ESCRITOS-G: “The Advantages of Living on a Loop”
Published at Apartamento Magazine #3
Our studio has recently been commissioned to transform a 16th-century traditional Basque house into two dwellings. When you face a project of this kind, more factors than usual come into play. You rarely deal with a tabula rasa, and sometimes the context is the background; however, in cases like this, its presence is so powerful it becomes the co-star.
When approaching an existent being which has worked in a certain way, you have the mission of making it yours without making it disappear. You get into the game of appropriation of the space by removing, adding or plainly transforming. This game requires sometimes subtle acts, but occasionally the action can be drastic.
This is what Apartamento is about; no matter if it’s a flat, a penthouse or a garage. You paint a wall or you demolish it, transforming a space with a previous identity into something new, completely yours.
The Spiral House project by Powerhouse Company fits really well in this subject. It sets out a complex matter in a simple and clear way: a typical burgundy farmhouse, for example, set on a large terrain needs extension that will just about double the house.
We invited them to have a conversation alongside Ekhi Lopetegi, philosopher and musician, and Charles Bessard (office partner, along with Nanne de Ru) who joins us in this discussion.
This time we have decided to tackle our discussion with the film ‘Groundhog Day’. We see a relation between the movie and the space Spiral House creates. We could state that Bill Murray drives a loop, which takes place in the town and modifies the space by manipulating elements in a repeating time…
We agreed in the previous conversations that architecture is something that mostly belongs to “time”. Not only in its generative process but in the time for being understood, modified, assimilated, lived and demolished. In that way, Bill Murray prompts situations that change the space in a way that suits his tastes once he understands his new world, and, as a last resort, changes himself by self-improving.
Being the Spiral House a suggestive act, neither a parasitic nor futile extension, it provokes a new understanding of the existing fabric; we don’t have only a house or a spiral, nor strictly the addition of the two, but something new, different.
We would like you to explain the physical and functional connection between the two bodies, as your website drafts don’t show it at all. Furthermore, we would like to know if, in your opinion, an extension can provoke in an immediate and aggressive form, a new way of understanding the space, or if it’s something gradual, with two bodies converging over the time.
The Spiral House is a house extension that creates a link between the ground floor and the loft floor of an existing farmhouse. The existing building was organised according to a traditional 19th-century lifestyle with a strong spatial segregation between the two levels: the dining and hosting parts on the ground floor and the more intimate family area including the bedrooms and a study on the upper level, with a tight separation between the two. This reflects the rising bourgeoisie lifestyle of the 19th-century where the representational rooms like the living room and the dining room were completely separated from the daily rooms like the bedrooms and the kitchen. This polarisation of the domestic functions resulted in the familial life never meeting the social and representational life of the family.
By restricting the guest area to only a small part of the house it gave the guests the vague impression remaining in the antechamber of the house without really entering the family’s life. For this young family of winemakers who decided to live in a small typical burgundy village, inviting guests implied in most of cases an overnight stay and required more area.
The Spiral House extends the program of the existing house with a large living room joined with a study and a cigar/home-cinema corner, two guest rooms, a children guest room / play zone and an additional kid room. While the existing house dedicated 80% of the area to the daily familial life and only 20% to the social life, the extension was to be the opposite with 80% for the guests and 20% for the family.
From an architectural point of view, it meant that we had to understand the extension as complementary yet opposite element to the existing house. While the architecture of the original house was “closed” and exhibited discrete banality, the architecture of the extension had to be more open and extraverted.
But opposition doesn’t necessarily mean segregation, and we designed the extension as a continuous space spiraling from the ground floor to the roof level. It departs from the existing dining room and has been extended with the new living room /study/ cigar corner, and it ends in the roof connecting the new kid’s room and play room with the old common children room. In the ascending part one finds two guest rooms connecting visually with the ground floor with the upper level, and becoming the link between the social and the intimate sides of the house. The existing house is incorporated as a part of a continuous circulation from old to new, from ground to roof and from intimacy to openness. The Spiral House embraces a part of the garden to form a patio between the extension and the existing house creating a visual link between all the rooms and the two levels while maintaining a nuanced level of intimacy.
