Saturday, 2 August 2014

Sleuthing around architecture

These days, we are inundated with tantalising glimpses of so much more architecture than was ever accessible through the traditional media of magazines and books. Sites like Dezeen and archdaily can bring to an international audience spreads of photographs supported by magazine quality architectural drawings, for small projects that otherwise might at best have had exposure in very local circles.The problem is that sometimes one gets very interested indeed in some of the ideas and solutions – and at that point what seemed like generous materials turns out to be not quite enough to answer one's burning questions.

I honestly don't know whether it's a bad thing or a good thing. It might be perversely good, in as much as it forces a more attentive search for clues, stitching together the ideas and the likely experience of the buildings.
I have had just such a forensic engagement with some photographs, drawings and the typically impoverished text, describing what looks to be a seriously thoughtful little project for a holiday home in France.  Both of the sites I mentioned reproduce the same set of photographs and other materials. Neither of them show any editorial effort, beyond arranging their navigational links and slideshows in their house styles. The photographs are what the editors are given by their sources, so I probably shouldn't blame the media too much if less iconic but more informative images are missing.  See the links at the end of this post, but let me lay out some of the speculations to which my search for information led me.

The headline says French holiday home by Raum features bedrooms on wheels, and indeed, it does. As the introductory image above shows, two cute plywood boxes (little more than double the size of the single beds) dock inside the spartan open plan.  They can be wheeled outside on a simple wooden deck to experience the Arcadian setting in a distinctly different way. Immediately one thinks of Bachelard's nostalgia for the cubbyholes of childhood.  But the preference for small private spaces is here married with the other compelling archetype of Thoreau' cabin in the wilderness.

The plan indicates that he living room opens to a patio, which looks like it might be fully walled off from the surrounding forest. As with the cubbies, this looks like one more archetypal idea.  Here is where I would have wanted the photographs to do better to explore the the seminal experiences, apparently created with admirable economy of means. The provided images are just a tease, but not really enough to sample the likely poetic intensity of users positioning themselves in space, in response to sun and shelter, aspect and prospect, privacy and engagement.

The choice of external form, and internal and external finishes also seems worthy of interpretation rather than just illustration. The house is located on a battleaxe block, behind some apparently neo-vernacular contemporary houses. They appear to form a village-like setting, which could so easily have been disrupted by some strident exclamation mark of formal abstraction and discordant glazing patterns. Blackening the house appears to successfully merge it into the background, actually heightening the coherence of the setting.

The next 'aha' moment comes, as far as I can tell from the photos, when you enter the house. I think it can be no accident that the interior of white planes and angles are so evocative of those neo-vernacular forms you just left behind – when viewed from the inside, there is continuity of formal language, that is belied by the apparent contrast on the outside.

And so on it goes.  This looks like it might be very serious architecture dressed up as a lot of fun. Returning to my theme: it is no bad thing that I have to keep switching between images to work things out. Arguably, I learn a lot more just because I make the effort to connect the snippets of information into a story of architectural intent. On balance, I am grateful that materials even as rich as this are so accessible these days. But it doesn't stop me from wishing for a more discriminating choice of imagery, that simply answers more of my questions.

Just to address that point, let me use an example. Look at the way the bedroom boxes dock in the interior, against an external wall. It is tempting to assume from the plan that they are aligning with a window.  In other words, that the architects have made the boxes simultaneously small, enclosed and intimate – yet like proper rooms also connected to light and outlook. Were that the case, it would be masterful. But looking at the outside, there seems to be no window to correspond with what is shown on the plans. The photograph provided is clearly only for convenience of the photographer and not the way the room would be docked – adding to the mystery, and leaving the serious architectural detective with unnecessary doubt.

But do your own explorations. Start with the standard set of photos and plans here on Archdaily and Dezeen. If you find some other good links to this project, I would be grateful if you would leave them as comments.

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