A Once Abandoned 18th-Century Building Gets A Modernist Overhaul

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“There is no place in Europe quite like Valencia,” states renowned French artist Mathieu Mercier, pointing to the Spanish burg’s beautiful year-round weather, proximity to the beach and lush riverfront greenbelt that cuts through the city. Noting that the region produces most of Europe’s fruit and vegetables, he compares it with California.

While Mercier maintains a studio in Paris, he was seeking a more relaxing way of life for himself, his wife, Moraima Gaetmank, and their daughter, ultimately purchasing an abandoned building not far from the St. Mary’s Cathedral in Valencia’s village-like urban center. “[The building] was full of dead rats and pigeons,” he recalls. “It was a long process to restore it.”

Indeed, with Niney et Marca Architectes, Mercier embarked on what became a four-year project to transform the dilapidated structure into a suitable family home. To describe it as challenging would be an understatement. For example, the house collapsed at the beginning of the renovation – one of many issues he faced over the coming years. Had he known what he knows now, he would have never taken on such an ambitious endeavor. “It takes everything, but we survived it.”

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The Modernist result cuts quite a contrast with the age-old environs. While its historic late-18th-century façade has been maintained, the entire rear of the four-level dwelling is white concrete punctuated by black steel and large expanses of windows that bathe the spacious open interior in natural daylight.

Befitting the temperate climate, the floor-to-ceiling doors in the kitchen slide open to a courtyard, creating an indoor-outdoor style of living. Access to greenery and open interiors that include a swimming pool and a sports room made the place ideal for sheltering during the pandemic. “The house is really comfortable,” he adds. “I have a quite good sense of space, because I analyze and think in three dimensions.”

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The reimagined interior is also a fabulous setting for the artwork and furnishings that Mercier has collected over the past two decades. Many of the pieces were funded by his proceeds from the Marcel Duchamp Prize, which he won in 2003. Worried about how using the windfall might impact his own work, “I decided to blow the money,” he confesses, chuckling.

Mercier draws no distinction between works on canvas, sculpture and the eclectic mix of furnishings, many of them circa 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, which he has collected and restored. “Art can be a chair, a painting or any object really,” he observes, embracing the philosophy that every aspect of society should be created by artists.

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More minimalist friends have asked Mercier how he can live comfortably in a home filled with so many pieces, but Mercier asserts that it’s delightful. “I have a theory that if any object means something, it doesn’t take space, it gives space. Being surrounded by artwork is a pleasure every day.”

In fact, Mercier experiences a palpable sense of relief when he returns from his studio in Paris or his gallery showings in other European cities. Since Valencia’s city center is nearly carless, he says his neighborhood is quieter than the countryside – an ideal spot to relax and regroup.

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He credits the internet and convenient air travel for making it possible for him to reside outside larger art meccas in Europe – something for which he’s forever grateful. “It’s super healthy for me,” he explains. “I would have never imagined that I could live in a situation like this.”

Photography by Daniel Schäfer.

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