by Will Alsop
Everywhere there are stories. It does not matter whether they are true or not; whatever you listen to will colour your view. Stories become the context for seeing.This story has a few selected pieces from my diary embedded into it. They give the reader relaxing places from which to see the whole.

The Writing Rock

A wired base for night writing

I wrote a book in Spain. I caught the train from Waterloo and boarded a ship at Portsmouth bound for Bilbao. Departure was set for 6:30pm and by 7:00pm we had passed the British navy and the U-Boat station. The tourists in old Portsmouth waved goodbye, as though they knew me personally, and we were set fair for rounding the Isle of Wight; visions of Jimmy Hendrix and Bob Dylan flooded my brain, recalling the now romanticised ideal of the music festival from 1969. The sun began to retreat towards America and the gin and tonic on the aft deck, accompanied by a Benson & Hedges, saw the last of merry England, as we steamed south.

After a brief supper and a sleep in a funerary cabin I awake to the land called Spain, that dark and mysterious country which speaks of culture and conformity and yet whose honesty of expression ultimately denies its own history. A period in the depths of northern Spain will suggest a possible resolution to my unwritten novel.

Still patches of persevering snow punctuate the Pyrenees, and from here we descend towards Girona, where Las Heras quietly sits. This is my journey’s end and my new beginning. A future of hope and trepidation.

Las Heras occupies both the space between a farmhouse, a fortress and a twentieth-century vanity —and a baldly exposed position in the hills. I leave the car to circumnavigate the exterior in search of Juan, who I eventually find in the ruminants of the formal garden. He explains I have choices for my sleeping arrangements but not before a glass of wine on a very long table. The wine is of this land.

A slice of cheese rests on a beautiful plate and a choice is outlined: I could settle in a bedroom, or I can seek out my own place to inhabit amongst Las Heras’ bountiful land. A special sleeping bag, with built-in waterproofing is proferred as we set off on a walk to discover the spot. I dream of a place to write; a place of my making that will strengthen my novel; a place with views across landscapes that inform new views on to my work. The cheval rhythm, like a very slow metronome beating a pace of progress; the rising sun awakening me to make notes on my dreams; the gathering warmth activating the body toward an exploratory walk collecting herbs and thoughts. A light lunch, a light nap, a two-hour focus until the shadows grow longer and suggest a glass of wine, to accompany a resolution to the day’s writing —and so to bed.

I see a rock. A rock with projecting lights and planes. Planes for working, planes for sleeping, planes as shelter. A solid sign of home within the landscape.

Even as I discover the spot, it dawns on me that the act of making this place is an extension of my journey, a tactic that further puts off the inevitability of putting pen to paper. I could have simply written my novel at my kitchen table at home in Paddington. Why did I to come to Spain? Why did I not fly in two hours from Heathrow? Why did I take a slow drive from Bilbao? I am caught between a mission to write and a fear of finding I cannot.

I find a place and crawl into the sleeping bag. As my head touches the Egyptian cotton pillowcase on the goose down pillow I sleep and dream of this place to be —not of my novel.

A new day arrives and I awake with little idea of my whereabouts. The sun was filtered through a canopy of leaves. No walls surrounded me. No mattress – just a beautiful pillow cosseted my head as I begin to recall my new circumstance. Juan had told me to make my way to the house for breakfast, but first I spend time looking at my chosen spot: a small clearing with a canopy of trees through which I could see to a beyond, beyond which I know nothing. The eye was given a distance which allowed the brain space to imagine. I imagine Mongolia or Aberdovey, neither places I have visited, but this place, selected the previous day was already making me see things I did not know. This is the spot!

I dressed quickly and walked to breakfast.The huge kitchen, which I was told was ancient, contained a 20-metre long table on wheels, a long rough timber construction which had acquired the stains of many meals. Around the table sat 50 chairs, all different as though each piece of furniture would bestow its own personality on the sitter. It was a celebration of individuality, an invitation to think and refocus. I could write a novel here.

There were a dozen other people who appeared as if from nowhere, already sitting and eating and talking. Were they all here to write a novel? I did not stop to find out, but simply smiled and passed into the kitchen with its simple work surface, range and well-stocked cupboards. I prepared a tray with two boiled eggs, toast, ham, tomato and coffee. Everything came from the land and was fresh.

I carried my tray outside and joined the others at the table. My chair, a strange construction of bamboo and rope, looked fragile but was quite robust and comfortable. I later learnt it had been made by a former visitor. The chair reflected my own condition: one of anticipation and fear. I had a mission but before I could start I would have to make my own room in my chosen place.

