It was locally known as the “House of the Architect.” Located less than 500 feet away from a house that I grew up in, its distinct design set it apart from all the other residential buildings of this area of Getxo, a coastal municipality of the metropolitan area of Bilbao. Built within a corner parcel that faced two quiet residential streets, the views of its ground floor and garden were protected by a thick and tall bush. But one could see the distinct four-sided sloped roof of the house with wooden tiles and a continuous ribbon of recessed windows. It was a design of a house that I wasn’t familiar with, and I always wondered what the views were from that elevated space. You could also see the water from the swimming pool reflecting in the overhang of the roof and a hammock hanging from that same overhang. Along the ramp that gave access to its garage and in the entry door, very often you would see surfboards piled up. The Basque Country doesn’t have particularly sunny weather, but all these snippets portrayed an idea of leisure and permanent summer in my head. Besides those partial moments, the rest was a mystery. The design of this house and the type of life I imagined happened there was intriguing and captivating for a young person like me. I continued to see this house for many years, but I never knew more about its architects and owners, and I never got to see inside.
A few years ago, I was browsing the website of an architect while researching a project in Bilbao and, to my surprise, I came across this house. It was an unexpected coincidence, and I would finally be able to get to know more about its design and its architect: César Sans Gironella.
I learned that the house had been built in 1968 as the house for the architect and his family. The house, with a design inspired by a trip to Japan, had a main floor that included the kitchen, dining room, living room, service areas, and bedrooms. Some of the public spaces could all be connected or separated by large sliding doors. When looking at the plan, one can notice the particular location of the bathtub of the main bathroom, sticking out completely into the main terrace in a glazed box. The upper floor, connected with a spiral stair, served as the home office of the architect. The ceiling was covered with teak wood recycled from old ships being dismantled in the nearby shipyards. The steel structure appears on the outside of the house as beams visible under the roof overhang.
Unbeknownst to me, César Sans had also been responsible for two preservation projects in Getxo that I also knew of: the Igeretxe building and the Punta Begoña Galleries.
The Igeretxe was a health spa located by the Ereaga Beach designed in 1912 by architect Antonio Araluce and that had been abandoned for decades. I had always seen it as a massive, abandoned building that had no purpose but that had always been there. It was part of the landscape of the town. César Sans saw its value and importance and developed the proposal “Salvar Igeretxe” (Save Igeretxe) with architect José María Smith Solaun, technical architect José Manuel Hermosa, and decorator Tatiana Echevarria. Their proposal envisioned the building as a structure that could provide the basic services that the beach lacked, from locker rooms, showers, and bathrooms, to picnic areas and umbrella and chair rentals. At night, the building would be used as meeting and party rooms. The upper floor of the building would be used as a hotel and dining room as well as a residence for the manager. The goal was to save this building from its state of ruin and provide the necessary services to this beach. They succeeded in their effort and the structure avoided demolition, being renovated in the late 1980s. It would still face uncertainty over the years with ownership changes, but it is today a well-used cafeteria, restaurant, event space, and four-star hotel. The building anchors a coastal area that is a major destination for residents and tourists.
In 1993, César Sans and his nephew Álvaro Sans Cañada proposed turning the abandoned Punta Begoña Galleries, just a few hundred feet from the Igeretxe building, into a hotel. Built in the early twentieth century and designed by renowned architect Ricardo Bastida, a need to create a retaining wall was turned into a space of leisure, to see, and be seen. Abandoned for decades, the proposal by César and Álvaro Sans would have brought back its leisure activities, with more than 120 hotel rooms and gardens. The project never materialized, and the galleries have remained abandoned and in steady deterioration. A decade ago, the local city hall and the University of the Basque Country signed an agreement to restore them and make them accessible in some capacity. While it is still a long way out, it is nice to see signs of appreciation and recovery.
These were two projects that I had known from my youth. Projects that had been part of the local folklore and conversations for years. Projects that had always been there. Now I knew more about the people and efforts behind them.
The project that I was researching a few years ago and that ultimately tied César Sans’s work together for me was the bandshell, known as “La Rana” (the frog), and the Herriko Plaza in Barakaldo. As city architect of Barakaldo, a municipality located on the left bank of the Estuary of Bilbao, in 1964 he was tasked with building a bandshell and a public space in just a few weeks as the dictator Franco was going to visit the town. Through an old professor, he got in touch with Ignacio Faure, who had worked with Félix Candela on his renowned hyperbolic paraboloid structures. Ignacio helped with the calculations and, despite the extremely tight schedule, the project was built on time. The beauty of the structure was achieved by the purity of its geometry. Along with the eye-opening bandshell, César Sans designed the public square that included a series of trees to help define the transition between the neighboring buildings and the new public space. In 1995, the proposal to build an underground parking threatened the structure. Despite the pleas, unequivocal architectural quality, and studies that confirmed that the building was structurally sound even with the construction of the new parking, its fate was sealed. The decision to demolish the bandshell by the local government in the early hours of August 13, 1997, was incomprehensible then and it is now, more than twenty-five years later. This building was included in the Bilbao issue of MAS Context as one of the significant structures that have been lost in the last three decades.
So, who was César Sans Gironella?
César Sans was born in Barcelona in 1930, the youngest of four siblings, and started his architectural studies in 1947 in Madrid. His older brother, José, had started architecture in 1941, also in Madrid, and their careers would be permanently linked. César started to collaborate with José in 1953, years before his graduation in 1960 (he would receive his PhD in 1965). Upon graduation, César moved to Bilbao and assumed the role of city architect for the city of Barakaldo. The role had previously belonged to his brother José, who resigned to move to Bilbao to work for the public administration. César would work for seven years in that role, developing multiple urban, residential, educational, and civic projects, including the previously mentioned bandshell and public space. Once José and César left their public roles in Bilbao and Barakaldo respectively, they continued their work together in private practice. They worked together until the death of José in 1982. César continued to work with his team and, since 2007, he worked in collaboration with his son, architect Julio Sans Gutiérrez, under the name of Estudio SG2A (Sans Gironella Gutiérrez 2 Arquitectos).
Earlier this month, I visited his son Julio in the office he shared with his father in the Albia I building in Bilbao, a building that was designed by César’s brother, José, and Juan Carlos Smith. The day of my visit happened to be the first anniversary of the death of César Sans. We talked about the work of his father and his trips abroad, and he generously showed me original dossiers of many of his projects, a beautiful wooden model of a bank headquarters in Bilbao that César had personally built (a competition he lost), hand-drawn plans and elevations of several buildings, and an assortment of items related to his father’s career. Still in the office is the drawing table that César used during his career. César Sans was a prolific architect, with more than 1,400 projects as estimated by his son. His work can be found across Bilbao and the municipalities around it, in particular Barakaldo and Getxo. He designed more than 12,000 housing units, over sixty single-family homes, more than fifteen educational buildings, and, since 1963, multiple important projects for the Deusto University, one of his biggest clients.
Within the local architectural profession, César Sans was a known architect with a career that spanned over six decades. In 2015, his son Julio and architect Nerea Etxarri Villar lectured at the Basque/Navarre Association of Architects on the work of César Sans to celebrate his career with him in attendance.
People will remember him for any of his remarkable projects that dot this area of the Basque Country. With this brief text, I want to remember and celebrate the architect that designed the “House of the Architect” that I first encountered over three decades ago.