Architecture 101: Erwin Broner – Casa Broner, Ibiza

It’s the smile that gives it away. It’s wide and toothy – the cat that got the cream, or in this case, the cat who escaped certain death by the skin of his teeth. In a casual black and white portrait, Erwin Broner, young and slender, stands under the Ibiza sun. He’s the epitome of 1930s chic in high-waisted linen trousers and a billowing white shirt with the sleeves rolled up, a broad-brimmed hat protecting his delicate Bavarian complexion, the customary cigarette between thumb and forefinger and of course, his trusty companion – a sketchbook tucked under his arm. He looks furtively happy, engaged, and excited about something.

The son of a wealthy, urbane Jewish family, Bronner had been afforded the best education in his native Munich, leading him to pursue his love of painting under the tutelage of Hans Hoffmann. Afterwards, he went on to study architecture at the Technische Hochschule in Stuttgart where he met his wife. In love, with a young daughter, having established his architectural practice, Broner was on the path to a promising and prosperous future. In 1928, he had finally established himself and realised the long-sought dream of an artist’s colony. A place where he, his friends and colleagues could retreat to paint, talk and ponder. Confident, creative, talented there were just a few golden years before darkness submerged Europe, and this was when the Broners fled first to Switzerland.

With only a six-month visa for Switzerland, Broner started to search for a safe place to take his young family. Heading towards Mallorca from Barcelona with a friend, the small steamship stopped in Ibiza – just as it did 20 years later with Rolf and Mary Blakstad. And just like it did for the Blakstads, this momentary stopover changed everything for the Broners, when an early morning stroll through the old town cemented Broner’s instant attraction.

Broner spent a couple of years in Ibiza absorbing the sun and emitting a burst of intellectual creativity. He cycled the length and breadth of the island, studying the architecture of the countryside, village and city. However, it wasn’t until 1952 – after a long stint in the United States – that Broner finally returned. Casa Broner is the house he built for himself and his second wife Gisela in 1960.

When Broner took that first stroll in the streets of Dalt Vila and the surrounding neighbourhoods, he no doubt connected initially with the quality of the light skipping over the cobbled stones and whitewashed walls. Then slowly the realisation of shape, volume and usefulness. He would have noticed the three-dimensional jigsaw of rectangles and cubes that make up these old parts of the city. How everything had a place and through the seeming chaos was an order gently asserting itself, a community living in harmony with its built environment. When he ventured to the countryside with his peers to study the old farmhouses, he would have detected a common rhythm between their unique forms, found a kindred spirit in the farmhouse’s efficiency and reasoning, and seen the exquisite benefits of useful simplicity.

Architects are the ultimate philosopher-dreamers. Their heads are crowded by shapes and volumes, angles and apertures that coalesce into an idea of a physical space. The unborn project takes hold in their minds, forming and reforming until the opportunity arises to realise the fantasy. No doubt there are many brilliant unbuilt buildings in the minds of architects yet to find their right moment. The genius of Casa Broner is that the idea of the building fits the space rather than the other way around.

Every good architect works within a visual Venn diagram. The outer rings of the interconnecting circles might contain concepts such as style, colour, public, private, indoor, outdoor, texture, views, lifestyle, goals yet the centre will always remain solidly on the architect’s ‘big concept’. It’s the thing that gets them out of bed, the thing they are constantly striving for, their philosophical essence. For Broner, this circle included the outlines of Bauhaus bumping up against the millennial genius of Ibiza’s vernacular design.

The guiding principle of Bauhaus is to ‘reimagine the material world to reflect the unity of all the arts’. Bauhaus was a practice wide enough to satisfy Broner’s many creative yearnings – painting, interior design, architecture and the craft of furniture-making – under a utilitarianism motivated by the pursuit of simplicity and therefore beauty. It’s a philosophy that the ancient architects of Ibiza had unknowingly been following for thousands of years. Everything is useful and adaptable. Simple and clean. Functional and crafted to last.

For the most part, architects create their work around the parameters and measurements of the plot site. But Broner used the parameters of his Bauhaus training and tendencies to slot his ideas into what can only be described as a creatively difficult slice of land. Located in the traditional fishermen’s neighbourhood of Sa Penya, butting up against the ancient walls of the old town the house is partly cantilevered over the cliff to soak up all available square meterage.

Broner designed many homes across the island but at Casa Broner, he set himself a challenge. It’s tiny, despite a formidable ambience. At only around 80 square metres and sitting on a peculiarly shaped plot, Broner’s private residence became a laboratory for his ideas. The furniture, the layout, the beautiful window screens – everything came from his imagination and his Bauhaus roots, but the soul of the property comes directly from the island. From the air, the house seamlessly disappears into the ancient shapes of its neighbours – never ostentatious always respectful. Within the lives and lifestyle of locals, Broner saw the living embodiment of the philosophy he had studied and practiced his whole life.

The house opens to an enclosed courtyard, tidier and squarer than those found littered with sheep and garden herbs in the countryside. Sabina beams crisscross the spaces, rectangular openings frame views of the bay. The incline of the plot means internal steps lead to compact rooms and outdoor patios. The interiors echo the vernacular with in-built sofas, whitewashed walls, old stone hearths and tiled flooring.

Broner lived and worked here until his old age when he returned finally to his Barvarian homeland. After his death in the early 70s, Gisela generously gifted the house to the city and it is now an exhibition space and museum. But beyond those pedestrian titles, Casa Broner is a connection to a special era in Ibiza’s history, when the island became both refuge and muse for a cohort of experimental thinkers and makers. The shadow of their innocent wanderings and simple joy of discovering their place and time drifts through every room at Casa Broner. Years after that first black and white photo was taken, another was shot. Here is Broner, rugged and aged, his skin tanned and lined with the knowledge of a life lived. The cigarette is still there and even though he is not smiling, if you look close enough you can still see the vestiges of that young man, full of light and anticipation for what is to come.