A two-hour drive away from New York, UNStudio has created a holiday house that is lodged languidly between the hills. At the same time it seems to draw itself up to view the landscape.
The concept for Villa NM is so simple and effective, it is almost perverted. From the hilly country grew the idea to continue the landscape by creating a split level. In the words of Mr Ben van Berkel: “The house moves on, over and with the landscape.” The first difference in level follows the slope of the hill, the second one moves away from the ground to give a view of the surroundings from a higher perspective.
It is a clever idea to bridge the split level by twisting some of the surfaces a quarter turn - a wall that twists on its central axle horizontally becomes a floor halfway up. Walls flow into floors and floors back into walls. The resulting curves naturally become the basis of a set of stairs and so the twist bridges the difference in level in a rather literal sense as well.
Technically speaking, the twist consists of five twisted surfaces. The stairs from the ground floor to the mezzanine look like a hollow road - the two walls twist towards each other. The stairs from the mezzanine to the first floor, on the other hand, are diagonal with a wall twisting to create a floor on the one side and a ceiling twisting to become a wall on the other.
Along the eastern façade are three bedrooms in succession. In order to fit these rooms into the folds, the twisted surface of the staircase is repeated in the façade. In the space between the twisted surfaces is a complicated room where the walls transform into floors, while the floor twists upwards and the ceiling twists downwards. This cave-like middle room has been transformed into a bathroom.
Any other architect might have considered 'melting' everything around the staircase into a single pliable, smooth whole. Not Mr Van Berkel. He reins himself in by using a relatively simple twist, just as he willingly limited himself to corners of 4, 7 and 11 degrees when creating the Möbius house.
“This is not about complex geometry, but about liberating the geometrical so that one thing can flow into the next, the transformational in the genetic dimension of architecture,” Mr Van Berkel explains.
He uses the word 'genetic' more often. The aspiration to erase the old contrast between the blob and the box does seem to be a genetic modification of architecture. An architect usually makes one or the other, but UNStudio has made it a mission to make the blob and the box one and the same thing. The idea is that a line, whether curved or straight, is still a line.
The limited complexity of the geometry in Villa NM, as well as the Möbius house, gives the architecture a remarkable sense of peace. The fact that the twisted surfaces are concentrated in one place in the house creates a certain tension around the staircase, while the rest of the house seems to relax around it. According to Mr Van Berkel “the twist was also intended to let the far ends of the house 'sink' into the rooms so that you have somewhere to retire. The funny thing is that when you sit down you are fully secluded, but as soon as you stand up the house opens up to you.”
The architect also wanted a geometric variation between the rooms. Therefore, the twist forms a division between the rooms, both literally and figuratively. At the same time, it also links the rooms: this is where the entire house can be seen, as well as different views of the landscape, this is where the residents can meet.
“In that respect, the story of Villa NM is similar to that of Philips Johnson's Glass House” says Mr Van Berkel. In the design of the Glass house, the round fireplace is a focal point in the orientation. It is also a meeting place. But according to Mr Van Berkel it is old fashioned to arrange a building around a fireplace these days as no one spends time in the living room any more. Another outdated concept is the total transparency that was in favour with modernists: “The residents need their privacy. But they should also be able to meet if they want.”
The twist is also a key element in the frame of the house. It made the 6m by 14m cantilever possible. In the heart of the building is a sizeable beam with secondary beams that create the twist: quite simple really. However, working with concrete was not as easy in the United States as it would have been in Germany or Switzerland, for example.
The twist fulfils several functions effortlessly: it gives the villa context, arranges it into a split level, creates internal orientation and communication, divides the different areas and it has a constructive function. To top it all off, the twist also creates a natural transition from the glass to a closed surface with a shot concrete finish.
Mr Van Berkel is especially proud of the glass: “It picks up the colours of its surroundings. The glass turns very dark when the sun shines directly onto it, although it is always clear from the inside. It is not coloured glass.” In the 60's and 70's this type of glass was used in cities like Barcelona and New York. The architect managed to find a factory in Canada that still produces it.
After UNStudio's 'blue period' each design now has its own colour. As Mr Van Berkel and his colleague Ms Caroline Bos formulate it, the notion of the after image was leading in this choice. It is always a question which experiences will leave a - remaining - impression. UNStudio's answer to that question is a series of buildings in solid colours. If you stare at a bright colour and then close your eyes, the image does seem burnt into your retina. The impression is intensified by designing a unique object for every colour. For UNStudio, this means that there will be an increasing difference between their designs as every building is designated its own concept as well as its own colour.
For Villa NM, the bronze colour of the glass has become an important theme. “We had many discussions with the client on how we should extend this to the interior. Now he has bronze doorknobs to polish”, he says, smiling. “And we placed a bronze plate around the fireplace. Although this client is very interested in contemporary architecture, he also likes to play with his own tradition.”
As his experience increases, he allows more of these 'quirks' in his work, but he wouldn't say he is more relaxed: “We worked more than six years to get everything right.” Villa NM proves that UNStudio has grown up. The Möbius house, which meant the big break-through for UNStudio 10 years ago, overflowed with the sheer number of ideas that the young architects wanted to apply. But the architect’s hand has learned to relax and, in the process, he has gained virtuosity.
It is a freedom that is expressed, not in licentiousness but in self-control. The 'less is more'-principle tends to be explained as an aspiration to achieve minimal architecture, but with Villa NM UNStudio proves that perhaps it is more about control, about getting it just right.
On Tuesday the 5th of February 2008, just six months after being completed, Villa NM burnt down due to unknown causes. Mr Van Berkel stated that he was cut up about it and that he would have loved get on a plane to try and convince the client to rebuild the house. “It was a unique project as the design was completely integral: the details,the interior, the construction, the surroundings...” Villa NM has now become Villa PM. PM for Post Mortem.