Markus Breitschmid: I remember Valerio Olgiati saying in one of his lectures: „I have a client who wants to be homeless”. I believe he was referring to me. I like changing the places where I live, and I especially appreciate the nomadic quality of not being attached too much to one country or territory. I left Europe behind and embraced living in America. Because I am still spending around four months in Europe every year, I’m very careful not to let my lives in Europe and in America conflate into one. I try to keep the rhythms of life and the rituals of life of each place quite different from each other. Valerio knows all of that. So, when I came up with the idea to build a house in America, it was a natural choice that he would be the architect. The Manahoac House is a continuation of our work together. Making a building is obviously a different kind of undertaking than writing a book or making an interview, but in a way, I see it as another chapter. I think we have both grown or, at least, speaking for myself, my understanding of architecture has grown thanks to my long relationship with Valerio. If you read the books we have published, and look at the architecture he has made, you can see a continuous evolution of thought.
WHAT WAS YOUR INITIAL DREAM? HOW DID YOU EXPRESS TO VALERIO WHAT YOU WANTED?
I gave him a budget and I said that he could do whatever he imagined. The only condition was that I have things to store, and I need a kitchen to cook in. But other than that, I gave him complete freedom. It is a little fatalistic on my part, but I always took the position: You cannot ask a very good architect to build a building and then tell him what to do. If you want to dictate how a house should be like, get a mediocre architect.
THE HOUSE HAS ESSENTIALLY THREE MAIN ELEMENTS - THE PLATFORM, THE A-FRAME AND THE CYLINDER. HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE THE QUALITY OF THE CYLINDRICAL VOLUME THAT OCCUPIES THE CENTRE OF THE HOUSE?
There are two main values. Obviously, the utilitarian aspect - it has to be a functional house. Everything that needs to be stored goes in the cylinder.
The main quality, however, is the space-making one. The fact that the cylinder is moved off centre in plan, structures the space into several very distinct areas. The front face of the room where the sliding window is, will be thirty-three feet tall (around 11 m), whilst at other points it goes all the way down to zero. At the same time the position of the cylinder brings the room to just four feet (1.2 m) wide, at the pinch points, a closeness that forms strong thresholds, without the need of doors or frames. Passing from one side of the cylinder to the other, you cross the strait in front of the tall main window and arrive at a small pocket. This is the most protected space, where out of primal instinct, you naturally go to sleep. It has a cave-like quality, and thanks to the position of the cylinder, as you go deeper, everything becomes more enclosed and dissolves into darkness. There are no windows at all.
On the other side, where I might work, you have the same delineation of space, but there is a seven-meter-long window cut into the roof, through which light enters, and, if you want to, through which you can look out at the trees. It’s an unbelievably simple house, but by being attentive to how space is formed and the way it will be illuminated, it becomes an extremely differentiated and rich space.
If the cylinder was in the middle, things would be a completely different, much poorer, and more predictable space. Valerio designed something very complex by simply combining a cylinder with an A-frame in a very precise way. I don’t know exactly where the boundaries between these spaces will be. You can try to imagine it the way I explain it. You could think of them as kind of thresholds, but of course, there are no real doors or lintels or any of those things that you typically have when you make chambers.
Inside the cylinder we will use the most conventional drywall, painted white and illuminated by very bright LED lights. When you enter the house from the garage, or leave from the grand dim space, you go into this kind of laboratory-like space. A steel staircase will take you up to the attic. There will also be a utilitarian metal sink, a large refrigerator, a freezer, a washer and dryer, and some cabinets. Even though these are all domestic objects, we will try not to materialize them in a ‘homely’ way, and work on keeping the differentiation between what is inside the cylinder and what is the cult space, as I call it, as strong as possible.
HAVING SEEN THE DRAWINGS, WHAT STRUCK US WAS THE USE OF ONE ELEMENT OF EACH TYPE: ONE HORIZONTAL WINDOW, ONE DOOR, ONE SKYLIGHT, ONE CYLINDER AND ONE A-FRAME. LATER AN EXCEPTION OCCURRED IN THIS SYSTEM, YOU HAVE NOW TWO SKYLIGHTS. WE WERE WONDERING AND WANTED TO ASK YOU, WHAT IS PRODUCED SPATIALLY WHEN A BUILDING IS COMPOSED OF SINGULAR ELEMENTS PUT TOGETHER?
It’s an interesting question; what is the effect of a singular element on the composition of a building?
A good reference in that regard would be the Plantahof auditorium in Landquart.
