'...une condition très.....ahunh, ahunh, ahunh..... intéressante...', the voice booms in a great big old brick warehouse, between broken bodies swinging suspended from the rafters and immense steel spiders loitering around children's bedrooms. Above in the galleries surrounding the big space are tight phalanges of youth concentrating on television sets, themselves being watched over by severely dressed art femmes. This is not the new Metallica video. Rem Koolhaas is giving a lecture at the opening of the OMA exhibition 'Living', in the Centre d'Architecture Arc en Rêve. The centre shares a building with the Musée d'Art Contemporain de Bordeaux, which is currently running a show by Louise Bourgeois, the French artist living in New York responsible for some of the most unsettling images in contemporary art. A thousand people have shown up. A hundred are sitting in the actual lecture hall, the rest have to make do with televised Koolhaas. The exhibition features four villas and an apartment project, all of which have been built and are lived in. The main feature, the reason that the place is teeming with foreign critics and curators and French politicians, is to be found somewhere else. For that you have to leave the building, take a left, follow the heavy traffic to the north over the quay, where the cars, trucks, gas stations and discotheques are incoherently juxtaposed against the elegant Louis XV sandstone riverfront. Then take the bridge over the river; follow it for a couple of kilometres, drive inland through a sprawl of identical suburban houses and industrial buildings; take a writhing road up the leafy hill until you reach a private dirt road which brings you further up. To your left lies a pasture with a ruin of an 18th-century tempietto, behind it an elegant neoclassical mansion, and in front of you the top of the hill, with a reddish-brown box punctured with holes hovering just above it. On top of the box lies an I-beam that sticks out on one side and is connected to the hill by a spidery steel rod. What can this be except a measure to keep the box from drifting away on the wind? As you come closer, the box appears to hover over a cut stone perimeter wall. The dirt road is carved into the hill and burrows its way underneath the wall into the courtyard.
The house has been built for a wealthy publisher, his family, their guests, and some cars. The publisher was paralysed from the waist down after a car crash: a rubber-burning, steel-twisting, bone-splintering, marrow-leaking, nerve-splitting car crash. The design is, among other things a monumental accommodation to this fact. In no way does the architecture attempt to glaze over the minutiae of everyday life with architectural elegance and solemnity, as so often happens in villa-design. What actually happened is that Rem Koolhaas feverishly imagined architectural potential in this particular family life. He saw the limp lower body of the husband, being supported by a whole arsenal of trusses, carts, belts, diapers as architecture. He extrapolated this in a single huge heavy-duty contraption that provides the man with a way of moving through the house. Subsequently this contraption was made into the house's organizational core ('A machine was its heart'1): going up, going down, going up, down, up. As a counterpoint to this hydraulic simplicity, the beautiful and lithe wife moves through the house at will, negotiating her way between the armpits and crotches of the house and its dematerialized, entropic, smooth, modernistic planes. Koolhaas also saw architectural potential in his constructionally counter-intuitive decision to place the chromium tube on which the box-house lies off centre, so that a huge beam had to be placed and then anchored in the ground with a big rock, to stop the house from toppling over.
Visitors cannot look at the house as an architectural model that can be separated from its specific usage. The gaze of historians, critics or architects is just a mask. In fact you are investigating the most intimate and personal details of this specific family-life; the gaze is that of the babysitter wandering through the rooms, opening the drawers and looking in the medicine cupboard. At the same time, because in a way the family life has become architecture, it becomes strangely inclusive: a design equivalent of MTV's soap verité 'The Real World'. Lastly, the specific demands and wishes of this family are dealt with on a planning and engineering level rather than on an architectural one: infrastructure and other technical facilities, zoning, and routing. The family-life has been treated as an urban programme, making the house into a 'New Town' and making visiting it an unexpectedly civic experience. The mode of description that this house seems to ask for is therefore a combination of abject speculations by a voyeur about the private lives of his desired objects, and the urbanistic scenario where the different propositions are linked together by a hypothetical sequence or route. A day in the life:
Early in the morning; after he has been lifted out of the car, and placed in his wheelchair, the glass wall slides open and he moves into the kitchen, passes the monolithic concrete stove and slips behind his desk set in a lofty skylit space. Behind him a sea-green resin bookcase goes up three storeys. A knobless door opens into a dark cavern containing the bottles of claret. On the desk lies an industrial remote control device, a telephone, a newspaper and a workbook for learning Mandarin. He takes the remote control and the room moves up; he slides past the bookcase. It is possible to stop at each given point and to leisurely take out - for instance - S,M,L,XL. After a couple of metres, the room locks into the floor of a stunningly glassy glass house, the metallic floor flush with the hill. He looks down into the parking space in between the perimeter wall; he looks the other way over Bordeaux and the river; he looks around and sees some furniture, and also a huge chromium cylinder and a thin rod both connected to the big box floating above the living room. He drives off the platform towards the view, goes into the garden where the path burrows into the ground and looks inside a flower. He drives back in, manoeuvres himself behind his desk and makes his room go further up. He locks into the third floor; through the bookshelves he sees the terrace; next to him Gilbert & George's Lifehead looks apotheotically to the sky. He moves away again and passes a number of physiotherapy contraptions, crosses the terrace, and goes into the master bedroom. His wife is still sleeping. He quietly passes the bathtub, goes past the white resin washing slab: a face floating by in the mirror. Back in his study he sits a while behind his desk. One porthole in the wall is precisely positioned to give him a view of the horizon, another is aimed downward and gives him a view of the hill. The therapist arrives and gives him a workout. His wife helps him get into a different wheelchair for his shower. The water disappears in the cracks between the floorboards. From where he sits with water running over him, he looks in the split separating the adult half of the top house from the children's part and sees himself reflected twice in the glass. Then his wife dries him off and helps him into the hospital bed for a nap.
