[Originally published in Mark Magazine #69]
Solo Houses is the name of a project that’s intended to include more than a dozen villas designed by different architects. The location is a mountainous region in northeast Spain, not far from the border with Catalonia and about three hours from Barcelona by car. If you’re looking for ‘the middle of nowhere’, this is the place to be. So far, two Solo Houses have been completed, the first in 2013 by Chilean studio Pezo Von Ellrichshausen and the second a contribution by Belgian firm Office Kersten Geers David Van Severen (KGDVS). In addition to these two firms, other participants are 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.
Solo Houses are nothing like the pseudo-Spanish holiday homes we know from tourist brochures and travel blogs. These more conceptual villas are, according to the literature, ‘an ongoing project of contemporary small resort prototypes’. The venture is the brainchild of Christian Bourdais, a French property developer who, together with art producer Eva Albarran, is also responsible for 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’.
The conflation of private property development and modern art is as old as urban gentrification, which inevitably follows the moves of ‘pioneering’ artists, but the sparsely populated wilderness chosen for Solo Houses is far away from artists’ lofts and trendy cafés. The closest recent precedent for this kind of development is probably the failed Ordos 100 venture in China, planned by Ai Wei Wei and curated by Herzog & de Meuron, but Ordos was promoted as a design-driven development meant to serve a new Chinese metropolis badly in need of some cachet. Solo Houses is more modest in scale, slower in progress and, as the name suggests, entirely on its own.
Remarkably, the Spanish project is by a private developer who seems genuinely passionate about art and architecture and not on one who is simply eager to give the project an artistic mantle. As such, it says something about the kind of atypical context in which architecture is encouraged to thrive relatively unencumbered by convention, legislation or market demand. Serious architecture is increasingly forced to seek refuge under the institutional umbrella of serious art in order to be taken ‘seriously’. In the process, it becomes the stuff of private and public collectors, galleries, museums, biennials and curated exhibitions — architecture for the art world more than the real world.
Furthermore, as a series of ‘resort prototypes’ presumably meant as temporary retreats rather than year-round homes, Solo Houses exemplifies the ongoing shift in architecture towards exceptionality, leisure time and the kinds of ’experiences’ that social networks entice us to share online. Since the end of modernism, we’ve come to know that haute architecture is not something most people would choose to reside in permanently. But we have also discovered, in turn, that this kind of architecture is is accepted more when it is something to visit or reside in temporarily, in which case it is seen as a fun experience. If ‘social housing’ was an architectural mantra in the early 20th-century, that of the 21st century would clearly have to be ‘funhouses’.
The latest Solo House – rather ironically titled Solo Office – is indeed a lot of fun. To begin with, it’s round. In fact, it’s a sprawling, circular loop that offers panoramic views from its hilltop site, as it embraces and domesticates a piece of the comprehensive project’s back of beyond. Essentially, Solo Office is a covered 4.5-m-wide walkway that encompasses enclosed areas – or what the architects call ‘houses’ – that function as living, cooking and sleeping quarters. The circular roof rests on four straight rows of steel columns that form a square with chamfered corners. The spaces – or ‘houses’ – between columns and perimeter leave large parts of the walkway unprogrammed and ready for all types of planned and unplanned use. They come in handy at big cocktail parties, for instance, and are great for lounging around in. Sliding walls suspended from rails that run without interruption along the edge of the roof allow each ‘house’ to open to the outside; the same walls thus shelter the ‘free spaces’ from wind, rain, prying eyes – or cameras. A swimming pool within the wide round courtyard looks quite ‘natural’ by virtue of its subtly undulating edge and irregularly formed steps where it meets the untouched landscape. A gravel path connects the pool steps with the looped walkway, making this an ideal villa for barefoot masochists.
Although Solo Office’s doughnut-shaped design recalls that of several projects attempting to justify circularity on the grounds of functionality – among which Apple Corporation’s nearly completed Spaceship Campus in Cupertino, California, by Norman Foster; OMA’s competition entry for the City of Culture of Galicia in Santiago de Compostela, Spain; and the International Centre for Sports Innovation in Cáceres, Spain, by José María Sánchez García – in this case the shape is arbitrary and seemingly conceived purely for the fun of it. Why not, as long as it works? Curiously, the straight lines of an orthogonal building are rarely justified, but the designer of a round building often feels obliged to invent all kinds of pretexts, whereas here in northeast Spain, the architects of a building that dares to combine circles and squares offer no explanation whatsoever.
What you see is pure folly paired with a strict geometry that makes the work highly mathematical and abstract. On one level, it can be seen as a piece of conceptual architecture in the tradition of some of the driest conceptual art ever made. But while a concern for geometry often results in highly solipsistic intellectual exercises removed from any consideration for the wellbeing of people, this house is also very much about enjoyment and pleasure. In that regard, it falls squarely, not to say roundly, within the tradition of the Mediterranean villa, the Ur-prototype of which is Hadrian’s Villa near Tivoli, the subject of scholars who have spent centuries trying to make sense of its geometry, never stopping to consider whether it was ever intended to make sense at all.
Ultimately, Solo Office’s looped geometry, operable walls and seemingly neglected courtyard serve no other purpose than to maximize its occupants’ close contact with nature and the pleasure this gives them. This has always been what villas are about. In an age in which the word ‘nature’ increasingly appears between quotation marks – a reference to its portended demise and the proliferation of its artificial simulation – it is reassuring to see that nature-embracing architecture (or is it art?) still has the power to throw us for a loop.