The extension and then existing house have an ambivalent relationship. They have more or less the same area and therefore cohabit without any clear hierarchy. Sometimes the extension steps back and leave the foreground to the existing house and sometimes it decisively takes over the old structure depending from where it is observed. Together they form a “Siamese” body made of two opposite yet complementary parts. They form a diptych. They are two chapters of a story about the sudden change of destination of use the old farmhouse and its land into an urbanite’s mansion. The brutal appearance of the extension precipitates the whole on a new and unexpected course, like the storm in the plot of the Groundhog’s Day. In this case the extension is not conceived as a continuation of the existing one, but as an unexpected and external event changing the course of the “plot”. In that sense the two bodies are not converging in time, but are precipitated together in a new situation like Phil and Rita in the initial script; where instead of being back to normal, they were kept irreversibly captive of the time loop and are forced to explore together the possibilities of this new situation.
I wouldn’t like to reduce the complexities of the Spiral House to its most obvious and eye catching feature, but the encounter between the extension and the farmhouse at the roof level deserves some remarks. As Charles (POWERHOUSE) wrote, the extension’s appearance is ‘brutal’ and in my opinion the more brutal it appears the more interesting it gets. Instead of a Siamese body, I would say it’s more like a prosthesis, for every prosthesis entails a formal and functional aggression and strongly makes reference to the difference between the bodies connected. The visual relationship between the two bodies as volumes is not transitional or continuous, even though there is a functional transition and continuity in pragmatic terms that makes the two bodies work efficiently. Above all, the strangeness of the new body is highlighted and so it is the violence the prosthesis does to the old ‘maison’.
Two subjects come to mind at this point. In terms of memory, by explicitly showing the present burst into the past, the Spiral House implies a discontinuous or non-linear historical approach. And this is achieved not by some fancy futuristic trick (that would probably entail a rather linear approach), but by the sober but radical presence of the new body. What we see is not the 19th-century lifestyle friendly meet the 21st-century forms of life. What we see is two historical situations collide.
So, the way I see it, the historical encounter is understood as a confrontation. The whole historical timeline is broken and the gap in between is uncovered violently.
Related to this temporal feature, in terms of space, the confrontation is even more dramatic. The whole idealistic idea of the ‘maison’ as a whole, complete and finished object is destroyed. The visual image of this farmhouse, this childish ‘triangle + cube’ image of a house, is perverted by a simple gesture of coupling two bodies in a visually arbitrary point. In my opinion there’s an underlying principle concerning any architectural interventions that could be expressed as follows: any object or volume can be cut off in any of its points. Which doesn’t mean the cut off is arbitrary, for the functional coherence and efficiency will always be a measure and a value. But it clearly shows the house is partially taken in consideration, not as a whole ideal unit.
Gordon Matta Clark showed us this in other terms by cutting off building size volumes as if they were hand size sculptures, and this way he broke the idea of how those objects should look in our mind’s eye, opening a new field for volumetric experimentation. As far as the Spiral House is a dwelling unit and not a plain body, we should maybe quote Deleuze and Guattari’s first principle for a definition of a rhizome, which encloses this pragmatic feature:
“1 and 2. Principles of connection and heterogeneity: any point of a rhizome can be connected to anything other, and must be… semiotic chains of every nature are connected to very diverse modes of coding (biological, political, economic, etc.) that bring into play not only different regimes of signs but also states of things of differing status. “
Obviously, architecture can also be understood as a bunch of ‘modes of coding’ space, with their particular set of rules and syntax. The Spiral House connects two heterogeneous architectural regimes (the 19th century farm house and its extension); the connection is understood as fragmentary (both units connect in a partial and arbitrary point, the roof level), and not as the complete harmonisation of different dwelling units or codes; therefore, the Spiral House provokes the rupture of the farm house coherence in favour of a new functional and spacial relationship that opens the house to knew dwelling possibilities.
We find interesting to invert the proportion 80% public / 20% private, because it complements the house in a yin-yang-like way, with the background idea of making the house more open. Thinking about the Spiral House as an opening to itself though, it looks even more interesting to us; to understand the farm like a closed and finished being that generates something open to new possibilities when breaking (like Ekhi pointed mentioning Matta-Clark). “Two bodies kept irreversibly captive of the time loop and forced to explore together the possibilities of this new situation”, but Matta-Clark showed us the entrails and then his action was over. His aim wasn’t to create a place to live in, although it could be a space to live.
The farm is broken and it loses its closed unity, its iconic identity fades out, it’s opened up. Then, in contraposition program is added and related with the existing one and what we get is the Spiral House. Is this opening something for closing it back? Could a house be an open box, or is the program too rigid (due to its finite possibilities) and therefore requires us to a closed outcome?
We prefer the definition of “two Siamese bodies” for the whole rather than the Ballardian prosthesis one for the new piece. Prostheses are artifices subordinated to a body that brings them life, and in this case the dialogue is from equal to equal. One could usually live without prosthesis, but in this case, and for this program, they are two bodies that die when separated.
