Alongside claims of being the most controversial architect the world has seen, Rem Koolhas, aged 76, is notably celebrated across the globe for being one of the most influential and revolutionary architects of the modern era.
Over his 40-year career along with his team at OMA (Office for Metropolitan Architecture), the office he co-founded in 1975 soon after his studies, Rem Koolhas has produced a collection of masterpieces that are inquisitive and famously known for their unconventional structures that constantly push the limits of architecture.
The year 1998 saw the completion of yet another of the firm’s many recognized projects that are praised to this day; the Maison à Bordeaux, a private residence that rests on top of a hill on the periphery of Bordeaux, France, capturing its breath-taking panoramic views.
The Client’s Needs: A Guiding Concept
Covering a total area of 500m², the Maison à Bordeaux was designed as a futuristic residence for a couple and their family who previously resided in an old beautiful house in Bordeaux. Two years before OMA commissioned the project, a fatal car accident had paralysed the husband of the family and left him in need of a wheelchair to move about. It was in light of this unfortunate incident that the couple approached Rem Koolhas and his team in 1994, to design a complex house, unlike the ordinary that would define their world by breaking free from their former lives in the medieval city.
Hence came into existence a dynamic house of variable architectural spaces with a machine at its heart. The house is a fitting example of a redefinition of the concepts envisioned by Le Corbusier for future designs to be based on functionalism, according to his writings “Une Maison est une machine-à-habiter” (meaning “a house is a machine for living in”), in his book Towards an Architecture.
For ease of accessing every space across the floors through a wheelchair, the Maison à Bordeaux was built with an elevator platform measuring 3m X 3.5m and driven by a large hydraulic piston at its core. This platform was constructed, not to act merely as an elevator for vertical circulation, but to serve as a room of its own entity or become a part of the surrounding spaces.
Intended as office space for the husband of the family, with access to books and a wine cellar, the elevator transitions from the kitchen or living room at the lower level to the bedroom on the topmost floor, while being subjected to transformations as required.
The House Explained: Or Rather Three Houses
Although catering to a rather simple program, a skillful organisation of the spaces is evident in Rem Koolhas’s division of the house into three characteristic volumes stacked on top of one another. Alternating between opaqueness and transparency, the house has achieved varying levels of privacy and distinctive interactions with the surrounding landscape on each floor. Additionally, the internal spatial relationships at every level are cleverly articulated by the use of curtains to signify the associated functions of the spaces.
The ground floor or the first level which is sunken into the landscape contains the most private spaces of the house. This floor provides access to a semi-buried garden that is enclosed and introverted for the family to use.
Connecting this partially covered bottom floor and the topmost floor is the transparent intermediate volume shielded by an openable glass façade and curtains that blends into the landscape surrounding it, breaking the bounds of interior and exterior. This floor comprises the living areas in an open floor plan that are privileged with the picturesque views of Bordeaux.
Perhaps the most dramatic and prominent volume placed by Rem Koolhas at the Maison à Bordeaux is the topmost cantilevered floor that consists of bedrooms for the couple and their children. It is a massive semi-transparent cuboidal structure punctured with numerous port holes to bring daylight and ventilate the bedrooms along the side elevations, and the front elevation is composed of a large circular window oriented in the direction of the city to offer views.
Appearing to float on top of a void floor, this mass is in fact supported by a steel tube concealing a spiral staircase that links all three levels of the house. Furthermore, an L-shaped brace bears the weight of the rear of the house along with a steel beam spanning the width of the roof that transfers lateral loads into the ground through tension cables.
Post Completion: Publication and Recognition
In 2008, marking ten years of the completion of this innovative residence, French directors Ila Bêka and Louise Lemoine released a documentary called ‘Koolhaas Houselife’, portraying the chores of the housekeeping staff, mainly Guadalupe Acedo, and giving intimate insights into the daily lives at the Maison à Bordeaux.
The house remains undoubtedly one of Rem Koolhas’s exemplary renditions of contemporary architecture fused with the advancing technology just before the onset of the 21st century.