These thoughts were going through my head as I settled in the chair opposite Claudia and Joshua.

Claudia is from Italy although her mother was Irish. She was clearly searching for something to do; she had lurched from university, where she had studied a variety of subjects including Philosophy, to Landscape Architecture.

She was beautiful. She was alone and had come to Las Heras on the recommendation of a friend. She had already been resident for two weeks and had no idea how long she would stay. She was enjoying herself, and enjoyment gleamed through her dark, dangerous eyes. She confessed she was building a hut that would contain all the thoughts she’d ever had; she was constructing the centre of her world in the depths of the trees.

She slipped into an elaboration of her new world, a resolution of all she knew, and then suddenly she stood up, finished her coffee with a single gulp and raced off to carry on with her day’s toils.

I was alone with Joshua, who had been sent from his university to investigate this place. After a brief period making houses for poor communities in Alabama, he’d gone back to Oxford to study architecture,2 and now in his fourth year, a group of fellows had decided that the programme for students to meet and build in Las Heras sounded interesting and that someone should go and look.

Someone was Joshua, as it turned out. When he arrived he was clear; here was a place where students could stay and build their own accommodation in the landscape. It represented a wonderful opportunity to gain direct experience of simple construction and for him, in particular, to continue some elements of what he had learned in Alabama.

He was not prepared to discover so much more. And what he had discovered evidently made him nervous.

Joshua was a thoroughly modern man, and like so many other modern men, he had been raised on an idea of cool. Now, although tempered by his obvious leaning towards practicality and a social conscience, he was unable to escape ‘cool’s’ inevitable call; it was a seductive place to retreat to when in judgement of others. In his Las Heras, after delicious eggs in the sunshine, he felt a connection with its basic values combined with unadulterated luxury. It was no wonder that the latest addition to the house represented an attempt to create opulence deep inside a rural innocence.

Joshua also felt attracted to Claudia. This was a simple lust, disguised as something grander: passion.

He jumped up and left me alone at the long wooden breakfast table. Breakfast was done and it was time to find Juan, who was where I expected him to be: in the workshop.

The Garden of Shadows

Wafting breezes move the shades to animate the ground

The workshop was a wonderful space, full of the expectation of beautiful things yet to be made. The smell of carpentry hung thick in the air, mixed potently with those heady scents of the blacksmith.Areas where maquettes were being carefully assembled gave way to sewing machines and looms. In this space all things were possible, and in the midst stood Juan, ready to help.

I asked for a spade. Today I would dig. In my sleeping bag last night I had dreamt of a space with a pit and in the pit lay a fire. In spite of the warmth of the night, the darkness required illumination to keep night noises at bay. I was surprised to feel this primeval night-time fear, but a pit of flickering friendliness would feed my dreams of the perfect shelter.

This morning I will dig and after lunch I shall walk to begin to discover where I am. After 20 minutes I found myself back at my ‘spot’. Digging energetically I ended up with a pit, a pile of earth and a heap of stones. I had not foreseen the pile and the heap and their presence gave me the perfect excuse to have a contemplative rest. I learnt that the creation of a place was an act of evolution that allows the mind to imagine what it had not seen before.

The novel did not enter my mind all morning.

I dug. I was tired, but my body was not atuned to such physical work, at present, and I needed food. I walked back to the kitchen through the so-called ‘Garden of Shadows’; it had originally been constructed as an impressive arrival to the house with all the expected signs of an imported opulence, but now it is transformed into a series of trellises that support a coloured glass which casts shadows onto the maze of arbours in the walled space. A variety of creepers, each a different colour to match the glass, grows up the trellis. Each space contains a seat and a table, which act as an invitation to spend time.

I did not linger, but a mental mote was made to come back. Lunch consisted of fresh rye bread, olives, tomatoes, basil and salami. I permitted myself a glass of wine from the estate.

My mind was only full of my hole, stones and earth. These were the thoughts I took with me on my exploration walk to Can Bailló in the afternoon.

A walk downhill following a well-worn track revealed new things and thoughts. I realised that the scrub and woodland contained a variety of objects. Why hadn’t I seen these when I was looking for my own spot? There were simple timber constructions carefully sited with small areas of manicured nature around them; they provided retreats that settled well within the environment and, in short, were the perfect place to sleep.

Ambling on I eventually reach Can Bailló and discover a reconstructed stone ruin within a beautiful glass valley, proliferating with wild Mexican daisies that float like snow that gives itself up to the gentle breeze. Opposite the house, the stream had been dammed to produce a reflective pool that felt like an invitation to stop off and refresh myself in the clear water. Cold as it was it woke me up and made me look.

