Several years ago, Xavier Vendrell found himself in a position most architects would envy. As the co-partner of a 15-person firm in Barcelona, Spain, he'd designed many well-received buildings and public spaces, including multiple projects for the 1992 Olympics. But something seemed wrong to him. “My office in Barcelona was growing,” he says, but “I felt it was losing energy. I remember when I started in architecture, when I got my first commission. You are so happy and so excited. As life evolves, you try to do a good job because you're a professional, but you think, ‘New job, new problem.'”

So the Barcelona-born Vendrell left his practice —and his country—in 1999 and moved to the United States to teach at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Once settled in Chicago, he formed a small firm, accepting just a few commissions a year. Among the lucky customers to obtain his services was a young Barcelona family who had befriended Vendrell. Family members wanted a full-time residence built on some coastal property they owned in Tarragona, Spain—about 60 miles southwest of Barcelona. Vendrell set about designing it from his Chicago studio, using e-mail and frequent telephone calls to facilitate a constant exchange of ideas and also working with the assistance of architects Claudi Aguiló in Barcelona and Carlos Salinas in Chicago. He even lugged a large balsa-wood model with him on the plane to show the clients during one of his periodic trips to Spain.

According to Vendrell, most Spanish architecture begins with an understanding of the site—its topography, climate, and cultural history. He took all three into account with his design for the house, which steps down a rocky hillside. Its earth-toned, integrally colored stucco volumes and ochre-hued stone base blend with their surroundings. Geothermal heat pumps and solar panels draw much of the home's energy from the natural environment, and a cistern at the lowest part of the site captures rainwater to use for landscape irrigation. Sliding wood louvers along most of the windows block the hot Mediterranean sun during the summertime while still letting in cool sea breezes, thus eliminating the need for air conditioning.

The family likes to spend time outdoors, so Vendrell sprinkled terraces and patios throughout the project. He never lost sight of the lifestyle and philosophy of the owners. “When you are doing a place where people live, you enter a little bit into the intimacy of their lives,” he explains. “In a way you are like a tailor. They need to be comfortable, and you bring your expertise.” Ever since he revamped his professional life, he's been able to dedicate himself fully to every project he designs, including the Tarragona house. “I decided to do less work and am enjoying it,” he says. “If you enjoy what you do, the work is better.”


Casa Abelló, Tarragona, Spain


Xavier Vendrell Studio, Chicago/Barcelona, Spain

general contractor:

Domenech Construction, Tarragona

construction architect:

Eulàlia Aran, Barcelona

structural architect:

Obiol, Moya & Associates, Barcelona

mechanical engineer:

Juan Gonzàlez, Barcelona

project size:

2,920 square feet

site size:

0.6 acre

construction cost:



Mònica Roselló and Jordi Guillumet