between reality and fiction, appropriation and representation, one floor and the other.
Originally published by Log.
I can’t escape. Some more minutes and I’ll be landing in Bordeaux. Afterwards, I’ll catch a taxi to Floirac. Seems like it’s raining. I cannot keep any recollection from my last visit to the house in Bordeaux. Only that of a desire for the elevator to shoot towards the sky, through the clouds, towards the infinite…
I know K. believes that the elevator may, now, after the death of José, be a ludic space, of fun, the opposite of everything it had represented during José’s life in that house. But that space was José. How is it possible to appropriate it, after his death? I’m not asking about the possible ways of appropriation of a space which, by itself, already allows countless spatial solutions, transforming, radically, in over a thousand ways, all the space around it. But in the impossibility of that space becoming, ever, once again occupied after the death of its (main) inhabitant. The countless possibilities, that the house in Bordeaux offered, depended on José’s mobility, of his will, of his expression. I can’t imagine any metamorphosis of the house now that José is dead. It wasn’t just the space of the elevator, but the whole house, which depended formally on José’s condition. It was, also, through José’s story that it became known, and seduced... How will it be now?
The rain only makes the journey worse. In front, sinuously, follows a bus, which parks in the lower part of the terrain of the house in Bordeaux. Several people get out, holding umbrellas, photo and video cameras in hand. It seems today is the Heritage Day during which it is possible to visit the house in Bordeaux, recently added to a list of buildings of historic interest in France. I believe that the interest of a tourist-architect for the house in Bordeaux is not limited to a curiosity for the form, the composition, the structure, the materials, the different views of the landscape from the house and of the house from the landscape… But to a wish to observe all those mechanical elements at work, as if one only really entered the house, when all of its secrets were revealed or its story told. And K. speaks very little about his houses and the houses speak very little of the lives they hold within... Even after José’s death, the house in Bordeaux hasn’t lost the mystery and charm, I think, while looking at the countless shoes by the entrance. I follow the group of tourists, now barefoot, to avoid getting the house muddy.
The interest of the Voyeur is not that for the image of the house in Bordeaux, which he knows from so many publications, as any each tourist in front of a famous monument. The owners of all these pairs of shoes don’t crave the photography of the perforated box seen from the Bordeaux city side or the perfect shot of the infinite emptiness of the elevator, but the unveiling of the several livings in the house, if possible in the form of a narrative, space by space, person by person, how each one inhabits the house. Very little is known about the occupation of a building after it’s built. It’s still unknown, in most cases. But is it possible to represent the living of the house, of a certain space? Being able to represent the living of a house equates to discovering how it is inhabited, unveiling all that mystery contained within walls, ceilings and floors. What is it good for?
Another day. How this house is perfect in the morning, while everyone is still asleep… Without José’s presence, the house seems empty, almost abandoned, a ghost house like the curtains in the room’s transparent floor, which float unexpectedly and seem to dance. They’re still drawn, wrapping the room in a warm light, until Guadalupe arrives and ties them up near a corner. Guadalupe is the practical side of this house. Responsible for the daily tasks of cleaning and caring, it is possible to follow her everywhere and see how everything works – things that wouldn’t even cross my mind – or revealing the little dysfunctions of the house. She goes around the house, goes up on the elevator platform, arranges and aligns the books in José’s bookshelf so they don’t fall, goes down the stairs and, in the kitchen, puts on her apron, ready for another day of cleaning.
Guadalupe usually prefers to go up the spiral stairs. They are so narrow that, as she goes up, using the vacuum cleaner’s tube as a cane, she rises the cleaning equipment from one step to the next. Guadalupe says the width of the stairs is just enough for her to pass with the vacuum cleaner. For Guadalupe, everything works to the rhythm, to the size, of the vacuum cleaner, the bucket and the mop.
Guadalupe lives, with her husband, in the house next door: one living room, where they watch the news, a small kitchen, one bedroom – Guadalupe’s husband seems to leave everything in a mess – one bathroom, one go around and that’s it. From the window of the living room, Guadalupe can see who arrives, but as she is small and the window high, she has to jump or get on her tiptoes. Guadalupe only goes out at weekends.
