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Huts perch like snakes among trees in Portuguese vintage spa

Architects Luís and Tiago Rebelo de Andrade wanted to “recreate the fantasy of tree houses” without building a house in a tree. Tasked to bring lodging to the Pedras Salgadas Park, a historic thermal spa in Northern Portugal, they wanted to get away from the “Swiss Family Robinson” paradigm and create something that resembled a wild animal in its native habitat, specifically a snake gliding between the trees.

Wanting to limit the noise and disturbance to the park, the father-son team designed a prefab structure, built 100 kilometers from the site, with curves and a flow unlike the more stereotypically orthogonal modular construction. Limited by the dimensions of a flatbed truck, the “Tree Snake Houses” are only 20 square meters, but fit all the utilities of a tiny house: a kitchenette, dining table, toilet and shower and a bedroom that feels pressed against the forest.

Built from local materials, mostly slate and wood, the suspended lodging hovers above the forest at the site of an old hotel. Instead of remodeling the old structure, the architects chose to demolish the top three stories and create the same number of rooms scattered throughout the park.

Besides the Tree Snake Houses, they also created modular “eco houses” that are put together like three LEGOs pieces in different configurations to work around the trees. They are built on a stilt foundation to protect the park’s heritage: the groundwater.

Pedras Salgadas was a popular spa town in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Like similar thermal resorts, visitors would stay for a couple of weeks or a month at a time and it had three hotels, a casino, a ballroom and the thermal baths. With the arrival of modern medicine, its popularity declined, but eventually it was rebuilt as a modern spa.

The Rebelo de Andrades’ structures have helped repopularize the location for overnight guests lured here by the unique architecture, forest-like setting and, at times, a sense of “saudade”.

“Saudade is a word that doesn’t exist in other languages,” explains Luis. “When you miss someone, saudade is what the fado sings a lot, about saudade”. One definition is a nostalgia for something that might have never happened, or will never happen again.

Two tree snake houses have been built with several more to come, but Luis claims they won’t be built anywhere else, “When you arrive to another site, to another place, to another land, to another client, you have different constraints, I wouldn’t like to make the same in other places you know, I think they are specific for this place”.

Rebelo de Andrade