ARQUITECTURA-G

ESCRITOS-G “A DEVICE FOR CONTEMPLATION”

Posted in ESCRITOS-G by ARQUITECTURA-G on junio 21, 2018

Conversation between Kersten Geers, David Van Severen, Moisés Puente and ARQUITECTURA-G about Solo House designed by Office KGDVS.

Published in Apartamento Magazine #20

Photography by Adrià Cañameras

 

We’ve always been interested in the relationship between biographies and architecture. In previous issues we’ve talked about several houses intimately bound up with their owners—the architects that built these houses for themselves. Likewise, in this issue we want to talk about a house that is strongly tied to the character and careers of the architects who’ve built it. There is one major difference though: this house is for nobody. The house was designed by Kersten Geers and David Van Severen, from Office KGDVS, and it forms part of the collection of ‘Solo Houses’ developed by Frenchman Christian Bourdais. The Solo Houses are a set of secondary residences and a hotel designed by contemporary architects. The architects were provided with a sort of carte blanche brief, rather than responding to an actual client with specific needs. Given this unusual condition, we believe the house by Office KGDVS could be seen as a manifesto, of sorts, of their architecture. The collection of houses is surrounded by 100ha of unspoiled wilderness located in the Spanish region of Matarraña, itself an area of sublime landscape located between Zaragoza, Valencia, and Barcelona. Along with Moisés Puente, architect and editor, we went to Brussels to meet Kersten and David for lunch, to talk about wilderness, devices, and the background for living.

 

Moisés Puente:

How did such an unusual commission come about? How did everything start?

Kersten Geers:

The Solo House stems from our friendship with the Chilean architects Mauricio Pezo and Sofía von Ellrichshausen. We were all at the 2010 Venice Architecture Biennale. At the time they were already in talks with Christian Bourdais. I think that’s the very first moment we met Christian, but we still didn’t really have a proper conversation with him. In 2012, we were involved in the Biennale again, with San Rocco magazine, and we spent some time with Christian. It was certainly through Pezo von Ellrichshausen that he ended up commissioning a house from us, that’s for sure. He started a conversation with us, but we still didn’t really know what he was doing, apart from the fact that the project was called Solo. Then he came to our office and talked a little about his idea of carte blanche.

David Van Severen:

The opening of the house was in April 2017, and I remember the very first time we visited the site was exactly five years before, in April 2012. It’s quite a thing to get there. We met at Barcelona airport, then he took us in his car. Suddenly you end up in this magnificently beautiful spot, after almost three hours’ driving. The sun had already almost set, and we went straight to our spot; he just said, ‘This is your spot’. He chose this plateau in the middle of the wilderness, with mountains, trees, and a river down the hill. The whole experience was a beautiful thing.

Arquitectura-G:

So there was no brief at all.

Kersten:

No. Well, there was a very small brief. Christian was extremely proud of his decision to give us carte blanche, because as an architect you never have that kind of commission. The program is always very restrictive, in many different ways. His idea for the Solo House was to have a two- or three-bedroom house, and a living room. I remember us replying that that’s the kind of commission we always have; our clients usually say, ‘This is roughly the budget, this is the site, and this is the amount of rooms I need’. I mean, where is the element of carte blanche here? So there was a little bit of provocation from our side. In retrospect, it became almost an investigation for us—an attempt to find out how little house you need to make to still make a house. The challenge was then to invent another constraint for ourselves. I think the main constraint was twofold. On the one hand, despite the fact that Pezo von Ellrichshausen had very much pushed for us to be part of the group of chosen architects, they were building a house which looked very similar to the architecture we were building, with a central core and several rooms around it. They developed the plans totally on their own, individually, don’t get me wrong. In many respects though, it was like an ideal version of our own architecture. We’d made several plans with a set of rooms around a central core for projects that had never been built, like the one we did for Ordos, China, in 2008–2010, so if somebody had come to us saying we could do whatever we wanted, that might have been our first answer. But then the Pezo von Ellrichshausen house was already under construction, so that was an interesting problem for us. The second challenge had to do with the other houses by Didier Faustino, Sou Fujimoto, MOS Architects, etc. They were very expressive, almost sculptural. And even the Pezo von Ellrichshausen house is sculptural in a way. Given the site was so beautiful, we thought, ‘Fuck! Are we just going to make another sculpture?’ Maybe it wasn’t a good idea.

David: I think the biggest influence that Christian had on us was that he chose a spot for us. The site is almost 100ha, but when we started the design it was only like 70ha or something. He gave us this plateau—a weird choice, in our opinion—but in the end it was really the instigator for the design. There’s a beehive in the middle of the plateau, so we couldn’t really approach the centre. Then, somehow, you naturally gravitate towards the edge of the plateau because there’s nothing in the centre. We were stepping out towards the edge until it gets really steep, just for the idea of the view.

