A wealthy family lived in an old, beautiful house in Bordeaux. After a car accident the father was left paralyzed, barely able to talk and bound to a wheelchair. The old house became impracticable and the family decided to have a new house built. They bought a terrain on a hillside not far from the Garonne river with a panoramic view over the city and approached the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas in 1994 with the commission – rather counter-intuivitely - to design a complex building.
Koolhaas – instead of designing a single storey house which would facilitate movements in a wheelchair – surprised his clients with an idea of a house on three levels. The ground floor, half-carved into the hill, accommodates the kitchen and television room, and leads to a courtyard. The bedrooms are on the top floor, built as a dark concrete box. In the middle of the two levels is the living room made of glass where one can overlook the valley of the river Garonne and Bordeaux's skyline.
To get access to all levels in a wheelchair, Koolhaas proposed a 3x3.5m elevator platform that moves freely between the three floors, becoming part of the living area, the kitchen or transforming itself into an intimate office space, and granting access to books, artwork, and the wine cellar. In the same way that the wheelchair can be interpreted as an extension of the body, the elevator platform, created by the architect, is an indispensable part of the handicapped client. This offers him more possibilities of mobility than to any other member of the family- only he has access to spaces like the wine cellar or the bookshelves made of polycarbonate which span from the ground floor to the top of the house, and thus respond to the movement of the platform.
The house appears as three separate entities that fluctuate between opaque and transparent. The lower level sits as a heavy mass that is carved into the hill. The interior is cavernous and labyrinthine, in a sense, where all of the intimate activities of the family take place. The middle volume is the most transparent as well as the most occupied space in the house. It is the space for the living area that is situated partially indoors and outside offering extensive views over Bordeaux and allowing for a multitude of activities with its open plan. The top volume is similar to the lower level in that it is opaque and conceals the bedrooms of the children and the couple. Unlike the lower level, the volume is penetrated with port hole windows that create views for the residents from their beds.
Faithful to the client’s briefing to design a complex structure, the interlocking of inside and out appear like a Chinese puzzle avoiding orthodox spatial continuity. Spaces unfold like a labyrinth along which you encounter a bewildering array of experiences: the refinement of lightness and polish of aluminum; cave-like spaces, which simulate natural erosion; earth-colored concrete of determined rawness; and the polished, transparent world sandwiched between. Most surprising is that it seems everywhere to court danger, with unexpected drops” there is no enclosed lift shaft – it rises against a three story high library, but leaves a vertiginous void when it departs from a particular level. The house was classified a historic monument almost immediately after its completion.
The paralyzed father whose specific needs were elementary for Koolhaas' the design concept unfortunately already died in 2001, only three years after the house had been finished.