It’s evident but important to see that we have two bodies, the 19th-century one and the 21st-century one. It is this last one, the spiral, which achieves that, although they are two bodies that work continuously as a single one. The new body is a programmatic gradient that gives continuity to the two existing trays that had premeditated and polarized functions. Thus, the Spiral House considers a contemporary way of living more than giving a formal answer to what a XXI century house should be. It looks for a new way of dwelling.
Brutality is often referred as a negative word, because it is most often associated with the idea of the “brute”, a being with a cruel or aggressive behavior. But brutality can also mean something “brut”, raw and un-mitigated like in the case of Jean Dubuffet’s “art brut”. In that sense the brutality of the Spiral House is in our eyes directed at the site and not directed at the old house. The two volumes share the same an unmitigated relationship to the site. This is the only thing they have in common and that is also what unites them.
When looking at the site plan, the old house appears as if it was “dropped” randomly on the site – it makes no attempt to insert itself in the context.
When we visited the first time we immediately noticed it, the old house was sitting on the site in the same way as a forgotten and isolated object would, as something left behind. But somehow its isolation and its brutal juxtaposition on the site had a positive aspect: it almost gave to the old house the status of a sculpture displayed in a park. On the other hand the banality of the volume prevented the house to really achieve its potential sculptural presence and inhabit the site as such.
Though the extension was to double the size of the house it was clear that it would not be insufficient to occupy or inhabit the park. At the very beginning we tried to design it as a landscape architecture where the extension would become a “hill” attached to the old house attempting to anchor it on the site. But it never worked, the sculptural potential of the old house was getting weaker and the new landscape element was simply too small and too anecdotal compared to the overwhelming size of the site.
It became clear that we had to find a third approach.
To reinforce the sculptural aspect of the old house and to reinforce the presence of both inhabitations in the site, we designed the extension as a new sculptural volume dropped next to the old one. In this way the contrast between the two strengthened their identity, as well as helped each other to claim their sculptural presence in the park.
We do not think the relationship between the buildings as brutal since there is no cruelty in it. We see it more as an abrupt but playful encounter where the two volumes engage vigorously with each other. Let’s say it’s like is an intercourse without foreplay… not necessarily unpleasant if there is no victim.
Arquitectura-G mentioned that the Spiral House “considers a contemporary way of living more than a formal answer to what a XXI-st century house should be”. We agree very much with this statement and that is the way we’ve approach the design of this house. In this regard, it is interesting to compare the two volumes because they testify the changes in the understanding of a house. The 19th-century houses are organized with a very clear separation between “leisure rooms” like the salon, and “utilitarian rooms” like the kitchen, bedrooms etc. In the case of a farm the exterior is also the result of utilitarian approach to materials and structure. At the opposite, the Spiral House is fully designed as a pleasurable experience that offers a diversity of an internal as well as external situation. The old house becomes a part of this diversity of spaces and is not perceived anymore as a conventional straightjacket.
By understanding the two houses as an array of spatial experiences, it opens unlimited possibilities to extend it beyond its pure functional program.
In that respect the Spiral House did open up the old house to a new understanding shifting from a utilitarian to a qualitative interpretation.
We had the opportunity recently, with a project in Russia, to experiment with a similar situation but with more radicalism. We had to design a 2500m2 penthouse 300m above ground, and that was also for a single family with young kids. Designing for example a 500m2 living room is very unusual, and certainly cannot be approached from a functional and programmatic point of view – imagine how many sofas one would need to furnish it. This radical situation allowed us to illustrate clearly what the focus of our architecture is about.
I should maybe clarify what I meant by ‘brutal’. I maybe put a special emphasis on its aggressiveness, but I don’t really think of it in a negative way, no victims or unpleasant feelings are presupposed here. What I actually meant is what Arquitectura-G explained in a more concise way as the losing of the iconic identity of the house. This, too, can seem ambiguous though, for the iconic identity of the house is also highlighted with the intervention, as far as it shows the bodies as clearly limited individual units. So, the gesture of coupling the volumes somehow reinforces both the identity and the losing of it. The conceptual play of the difference and the identity is shown in its fullest here by bringing it up as an unsolved subject that architecture faces as such.