Kersten:

Yes, we were maybe a little bit disappointed because we had just visited the construction site for Pezo von Ellrichshausen’s house, which was really spectacular, given the huge views over the landscape. On the plateau, you were standing there and had absolutely nothing to see. At first we thought of an empty central core and a set of rooms around it that negotiated with the landscape. But all of a sudden, it made no sense to have a self-contained form that was independent from the site—because of the Pezo von Ellrichshausen house nearby and because of the site. We had to create a different strategy, to find the edge and to formalise it, rather than bringing something in ourselves to negotiate and redefine where the edge is.

David:

We like the fact that a house is somehow a background for life and form, and in this case it was more explicit because of the carte blanche idea. We had to ask ourselves, ‘What is our architecture?’ It’s like the house architectureends up fitting in with your portrait series, because in a way all architects build all houses for themselves—but without the client’s constraints, this house was us, all by ourselves. At some point we even wanted to make the surrounding nature disappear entirely be-cause it’s so overwhelming, almost paralysing. Understanding how much we wanted to dive into that nature was a really important moment in the design phase; we came up with the idea of having a roof that just gives basic shelter and represents the edge of the plateau in its size and shape. That was the beginning of a five-year process of designing and building the house.

The Solo House, a preconstruction impression collage by Office KGDVS.

Arquitectura-G:

You wanted to propose a house that was as little ‘house-like’ as possible. To do that, you first need to know what a house is.

Kersten:

Yes. Architecture is a strange profession, at least that’s how we approach it. You never know anything in architecture. And the moment you do know, you’d better stop doing it. I think our work is developed through approximations or general attempts to get somewhere. A key project for us was one that we did early on for the photographer Dirk Braeckman. It was a house made from a set of rooms. We might not have meant to say, ‘A house for us is a set of rooms’, but that’s the concept that emerged. The ‘room’ was there before, but the set, the sequence of rooms was new for us, and then it appeared in many other projects. In our world, a house has become a number of rooms of equal size, and it’s become a defiance of functionalism, inasmuch as we don’t believe that a kitchen has different proportions to the bathroom, which has different proportions to the bedroom, which has different proportions to the living room. That became a train of thought, which we connected to a kind of old city mansion and to a sense of extreme flexibility through extreme rigour. If you ask us what a house is—well, that’s what a house became for us. Maybe it isn’t a house for everybody, but that’s our house. Perhaps the whole idea of a house is already somehow undermined by that fact.

David:

Our main challenge was when we discovered the circle as a plan. We had to work out how thick the circle should be in order to live there. The first version had a 40m diameter with a 4m ring. But after measuring everything better onsite, the second version had a 45m diameter and a 4.5m ring. It was all related to the site; we really wanted to look for the edge, and at the same time define the width of the house we wanted to live in.

Arquitectura-G:

And how did you deal with the question of comfort in a second home?

 

 

Kersten:

A ‘real’ house is supposed to give you comfort so you survive and live well. A temporary home is much less interested in comfort. Of course there’s a minimum of required comfort, but the issue is more about trying to minimise the layers between you and the place where you are. In a city house, the idea of protection, of comfort, of being present and spending hours and days there is important. But in a temporary home, it’s about having shelter when necessary and having nothing when necessary. This kind of ambiguity—about being in a beautiful place and trying to be as close as possible to it—is like going to the zoo and wishing you could touch the tiger. I mean, you’d like to touch the tiger, and you’re always somehow disappointed that there are too many fences. In such a beautiful piece of wilderness, the challenge is to get rid of any fences. Our office is really interested in thresholds, borders, and perimeters; and in this case we had to redefine the idea of threshold and border. For us, they had often been quite heavy, but here they had to be as light as possible.

Moisés:

Does it have something to do with the climate? Is that the first time you’ve built in a Southern European country with hot summers, but where you’re also in a mountainous area, meaning it can be cold in winter?

David:

What’s important is not only the fact of building in a Southern European country, but the presence of the wilderness. Being in the middle of the wilderness is very special for us, as Belgians. You feel like the real wilderness in Belgium has been stolen; there’s nothing left untouched. Everywhere is mainly urban, a built environment. We’ve always had some kind of dream of what ‘wilderness’ is, what it could be. Then there’s the architectural ‘box’, but ultimately the box becomes just the design of its skin. The design of this thin line that defines what’s inside and what’s outside was a major part of the whole thought process for Solo House.