Meanwhile, I found the House Doctor. Since José, Marie and their children moved in to the house still under construction, some mechanisms stayed unresolved or, with the passing of the years, are revealing some problems. The Doc is the one responsible for the various repairs of the house and, generally, he finds a solution. Today, the joystick isn’t working. Among other things… The joystick, which opens the front door of the house, just from the outside, is similar to a small vertical sculpture, illuminated at night, fragile-looking and, on a more abrupt gesture, seems to break on Guadalupe’s hands. The books fall, the joystick is defective, the switches are coming off the wall, the elevator platform gets stuck… Everything seems a total disaster! After all, the house is under permanent construction or repair.
The window cleaning is assured by a specific company. Once a month, two workers dedicate themselves to the unique experience of cleaning the glass windows in the living room, about six meters above the ground, the skylight over the elevator and some of the other windows. It is a work that requires some physical exercise and a lot of balance. At the end, I love to see the skylight over the elevator being cleaned. Little by little, the sky is unveiling itself blue, once more blue, shining, translucent. Infinite… Now I think that I still haven’t seen Marie or the kids. They are probably not at home or have disappeared into their own worlds.
I keep following Guadalupe back and forth. Guadalupe goes up the ramp of the patio in a zigzag motion. She says this is the best way not to be tired at the end. Vincent waters the few existent lawn parcels in the patio. One should have special care with the area near the metallic door, because it reflects the sun and burns the nearby lawn. I watch Guadalupe, through the window, in the laundry by the kitchen, ironing. It’s ten to six.
With the vacuum cleaner in hand, off goes Guadalupe vacuuming everything she finds. First, the kitchen. She displaces the movable furniture below the bench, vacuums their drawers, the countless bottles, the ceiling, the door… She shakes the carpet on the patio, puts it back in place. Onto the top floor. She vacuums Marie’s bathroom and bedroom, the elevator platform, every single corner she finds. I haven’t seen it yet. Guadalupe decides to go to José’s bedroom – Monsieur’s bedroom, as she calls it. The nurse and the physiotherapist used to wait for him here. There were always family, friends, a lot of friends, around. His work desk was on the platform and, at night, the guests stayed on one side and José on the other. “This house was made for him. Just for him, due to his handicap. Everyone was sad,” reminds Guadalupe. Her sadness is evident, too. “I never heard Madame laughing like before. She used to laugh in the evenings with their friends. But now… She laughs sometimes, but it’s not like before.” José’s memory is inevitable. I was occupying myself with Guadalupe’s affairs, following her from one side to the other, trying to forget the inevitable, but it’s impossible to alienate oneself from José’s memory inscribed in the house. There isn’t any other house like this, that is someone this way. I like the sound of the pebbles, when Guadalupe passes to the kids’ bedroom. It distracts me again. Guadalupe thinks that they were bringing the pebbles from time to time to put them here. Not all of them, that would give too much work. But some like the one she shows me.
Again in the kitchen. Marie likes the chairs out of line, some scattered around the kitchen, another in the middle of it, sighs Guadalupe, without understanding the reason. But she leaves them like her boss wants, even if it hinders her tasks… Between one and other, I laugh with Guadalupe. Like now when she remembers the day when she got stuck on the elevator platform. It had jammed with something – that’s why now she is always worried that nothing stops the free platform movement – and she had to get out by the book-shelf! The stairs that unify the terrace of the level one to the terrain level are another of Guadalupe’s preoccupations. Because they are open, when it rains, the floor below floods. The terrace was reconstructed a few time ago, but there is still the void between Marie’s bedroom and the kids’ bedroom. Guadalupe draws attention to the reinforcement iron that can be seen below the stairs which are deteriorating day after day. There are things that pass unaware. I’d never thought about those stairs. Actually, I’d never looked at this house like Guadalupe shows it. I’ve always inhabited it by its image. By the images that I keep in my memory. But it remains so beautiful despite its little defects or imperfections. When someone asks Guadalupe what her favourite room in the house is, Guadalupe doesn’t even hesitate and says that she likes every part, too. But she also says that she doesn’t live here, she just does the cleaning… But during all this time, Guadalupe is one of the few people who inhabit the house that I found more often. Although not living in the house, Guadalupe inhabits it, creates her own space, even if strictly functional, inside it. It cannot be in any way underestimated, when a house supposedly cannot abstract its machine character. And not just that of its heart.
