ARCHITECTURE component : Presentation

Maisons-lieux / Houses-Places
Georges Adamczyk
Director of the école d'architecture, Université de Montréal


Subsumed into the proliferating game of "isms," displaced by social concerns that instead encouraged a search for new typologies of collective housing and urbanism following the heroic march of modernity, houses had again become a secondary preoccupation of the architectural enterprise. Sheltered in the luxury - the ostentation, even - of a well-heeled clientele and only dreamt of by the less wealthy, through advertising, they had lost their status as objects of daily consumption and become ordinary, mass-produced models. The endless replication of detached houses, bungalows and ranch houses, substitutes for country homes or antique villas, gave birth to the ubiquitous fake landscapes of suburbia. For all that, though, the house has periodically resurfaced throughout the history of architectural experimentation.

During the past decade, the house has again become a significant locus of architectural research and innovation. Taken together, the beautiful meditations of architect John Hejduk - his projects, drawings and poems dedicated to the house - make up a unique body of work that speaks to the tragedy of life. In art, this theme emerges as a questioning whereby the subject merges with the structure and the site, both of which are conceived as an artifact in our image. The journal Exposé devoted its entire third issue to this question in 1997, examining 36 house designs presented at Arc-en-Rêve, Bordeaux following a call for ideas from young architects that same year. The recent exhibition The Un-Private House, at New York's Museum of Modern Art, pointed to new trends that seem to reinstate earlier speculations by Héring, Keisler and Nelson: now, with today's material resources and information technologies, it is possible to build and inhabit structures that embody those ideas. Without doubt, two houses are emblematic of this period: the Villa Dall'Ava and the Maison à Floirac, both designed by OMA/Rem Koolhaas. "Experimentalism", once accused of drifting toward utopia or withdrawing into pure function, seems here to have taken up with the sublime again, and reinstituted the artistic value of the architectural process.

The Biennale de Montréal 2000 affords an exceptional opportunity for acknowledging and appreciating contemporary Canadian creations in this field. Where do we stand? Following from the Papineau House on le Verte (1963) and that of Barton Myers in Toronto (1970) - the former in the countryside and the latter in the city - which stretched to its limit the tension between autonomy of form and environmental context, the house designs of Dan Hanganu, the Patkaus, Brian MacKay-Lyons and Jacques Rousseau established, in a way, the new "experimentalist" thrust of Canadian architecture. Hanganu's Corot Street houses on Nuns' Island (1982), the Patkaus' Pyrch House in Victoria (1983), Rousseau's Colonial House in Montreal (1986), and MacKay-Lyons's Rubadoux/Cameron Studio in Rose Bay (1989) formalize a new relationship between site, structure and spatial ideal. The space is not limited to its utilitarian function, but rather made part of the design, so that living in it becomes a constantly renewed act of settling in a place.

This act of settlement as inaugural gesture is superbly demonstrated in the most modest of these projects, the Rubadoux/Cameron Studio. A hybrid building that borrows both from ordinary rural and coastal buildings, it is raised on stilts to graze the land, so that the house is in the landscape and the landscape, in the house. Everything is conjoined: landscape, structure and typology, determined geographically, socially and economically. This tripartite context, though, conditions not so much the form as the process of transfiguration that will make of the landscape, the structure and the living space a site at once familiar and new. Is this "critical regionalism," "romanticism" or a return to the "picturesque"? Obviously, houses designed by Canadian architects have their similarities: the basic archetypes - wall, door, window, roof, fireplace and also bridge and deck- are often present, that is, they are materialized and have a real presence, but their layout and their function are revisited. Likewise for the topology and geometry of the sites, which eschew the standard of the type, to be reconfigured according to a usage approach that embraces without fail the totality of the space, in actuality or in virtuality, simultaneously inside and outside. The construction is nearly always executed by means of familiar technical elements, but with individual structural elements redesigned, specified and replaced, to appear as a primary expression of the installation. The choice of materials is a matter of architectural intention, and no longer a strictly technical decision. One might say this architecture has an existence, and thus differentiates itself from an architecture bereft of place, body or history.

It is this manifold dialogue with the landscape, structure and typical space of the house that awaits visitors to this exhibition, which encompasses a selection of 28 houses and Canadian designers from the Pacific Coast to the Maritimes, via Ontario and Québec. On display are the works of the following architects: A.J. Diamond Donald Schmitt and Company, Affleck & De la Riva, Blue Sky, Bosses Design, Brian MacKay-Lyons, Gauthier Daoust Lestage, Ian MacDonald, Hal Ingberg and Mark Poddubiuk, Jacques Rousseau, Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg, Marc-André Tellier, Kohn and Snhier, Patkau Architects, Peter Cardew, Pierre Thibault, Shim-Sutcliffe, and Saucier & Perrotte. The exhibition is designed as a travelling exhibition. A visual triptych of photographs, drawings and explanatory notes is devoted to each of the houses, all built between 1988 and today.

At first sight, these architects (and their clients/partners) have nothing in common, except that they live north of the 49th parallel; once brought together, however, their singular works seem to illuminate each other and beg us to share a unique vision - one in which the act of inhabiting has never been divorced from the act of building. At a thousand leagues from cyberspace, the spirit of exploration and the "experimentalist" philosophy of Canadian architects can still find roots in situ, at the end of an alley, on a rock at the edge of the ocean, or in a simple clearing - to be embodied in a house, to engender a landscape.

This exhibition is jointly produced by Groupe Studio Cube and the Biennale de Montréal.

Georges Adamczyk


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