 

 

 

 

 

Kersten:

I’m thinking also of how David Hockney depicts hedonistic lifestyles. He’s always been fascinated by that, and in many projects it was more like the mise en scène of an interior, where you cut away an area of freedom in the middle of a bourgeois society. In a weekend house, you cut out a space, and you can do whatever you want there; it can be really exotic, there can be lions behind those walls. There can be a certain hedonism. I think that many of our projects introduce the perimeter like that, like a place to cut away, a place of freedom. A house doesn’t usually have these kinds of surroundings, so you have to build everything. But with the Solo House, everything was already there. We just had to make a frame for that universe and change a few parameters so the wilderness would never fade away. The result was to produce something like a bubble or a device that helps you survive, and the project became much more about that than any other we’d done before.

David:

We’re interested in the idea of measuring as well, not only the thickness of the perimeter but the idea of how big or small things are, how thick or thin, how you ultimately negotiate with the threshold and whether that’s also thick or thin. The circle plan gave us the challenge of how to hold up a circular room. We went through a few versions of structural research. One version involved a circle with four columns and a roof that was quite stable because of its own shape, with cables making it look pretty high-tech. We weren’t convinced though; we didn’t think we could just put up lines of columns for support. Then, suddenly, with the lines from the four columns, we came to the idea of a square inside the circle. In a weird way, this immediately gave a second layer to the project, and suddenly we had new challenges. How could the roof be continuous, without being interrupted as a form of shelter, but still be very comfortable? The site is at an altitude of 800m. It can be hot in summer and cold in winter; it’s a mountain climate. We also wanted to build a house that could survive on its own in the wilderness.

Arquitectura-G:

In an autonomous way?

David:

Yes, absolutely. There’s no gas, no electricity, no water, nothing. The whole house is a machine built for survival. We not only had to design the threshold that people will ultimately find there, but also make the machine work. The circular roof has a beam that actually services the whole house with a series of technical necessities: water tanks, batteries, a filter, boiler, solar panels. We didn’t hide these services, and decided to show the fact that you’re in the middle of a place that’s almost like an experiment. They’re almost sculptures.

Arquitectura-G:

Building an autonomous house in the middle of nowhere is a challenge precisely because you have to introduce lots of devices and technology, but you don’t want it to look like high-tech architecture. You have these transparent views cutting through the house towards the landscape, then you have the roof, and in order not to disturb these views, you took all the devices and put them on top of the roof. You gave the objects some presence and almost make them protagonists. You also invited an artist to paint the tanks. What is your relationship now with the world of devices? Has this house changed your vision?

Kersten:

It all depends on how conscious or unconscious you want to appear. We are very conscious of everything. Of course you can pretend that you’re not so conscious, but it’s not really true. There’s a history of architecture, and there’s this unfinished hightech argument which is very interesting and has been picked up from Buckminster Fuller, Reyner Banham, James Stirling. At the same time, there’s also Le Corbusier’s desire to formalise certain equipment on buildings, and this endless ambiguity around what a machine looks like and what you want it to look like. The machines are machines, but they are designed machines. You see it also on the Centre Pompidou. They’re not just simple tubes on the outside, but a designed version of tubes. Plus, devices don’t have the same lifespan as architecture, and for us this is an interesting problem. Regarding the Solo House, the moment you accept a water tank as a machine, you design it, you ask an artist to collaborate on it, and you know the water tank will be seen for the next 20 or 30 years, you’re going into that ambiguity. It’s sculptural detail on the smallest level, almost like a caryatide on a Greek temple. The artist Pieter Vermeersch only painted two of the objects, but it changes the way you look at all of them. If he’d painted more, or all of them, you’d have almost started to think, ‘You didn’t like the objects, so you had to mask them’. And if you don’t paint any of it, maybe they were just machines.

Moisés:

This also happens with the objects inside the house.

David:

Yes, exactly. It’s a real house with real needs; you need a kitchen, you need a bathroom, you need a bedroom. Each fixed piece of furniture was carefully designed. Also, the architecture itself organises the spaces, with the rows of columns marking the glass line. Each piece of fixed furniture is glued to a column. We like this rhythm of columns, but we also like the idea of organising life with a minimum of comfort machines. And each column allows the technical elements, like pipes and wires, to descend into the house from the roof, where all these supplies come from.

Arquitectura-G:

The warm climate allows well for this kind of radical approach—and your approach to the site and building material is really radical. But in the end the result is still in keeping with the average, bourgeois house, with bedrooms, a kitchen, and living areas.

Kersten:

This goes back to what we were saying about the carte blanche idea that wasn’t really carte blanche. Anyway, in the end a house is a house. You can decide to party in it every day or sleep in the living room or eat in the bedroom, but that’s about all the difference you can make. We’ve never thought that you have to challenge the way an office is designed, and we don’t have to challenge how people live. We feel that architecture is relatively disconnected from the way people use things. This house could be used by a family with two kids, with parents sleeping on one side and with the kids in their own wing, or by 30 people sleeping wherever they want. Who cares? We don’t think this is related to architecture so much.