I looked at this place realising that it had lain dormant for years, a hidden secret, at long last awakening thanks to the small evolutionary modification that give necessary signs of care. It is what separates ourselves from absolute nature. The noble savage has to leave its mark to lay claim to the untamed.

I sat in the pool looking back at the stone house. Juan had told me that the restoration did not include electricity and that light came from pig fat burning lamps, while cooking took place on a fire. I showered in the rocks at the edge of the woods and, once clean, relaxed in a tank of water heated from a wood fire below.

I looked across towards the shower and the bath when I realised the tub was occupied. It was Joshua and Claudia. Jealous, I quietly dressed and slipped away unseen and distracted myself with thoughts of my book.

I dragged my fat feet slowly back up the hill, caught between despondency about Claudia and elevated thoughts on my novel. The latter refused to develop in to anything constructive because the former clouded my mind. The only distraction I eventually found was the dream of my hut, shelter, retreat…? Whatever. I returned to my ‘spot’.

I looked at the hole. At 1.5 metres deep and approximately 6 metres square, it was big enough.

I stared at the rocks and gazed upon a large pile of earth. I began to imagine a cage of rocks which would define a volume and moderate the light entering the space. I imagined a floor of rough-sawn wood. I saw a fireplace, I saw a beautiful place that I did not know how to construct.

The woven nest

The trees are woven together to create a living home above


My notebook now contained only sketches; no words. Already, my sense of purpose was being subverted by this place. I walked to find Juan, the ever-practical, who is capable of grounding me in some semblance of reality.’

Returning to the house I saw Claudia alone in the garden. I had to talk to her. I talked to her.’

At first, she was dismissive of anything I had to say. Our conversation teetered from banality to banality; she was clearly engaged in some other dream. After 30 minutes she drifted off to her ‘project’ and left me alone.

Hello Juan.

Work progressed well. Juan showed me how to drill perfect holes through rocks and also sourced a good supply of tercile steel wire. It had taken me some days to collect the stones. I discovered that the rocks have personalities and it is important to choose them carefully. These would be the rocks that would give weight, literally, to my home and shade. Shape, texture, size and colour all contributed to the character. Some were simply lying on the ground; others had to be coaxed out.

I had borrowed a powerful masonry drill and carefully made a hole roughly through the centre of each, after which I threaded through a length of cable, like a large beaded necklace. Once I had completed a dozen or so I could not wait to hang them onto a circular wooden frame at a generous 3 metre height, and anchor the lower end to the ground. The spread of the lines began to give an impression of a stone tepee, but more importantly I could begin to see an internal volume to my temporary home. Here I could write a novel. It had taken 10 days to get this far, and no thoughts of a novel had distracted me from making my hut. Only thoughts of Claudia occasionally crept in.

Las Heras is an extraordinary place; it reveals its secrets slowly. It is, of course, beautiful, but as we know beauty can often choke the individual. Paris is beautiful but can quickly become tiresome. Marseilles is not obvious, but in time it gives you all the joy and delight that Paris cannot. Marseilles is unplanned. It evolved and responded to society in all its facets. Here, so close to Girona, Las Heras is a place that has acquired many new additions in its long history —many including and besides its series of sleeping ‘huts’. A casual walk through what is perceived as undiscovered woodland and undergrowth, brings you to a clearing that is all vermillion. This garden of only poppies contains one large rock carefully carved to fit the contours of the average bottom. It is an invitation to sit and ponder. Or to think of nothing.

There is a luxury in the concept of an empty brain. A removal a little of all those memories that constantly delude us with petty arrogance.

On my walks I discovered a number of ‘huts’. All are luxurious. Although not in the received idea of luxury. Not the glossy magazine ideal of an over-designed, unaffordable stylistic feeding frenzy. This luxury combines a basic need of shelter with an expression of inventiveness. Each hut speaks of simplicity embellished only with enough decoration to suggest humanity. Within these edifices is an invitation to forget all those values that burden us with some unattainable expectation of what we think we should aspire to. I could sleep in any one of them and more importantly for me, I could also write my novel. On one ramble I came across a large rock, which, in actuality, was part concrete. It was large, maybe 5 metres high, and wedged into this object with no interior was a beautiful cantilevered wooden table. Also cantilevered like whispers of illuminated hair was a myriad of light tubes, powered by the sun. A rustic chair, padded, attended the table. I discovered later that the woman who had constructed this wrote a novel at this table. The essence of the narrative was the horizontal plain of thought. Meanwhile I was constructing a place to sleep.