When you go there and you see all these structural pieces, the beam, the column and so on, you almost think it is a kind of a decoration because it’s only there once and it looks as if it was somehow attached. If you don’t walk around and you just go inside, you cannot understand the logic of the building. If you saw a bunch of columns, you would say, ok, it’s the structure. But in this case, all the elements are unique, there is the slanted column coming down and the beam holding up the roof. You have to stitch them all together in your head. You go outside, you see the column, you see the walls, you see the roof and slowly you are able to connect everything. You understand that in order to keep its qualities, it actually couldn’t have been built in any other way, because the dimensions and distances were too big.
In the Manahoac House, it might look like an addition of singular elements at first. In reality, it’s exactly the opposite. It’s an organism that really couldn’t perform as a building and preserve its spatial qualities in any other way. In Landquart, it is given by an extreme use of structure. In this house, structure is not the main space-making element. The cylinder doesn’t participate in any way to hold up the A-frame. Here we speak more about volumes of solid and void that bind diverse complementary spaces together and creates an organism that wouldn’t work if any part was removed or added. It is Valerio’s mastery of architectonic space: to make something so spatially and atmospherically complex out of something so basic.
IN RELATION TO THE NOMADIC QUALITIES, YOU SPOKE ABOUT, WAS IT YOUR INTENTION TO GIVE THE HOUSE THE CHARACTER OF A TENT?
I don’t see it as just a tent. It’s also a temple. It’s a tent-temple – which I realise is a contradiction. The idea is that the house has been there forever, but also that it could move somewhere else. It was very important to let these two extremes be present and co-exist.
The triangle stands slightly elevated on a platform with large, grown trees around it. The concrete will soon be covered with moss and grow a patina. Pretty quickly, it will look like something beyond time. Yet, having the shape of such an abstract object, the patina will be something, that at first glance, won’t match. The house itself will be a steel frame construction, coated with corrugated steel and hand-painted in anthracite color on the outside and inside. When you get close to it, you will see it has a tent-like fragile quality. Something that is temporary and has been built quickly. But then from a distance, it will present itself more as a temple among the trees.
We want it to feel like a temple and therefore we don’t want it to feel domestic in any way. In the large, tall space, the only reference to something that has to do with a house is going to be the faucet of the kitchen. Water comes out, it means that somebody spends time here, nothing more.
YOU SAID THIS HOUSE IS DESIGNED WITH AN AMBITION NOT TO BE DOMESTIC. WHY IS IT IMPORTANT TO YOU NOT TO HAVE A COZY HOUSE?
I can imagine, and I find it interesting, to use this building in different ways and not always as a place to live in. A cozy house is not so easy to transform into something else. A cozy house is also not a place that inspires me to imagine things at a certain scale and of a certain magnitude. I am not against coziness in the right place and moment but this typical sense of coziness that we see in many houses is too contained and too restricting for me.
For me it’s important that these rooms have a cultural dimension, transforming into a public space, a research center, an exhibition room, or a concert hall on any given day of the week. I have a friend who is a piano player, and we are already planning a concert for around 200 people.
I don’t mind if I sometimes have to rent a room in a hotel for a week because somebody else is using the building. Or I’ll just sleep amongst whatever is taking place inside.
The fact that we don’t call it Breitschmid House, but Manahoac House is very important. We do this so most people have no idea what it’s about. Not attaching a person to the building is intentional. We should also be careful calling it a house, as I am sure that it isn’t really a house in the conventional sense. I see it rather as a kind of cultural artifice.
LET’S TALK ABOUT MATERIALS. READING „NON-REFERENTIAL ARCHITECTURE” AND THE CHAPTER ABOUT THE PRINCIPLE OF ONE MATERIAL, AND LATER SEEING THIS HOUSE, WITH CORRUGATED STEEL, CONCRETE, AND ASPHALT, RAISES SOME ADDITIONAL QUESTIONS. DOES THE FACT THAT EVERYTHING HAS A SHADE OF BLACK CONTRIBUTE TO THE MATERIAL COHERENCE OF THE BUILDING?
In the USA, there’s the front yard and back yard culture and consequently these are often two completely different worlds. People usually take care of the front yard because the appearance towards the outside is important. Of course, we are not interested in this. From the street, you drive onto a platform covered with asphalt. The porosity that Valerio wants for the asphalt doesn’t really work for the inside. So, there are basically two floor materials. The floor inside the house is a somewhat rough, very dark, anthracite-colored concrete. The aim of the materialization is to produce a sufficient distancing-effect with the available means and attributes of materials. What’s important is that the building is present as a formal idea prior to all other ways.
