From the street that overlooks the steep-sloping site on which it stands, the house is barely visible, almost hidden behind a line of shrubs. This first impression is not accidental: the experiences that follow on after going in explain such a discreet approach. Unless you linger, you pass the metal gates on the sloping terrace that marks the transition between street level and the entrance to the house, and push the front door to enter into a space that is all shut in, with no opening towards the outside. You find yourself surrounded by walls, floor and ceiling all in the same light-coloured concrete, in a narrow corridor that dog-legs at a right angle. There are some doors, all the same, all shut, the space is lit sparingly by two ceiling lights. After just a few steps the corridor turns again before leading to stairs going down to a lower level, with still no possibility of seeing outside. The corridor seems to wind into the stairs, as if you were going down into a cavern you lose your bearings. At the bottom of the steps, you push open another door to your utmost surprise. There before you is a spacious room filled with light. There are four large rectangular windows, all the same size, which display four different pictures from the four cardinal points. They are set in opposition two by two: a panorama over the lake, travelling into the distance, and facing it, a close-up of the embankment slope; plus two diametrically opposed and different views onto the garden, both with little depth of field. This is the living room of the house and the four pictures make it like a pavilion open on all sides. The arrangement inevitably calls to mind either a Japanese tea house, or certain Italian villas, such as the villa Maser for example, which confronts, on the same sight-level, a distant view over an agricultural plain and a close-up view of a lily pond laid out on the hillside.
Even though the four windows are not exactly opposite one another, the void of their openings accentuates stability of space. What is more, the living room is not a perfect square: one corner is filled by an opaque volume that contains service premises – toilet and kitchen. Does this result from imperatives of function or from some other reason? In other words, what would happen if the service premises volume did not intrude so violently into the room, if it was not shoved in like a wedge? Similarly, what would happen if the right-angle volume of the stairs did not butt up against the other corner, as if to form a counter – weight to the brutal thrust of the services volume?
Without these two intruding volumes, the living room would be all walls and windows, and the walls would be fragile, like surfaces folded at right angles. In fact, the two intruders give the living space solidity; they indicate and make us aware that we are not only in a room, but that this room is part of a larger organism that forms a unity, a whole. This is a prime concern for Valerio Olgiati in many of his projects. It is in this dimension that the house finds its force, its intensity, and even its excess.
Everything derives from the initial choice of dealing with unity and continuity. The house is designed as a shell and not as an assemblage of walls, floors, uprights or partitions. Indeed, there are no partitions, since all interior walls are made of the same thickness of concrete, from the bathroom walls to those of the dressing chamber and bedrooms or kitchen volume: which is one way of saying that every house is in fact potentially a single room, no matter how small, just as the room is an inseparable part of the organism formed by the house, unable to be dissociated from it. In other words, everything is indivisible, all is unity.
To emphasise these characteristics even more, the shell is built as a block which of course represents something of a feat in construction technology and explains the exorbitant costs. From floor to roof, surfaces are continuous and uniform, whether horizontal or vertical; they are made of the same light-coloured concrete that is everywhere apparent and that makes the house a monochrome. There is no expression of a skeleton independent from the envelope; the frame is one and all: it does not belong to the reign of the vertebrates, but to that of the crustaceans. No joins are marked, most are invisible. And to stress the house’s monolithic character even further, the four windows of the bedroom and office floor are all positioned either on the vertical, or offset with regard to the four large horizontal windows of the living room. As for non-structural parts, they too express overall unity: there is one type of timber used for all the woodwork; interior doors appear as the same wooden rectangle, with no subdivisions; in the living room you have one window repeated four times, with a single pane, no subdivisions there either; and so on. Interior doors are not made as they are traditionally of two parts, a jamb and a leaf, but of a single opening leaf The putting together of different materials does not suppose that they are articulated or even assembled: certain elements are simply hung from the shell, but most slip into it as into a container.
The description of the house that I have given is sense-related, you might say it is a phenomenological experience. This experience is of course visual to begin with: the eye is caught by mass and compactness, by contrasts of atmosphere and light, by differences between main spaces bedrooms, office, living room. But these contrasts and differences never break up the whole, they never dissolve it; on the contrary, they reinforce it and make it a real organism. The experience is sound-related too. When you come into the house, in the corridor with its shut doors, silence settles and the sounds of footsteps or voices are muffled. On the stairs, this silence accentuates the feeling of going down into a place like a crypt or a cavern. In the living room though, voices ring clear, as if to salute the full light found again. The experience may also be of another order: in fine weather, all four living room windows can be opened, retracted into the floor. This turns the space even more into a pavilion open to all four cardinal points, open to the four winds. You feel all the more intensely then the contrast between the solidity, immobility, perennial reality and lightness of the building, its fluidity and evanescence in the air. And between what remains and what passes too: the real idea of a house.
Architect: Valerio Olgiati
Location: Zurich, Switzerland
Project Manager: Pascal Flammer
Construction Supervisor: Peter Diggelmann, Archobau AG, Chur
Structural Engineer: Patrick Gartmann, partner of Conzett, Bronzini, Gartmann AG, Chur
Project Area: 520 sqm
Project Year: 2003-2005
Photographs: Courtesy of Valerio Olgiati