Of course, the coming together of the dwelling units has to be seen as a ‘playful encounter’ rather than as a ‘problematic crash’. It is playful because we gain new dwelling possibilities, and not only in terms of program. As explained in the Russian project, the design of a 500m2 living room cannot be achieved in utilitarian terms so the aproach must include some other experiential criteria. It can be guessed that this shift is entailed in the Spiral House too, as far as it’s “fully designed as a pleasurable experience”, exceeding thus the utilitarian point of view. This is maybe how the ‘qualitative interpretation’ mentioned can be understood. The inclusion of such a wide concept as experience reframes the whole architecture perspective and uncovers a series of new problems, both theoretical and practical. We could ask how ‘experience’ is understood in the Spiral House, even though I know the answer to such a concept can be hard to figure out. At least, we could state that the farm house as an utilitarian complex wasn’t meant to be experienced but to be used, while the Spiral House seems to seek being a place for ‘having experiences’ of any type. We should never misunderstand this though, because being designed for having some sort of ‘experience’ won’t ever erase the functional needs, but it will necessarily include ‘experience’ as a variable to be taken as part of the program itself.
Therefore (apart from the gap separating the building and the site) because it’s linked to ‘experience’, it makes sense considering the farmhouse and the extension in its ‘sculptural potential’. Sculpturally taken, the Spiral House falls under some sort of aesthetical treatment or point of view. I don’t mean that the house is now treated more artistically; I simply mean that it’s supposed to be a source of certain ‘sensations’ (the ‘pleasurable experience’), and not only supposed to be a functional facility. In the end the word ‘aesthetic’ etymologically means nothing but ‘perceiving’ or ‘having sensations’. Now I should ask Charles, is this conceptual link between experience and architecture also considered while facing a project?
About the conceptual link between experience and architecture:
I understand your question from two points of views.
Does it mean that we design spaces independently of the functionality of spaces?
No, in the sense that we take the functions of the house as a departure point and make sure that the spaces we design do not become unpractical.
But yes indeed, in the sense that we do not limit the experience of living in the house (because that’s what it is all about) to pure questions of efficiency and spatial economy and therefore have to seek qualities such as: intimacy, openness, exposure, mirroring. For example the Spiral House is both intimate and both exposed; intimate because it is rolling around itself and exposed in the sense that it is possible to the house from the house at any point of the Spiral House.
The Spiral House is very abstract for a house, it doesn’t look like a house, and it is a bit of an alien in the landscape of the village. It has no formal reference and its form results of its sequence of experiences, like going under the house to enter it, entering it from its heart, looking at the house from the house, the traveling on the landscape, the progressive decrease in ceiling height, etc. Those experiences were much more important for this project than the final form of the house. The abruptness and abstraction of the form prompts the visitor to experience it, otherwise it is difficult to understand it. It is sculptural but it is not Gehry-like and it is abstract but it is not a functionalist house. It is also not photogenic but it is very nice space to inhabit. The owners are planning to use it as the main house and use the old house as the extension; we can’t really resist bragging about it.
The second way we understand your question regards the way we produce a project and eventually a building. Architecture in this respect is always very frustrating because we can’t fully experience a project until it is finished and occupied. In this regard we are very envious of graphic designers or artists who work at a 1:1 scale. It is not really feasible with architecture so we try to compensate that with a lot of physical models at very different scale. This still remains for us the best way to design a house. Strangely enough, a cardboard model still looks and feels more “real” than any super-realistic rendering.
We don’t avoid talking about the “sculptural object”, but we plainly believe that it doesn’t describe this house, and probably neither the architecture. At the same time, we don’t think it’s an abstract house. It’s a construction that responds directly to a problem or will. It’s a house that can be experienced and lived without requiring any intellectual effort or architectural knowledge, and that’s a victory.
In this case we can’t state if the shape is nice or not, photogenic or not, in fact it doesn’t matter. It (the shape) tells us how the house is lived and how this addition lets someone experience the whole in a new way; we could say that the Spiral House is functionally transparent.
The addition responds to the request in a physical way, that’s why the aggression over the original, pure and canonical object is rude, vigorous, and even sexual. This relation seems very attractive to us and provides the strength of the project.
Talking about the subject of anchoring to the place in such vast plot with a house “dropped” on, we don’t think the Spiral House is a landscape architecture solution as an object in a scenic context and linked to it, we think it’s a project that is understood from its core to outside.
The house is somehow something not related to the surroundings, and the appropriation of the plot is seen from the inner living experience. For instance, the patio or the spiral sets out when touching the farm in the ground floor, where a small piece of plot defines a summer dining room.
Those generative gestures are which make these constructions not sculptural, are new realities of architectural experience.
