vibrant orange glass tiles mirrors the astonishing red of the island’s flame trees that have been planted to shade the pools and that set the island alight in June with their brilliant blossoms. There is color, too, in the external concrete floors, which have been flecked with Bortoluzzi’s collection of exuberantly colored Venetian murrina glass beads — traditionally used for jewelry — that glint in the sunlight, like a postmodern take on the terrazzo floors of the great Italian palaces.
Originally intended as three one-bedroom pods, the structures were deemed “too enclosed” as the project expanded. Bortoluzzi looked to that Japanese house she had so admired and opened the front of each building, protecting it against the unforgiving elements with an ingenious hydraulic system that enables the floor of the pavilions’ open terraces to cantilever up and meet its roof’s jutting edge. Those balcony floors are set with waving insets of sturdy clear Plexiglas that reveal the waters of the inviting lap pools below. When these balconies are closed, the clear openings serve as windows.
“The beautiful thing about working with Maja is that she always has a vision,” says Bortoluzzi, who traveled with her to the Milan Furniture Fair and the Venice Biennale, and visited dealers of iconic Brazilian and other contemporary furnishings for Lagoon House’s contents. “She has an incredible sense of space and a great sense of materials — she loves to try things.”
The resulting concept was deemed so different from the original that planning permissions proved troublesome. “They thought that it was too crazy for the architecture of the island” notes Bortoluzzi — which, let’s face it, is saying something. In this climate, however, fast-encroaching nature triumphs, and now, from the few places that they can be seen, the three ocean-green floating roofs are camouflaged by what appears to be dense jungle undergrowth but is in fact a sophisticated planting scheme devised by the distinguished Belgian landscape architect Bas Smets, who is also responsible for Hoffmann’s LUMA art complex in Arles.
“I love to create different atmospheres,” says Bortoluzzi. “The idea is that you move through the house and discover new areas and landscapes.” This approach is reflected in Smets’s design, which opens up clearings in the existing forest “to change the way you appreciate the landscape at any time.”
Having parked their cars in a palm-shaded lot, guests arrive at what looks like a one-story property that frames a narrow glimpse of ocean through a cozily enclosed courtyard, where the garden is densely planted by Smets with banana, mango, and papaya trees that can be plucked for a breakfast treat. On the lower level, the lap pools are paved in tiny lozenges of white marble from Carrera, an elegantly urbane touch that creates “a dreamlike space,” as Smets notes, “a plateau from which you contemplate the Caribbean.”
“It’s not a house,” says Smets. “There are no corridors, for instance — instead it’s a volume here, an opening there. It’s almost like a village. And there is no sense of indoors and outdoors: It’s a kind of landscape in itself.” ❧