Do clients ever know what they will get when they hire an architect to design a one-off home?
Grand Designs Revisited - an exercise that more architects should follow
Speaking of the Maison à Bordeaux, the celebrated home Rem Koolhaas designed for a wheelchair-bound man, the Dutch architect once said:
‘After the death of the owner of the house, the empty vessel that he leaves behind becomes the receptacle for what the rigour of his regime – fatherhood, suffering, combativeness, love – had eliminated from the family’s daily life: femininity, informality, hospitality, fun.’
That sounds a bit mean, especially given that Koolhaas was famously absorbed by the project and its elevator room that gives access to all three floors, a design he said would ‘reassert the position of the French male within the family’.
Really though, it’s just an honest account of an architect contemplating the irrational demands of custom design after revisiting a completed building years later.
It’s an exercise too few architects undertake, even if Grand Designs Revisited has popularised the idea.
It is an idea, however, explored with refreshing honesty in a great little book by the late Pierre Zoelly, Anybody Home?, published in 1995. In it the Swiss-American architect revisits seven family dwellings he designed and asks: Have I created spaces in which my clients can develop and thrive? Or have these private spheres become constricting and prison-like? Did plans go sour once they were turned into built reality?
Photographs of them in use are set alongside the residents’ comments after many decades of having lived there: ‘Our least favourite place to be was the conservation pit,’ says the owner of a sunken area in the open-plan living room of a house returned to after 31 years.
‘It was very beautiful, but not very comfortable for relaxing or for guests.’ Another writes of his home: ‘We correct the mistakes with eternal temporary adjustments.’
But most are happy. For his first revisit Zoelly meets the ‘tall, distinguished professor of English literature’ for whom 33 years before he designed ‘out of sympathy for [his] apparent loneliness… a square, inner-directed scheme centred on a fireplace dimensioned for roasting a whole pig’. The professor writes that he wished the house was better suited to a sit-down dinner party and regrets installing 16 hopper-style clerestory windows around the top of the central room, but claims the whole experience to be liberating, ‘in that it freed me from many of the constraints that a conventional house would have posed’.
Nevertheless Zoelly, like Koolhaas, offers a bittersweet coda. ‘Although I have had a very good time designing houses and have gained friends… I feel I cannot deal with people anymore,’ he writes. ‘I yearn for neutral things, objective building, multiple housing where you don’t know the occupant. I don’t want to design private houses anymore. I want to make a clear statement.’ I bet you, and the architects of our four featured homes this week, know what Zoelly means.
It’s no surprise David Chipperfield has been hired for the most prestigious retrofit imaginable: a revamp of Mies van der Rohe’s Berlin Neue Nationalgalerie, announced last week.
The job involves substantial renovation and the creation of a new shop and café. No surprise because Chipperfield’s Stirling-shortlisted Folkwang Museum in Essen (AJ 29.09.11), clearly inspired by Mies, feels like a dry run for this dream job.
Nevertheless, client Hermann Parzinger of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, cited the Englishman’s sensitivity in dealing with the architectural heritage of the same city’s Neues Museum (another of Chippo’s German Stirling-shortlisted projects) as reason to hire him.
‘With David Chipperfield, I know this icon of modern architecture is in the best hands,’ he said.