The gradual ascent surrounding the patio lets us experience the original body like something new viewing it from a historically unusual point of view. In the same way we understand the program itself like something new; a smoking room is quite different from a bedroom, but it’s not so far from a children playing room or a study. Like we said in previous conversations, approaching subjects as the flexibility in this way is very contemporary and sets out where are the nowadays inhabitant’s limits.
Besides this, we are talking in terms of two houses; while we would like to see it as a whole, a single one, where some time ago there was one and the time and requirements brought us another different one. That’s why we can’t help having a little disappointment when you say that the owners are thinking of using the new part as first home. In the same way that the Russian penthouse of 500m2 living room requires a different dwelling experience from having 50 sofas in it, the Spiral House should be inhabited like a new experience of the whole, without the barrier of time or material difference.
We would like to know your opinion on it (Ekhi and Charles) and also (Charles) if this distinction is a program input.
So far it seems like the discussion has opened many fields concerning different features of the Spiral House. I’d like to make one last and brief remark on the issue of the connection between the two bodies and the experience of the Spiral House as a whole.
Arquitectura-G seems to be focused on the fact that the experience of the Spiral House is the experience of a complete and unified dwelling unit. We should make some distinctions here. It happens to be true that in terms of inhabiting the house, living everyday live, the extension shouldn’t really have to be taken as a separate body. That is why the two bodies work together. As far as they do work together they generate a new field for the functional experience of the house. Sculpturally taken, though it doesn’t really seem that the two bodies can form a unique one, they don’t and can’t come together as one.
We should therefore separate the inner and outer experiences of the house. One is pragmatic and the other is visual and voluminous. The border between both can be blurry sometimes, but it seems like the functional use of the inner space and the outer impression of the bodies connecting are somehow heterogeneous; it also seems like the outside/inside opposition shows up clearly in the Spiral House as an essential feature of it. There is an sculptural experience of the house based on the relationship between the bodies and the relationship between the bodies and the surrounding landscape, as well as there’s a pragmatic one based on its inner functional use. Iconically taken, there is no communion between the bodies; functionally taken there’s a “pretend” one based on programmatic efficiency and harmony.
I’ll end with a couple of questions that don’t really seek to underestimate the building, for the Spiral House gets more interesting with the more the questions it generates.
Could it be true that the utilitarian efficiency of the Spiral House is at stake with the fact that the owners plan to move to the extension of the old house? Is it possible that, despite the beauty and power of the Spiral House, the gap between the two buildings could be impossible to overcome?
It is not a programmatic input and they always conceived the Spiral House as only an extension until it was finished. When they mentioned switching houses they, in fact, only mentioned shifting their own bedroom.
Though I totally agree with Arquitectura-G that the house should be experienced as one house and not as two, to a large extend I hope they will turn their bedroom towards the new one and turn their actual understanding upside down.
The Spiral House and the old farm are proposing two opposite architectural regimes, one that was designed from a utilitarian point of view and the other from a hedonist and sensuous viewpoint. I think it is very amusing and intriguing to see how they are going to use it. They commissioned us to design the extension because they wanted to change their lifestyle, so I am curious to hear from them what will become their dearest room, the old or the new regime? Utilitarian or hedonist?
Because the Spiral House and the farm do not seek any compromise in their relationship and there is no indoor space in-between at any moment, one has to choose where to be: where to sit or sleep or sip a glass of wine? Practicality verses hedonism. It is a luxurious dilemma, but I am interested in the output.
If they move their bedroom it would really be a statement for them of a clear shift in their approach to life. The clients are a very busy people, their professional mobiles are always on and in every holiday travel hides a business appointment here or there. They live in the countryside but they have a hectic life with long working hours and a lot of travelling, obviously much more than what they wish. When they decided about the extension we strongly sensed that it was out of a desire to change their life and formalize it and we took this seriously. In the old house, even if they could still live there comfortably, its utilitarian architecture seemed to recall the burden of daily contingencies, whether it was theirs or those of the former farmer. The spaces of the Spiral House suggest a totally different attitude to the user; more distant and deliberate, where one can walk around with no purpose, sip a glass of wine, crash in the sofa and stare at the ceiling and feel good about it.
Architecture is an instrument that makes those fundamental changes possible and tangible. That is what fascinates us in architecture, especially when it is about housing. Cheap or expensive, it doesn’t matter.
We will have to wait to see the finished product, because at the moment there are some functional obstructions due to the young age of the children and the necessity of proximity between their bedrooms.
Let’s make an appointment in ten years and see what has happened.