Las Heras was a place that appeared to me as though it had rained pieces of magic onto a landscape. All through the dampness of wonderment were structures, sitting places and revealed views punctuated with piano playing, conversation, odours and, in my case, flashes of longing. This place invades the soul and diverts it in other directions.

Claudia seemed more Irish than Italian today, her skittishness clearly disguised something. She cooked eggs for breakfast for everyone. She smiled, she almost skipped instead of walking. Claudia seemed more Irish than Italian today, her skittishness clearly disguised something. Everything was possible. I could not avoid sitting next to Joshua as today was very busy; a group of people had arrived overnight from Dresden and were clearly hungry. There was only one chair left for me. Normally people took breakfast at different times, but the Germans had arrived late and slept in the dormitory. They were now ravenous. Claudia’s mood had also arrived at the right time.

Boiled eggs, toast, fresh tomato and coffee —I observed that everyone took the top of their eggs off in a different way. The bashers, the hackers and the dippers. It seemed revealing.

I waited for them to eat, chat and drift off into the landscape. I wanted to talk to Claudia. Even Joshua obliged by leaving. At last Claudia and I were convening alone, across the top of a coffee.

I asked her why she was so buoyant. She had, she told me, completed her room in the woods and extracted a wonderful night’s sleep from it. The air had been filtered through a stone roof which also allowed shafts of sunlight to enter at dawn. She had lain under an Egyptian cotton sheet. A simple table had given her place to write her diary and make sketches, some of which she had framed and now adorned the walls. The shower was external as was the wc. She felt complete. She was grounded and thus able to go beyond the mental anguish of building. She did not yet understand that this was not a task or a requirement but a delight that in itself fulfils a basic need to make. My own hut was underway and I did not want it to be finished. Perhaps I did not want to start my novel.

The second point of excitement was that she had started to make ceramics. The workshop was well-equipped, and she found the oozing of clay between her fingers sensuous and satisfying. She had started with coils of clay and built them into what sounded like large vases.

Claudia’s house

Too mechanical by half

She explained how she smoothed the coils down and also carved some relief into the surfaces. Today they would be fired. She couldn’t wait; I envisaged that soon her woodland room would be adorned with a bright array of pots. She invited me to visit her ‘home’, and I eagerly accepted. Off we went.

We walked up hill for thirty minutes or more, passing three or four other dwellings, each reflecting the personality of its builder. I privately thought mine was superior. We then discovered our German friends working on the creation of a vineyard; the wine we consumed with our meals was a beautiful earthy red which seemed to compliment every food, particularly the black pigs. They were planting a white variety.

Claudia’s construction lay in a clearing which revealed a view towards the snow-capped Pyrenees in the far distance. In the foreground wild flowers lay like confetti which punctuated the slightly darker tones of a swathe of pine trees.

Her self-built home was both unusual and ingenious. She had excavated a deep hole of approximately 2 metres, which was lined with clay. Embedded onto the clay were her ‘special’ stones which formed a textured pattern. Some of these would be replaced by the ceramics she had already started, introducing a colour to the interior. Stairs had been formed during the dig, but the roof was the ingenious part, for it was nothing more than a bag of stones held in a large high tensile steel net suspended from a pivoted beam, which had a counterbalance consisting of one large boulder. I suspected a strong hint of Juan in the construction of this element of the hut. The loose, irregular rocks held over the hole allowed air and shafts of sunlight to feed the room with colourless, light and shade. The movement of the shadows also acted as a clock; Claudia had made a series of vertical lines in the wall to inform her of the day’s progress. Under the stones was a circular, waterproof blanket that lent a cosiness when the temperature dropped. It was beautiful, and carefully thought out. It had taken her three months to make a place and the wait was worth it. I now understood that my concerns about how long I was taking should be forgotten, and I resolved to continue at a comfortable pace and take time to consider each point. I understood that evolution was an important element of the process of building. There should always be room for a better idea.

Evolvement leads to improvement. Improvements lead to happiness.

This was all the design theory I needed to know. And yet I had not written one word of my novel. Not even an outline plot. These thoughts went through my head as I stood and soaked in the Claudia creation.

The floor of reused tiles supported a rustic table, whose surface was spread, untidily with sheets of paper covered in scribbles, notes and diagrams. What is she doing? Surely not writing a novel? I could not bear to think of another person at Las Heras carrying out a task that I had promised for myself.

