Maison à Bordeaux, Koolhaas in High-Tech Gear

About Client-Centered Design at Villa Floirac

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A Modern House in Floirac, Southwest France, 1998

Exterior of Maison à Bordeaux by Rem Koolhaas, 1998.
Exterior of Maison à Bordeaux by Rem Koolhaas, 1998. Press Photo by Ila Bêka and Louise Lemoine From the Film Koolhaas Houselife

Designing a house for everyone—the concept of universal design—is usually not even considered in our "client-centered" environment, unless, of course, the client has a physical disability or special need. If none of the occupants are bound to wheelchair travel, why design a home according to ADA Guidelines?

While French newspaper publisher Jean-François Lemoine was looking for an architect to design a new home, he became partially paralyzed from an auto accident. Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas did not design a typical one-floor home with wide doors. Instead, Koolhaas breaks barriers in the Maison à Bordeaux, creating what Time Magazine named the "Best Design of 1998."

 

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Three-Layered House

Middle level interior of Maison à Bordeaux by Rem Koolhaas, 1998
Middle level interior of Maison à Bordeaux by Rem Koolhaas, 1998. Photo by Ann Chou via Wikimedia Commons, Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0) (cropped)

Rem Koolhaas designed a house to accommodate an active family man confined to a wheel chair. "Koolhaas started with this," wrote architecture critic Paul Goldberger, "—the client’s needs— not with the form."

Koolhaas describes the building as three houses because it has three separate sections layered on top of one another.

The lowest part, Koolhaas says, is "a series of caverns carved out from the hill for the most intimate life of the family." The kitchen and wine cellar are presumably a good part of this level.

The middle section, partially at ground level, is open to the outside and enclosed with glass, all at the same time. Mororized curtain walls, similar to Shigeru Ban's  Curtain Wall House, ensure privacy from the outside world. The imposing ceiling and floor defy the lightness and openness of this central living area, like living in the open space of a workshop vice.

The upper level, which Koolhaas has called the "top house," has bedroom areas for the husband and wife and for their children. It is dotted with window-holes (see image), many of which twist open.

Sources: Maison à Bordeaux, Projects, OMA; "The Architecture of Rem Koolhaas" by Paul Goldberger, 2000 Pritzker Laureate Essay (PDF) [accessed September 16, 2015]

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Elevator Platform

Interior Lift at Maison à Bordeaux is the size of a small room and today conveniently carries the housekeeper's supplies
Interior Lift at Maison à Bordeaux by Rem Koolhaas, 1998. Press Photo by Ila Bêka and Louise Lemoine From the Film Koolhaas Houselife (cropped)

Architect Rem Koolhaas thinks outside the accessible design box of guidelines. Instead of dwelling on the width of entry doors, Koolhaas designed this house in Bordeaux around the presence of the wheelchair.

This modern villa has another "floating" level that transects all three stories. The wheelchair-enabled owner has his own movable level, a room-sized elevator platform, 3 meters by 3.5 meters (10 x 10.75 feet ). The floor rises and lowers to other levels of the house via a hydraulic lift similar to ones seen in an automobile garage (see image of elevator platform). Bookshelves line one wall of the elevator shaft room where the homeowner has his private living area, accessible to all levels of the house.

Koolhaas has said that the elevator has the "potential to establish mechanical rather than architectural connections."

"That movement alters the architecture of the house," Koolhaas said. "It was not a case of 'now we're going to do our best for an invalid'. The starting point is rather a denial of invalidity"

Sources: "The Architecture of Rem Koolhaas" by Paul Goldberger, Prizker Prize Essay (PDF); Interview, The Critical Landscape by Arie Graafland and Jasper de Haan, 1996 [accessed September 16, 2015]

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The Housekeeper Opens a Window

The Housekeeper turns a handle to open a portal window at Maison a Bordeaux designed by Rem Koolhaas
The Housekeeper in the film "Koolhaas Houselife" opens a Rem Koolhaas window. Press Photo by Ila Bêka and Louise Lemoine From the Film Koolhaas Houselife (cropped)

The center of Koolhaas' design for the Lemoine home may have been the client's elevator platform room. "The platform could be flush with the floor or it could float above it," wrote Daniel Zalewski in The New Yorker. "—an architectural metaphor for flight which offered an immobilized man unobstructed views of the countryside."

But the elevator, along with the large, round windows designed to be opened by a man bound to a wheelchair, become oddities after the man no longer lives in the house.

The Koolhaas design was appropriate in 1998, but Jean-François Lemoine died only three years later, in 2001. The platform was no longer needed by the family—one of the complications of "client-centered design."

The "After" of Architecture:

So what happens to the architecture designed for specific people? What happened to the people involved with a building that some have called a masterpiece?

  • “The elevator had become a monument to his absence,” Koolhaas told writer Zalewski. The architect suggested redecorating, changing the desk and bookcase office-like moving platform into an informal TV room. "The platform is now about chaos and noise rather than order,” commented Koolhaas in 2005.
  • Architect Jeanne Gang was part of Koolhaas' OMA team for the 1994-1998 project in Bordeaux. Since then, Gang opened her own Chicago firm and received accolades for her design of Aqua Tower in 2010.
  • Louise Lemoine, who grew up in the house, turned to independent filmmaking. Perhaps her most well-known film, <em>Koolhaas Houselife,</em> is about the challenges faced by the occupants left behind. A film about this famous house is quite ironic because Rem Koolhaas began his own career as a filmmaker.

Source: Intelligent Design by Daniel Zalewski, The New Yorker, March 14, 2005 [accessed September 14, 2015]

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