Socio-plastics: Dirk van den Heuvel reporting from London
13 December 2017
For three months I have lived in the Wimbledon House. I shared the house with my colleague fellow Shantel Blakely. As devoted scholars we created our own temporary mini-convent, a space for concentration and reflection, but at times also celebration when we invited friends and colleagues over for events, either a seminar, a film shoot or a Sunday soirée with drinks. To be able to enjoy the house was magnificent for sure, the spaciousness of the interior, the long views over the common, the generous light and simply having the privilege to be in London, to explore its vast cultural landscape in these dynamic and also unsettling times of Brexit and the housing crisis. Yet looking back now, what sort of a house is the Wimbledon House really? What is it like living in a glass house?
Realized in 1969, the Wimbledon House designed by Richard and Su Rogers together with John Young must be one of the most radical and experimental houses of its time in the United Kingdom. Sitting between spacious (neo-) Edwardian villas, its optimistic yellow steel and glass architecture stands out as a reminder that the world has moved on since the British Empire ruled the waves. Still, as most modern inventions, this futurist house too, has its own genealogy. It stands in a long line of avant-gardist obsession with the promise of industrialized construction and the ideal of full transparency. One thinks in the first place of the examples of the Farnsworth House built by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe between 1945 and 1951, and the Glass House of his admirer Philip Johnson, realized even a bit earlier in 1949. Whereas the owner of the Mies’ house, Edith Farnsworth, developed a deeply antagonistic relationship of sheer disappointment and anger toward both the architect and his transparent glass box, Philip Johnson’s house eventually became the epitome of his unabashed openness about his private lifestyle and preferences, from him being a gay man to his embrace of Nazi aesthetics during the interbellum. Other experiments of the same period, which influenced the Wimbledon House belong to the Case Study House programme (1945-1966) of John Entenza and his magazine Arts & Architecture, with contributions by Charles and Ray Eames, Pierre Koenig, Craig Ellwood and many others. The idea was to deliver new ways of living sustained by modern technologies and comfort, made available to a new class of self-conscious consumers, and all that realized in a very elegant architectural language of prefab building elements, mostly steel, glass and plenty of open spaces. Much earlier examples of the dream of a glass architecture go back to European avant-gardists such as the expressionist Bruno Taut, who built the Utopian Glashaus of 1914 at the Werkbund exhibition in Cologne. Yet, next to American and Continental precedent there is also a British genealogy to consider: first and foremost the mythological Crystal Palace for the Great Exhibition in 1851 realized by Joseph Paxton, whose achievements evidence that radical modernism is part and parcel of British architectural culture, despite the attitude of denial that is so predominant within British public bodies and government institutions. Rogers’ contemporaries should also be mentioned here, in particular the Archigram group and Cedric Price, as well as Norman Foster with whom Rogers and their respective partners Su Bromwell and Wendy Cheesman collaborated for a short while under the name of Team 4. Together they laid the foundations for British High-tech architecture.
With regard to Rogers’ own oeuvre the house sits at an odd moment in his career. The collaboration with Team 4 had just ended, mostly due to lack of work, while the spectacular breakthrough with the Centre Pompidou competition of 1971 had not happened yet. At that particular moment he, his first wife Su and the architect John Young kept themselves busy with designing two related houses among other things, one for Humphrey Spender, one of the brothers of the poet Stephen Spender and an artist in his own right, and one for Rogers’ parents, Dada and Nino, which is the house in Wimbledon. The Spender House in Ulting, Essex was realized slightly earlier and was of a much more primitive character than the Wimbledon House with hardly any proper heat insulation and in the interior the bare, corrugated steel roof in plain sight. Both houses followed the same basic layout though. Each house is in fact two pavilions, quite like the Eames House in Santa Monica. The main pavilion is the proper living space while a second volume or ‘lodge’ functions as an entry pavilion. In the case of the Spender House it forms a narrow carport and a closed off studio space with a generous rooftop light but without any other windows. In the case of the Wimbledon house the original carport of the lodge was eventually transformed into extra living spaces when John Young moved in for a while. This possibility to allow for change over time was part of the design concept. To enable such transformation the yellow steel structure spans the full 14 m of the house volume leaving the interior free from columns or other structural obstacles. Of the two houses the Wimbledon House is the most recognizable as the Rogers ‘brand’ in the years to come: especially because of its flush aluminium sandwich panels on the side facades with its round windows and vents, and prefab, car-industry-inspired doors. The never built Zip-Up House developed in the same period is an even more radical exponent of this approach.