I think for this particular building and its character, the materials are correct, even though Olgiati probably would have preferred to do everything in concrete – something I could not afford. The platform is what belongs to the earth. You then put thin, almost fabric-like metal sheets on top of it. The building proper, the triangle, is all made in metal, except the windows.
IN A SIMILAR ELEMENTAL WAY, THE HOUSE IS A VERY CONTAINED OPAQUE OBJECT THAT CLEARLY DIVIDES THE SPACES INTO INTERIOR AND EXTERIOR AREAS. THERE ARE ALSO VERY BIG WINDOWS. WHAT WILL THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN INTERIOR AND EXTERIOR BE LIKE?
The sliding window doesn’t go all the way down to the platform. There will be around a 20-centimetre upstand. When you are inside, where the kitchen counter is, and you open the window, you cross a threshold. Even though there’s a big window, and you can look out, it’s more part of the wall. Regarding your specific question about the relationship between inside-outside, it also gives an idea of how Valerio conceived it. In this sense, it is like a tent, because in a tent you somehow, push some fabric aside and you slide in. So, it’s a conscious decision to be either inside or outside.
The openings are more light sources and thresholds. I don’t imagine the first thing you do is to sit behind these windows and look out; it is not about being inside but feeling a bit outside. That’s not the intention at all and in any case, from the big room you don’t see very far anyway. You have to walk towards the edge where the trees stop and that’s where you see into the far.
Something else, another contradiction, attracted me to this particular place. It’s the only piece of land in the neighbourhood with so many trees, large oaks and maples, and with all the seasonal changes of spring and fall. It’s quite dramatic.
During the summer it is protected by a canopy of leaves whilst its quite open and bare in winter. The change in density, between seasons, of the surrounding trees also heightens the complexity between the interior and exterior life of the land. When leaving the house, you are not immediately exposed. What is continuous is the view, from the edge of my plot, of the Appalachian and Blue Ridge Mountains.
WHAT ROLE DO THE SURROUNDING APPALACHIAN MOUNTAINS PLAY IN THE HOUSE?
Europeans usually consider America as a young country, but if you look at the land here, you can feel how old the land really is. This is very old land – among the very oldest lands on our planet. Geologically, it’s much older than the Alps or the Himalayas. And you can feel that. The nearby river, named the New River, is the second oldest river in the world. When you come here and you’re somewhat perceptive to your surroundings, you become aware of this. You realise that you’re in an ancient land and this gives it a special feeling. This kind of landscape always makes me think of the universe, about cosmology, and where we are from, where we are going, and so on. It is rather monumental. Raw. Rough even. Not finicky at all. It is the opposite of the image we have of Arcadia – the idyllic innocence of the seemingly untroubled that is associate with the Mediterranean. The land here is not rustic at all. Particularly in the winter. In the winter the land is the best: barren, yet open. There is depth. It is like a painting by Rothko or Pollock.
It opens a world of imagination and suggests possibilities. It is an intrinsic quality of this land, and the house captures it in its form and materialization. The presence of this landscape makes me also imagine a caravan of ancient Native American tribes moving slowly across the land. Or when you would hear them chanting Ly-O-Lay Ale Loya, known as Counterclockwise Circle Dance, during a rite.
Therefore, as I told you before, I can imagine that I could load the house on a vehicle and un-pack it in the next place, fifty miles down the road, not unlike a native American nomadic tribal tent. I tell you, when you come and visit you will feel a little bit like a shaman.
THE ILLUSTRATION YOU PUBLISHED ON INSTAGRAM SHOWS THE SECTION OF A MOUNTAIN. WHAT DOES IT REPRESENT EXACTLY?
Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the Declaration of Independence, which I find the most important announcement written by anyone in the last 500 years, lived here in Virginia and discovered some of the Native Americans burial sites. He owned some of the land nearby.
In the eastern part of America, the only remnants of ancient structures are these artificial mounds. There is nothing else left of the ancient tribes that lived here for I don’t know how many thousands of years. I posted it because the illustration somehow summarises a lot of inspirations that are woven into this house. However, it is not about emulating anything, it is not about the past, not about some story-telling. It is not about history or something. If you want to read anything into it at all, it would be more about the exact opposite: things beyond history and time. It is more about the timeless and living in a place with no time. No measuring. A certain kind of vastness. Liberty. Sometimes, I think it is maybe not accidental that a Virginian, who knew this land well, was capable of writing the text that would set individuals free. I think I get to live in a very liberating building.