This film is centred around one of the masterpieces of contemporary architecture: the House in Bordeaux, France, designed in 1998 by Rem Koolhaas / OMA. Unlike most movies about architecture, Koolhaas HouseLife focuses less on explaining the building and more on letting the viewer enter the invisible bubble of its daily intimacy. The film is an experiment that presents a new way of looking at architecture and broadens the field of its representation.
Ila Beka and Louise Lemoine’s Koolhaas HouseLife brings architect Rem Koolhaas’ House in Bordeaux to life, in an incredibly tactile documentary. Divided into 24 brief chapters, the documentary presents a mosaic-like profile of this icon of contemporary architecture. Rem Koolhaas, founder of the Office of Metropolitan Architecture and author of Delirious New York, is widely recognised for his urban visions. While The House in Bordeaux contains stunning juxtapositions and forms, Beka and Lemoine do not respond to the construction as students of architecture. Rather they inspect the practical values of the house based on the premise that the utility of a space designed for habitation can be assessed primarily by the inhabitants who interact with the building. In the case of the Bordeaux house, Guadalupe, a middle aged cleaner, is the one who carries the responsibility of the daily maintenance of the building. She is the film’s central character, the guide who reveals the features of The House through her chores of cleaning, mopping, vacuuming, dusting, watering and wiping down the surfaces and objects. Instead of a superficial, deferential type of conversation, the housekeeper frankly depicts the quirks and the flaws of the building. In the chapter entitled “The Stairs” the camera observes her as she carries several buckets, a vacuum cleaner and various other implements up several flights of stairs. She admits, “I can’t take spiral ones,” and is then shown balancing precariously on a tiny spiral staircase with her mop and bucket, reaching above her head. In “The Slopes” she hoses a patch of thirsty grass that needs constant watering, and which is surrounded by panels that overheat in the sun. She remarks, “Here you will find art … not …” leaving the sentence unfinished.
The documentary objectively presents the fragility of the house. In “The Leaks” and “Positive Investigations”, Beka and Lemoine explore structural faults. During a spell of rain several leaks occur and Guadalupe is frustrated by the ongoing drips that add moppingup to her daily chores. A comical perspective is added as we watch a team of engineers who, upon investigating the source of the leaks, induce a “cataract” of water that descends into the room, and everyone scurries to protect the television. The experience of living in a house is fore-grounded, all too often, in architectural discourse of iconic buildings that are represented frozen in time as shrines to be admired or marvelled at. But in this documentary, Beka and Lemoine eschew the iconic image in favour of a realistic engagement with the house as a living space.
Beka poses a question about the dichotomy between aesthetics and functionality to Rem Koolhaas in the “extras” section of the DVD. Koolhaas admits that there is discordance between an idealistic design and daily life, the concepts of utility against the lure of seduction. The architect suggests that the market system emphasises seduction over functionality where the life and use of the building are subservient to the aesthetics. This is exactly the conflict that Beka and Lemoine have captured through the various sequences that illustrate the functional flaws of this magnificent structure. The astute choice of the housekeeper as the guide is masterful in conveying this dichotomy.
The audience experiences life in the house through the actions of the housekeeper, perhaps the person who knows the building and the inhabitants in the most intimate manner. She discloses the quirky personality of “Madame”, who prefers chairs placed at a certain angle, and the changing moods in the house after the passing of “Monsieur.” Buildings are given life by the human interactions that occur within. Beka documents the state of habitation of the interior spaces – the placing of the furniture, the books on the shelves, gauze curtains, the television set in the living room. In “All Grey” Guadalupe is in the predominantly grey kitchen and the unfriendly placing of the bench bothers her, as does the monochrome grey concrete of the materials. Beka’s shot of her reflection through the window shows her surrounded by grey tones and she remarks that only her grave should be “in grey.”
Beka’s housekeeper subtly evolves into a heroic character, blurring the boundaries of the architectural profile of this documentary genre. He asks Guadalupe about her favourite section of the house, and she replies: “I like all of it … but I am just here to do the cleaning.” She is extremely aware of her position as a cleaner. She admits that she knows nothing about the design or the architecture of the house, subjects that lie beyond her chores. She has never been informed about the features of the house, and hence after six years is still puzzled by the structure which does not seem to have any supporting walls – “where does it hold?” she remarks. But she is not merely a housekeeper, she also has an intimate connection and appreciation of design and an inner desire is revealed when she jokes that she would like to live in a designer house. This is a paradox in the hierarchy of society – she is a cleaner and, despite her expertise in running such a house, her chances of ever living in a unique architectdesigned house herself are minimal.
The documentary is balanced between quiet observation hinting at the fragility of the house and celebration of the inspirational elements of the building. In “Automata” the automated components of the house move with choreographed fluidity set to a classical waltz. Mechanical components moving in perfect alignment are represented as objects of beauty. The Porthole, a large, mobile component of the exterior wall, is observed rotating until it comes to a halt, simultaneously covering and revealing views beyond. The final shot of the documentary has a theatrical quality: it is dusk, the camera observes the mighty facade of the house, a lady in a red dress silently moves through the two platforms of the building and the lights slowly fade out.
Koolhaas HouseLife is a novel documentary: the filmmakers see their role not only as observers, documenting the features of the House for an archival purpose, but also as commentators, who evaluate architecture from a “livedin” perspective. The audience is transformed from passive observers of architecture to actively engaging with and experiencing the spaces. Finally, the film emerges as a contemporary philosophical discussion about the very purpose of design.