The first thing to notice about the Wimbledon House is that it is a shed, a primitive hut, which is the classic type of modern architecture when we follow the Abbé Laugier. It is really just a set of five and three steel portals. They are the most conspicuous and characteristic elements of the house, both on the inside and outside. Front and back facades are detailed in such a way that the portals appear in their pure form, which means that the roof and side panels are not allowed to protrude beyond the steel construction but instead are slightly recessed. Unsurprisingly, this leads to minor inconveniences such as a leakages every now and then when the rain comes with the wrong wind directions, but nothing really serious that cannnot be overcome with a proper builder. On the inside the steel structure is also kept visible as pure as possible. For the columns this is fully achieved, the beams disappear in the lowered ceiling system, only the lower flange remains in sight. This idea of the pure shed also explains why the perimeter is kept free from all sorts of walls and built-in furniture in order to allow for an unhindered view along the columns and inner facades.
The Wimbledon house is also a bubble house, quite like Reyner Banham described in his essay ‘A Home is not a House’ of 1965. According to Banham, new technological developments would render conventional architecture redundant and transform the middle class family home into a kind of environmental bubble organized around a high-tech machine core, which would provide all necessary climate control, sound equipment and food preparation. Hence, the façade of such a bubble house is not really a façade in architectural terms, it is more like a filter or skin indispensable for the kind of climate control you need in England. The transition from inside to outside is articulated as minimal as possible. Moving between inside and outside is an immediate experience. There is no articulation of ‘threshold’ or ‘doorstep’ spaces, the kind of transitions so popular with the anthropologically inspired architecture of Aldo van Eyck or Herman Hertzberger. The openings in the sandwich panels are all a bit like air sluices of a spaceship; even the cat flap follows this logic.
The house is a machine house – another classic modernist metaphor – and it uses machine language to invent new architectural metaphors. Some of these inventions are in a mild expressionist manner like the steel structure and the vents. But more often they are elaborated in more hushed and silent forms. The bathrooms and toilets, and the heating installations are all designed in an understated, invisible way. They are placed inside the core or pod, which is placed asymmetrically, or into the abstract yellow volume of the kitchen island. Because of this ‘put-away’ idea, one of the funny things is that it takes a short while before you learn behind which door exactly is the entrance to the shower or to the crockery.
As a bubble house, the house is an ambient kind of space. The ceiling system is crucial in this respect. It contains the heating system and provides a constant, uniform temperature throughout the open space. At night the integrated grid of light bulbs create quite an otherworldly ambience for a domestic space. I don’t know of any similar sort of domestic space, certainly not in the 1960s. The light grid is reflected in the glass and expands back and front into the dark of the garden. Like a small, domestic version of Archizoom’s No-Stop City is coming into being. It is all slightly reminiscent of an airport lounge or Stanley Kubrick’s film décor for 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Clearly, while the house still looks very fresh and contemporary, the house is also totally 1960s. The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine is quite another film that springs to mind when living in the house, especially when the blinds are pulled down. Again a bubble space, and indeed a very yellow one. I also read the colour scheme as anti-establishment and against British conservatism, its snobbishness and its holding on to privilege and entitlement. Together with the language of technology this is clearly aimed at undermining the class system and how it has materialized in architectural convention. It is an attempt to create a new vocabulary for a different social arrangement of society. For sure, the colours don’t leave anyone cold. Any visitor to the house feels at some point obliged to respond, to approve, express enthusiasm, or outright disapproval. Entering the house is like entering a psychological test in that sense. I myself like it very much, although I would add more contrast, also in terms of difference in texture. All planes are hard and reflective.
