Architectural Digest
October 1995
 
   
 

Greek Drama

LORD JACOB ROTHSCHILD'S PAVILION ON CORFU


Architecture by Javier Barba
Text by Nicholas Shrady
Photography by Ianthe Ruthven

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  "His great contribution," says Lord Jacob Rothschild of Javier Barba, the architect he and Lady Serena Rothschild commissioned to design their summer pavilion and pool on Corfu, "was his feeling for the site - how, in uncovering its essence, he made such wonderful use of it." Barba found an ancient marble quarry on a promontory near the Rothschild's island villa; he integrated the new building, and its three massive retaining walls, into the rocky landscape. "One of the most spectacular marine views in the world," Lord Rothschild observes, is across the channel to the Albanian coast.

In the light-filled studio of Lord Jacob and Lady Serena Rothschild's Corfu villa, a table is strewn with a curious mixture of architectural models. A nearby file cabinet is brimming with renderings. The models and drawings make up the collective creative out-put of several international architects tapped by Lord Rothschild over the course of six years to design a summer pavilion and pool on a promontory of his Corfu estate. Although there are examples of Greek Revival, local vernacular, and contemporary with great volumes of glass, none of the signature designs won Lord Rothschild's favor. The whole enterprise, in fact, was nearly aborted for lack of a suitable scheme.

And then Lord Rothschild saw a house by Barcelona architect Javier Barba (see Architectural Digest, January 1992). "It was on the coast of Minorca in the midst of a landscape remarkably similar to Corfu's," Lord Rothschild recalls. "There was nothing monumental about the structure, nothing extravagant. On the contrary, it appeared to blend in thoroughly with the landscape. I was fairly confident that I had found my architect."

Barba was promptly summoned to London. "Before being ushered into Lord Rothschild's office, I was told that I would have no more than five minutes," he says. "The meeting ended up lasting nearly two hours and was followed by dinner. Although my English is rather rudimentary, we spoke the same architectural language. By the end of the evening the commission was mine."

It was Lord Rothschild's mother and her second husband, the painter Nico Ghika (often referred to as the "Greek Picasso"), who, along with him, acquired an abandoned olive press on a headland in the north of Corfu in the 1970s.
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ABOVE: "It was imperative that the pool be of the same scale as the marble wall and that water compose as much of the design as possible," Lord Rothschild says. Barba conceived the expansive saltwater swimming pool as "an active response" to the surroundings; he had it painted a deep cobalt blue to match the Ionian Sea.  
"Nature is so much more beautiful than anything one can do by hand," says Lord Rothschild in describing his desire for a minimally designed structure. "We wanted to let the site speak for itself."  
The family restored the olive press and added a wing and two courtyards until the compound was transformed into a worthy representation of the island's architecture. The Rothschild villa and surrounding property of olive groves, which fronts the Corfu Channel and looks onto the obscure terrain of the coast of Albania, became the family's principal retreat and the source of Lord Rothschild's love affair with Corfu.

The villa's headland, alas, was not entirely sequestered. In recent years Corfu has been plagued by development, and when the Rothschilds began to feel and hear the encroachment of tourism on a beach just south of their property, Lord Rothschild looked north to a contiguous promontory known as Strongilo (Greek for round, owing to the shape of the land formation) as a potential site for a pool and pavilion. "I didn't wish to forsake Corfu or build another villa," he explains, "but to simply shift the property's center of gravity to the next promontory." Nonetheless, he was not without his reservations. From the villa's expansive terrace there is a clear, unobstructed view of Strongilo, and the Rothschilds were wary of sullying the virgin landscape. "Five different architects drew up plans for the site, and each and everyone of them placed their proposed works on or near the summit of the promontory," Lord Rothschild says. "I much preferred to build nothing at all rather than to see the site ruined. All of the architects seemed to miss the point--all, that is, except Javier Barba."

 

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