I am at the terrace and I see Guadalupe passing through the aerial footbridge from the kids’ bedroom into Marie’s bedroom. First, she has to open one door, open the other, close the first one and close the other. I forget the function of things, it looks like a choreography. But, once more, it rains and it’s windy. The curtains flutter. Vincent, from the next door, signals: “It rains, it rains!” I think I see Marie putting different containers by the windows to collect the water, meanwhile Guadalupe explains the windows haven’t all been replaced yet. As someone has explained to Guadalupe, the house is moving due to the terrain where it was built and with the different oscillations the glass in the windows cracks. But the replacing hasn’t finished yet. The construction works don’t finish and the rain doesn’t seem to end too. In the spiral staircase there is a hole from the concrete formwork which wasn’t covered. Guadalupe is very proud of the system she invented for the water pouring from the hole, instead of running down the wall, to fall straight into a bucket on one of the stairs’ steps instead. Guadalupe has worked here for six years and the construction works never end. “It’s worst than the Escorial, in Spain!”
A new day. Today, it isn’t raining anymore. The specialists, as Vincent calls them, are here to discover where the leaks are. Marie is accompanying them. As I remember, this has always been one of the most serious of the house problems. I know Marie has already been told some stories about famous architects who had had problems with leaks, but I don’t think Marie likes to have the house flooded whenever it rains. “Stop!” shouts one of the specialists when he comes upon a huge waterfall right near the television set on the ground floor. The investigations were positive. Two leaks are found. Will it be this time? The problems don’t seem to finish and ten years have already gone by. Ten years…
A break. I watch the house in automatic. The platform goes up, the parapet (of the last floor) unfolds to the ground. Again on the platform, the glass parapet goes down until it disappears off the ground. The windows open. The blackout of the elevator window slowly reveals the light of day. On the television, “Mon Oncle”: Mrs. Arpel runs to switch on the gurgle of the metallic fish. There is nothing more appropriate, I think. The huge window of the living room slides away. The cylindrical metallic door opens. The platform goes up, one more time and… the toasts are ready!
Still with the series of automatisms in my thought and the series of misfortunes of the last days, the Arpel’s house can be considered a foresight of this house. I find Guadalupe again. “There is nothing to hide, just pipes”, she tells me, lifting a cover on the pavement which accesses the pipes that pass there. “All pipes are going to the big beam”, she adds. It’s not a novelty, but Guadalupe seems to like talking about the functional aspects of the house, besides changing Marie’s bed. And continues: “I don’t understand the house, you see, it’s suspended… Ah! No! It doesn’t have walls, I don’t know how it stands up. Really, I don’t know.” Guadalupe seems to be as afraid about the elevator getting stuck between floors, as about the house falling down. “The house is suspended!” she exclaims several times. And, in the living room, she asks, one more time, if one sees where the house is suspended. No, we cannot see. But Guadalupe is not the only one to have this sensation of instability or that of a house suspended or floating in the air like a balloon… “Yes! The views are magnificent”, sighs Guadalupe.
From the inside to the outside. Inside the bathtub, Guadalupe cleans the little round windows. I like to call them “eye-windows”, because they focus certain points of the landscape, directing our attention to one specific detail of it. But the city, from the opaque and perforated concrete box, can only be seen through the enormous ocular window on one of its edges. From there, one sees the river and the whole city of Bordeaux… “Is that enough?” asks Guadalupe. Actually, the small windows of the opaque box were conditioned by the structure of the house. And the box should look as monolithic and heavy as possible for, in the end, it rested on the glass box, seemed to float impossibly in the air… Guadalupe undoubtedly likes to appreciate the landscape. And for her the house is unique just like the hairband Marie has in her bathroom. An enormous transparent hairband, with a kind of large bow half dissolved… Guadalupe has never talked to K. about the house. After all, she’s not the owner of the house. But she used to say to him joking that she wanted a house project for two terrains she had inherited from her mother in Spain. Guadalupe, enjoying herself, tells this story while cleaning the revolving mirrors in Marie’s bedroom. Suddenly, I think I see another person in the bedroom… I continue distracted with Guadalupe’s story about K. K. used to give her his clothes to wash and iron and then thank her, but Guadalupe used to say he had to go to Spain and draw her a house! And K. laughed! Always very polite. With his big hears he’s aware of everything. “He listens everything, everything, everything!”
