Saturday, October 15, 2016

Anything You Want

Toboggan House, Madrid by Rafael Beneytez.   Phot0s © Miguel de Guzmán

"Beneytez collects the highlights of his architectural and cultural training like a bouquet of exquisite flowers, in order to lay them at the feet of his client, and in order to invoke her in turn in playful fantasy. As in the movies of Luis Buñuel and Pedro Almodóvar, the house is a fetishized stage set, steeped in desire and seductive, campy wit."

Many architects take on the role of the medium in a séance when designing a work: in their obsessive fascination for certain emblematic works of the architectural canon, as well as other cultural icons, they summon forth their spirits for conceptual re-incarnation. Few however mange to convoke as many of these ghostly apparitions in a single place as Rafael Beneytez and his team at Z4Z4 Architects, with their Toboggan House, located in the northern suburbs of Madrid.  We can cite, for starters, Mies, Corb, Philip Johnson and the California Case Study Houses, and wrap up with contemporaries such as Koolhaas, Moneo, Dan Graham and others.

But fewer still manage to carry off such conjurations with this much originality and aplomb. Beneytez describes the work as a "post-modern exquisite corpse" of citations and set-pieces. Holding the whole thing together is a romantic narrative inspired by and dedicated to the client – or more precisely, to the person who took the leading role for the clients, a childhood friend of the architect who lives in the house with her husband and three children.

In a design process that stretched out over seven years and four different project proposals, Beneytez created the house as a collage of different "cinematic scenarios," inspired in classic movies, in which he imagined the client living out certain fantasies – presumably working with her in playful collusion. He cites, for example, the scenario for "the grand entrance", in which the client, dressed for the evening and arriving fashionably late, descends a spiral stair from her boudoir to receive her guests in the living room (Villa Savoye, Nude Descending a Staircase, etc.). Beneytez collects the highlights of his architectural and cultural training like a bouquet of exquisite flowers, in order to lay them at the feet of his client, and in order to invoke his client in turn in playful fantasy. As in the movies of Luis Buñuel and Pedro Almodóvar, the house is a fetishized stage set, steeped in desire and seductive, campy wit 

 When we first encounter the Toboggan House, we see the three interconnected cylinders of its upper bedroom level raised above the sloping site on a welter of struts and trusses. As we enter the grounds, we discover the below-grade living level underneath the cylinders. It occupies a trench cut entirely through the site and overlooks sunken gardens at either end.  Between these two levels, the space at grade is almost completely open, with a driveway that passes through the middle of the house (Beneytez copied the drawings of cars on the plans from, guess what, the Villa Savoye).   

The carport overlooks a double-height atrium, with plants and palm trees, that divides the lower floor in two, and that is shaded by the cylinders overhead. The atrium separates the living area, including a bar, gym and Turkish bath, from the dining area, kitchen and service spaces (the built work differs in many respects from the plans). When the sliding glass walls of the living room are open, the atrium creates a chimney effect for ventilation, while the concrete retaining walls even out temperature changes. With its uninterrupted but articulated spaces and its shaded, fractured, indirect light, this level offers a contemporary update of what critic Luis Fernández Galiano has called "the enchanted forest" of many organicist houses built in the 1960s by Madrid architects such as Fernando Higueras or Javier Carvajal. 


Beneytez considers the upper level as a completely different realm, like a second house. The cylinders form a series of warm, enclosing spaces, which open into one another via sliding pocket doors. The curving exterior walls are continuously lined with lacquered shelving and cabinets. They are interrupted only by a single window-balcony in each space that overlooks a view of the Madrid skyline. On the exterior, the architects sought to dematerialize the volumes, finishing the heavily-insulated walls with reflective vinyl sheeting ("like a thermos," Beneytez says), and wrapping them, at a considerable distance, with a second, permeable skin of micro-perforated aluminum screens. These extend outwards on an awkward armature of steel struts, like solar shields on a NASA space probe.

The architectural references continue with additional direct citations: the ground floor plan, Beneytez maintains, copies Mies van der Rohe's Morris House (Weston, Connecticut, 1955), and the cylinders invoke the visual ambiguities of Dan Graham's curving Pavilions pieces. At a more basic level, the sectional partí brings us back to Rem Koolhaas' 1998 Maison à Bordeaux, which in turn is a vertical pile-up of different spaces from Philip Johnson's residential compound in New Canaan, Connecticut: the Glass Pavilion, the matching, but windowless, bedroom pavilion, and the underground grotto-gallery.

While Koolhaas emphasized the solidity of the elevated upper volume, Beneytez seeks its dematerialization. Like its layered skin, the "heterogonous" system of support trusses "counterbalances gravity," he maintains. To this observer, however, Mies' Farnsworth House, with its regular white columns, is far lighter in visual impact. To the stately, classical stride of the Farnsworth, Beneytez responds with cacophonous improvisations, and with such unbridled enthusiasm that a column ends up smack in the middle of the main stair, and another in the path of the rear door (the architect attributes these to client changes after construction began).

But within this formal agitation we find yet another ghostly presence, this time in the form of a renunciation. Beneytez worked for seven years in the studio of Rafael Moneo, and wearied of an architecture he found all too "massive" and "material". In reaction, he wrote his doctoral thesis on "The representation of atmosphere in architecture." He professes his fascination for an architecture that, like the work of Dan Graham, "dissolves into transparencies and reflections."  For him, the greatest feat of his design is "to dismount the center of the house, its center of gravity," citing the upper space of the atrium, "where everything happens but nothing is there." 

In this respect, the work reminds me of another gravity-defying tour-de-force of recent years, Antón García-Abril's Hemeroscopium House outside Madrid. Its structure consists of a spiral of giant highway bridge beams of every description, counterbalanced against one another around an enormous spatial void, in which the actual living quarters are something of an anecdote. In comparison, the Toboggan House is quite domestic and nuanced. But Beneytez shares García-Abril's ambition and macho exuberance, his bad-boy transgressive, aggressive defiance of the profession's staid norms of conduct. His Toboggan House confirms the old adage that if you want to be anything in life, including respectable, the first thing you've got to do is grab everyone's attention. After that you can do anything you want.

Toboggan House, Madrid
Rafael Beneytez of Z4Z4 Architects
Mark 64
October - November 2016, pages 112 - 119  

This is the full text of my published article 
© David Cohn    

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