Dialectical Destinations: Two Solo Houses

[A version of this text was originally published in Baumeister December 2017]

Contemporary architecture has become such an intrinsic component of mass-tourism over the last decades that a new building type has emerged: “touristic architecture”. Not to be confused with architectural tourism, a branch of cultural tourism that focuses on built heritage, touristic architecture is, rather, brand-new construction designed largely to appeal to a certain “way of seeing” that is constructed through photographic reproduction in mass media. This “tourist gaze”, as the late John Urry termed it, creates a set of expectations upon built works that is becoming increasingly widespread as global media and tourism grow. The tourist gaze is especially well suited to architecture, cities, landscapes and other site-specific constructions because a place can only be experienced “authentically” or firsthand through personal displacement, and authenticity is increasingly becoming highly sought after as compensation for our technologized society.

The evolution of the tourist gaze follows the mass-cultural development of travel. Historically, travel was the exclusive reserve of the upper classes, as exemplified by the aristocratic grand tour of antiquity. Mass tourism is a product of the relatively recent modernization and democratization of travel that occurred in the late 19th and 20th centuries, when mobility, infrastructure and industrial production techniques were revolutionized and labour struggles led to more leisure time for workers. Tourism is a quintessentially modern invention that could not have come about without technological and social progress, and without which modern architecture as we know it would probably never have emerged.

In his 1936 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, Walter Benjamin writes of “the attentive concentration of a tourist before a famous building”, contrasting sight with the more “distracted” sense of touch through which ordinary buildings are perceived in our everyday lives. Benjamin describes a way of seeing architecture that is conditioned by mass-reproduced media – especially photography – and the notoriety and fame this can generate. Urry’s “tourist gaze” is similarly conditioned by a fabrication and reproduction of certain sets of expectations, especially with respect to authenticity and heritage. The packaging of heritage to make it attractive is precisely what creates the tourist gaze.

Touristic architecture goes one step further, directly forging future heritage. Whereas most heritage buildings were not originally designed to accommodate tourists but became tourist attractions over time, touristic architecture considers the presence of tourists from the start. As Rem Koolhaas has pointed out: “Through [heritage] preservation’s ever-increasing ambitions, the time lag between new construction and the imperative to preserve has collapsed from two thousand years to almost nothing. From retrospective, preservation will soon become prospective.” Koolhaas’s “prospective” form of heritage preservation effectively exists already in the form of touristic architecture.

Buildings specifially intended to attract tourists are nothing new, however these have traditionally been relatively isolated occurrences. The scale at which touristic architecture is being built today is unprecedented; so much so, that the very word “architecture” itself is becoming exclusively associated with highly spectacular marvels of construction that must be seen to be believed. This is creating a new and radically different mode of built-environment reception in which questions of the photogenic or “instagrammable” quality of built works take precedence over other considerations.

Barcelona, Europe’s 16th most populated city yet its fourth most-visited, exemplifies par excellence the important role played by modern and contemporary architecture in urban tourism. Its political and business leaders have, for decades, used touristic architecture as a strategic planning tool, both for regenerating decrepit neighbourhoods, as well as for “dispersing” tourists over a greater area to alleviate overcrowding at established heritage sites. Relatively recent works such as the Mercat dels Encants (by b720 Fermín Vázquez), probably the world’s only flea market ever to become the subject of an architectural competition, as well as the nearby Torre Glòries (Jean Nouvel), MediaTIC (Cloud 9), or the Design Hub (MBM) all feature certain media- and therefore ultimately tourist-friendly characteristics such as bright colours, exorbitant cantilevers, or technological gimmickry. Tourism has grown so much in Barcelona in the last 25 years, that it is coming to be perceived by many citizens as a cause of “problems” against which political pressure must be exerted. “Overtourism” has entered the lexicon.

Touristic architecture in cities, mainly in the form of spectacular public buildings such as museums or market halls, is geared mainly toward what John Urry calls the “collective gaze” of mass-tourism. But there is also a “Romantic gaze” that is associated with more solitary and exclusive forms of travel. A good example of this is the Solo Houses development in a remote mountainous region of the province of Teruel, Spain; about three hours from Barcelona by car. Solo Houses is a project to build over a dozen villas designed by different architects, of which two have been completed so far: the first in 2013 by the Chilean studio Pezo Von Ellrichshausen, and the second by the Belgians Office Kersten Geers David Van Severen (KGDVS). Works by architects such  as Sou Fujimoto, Johnston Marklee, Christ & Gantenbein, Didier Faustino, Studio Mumbai, Anne Holtrop, Barozzi Veiga, Rintala Eggerston, MOS, Go Hasegawa, Kühn Malvezzi, Tatiana Bilbao, TNA, Smiljan Radić and Bas Smets are planned.

