'Koolhaas Houselife': A new film about architect's home

January 28, 2011

By Jonathan Miller

Download Story
(Photo courtesy of BekaFilms)
'Koolhaas Houselife' will screen at screening at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

Rem Koolhaas is the architect behind some of modern design’s most acclaimed buildings. Chicago is home to one – The Student Center at the Illinois Institute of Technology. But it’s a Koolhaus house in Bordeaux, France, that’s the focus of a documentary screening locally, Koolhaas Houselife.

Koolhaas Houselife is screening at the Gene Siskel Film Center Sunday at 4:00 p.m. and Wednesday at 6:15 p.m.

Eight Forty-Eight's film critic Jonathan Miller provided a review:

A house in Bordeaux, France designed by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas and completed in 1998, is the focus of the documentary.

In habitations, there is a hierarchy. A staggering number of people have either no home or only the most rudimentary shelter. A large percentage of us live in houses or apartments that possess no distinctive qualities. A few, by dint of privilege or success, have the opportunity to inhabit "dream homes" — architecture specifically designed to accommodate the personalities, habits and desires of its inhabitants.

Rem Koolhaas’s House in Bordeaux qualifies as one of the dreamiest of dream houses. The home belongs to a couple in Bordeaux who found their construction plans changed decisively when the husband was disabled in a car accident.

On a hill overlooking the town of Bordeaux, Koolhaas designed a house on three levels around a central elevator platform, roughly 9 feet square. On the platform, the client was able to move up and down between floors, to arrive at the different functional spaces in the house. The lower level blurs the separation between outside and inside through the use of glass and spaces open to the exterior without barrier. The levels seem to float upon one another, suspended without immediately evident structural support.

Koolhaas’s project was quickly acknowledged for its brilliance and ingenuity. It has been accorded landmark status by the French government, a remarkably rapid acknowledgement of the quality of the architecture so soon after its completion.

The ultimate customized work of dwelling art, the house is the destination of cultural tours. But for this tour, visitors must remove their shoes.

Enter Guadalupe Acevedo. She is responsible for cleaning the house. The documentary follows her through the different complex tasks entailed in maintaining the idiosyncratic structure, from cleaning tourist footprints to devising ways to manage persistent leaks.

Guadalupe is a matter-of-fact, salt of the earth, indefatigable Spaniard. She knows the house intimately, its flaws and its beauties. The filmmaker’s camera follows her through her routines, complex choreographies of ascents and descents with buckets, mops, vacuum cleaners and so forth. As the cleaning ritual unfolds, a rich and detailed portrayal of the house takes shape, as the filmmakers transform us into voyeurs of subtle traces. The traces outline a story of a cultivated, sensually rich and vital existence, but also of pain, adaptation, and loss. The man for whom the house was designed has died and, as Guadalupe recounts, she hears less laughter than she used to.

Moreover, following her on her many tasks, the film goes beyond mapping the house’s spaces and their functions; it generates a deep appreciation of the quality of experience that Koolhaas’s architecture engenders. As tour guide to the house, Guadalupe Acevedo has no equal.

Nonetheless, it is not Guadalupe’s dream house. As she says, she doesn’t know quite what she’d do if she had the money, but it wouldn’t be this. She points out the design elements that don’t work for her, and arguably, simply don’t work. Furthermore, the house, judging by the constant circulation of contractors and technicians, requires non-stop maintenance and re-engineering. Here, form fathers failure and one might conclude that there’s a correlation between the most creative and idiosyncratic forms and their attendant drawbacks. A search for the source of an invisible leak that leads to an interior inundation shows how this equation works.

That this modest and humorous documentary allows us to understand Koolhaas’s House in Bordeaux both in terms of the challenges it presents as well as the sublimities of experience it offers makes it one of the most honest and successful films about architecture ever made. It gives us a chance to amble around one of the world’s most remarkable private homes – without making any messy footprints.