David:

It’s not necessary to question every program again and again. It’s more about how you accommodate them. In this case, the kitchen stands at an exact distance between the columns, the cupboards are two columns further back, and there’s a fireplace another column back. This is how we think it works. Then of course we checked that the distances were fine and that they worked, but it wasn’t about questioning the kitchen as such. In the end, a kitchen is a kitchen, and you’d better make a good one. That’s how we think. We also had an opportunity to test the house. Kersten went with his girlfriend, and I went with my wife. We were very curious to see if after five years of working on it, the house would function. I’d say it was better than what we’d thought! When we went there and experienced it, everything worked as we’d dreamt. The walls that move around the house—it’s something you do all day. The sun rotates, and you live with this movement, and the morning is very different from midday or the evening.

Moisés:

I think the swimming pool pavilion is one of the most special places in this house. It’s the exception to the rule, a fourth room without walls that allows another kind of life.

David:

That’s a very important room. It’s like building a parameter that suddenly changes. Like the Notary’s Office we built in Antwerp, where we created a room and then immediately tried to dismantle it or make it explode by using the perimeter, its edges, and understanding that it’s suddenly not a room anymore. For the Solo House, the pool room is the largest open space, and all the guests tend to stay there instead of staying in the living room or the in-between areas.

 

 

 

Arquitectura-G:

You’re kind of obsessed with pools, and somehow we are, too. After the form, layout, and understanding of the site, the pool is the key to the house. It relates to the hedonistic approach you mentioned before, and the house probably wouldn’t be the same without it.

Kersten:

No, it wouldn’t. We’re very pragmatic architects. If you have a house in Matarraña and you want to stay there for longer than three days, you need the pool. Otherwise you don’t want to be there. We didn’t want a small tublike pool, but one that’s large enough to have a sense of freedom, the ability to swim in it. A pool is a place where things can happen. In an earlier version, the pool had a different orientation and occupied more of the central space, with a lake-like shape. But we didn’t like it because it took over the centre of the building all of a sudden. We realised that although we hadn’t thought about it too much beforehand, we couldn’t inhabit the central space, whether it was because of the bees or some other philosophical idea. We definitely felt that the pool was too present; it became a house around a pool, whereas later, in the final version, the pool is on the edge. It has a far more interesting relationship with the house this way, and leaves the wilderness of the courtyard more intact and thus more similar to the outside.

Arquitectura-G:

For us, as visitors, one of the key elements of the house is the size of the ring. Everything is far away from where you are. It doesn’t really matter, because it’s a secondary residence and a project where walking doesn’t bother you. The main thing about the size of the ring is that the central core is an enclosed courtyard, but it’s large enough to feel like a part of the landscape you see around the house, rather than a patio. We really liked the contrast between the enormous size of the ring’s diameter and the 4.5m width of the roof, which brings a domestic scale to the project. When you’re between the line of columns and the sliding doors of the façade, you feel like the dimensions are something you can control. You’re not in the middle of an infinite landscape, but in a house.

Moisés:

I feel the swimming pool is very important to defining the interior character of the courtyard, making it more of a garden than a landscape.

Kersten:

It’s maybe a word that we use a bit too often, but I think it’s ambiguous. We were always looking for that ambiguity. As we said, at the beginning the pool was in the wrong spot, so after we moved it to its current position, the landscape in the middle was somehow safe. Regarding the diameter of the circle, as David said, we realised the 40m diameter was too small, and we had to make it 45m to touch the real border of the plateau. We walked around the base, and in the very beginning before the building was actually erected I think we all felt it was right. Also, when you sit on one side of the circle, you’re pretty close to the other side in that it’s right in front of you on the opposite side of the courtyard. But then it’s not really too close.

Arquitectura-G:

So instead of doing a set of rooms, you did a set of distant rooms.

David:

It’s crucial. We introduced distance as an answer to the lack of walls. Distance be-comes your privacy; you can see things, but you’re not with them. Even when you were visiting, we had about 40 or 50 people there, and weirdly enough it was still OK.

Arquitectura-G:

Talking about privacy, out of curiosity, why are the toilets closed? Everything is really hedonistic; everything is open to both sides of the ring, to the landscape. Why is the toilet the only room that’s closed off?

 

 

Kersten:

I think we’re pragmatic. We believe in that moment when you don’t want to be seen. My favourite toilet is the outside one, by the pool house. You can leave the door open because nobody will ever pass by, and you’re in the middle of nature.

David:

There’s another answer to that question. In a way, we use very normal tools and devices to organise the house. The house has four segments: three of them closed sometimes,
and one of them open. The bathrooms are closed, but one of them is open, so you provide a set of possibilities for life.

Kersten:

Just providing possibility is maybe the greatest thing we can do, and it’s not so necessary to twist everything upside down.

 

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