She takes a bath, gets dressed and crosses the metal grate bridge between the two parts of the top house, into the children's quarters. This half of the box is divided by diagonally placed walls that strangely remind you of the folded door/walls around Louise Bourgeois children's bedrooms and like these seem saturated with memories and nightmares. She wakes some kids, springs open some of the glass plates covering the portholes and takes a mediaevally tight and dark spiral staircase - hidden in the chromium tube - down two storeys into the TV room. She follows the curve of the wall into the kitchen, makes herself some coffee and a croissant, takes it back in front of the TV, and watches the Breakfast Show. She then gets up and enters a strange uterus-like staircase that takes her to the living room. Now that she is surrounded only by huge glass walls she slides away some of them and walks over to the end of the metallic floor where she looks out over smog-covered Bordeaux. In the middle of the living room is a big square hole with a hydraulic steel shaft supporting the platform, which is now locked into the top house. Through the hole she peers into the kitchen. She walks back behind the bookcase where her desk stands. She settles down to look at her e-mail; the wires of her PowerMac sway gently in the wind. After a while, when the children are all ready, she rushes up the concrete stairs glued to the bookcase and wakes her husband. He and the children will leave for the afternoon; she will receive the architect and a group of guests who are extremely impatient to inspect every nook and cranny of her home.
The house demonstrates the Paranoid Critical Method as a radical way of deploying the heat oppressed brain in architecture. Explained in (pop)Kantian terms, the P.C.M. can be understood as a psychologically charged relationship between the world as it exists by itself, regardless of whether there is a human observer to interact with it - nouomena - and the world as it appears to us humans - phenomena. Koolhaas's Paranoid Critical glare makes the nouomena acquire such an obsessive intensity in the way they manifest themselves in the brain of the beholder - as phenomena - that they can be turned into architectural facts and returned to the world as new nouomena loaded with psychology, analysis, fear, love, disgust, angst, ennui or lust. The reality of this family has become hyperreal in architecture. The product is what we might call a concentration of phenomenally nouomenal phenomena, or nouomenally phenomenal nouomena.
What makes the house is that it is a bit of world in your face; the world is neither denoted or broken down into data and fed into an interiorized process of formal manipulations, as is common practice in contemporary avant-garde architecture. The world has become architecture, not by abstraction but by inclusion, or rather by intrusion.
Gary Bates, architect at Koolhaas's office, confessed that when he saw the house for the first time, he was 'fucking scared because it raises the stakes even higher'. It does. It raises the stakes of how far architecture dares to let the real in. After this house the world can no longer be censored before being let into the architecture: no more radical-chic caricatures of life to be translated into formally inventive masterpieces. It is one thing to present innovative architectural ideas against the backdrop of Far Eastern statistics and an ever-expanding, ever-progressing generic metropolis as Koolhaas often does. Engaging the small, the personal, the painful and the sad and doing it beautifully is another thing. Here is an architecture that has more to do with for example steel spiders, broken bodies and children's bedrooms than with its own vocabulary of form or with a parallel universe of imminent hypermodernization. We eagerly ask Rem Koolhaas: 'Are you a humanist?'
1 Office for Metropolitan Architecture/Rem Koolhaas, Maison à Bordeaux, OMA, Rotterdam 1997