Friday, November 29, 2013

Lifting Architecture Off the Ground

I want to take you back to 1930. This Modern house was designed by Le Corbusier, the most important architect of the 20th century. It is called Villa Savoye (pronounced Savo-a). Le Corbusier saw himself as a messiah and believed that architecture could change the world. A chapter in his book is titled “Architecture or Revolution.” You must understand that because architecture is so expensive to build it has historically served the the very rich and powerful. Le Corbusier believed that new technologies of his time could raise the standard of living for everyone and minimize the divide between the rich and the poor.

This house is a good example of Le Corbusier’s 5 Points of Architecture: (1) Instead of using walls to support upper floors, he could now use pilotis, many thin pillars with steel inside them; (2) Because walls are no longer carrying the weight of the building, they can be placed freely on each floor, creating a free plan; (3) The same is true for the free facade, meaning that the front of the building can be designed like an abstract painting; (4) the roof garden allowed him to reproduce the natural ground above the building; and finally (5) the horizontal window creates an abstract view from the inside, cutting off the ground and the sky. Whew!

Actually Jeffrey Kipnis says that all 5 points are about lifting architecture off the ground. In his view, creating a new abstract ground frees us from a feudal society where ownership of land represented power over the poor.

The Elevator Room

The first work of Architecture I want to introduce you to is called Maison-à-Bordeaux. It was designed by Rem Koolhaas who is one of the most important architects of our time. Rem is a good writer (he began his career as a journalist), a good observer of society, and an exceptional architect. He also has a good sense of humor.

The house was commissioned by a couple from Bordeaux, France. The husband had become paralyzed due to a recent car accident and he was now confined to a wheelchair. Rem designed a house that has three floors: the ground floor opens out to a beautiful lawn, the middle floor is very transparent and provides panoramic views, and the top floor (the wine cellar) has tiny windows. The lack of big windows makes it look like a heavy block floating above the transparent floor.

The most interesting aspect of this house is a small room at the center which is actually a hydraulic elevator. This is the office for the handicapped man. The elevator-room goes up and down the house and becomes part of each floor in a completely natural way.

Usually, providing handicapped access to a building is an annoying problem for architects. It means having to add elevators or ramps everywhere. One of Rem’s greatest abilities is to use simple building ingredients in new ways. Here, Rem turns the accessibility problem into an empowering possibility.