I am still intrigued with the image in Marie’s bedroom, but Guadalupe continues opining on the house, this time in the kitchen. “You see the kitchen… is all in concrete! I would have preferred in granite, it’s more beautiful…” She takes one piece of the mobile furniture below the kitchen bench to show how inconvenient this is in the middle of the way. “We are passing through and oops!” Today, Guadalupe seems more critical again. But this time, from one functional aspect, she passes to an aesthetic one. “I wouldn’t have made it this way. Not at all! For my taste… I don’t’ know what I would have done if I had the money! I wouldn’t have the means to pay, no, not really! It’s too grey… It’s all grey! I understand other people’s taste. But, for me… If one day I have the means, I would like to get something built, but never too grey! Yes, I would get my grave made in grey! For my funeral!” It’s all a matter of taste.
After all those rainy days, we go by the garden at the back of the house (the opposite side of the main entrance patio) to the swimming pool. Surrounded by trees, a long swimming pool reminding others drawn by K. I like to think about the swimming pool and the elevator as little fetishes in K.’s houses. This one is particularly elegant. The water is limpid and natural in tune with the silent landscape that surrounds it… Even if it comes to my imagination the Olympic swimmers of the Moscow pool arriving in New York, when Guadalupe says that this pool is “for exercise, to swim in length”.
Back to the house, the exterior ocular porthole turns round and round and round and round… The night falls slowly. One can hear the crickets, the cicadas. A small breeze is felt. And the night in the city far off. I see Marie leaned on a tree trunk, with her red dress and the hair slightly tied. And, then, her reflection in the windows of the living room. A tenuous and distant present as she no longer inhabited the house from which she unlaces the curtain, runs it along the living room, the living room where she switches the lights off and disappears. Just the little holes let some light still pass through… Diffuse…
As the credits began to roll, Alice stands up perplexed from the chair, with the room still dark, to Storefront’s door to get some air. Guadalupe turned out very well. The imminent voyage to Bordeaux was by this time almost an obsession. And the film projection seemed to her a good opportunity to revisit the house after José’s death without even leaving New York. On the other hand, she has always been interested in the films that could somehow show certain buildings, cities, spaces, landscapes from the different angles of their inhabitants, of the ways of occupation, along a continuous and constant or fractured and saturated time. The photographs don’t interest her so much. The image by itself causes her boredom. She needs a narrative linking the different constructed images. If there exists one essential and common characteristic between photography and cinema, as for Benjamin, of both being able to bring the unconscious of the real to the surface, awaking the human eye, through the mechanical lens, to the unknown and until then unavailable, the cinema still allows a narrative that unifies people, landscape and times (even if it is a fragmentary, fragmented or disconnected narrative). The cinema seduces, mostly, by its fiction more than the photography or the image by itself.
The way people inhabit space was always one of Alice’s preoccupations. And seeing the daily life of Guadalupe (and other characters) in the house in Bordeaux, putting everything else by now aside, the doubt surfaced: how is it possible to represent the living experience of a certain space? And what should be taken out of that representation? The question of the representation is not new in her thought. She always have thought about the representation in architecture as an own way of expression, perfectly autonomous, that implies the manipulation of the real and the construction of new meanings. It interests her the architecture that is a photography or a film and not the architecture that is represented in a photography or in a film (which limits itself reproducing, by image or by word, the reality). But, by this time, the question appears related, in a very specific way, with her way of looking at architecture. The doubt came right in the beginning of the film with the group of tourists walking inside the house showing that today we inhabit and appropriate spaces mostly by their representation, usually images. In this sense, the film is a sort of tourism also, thinks Alice, seated in the small, dark and sultry room of the Storefront, walking in José’s home, for the first time, after his death, on a windy and rainy day. And Alice walks in the house (even with it being familiar to her and, by this moment of the film, familiar to all) with the same expectation of all those tourists: to observe the space or to see what already knows, but, mostly, to discover what really happens in the space, how it is inhabited. Until today, this moment seemed impossible to her when she has been searching for so long, incessantly in her texts (saturated herself with the excess and homogenization of the image) this representation of the appropriation of the spaces or one type of record that would allow her to understand the different ways of the experience of living of (in) the spaces.
