Roving thoughts and provocations

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House Life in a Koolhaas

Rem Koolhaas’s House in Bordeaux, in a still from Koolhaas: HouseLife (Ila Bêka and Louise Lemoine)

Few makers of architectural documentaries exploit the full potential of film to create a convincing sense of what it is like to move through a sequence of interiors, an ability made much easier with the introduction of the Steadicam in 1976. A rare exception is Ila Bêka and Louise Lemoine’s 58-minute-long Koolhaas Houselife (2008), one of two recent releases on the celebrated Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, principal of the Office for Metropolitan Architecture in Rotterdam.

Now 65, Koolhaas has managed to preserve his longstanding reputation as the bad boy of his profession while executing one of the most impressive bodies of built work of his generation. Koolhaas Houselife, about which this all-controlling architect must have very mixed feelings, is among four films by Bêka and Lemoine being screened at New York’s Storefront for Architecture through February 27 (along with three other features from their Living Architecture series, on buildings by Frank Gehry, Richard Meier, and Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron).

Koolhaas Houselife is best seen together with another recent documentary on the same subject, Markus Heldingsfelder and Min Tesch’s 97-minute Rem Koolhaas: A Kind of Architect (2008), which has been broadcast on cable television. Its frenetic pacing, dizzying crosscuts, and pulsating digital effects typify the pervasive influence of MTV’s hyperactive music-video formula on current filmmaking. It also reflects the annoying notion held by many documentarians that it is infra dig to use captions to identify interviewees or locales—leaving the viewer at times guessing who or what we are seeing. Nevertheless, Rem Koolhaas: A Kind of Architect, though considerably overlong, captures the character of its subject’s exuberant output with exceptional fidelity.

The unenclosed lift, providing access to all levels of the Bordeaux house (Hans Werlemann/OMA)

Koolhaas Houselife, in contrast, presents a portrait of the architect’s House in Bordeaux of 1994-1998, a country residence outside the village of Floriac and overlooking the river Gironde. This rectangular three-level flat-roofed structure—already under the protection of France’s Caisse Nationale des Monuments Historiques—was commissioned by Jean-François Lemoine, a newspaper editor who was paralyzed in an automobile accident and died only three years after his home was finished. Although housing for the handicapped has become an important specialty of professional practice, relatively few high-style architects have addressed the domestic needs of the disabled, let alone with the imagination Koolhaas demonstrated in this scheme.

After Michael Graves was rendered paraplegic by a disease in 2003, he remodeled his own house of 1977 in Princeton to make it accessible by wheelchair, but those modifications did not significantly alter the Postmodern Classical nature of the interiors. Another Postmodern design in Princeton, Charles Moore and Richard Oliver’s House near New York of 1973-1976, was created for Gordon Gund, who lost his sight to retinitis pigmentosa. That scheme hewed to traditional methods of making a dwelling safely habitable for the disabled, including ample use of protective railings, clearly defined interior circulation, and rounded or chamfered corners.

Characteristically, Koolhaas—whose projects are always radical and frequently perverse—flouted received wisdom about architecture for the handicapped with his House in Bordeaux, which American building inspectors would deem a potential death trap. Yet Lemoine did not want to live in a private Hôtel des Invalides, but rather a dwelling that did not advertise his disability, a fact that Koolhaas Houselife suggests only obliquely—an odd decision given that one of the film’s two directors is Lemoine’s daughter. Instead, she and her collaborator came up with an inspired organizational conceit.

Koolhaas Houselife comprises twenty-four brief segments, separated by short blackouts accompanied by the twang of a stringed instrument like a Seinfeld episode. The production’s unlikely star is the Lemoines’ middle-aged Spanish housekeeper, Guadalupe Acedo, who seems to have wandered in from an Almodóvar comedy about a dysfunctional middle-class Madrid family. Her non-stop, throw-away commentary is by turns gossipy, sagacious, pragmatic, and critical, but she remains self-effacing and sympathetic to her unseen employers (Lemoine’s widow still uses the house) and their bizarre but essentially wonderful domain.

Guadalupe Acedo, in a still from Koolhaas: HouseLife (Ila Bêka and Louise Lemoine)

Acedo makes her initial appearance in the movie’s opening scene as she ascends with her cleaning equipment on the hydraulic platform elevator that Koolhaas placed at the heart of the house to give his wheelchair-bound client easy access to all levels of the three-story structure. The charwoman’s slow-motion rise on the unenclosed lift is accomplished to the lilting strains of Johann Strauss the Younger’s Acceleration Waltz, one of several homages to Stanley Kubrick’s unsurpassable pairing of three-quarter time and futuristic engineering in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).

At first sight, this poker-faced housemaid, stout and impassive, brings to mind the sculptor Duane Hanson’s hyper-realistic multimedia simulacra of defeated and depressed working stiffs. But Acedo is made of sterner stuff, and as she starts bustling through the house on her chores, accompanied by the exhilarating waltz-tempo aria Je veux vivre from Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette, she animates her chilly surroundings to perfection.

Several scenes expose the deplorable physical condition of the building, which is falling apart after little more than a decade. Leaks, which have plagued many houses by Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier because of inadequate detailing, are far from the only problems, not least of which is the rapid degradation of the internal concrete core that holds up the house and frees large portions of the exterior from load-bearing encumbrances. Contradictorily, Koolhaas surmounted the breathtakingly open ground-level public living areas with a topmost bedroom-and-bathroom story ponderously sheathed in Cor-Ten steel and punctuated with portholes like an outsized slab of rust-colored Swiss cheese.

Guadalupe Acedo’s aperçus are generally spot-on despite her frequent demurrals, and at times are hilarious, such as when she jokes about Koolhaas’s enormous ears, or her unaccepted offer to barter laundry services for a house design by him. Far from being immune to the immense cultural cachet that has made the House in Bordeaux a tourist attraction among architectural cognoscenti, she is acceptingly aware, like a canny servant girl in a Mozart or Rossini opera buffa, of this contemporary landmark’s many flaws, and therein personifies the humanity and common sense that can elude even a creative genius.

— Koolhaas: HouseLife is being screened at the Storefront For Architecture, 97 Kenmare Street, New York City, as part of the exhibition “Living Architectures,” which runs through February 27. Rem Koolhaas: A Kind of Architect will be released on DVD in June 2010.

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