My eyes turned to a generous pile of cushions, large cushions; her place of rest. No words were exchanged. She simply undressed herself and then undressed me. I loved her home even more.

We lay there in her hour of triumph. She has completed her task of building, and in doing so has discovered new possibilities, things untried. We slept a little. It was impossible to distinguish between dream, daydream and reality. After what seemed like two hours, she broke the satisfied silence and announced she was leaving Las Heras. Her task was done and something new was required. The emptiness of Mongolic was nothing to my own dashed sense of pride and security.

We dressed slowly after a shower and went to the main house for a gin and tonic. I was happy with this idea; I had worried, amongst my myriad of worries, that I had not spent enough time getting to know the others here at Las Heras.

Claudia had left. A small gathering of farewell in the Garden of Shadows. Twelve people all sad to see her go.

The garden in the early evening was beautiful. It was designed to cast coloured shadow onto shadow. In the early evening, these shades spread their diffused light over longer lengths and the distorted forms changed the colour of the flowers below. This delicacy was poignant and temporary, which seemed to echo the transient nature of Claudia. She would continue to move from one adventure to another, unknown to me. She did not plan. She had left a number of marks on different parts of the world and would continue to do so until she was too old to continue.


This woven cloud gives beautiful shadows

Her legacy was assured and would only be contained in others’ memories and her diary. Joshua was at the farewell, although he kept his distance, as did Juan.

Amongst the people enjoying the Las Heras wine was a married couple from Holland. They lived in Rotterdam, where they were employed by the Erasmus University. Martin and Anne were research fellows and interested in the ecology of landscapes and thought that Las Heras would reveal many secrets; it was a tract of land that had not been touched for more than a hundred years. But mostly, for now, they were excited by their immediate task of building a home for their six-month stay.

Georgina from Ireland was tough and direct. She worked for a bank in Dublin who had sent her to assess Las Heras’ suitability for the company’s ‘bonding’ long weekend for a few of its senior management. She looked out of place and tended to be aloof. Six glasses of wine lubricated her attitude.

I will miss Claudia.

The main house acted as a retreat from the outdoors. It contained essentials, such as the rooms for short term guests, who felt challenged by the nature, such as Georgina.

The house’s evolution is compelling. The ancient farmhouse, extended over centuries, provides a collection of spaces that are full of stories, ending with a palatial concept that marked a decline. The spaces connect in surprising and incomprehensible ways; here is another world, a different retreat in itself. A single piano sits in an otherwise barren room. The sound would drift through the structure and colour ambiance as I sit in the garden, the unsolicited soundtrack to my chosen solitude, providing me with the beginning thoughts of my novel.

The emptiness of the library is magnificent. A table, a chair, a bookshelf. Upon the shelves lie only twelve copies of the same book. The user of the library has no choice but to read and browse a huge tome on plants of the world. On opening a volume, the reader discovers another book embedded in its pages and upon investigation, all the interred books are different. A little Burges; a smattering of “A Hundred Years of Solitude”; all mixed with Einstein’s “Theory of Relativity”. This highly manicured library had been curated to distil a sense of wonder and stimulate imagination. A quiet period here would always prod me towards another thought about my novel. In reality it provided thoughts that always led me back to my unfinished, but at least started, hut.

Another room reveals a large plywood wall stretched over with a huge canvas daubed with many marks in charcoal and paint. It is a history of battle scars received from different hands, a single work, in progress, from a variety of visitors. It is Juan’s job to decide when it is finished and to apply a new canvas.

A chapel with a single seat does not encourage formal religious ceremony, but simply provides an opportunity to sit and reflect. These delights are frequently punctuated by the smell of cooking emanating from the kitchen.

The kitchen, a place of meeting, provided the sustenance necessary for the dreamer, hut maker or writer. The simple range is the provider of excuses to sit and talk. A few tomatoes with ham from Las Heras was enough to stimulate any conversation.

The long table, on wheels, leads to long conversations with people I do not know, on subjects unfamiliar.

There are practical parts. The old mill house is now a workshop with carpentry and a blacksmith. The ceramics area, so beloved of Claudia, is magnificent. A new print workshop is emerging, which will allow silkscreen printing and etching as well as digital production to happen.

And yet this playground can feel like a catalyst of guilt. Guilt that one is not using them. Their presence prods you to feel that you should be active and constantly busy. I had participated in the cookery classes, but behind all these diversions my real preoccupation was building my hut.Day-by-day thoughts of my book faded towards the bottom of my list of priorities.

Back to the hut with thoughts on Georgina.