Recomposed, Alice returns to the small projection room of Storefront to see the interview that the directors of the film had made to K. and that someone meanwhile has announced it would play. The curiosity grows. Alice finds two lines of composition in the work of the directors, following clearly the inheritance of Tati whom the film itself quotes. During the film, one can find, alternatively, two different series: one composed by singular moments, of which the series of automatisms is the perfect example, that exacerbate the beauty of the house, emphasizing its character of work of art, eternal and now in the film too and a second series composed by the different misfortunes that satirize the various dysfunctions of the house and certain clichés of the architecture itself, where the laugh mixes up with the seriousness of the events, being Guadalupe the feminine correspondent of Monsieur Hullot. “Was the bad weather a coincidence?” asks K.
K. has always loved stories. Several of his buildings represent themselves, in the first place, by a story from which the house in Bordeaux is one of the best examples. And, a lot of times, inside that story other stories can be found which, along with the time, are transformed into formal elements of his buildings. Like the story of the swimming pool or the story of the elevator or the story of Manhattan. It’s said also that the drawing technique of K. is similar to the cinematographic techniques of composing and editing. K. is absolutely convinced “that the work of a screenwriter and that of an architect are both processes based on editing, on the art of creating programmatic, cinematographic or spatial sequences.” The representation assumes itself, this way, as fiction making part of the process of creation of the architect by which it is a way of expression that unifies the proper qualities of the idea.
“We cannot use language and writing but need to find another universal means, the image once again”, says K. at this moment of the interview. Alice finds it strange. Even though K. ultimately proclaims the supremacy of the image, there was a moment in which he said that he wouldn’t abandon the role of the writer, because this represents other worlds, other notions of life, other perspectives. There seems to exist a turning point in K.’s thought based on the one who affirms that one actual reading of the present is constantly necessary. At the same time K. regrets the reasons that give today’s supremacy to the image seduction, he also says that image seduction is the only one capable of handling this situation, pointing out the famous problem of the icon. Consequently, the representation starts to be, more and more, homogenous (by the general use of the computers), forcing the architecture itself to become more close to the virtual images. In Bordeaux, K. says they had the luck of not having to make such a representation. But the representation was already there, under the form of fiction. The seduction stayed at the expense of the story.
“What happens after the building is finished or the life of a building, all of those, are kind of things that we haven’t really talked about for years. I think it’s very important and even essential and I don’t want to be apocalyptic but if that doesn’t happen, we are living very soon in a totally different kind of environment, really in a virtual space, but built.” Alice reflects while listening to K. The film had added another episode to the story of the house in Bordeaux. A rare episode in the history of the representation in present (and past) architecture, similarly to the narrative or to fiction, because, they cannot just simply replace the perfect image, homogenous, understandable by all, by the exhibiting of imperfections, errors, uncertainties, fears, doubts, perplexities… The abandonment of the cinema, narrative or fiction as architecture representations (including that of the experience of living, of the way buildings are inhabited, to which only they can be faithful) corresponds not only to the homogenization of the image, as K. proclaims, but also to the nullification of the possibility of the representation being autonomous of the construction. It nullifies the possibility of a representation being, truly, critical. Therefore, the importance of films such as “Mon Oncle” to the reflection on the experience of living in the space, about the world we inhabit. The isolated image also holds that power although smaller and much more subject to the pressures of the market system. Alice couldn’t be happier. Watching the film, she felt that she had to write about it.