The house is an acoustic instrument. Privacy in terms of sound is not quite existent, but since there are two houses there is room to negotiate this. To play music, it is quite excellent though: from De La Soul to Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (Oh wär dein Haus durchsichtig wie ein Glass...), the room fills up to create a most immersive environment.
The Wimbledon House is a climate house. I have no idea whether it was originally designed with this in mind, but one wakes up and goes to bed with the weather, wind and sun alike. Especially, in the morning the experience is overwhelming when walking along the glass facade from the guest bedroom along the bathroom to the living space. Throughout the fall it was all about the changing colours, of the skies and of the many surrounding trees. With the shifts of sunny spells the yellow steel frame lights up, and the experience of a sequence of see-through spaces from the front garden through the guest house, court yard and main house all the way to the back is further intensified.
Needless to say perhaps but the house is a garden house. Whereas the Zip-Up House might be the more radical design, since it sits on stilts, it implies a detached relation with nature. The Wimbledon House however, has an immediate, bodily connection with its outside. Also because of the court yard which you have to cross time and time again when going from one house to the other.
The house is also an animal house. It is not just that you are surrounded by animals all the time, from the horses and dogs taken out on the common to the magpies and squirrels in the garden who hop around to store away their winter provisions in all sorts of places, the foxes who come out to play when dusk sets in, the owls hooting at night, the pigeon above you on the rooflight of the shower. Somehow you become an animal yourself, probably not quite in the way it is theorized by thinkers like Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, or much more fun, by Donna Haraway. It is because you become so much more aware of your body, living in a glass house fully exposed. It seems related to the nakedness of the house, which implies the nakedness of its inhabitants. Famously, the artist-architect François Dallegret tapped into these instinctive feelings when he portrayed Banham sitting naked in the bubble house as an illustration of his argument for ‘a home is not a house’ (if you don’t know it, Google the image!). Colour is the only sort of dress that Rogers proposes.
As a glass house, it is not quite clear if it is a private house or a public house. The front garden is bordered by an artificial mound though, so preying eyes cannot really touch you when you are inside. Still, characteristically quite a few people referred to the Big Brother House TV-series when I showed them the pictures of the house.
Most of all, the house is an event space waiting to be activated. It is hard to put your finger on why this is exactly so. May be because it sits between the private and public, or perhaps because of the colours which create a theatrical feeling of excitement and anticipation. The openness of the space and the big green sliding doors which can change the spatial set-up also add to this feeling. Certainly, the house is not a traditional family home, even when it seemed a perfect house for family celebrations from the stories you hear.
Is it a queer space then? And is this why I paradoxically feel so at home here? There is no centrality in this house. There is no hearth. The house can transform itself to take on new, more diverse spatial and family configurations. It seems build to unsettle all sorts of binary oppositions (inside-outside, privacy-publicity, etc.), opening up new possibilities of more fluid identities. For sure, there is a queer presence in the house by way of the furniture pieces that were given by Ernesto Rogers to Richard’s parents, and which are kept in the house as part of its family history and legacy. Ernesto Rogers embodies quite the counter-figure of Philip Johnson, even when both men were equally influential and powerful as a curator, editor and architect. Whereas Johnson embraced an open and out lifestyle, Ernesto Rogers remained closeted throughout his life, maintaining a public persona behind which another private life could be negotiated. His furniture pieces of natural wood and dark green marble make an almost Surrealist appearance in the open space of the Wimbledon House, in particular the mirror cabinet opposite the parental bed that reflects its own reflections ad infinitum.
As a ‘queer’ house the Wimbledon House still irritates, even when it’s almost 50 years old. The neighbours don’t really like it and raised their fences when the house was renovated, as if to once again emphasize that the very suggestion of an alternative to the conservative planning practice in England is an offence in itself. Today, it would not be possible to obtain a building permit for such a modernist house. That it is still seen as an irritant might be viewed as quite a sign of the times. In light of the Brexit, coming up in less than 18 months now, the mood in England is becoming even more introspective and defensive. Opening up as a social and cultural mentality is not the current trend. Within this context the house is like an island on an island, a harbinger of what one wishes might still come to London and to British society as a whole.
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