The venture is the brainchild of Christian Bourdais, a French property developer who, together with art producer Eva Albarran, operates the Solo Gallery in Paris, a space dedicated to “architects who display a truly artistic approach in their work.” Solo claims to be “the first contemporary art gallery to exhibit works of architects in their own right.” According to the literature, Solo Houses is “an ongoing project of contemporary small resort prototypes”, presumably intended as a small hide-away community for urban gallery-goers.

As vacation homes that are occupied temporarily, the ambitious Solo Houses experiment shows how architecture increasingly occupies leisure as opposed to everyday space-time. More and more, architecture is being framed as an exceptional “event”; an “experience” that social networks entice us to share online. Considering that it was precisely housing where Modernist architectural experimentation encountered the greatest resistance to public acceptance, it is interesting to see how tourist accommodation –which is temporary– is proving to be an ideal vehicle for contemporary architectural experimentation. When architecture is intended to be occupied only briefly, architectural experimentation —understood as untried materials, methods, or forms— is accepted more willingly, even embraced as something novel to try out for a change.

Moreover, when travelling in far-away places rather than living our regularly-patterned everyday lives, we become more sensitive to our immediate environment as well as more accepting of “other” spatial practices. This explains why architectural experimentation is gravitating toward travel-related events such as biennials, exhibitions, fairs, and —as can be seen in this case— tourism resorts.

The Solo Houses completed to date are certainly experimental, having little in common with neither the everyday vernacular of the region they are situated in (northeastern Spain), nor with each other. Among the few elements both Solo Houses have in common are a central outdoor courtyard containing a swimming pool, a feature which also makes them very Mediterranean, as well as highly bisymmetrical primary geometry: one Solo House is perfectly square in plan, the other perfectly circular.

solo house google earthOtherwise, they are very different from both each other as well as the vernacular. The square house, by Pezo von Elrichhausen, is constructed mainly of in-situ concrete and raised above the ground, while the round house, by Office KGDVS, is a concrete and steel single-story ground-scraper. While the outdoor courtyard of the former house establishes an axis mundi open mainly to views of the sky, that of the latter opens horizontally into the landscape in multiple directions, encouraging a more immediate sensorial relationship with its surroundings rather than communion with the cosmos. The square house enables nature to be more distantly observed from an elevated position of privilege, while the round house encourages an immersion in nature.

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The way each of the two Solo Houses is sited reveals this difference. Both houses are situated at the end of a footpath leading from a private gravel road with small parking areas for cars. However, Pezo Von Ellrichshausen’s square tree-shaped house is elevated above a sloped clearing in the woods, dominating the surrounding landscape, while the low, ring-shaped Office KGDVS house is sited within and amongst trees, making its presence in the landscape more discreet.

DSCF5946The square Pezo Von Ellrichshausen house is approached and entered from below by way of symmetrical exterior concrete stairs, while the round Office KGDVS house, which in reality consists of three separate pavilions beneath a flat, looping concrete canopy, has multiple entry points. Moreover, exterior façades of these pavilions can be completely opened by a sliding mechanism, exposing interior spaces to the exterior elements.

Upon entering the Pezo Von Ellrichshausen house’s vestibule, the first sight is that of a window onto the depths of a swimming pool, recalling Adolf Loos’s design for Josephine Baker’s house. A pair of symmetrical interior corridors lead around the pool to a helical stair that emerges outdoors again at the central pool courtyard on the main level of the house, the plan of which is based on a sixteen-square grid. The Office KGDVS house, by contrast, uses a covered exterior looping walkway that acts as a courtyard porch to connect the different pavilions and their interior spaces. While the former house establishes a spatial hierarchy by virtue of its circulatory determinacy, the latter is completely devoid of spatial hierarchy thanks to its circular organization and its multiple points of entry.

DSCF5943DSCF5938The private exterior spaces at the centre of each of the houses, typical in the Mediterranean, are also remarkably different. The central patio of the Pezo Von Ellrichshausen house, enclosed on all four sides and open mainly to above, is a space of formal and material purity that establishes decorum, whereas the Office KGDVS house offers a variety of outdoor spaces where gathering, formal or informal, can occur in different settings and for different purposes, including outdoor cooking and dining.

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The two Solo Houses completed to date offer not only very diverse ways of vacationing in a house, but also show, more generally, how architectural experimentation is ideally suited for a touristic, non-everyday way of life, in this case in relative solitude. It would seem that architectural adventures are better suited for a nomad than a homebody; Benjamin’s flâneur rather than Heidegger’s dweller.

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