Emilio Ambasz's Retreat House for Cultivation of the Spirit


by Douglas Penick

If you are fortunate, you might find yourself beneath a hard, blue sky wandering through the woods in a rolling landscape north of Seville. As the day becomes too hot, you might reach a promontory that looks out over a sparkling distant lake. Suddenly you see a building unlike anything you’re familiar with. Two towering white rectangular walls are joined at the corner. High up, there is a wooden screened mirador, below it, at ground level, a wooden portal; both are carved in a traditional Andalusian style. You cannot understand this building’s purpose, but you  know that you have just encountered a poetic even mythic work of architecture. Perhaps you know that you are a rare and fortunate visitor at the renowned Casa de Retiro Espiritual designed by Emilio Ambasz.

You feel hesitant as you enter through the carved wooden opening of the lower portal. Water descends in channels cut into the two high walls and fills the air with a gentle rush of wind. It feeds the pool below ground at the centre of a white marble patio that is open to the sky. From there, behind a colonnade, you will find a suite of underground rooms, lit indirectly from a white curving ribbon trench. The rooms are empty. The only sound is that of moving water.

In the underground space, you are sheltered from the world while the above ground structure invites your mind to ascend. To pass from below to above, cool marble steps rise beside a pool in the interior and lead to the severe, perhaps frightening, challenge of the narrow staircases outside. There are no outer rails. You may find this unnerving, but if you wish to see the vision available only in the carved mirador, you must ascend alone. Though there is nothing that gives a clear signal, it seems you should ascend on the left staircase and descend on the right. As you climb the stairs, the sound of the falling water becomes ever more faint, but you hear the wind drifting through the mirador and the rows of castellated square openings atop the two walls.

This has all been created so that after you have ascended the dangerous stairs, you may enter the doors of the upper retreat place which seems, from within, to be floating in air. A vibrant landscape here unfolds and elicits a complex inner response. From here, you look out across a vast, beautiful and ancient domain which, for the moment, it seems you possess. And the carved wooden screen of the mirador now frames this landscape and, by delicate suggestion, makes it part of a specific history. The structure is not just a support for this contemplation; it is itself the contemplation.

The Interior Castle, Saint Teresa of Avila’s famous guide for the development of the soul written in 1577 for her sister Carmelite nuns, begins by suggesting that one should “…consider the soul as a castle…(And) there is the same difference between the castle and God that there is between Creator and creature, the castle is in fact a creature (and)… the soul is made in his image…. It is a great pity and confusion that by our own fault we should not understand ourselves nor know who we are.”[1] She then describes a castle of considerable complexity with courtyards, rooms below and above ground, towers, stairs. From this, she presents a detailed method for entering and gaining knowledge of the castle which is one’s soul.

Clearly, it was not the architect’s intention to make his House for Spiritual Retreat a device for putting a specific religious vision into practice. However, by giving this structure such a name, we have been invited to consider this house as part of a tradition of cultivating inwardness. Thus, an aspect of the uniqueness of this design is that it treats architecture not just as something that has a visual  impact and utilitarian function, but as something that may intensify and benefit the inner lives of those who move inside and around it. That is, simply by entering this house, dwelling there, we may find ourselves in a transformative encounter with our inmost selves. To make such a structure in an age such as this is an act of profound courage and extraordinary faith, if not in the divine, then certainly in humanity.


[1] Michel de Certeau’s translation in The Mystic Fable (tr. Michael B. Smith, University of Chicago Press, 1992. pp 193-4)

Mr Ambasz’ work is currently being exhibited in the Italian Pavilion of the 17th Biennale Architettura 2021 in Venice.

This piece was adapted from Manhatanville Review – 1/13/20 “OBJECTS REMAINING FROM THE WORLD OF DREAM”


All photographs are under the copyright of Emilio Ambasz. Reproduced here with permission.

About the Author

Douglas Penick’s work appeared in Tricycle, Descant, New England Review, Parabola, Chicago Quarterly, Publishers Weekly Agni, Kyoto Journal, Berfrois, 3AM, The Utne Reader and Consequences, among others. He has written texts for operas (Munich Biennale, Santa Fe Opera), and, on a grant from the Witter Bynner Foundation, three separate episodes from the Gesar of Ling epic. His novel, Following The North Star was published by Publerati. Wakefield Press published his and Charles Ré’s translation of Pascal Quignard’s A Terrace In Rome. His book of essays , The Age of Waiting which engages the atmospheres of ecological collapse, was published in 2021 by Arrowsmith Press.

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