imomus (imomus) wrote,

No house is a hero to its cleaner

During the cultural revolution, Chairman Mao pretended to "let a hundred flowers bloom" -- only to use the resultant openness to find out exactly who his enemies were. I won't say yesterday's Flipwhack Metaloop poll was anything like that, but LiveJournal's extremely detailed feedback on who'd said what did tempt me to investigate the blogs of the critical minority who thought I was, for instance, relentlessly self-promoting. Would someone who thought I was self-promoting be promoting themselves on their blog? What kind of self-effacing culture would they be talking about?

I received a deliciously appropriate answer to that question from one Click Dissenter's blog -- a ringing endorsement of a documentary called Koolhaas Houselife, which looks at the Dutch architect's 1998 Bordeaux house not from the perspective of the owner (a disabled writer whose wheelchair necessitates the house's centrepiece, a vast hydraulic floor that rises and falls across acres of bookshelves like a cherry-picker) but of the housemaid, a plump and fussy cleaner who's far from impressed by the grey, cerebral minimalist slab. I rushed to download the film from my favourite clandestine server.

Now, I love films about architecture -- the kind featured on 0300TV, for instance, or the structuralist kind made by Heinz Emigholz. But Houselife is a step beyond -- or do I mean below? -- other films about architecture, because it concentrates not on the intellectual or utopian blah that characterises much architecture-talk, but on the daily task of vacuuming and dusting the house, catching the drips when it rains, and fixing the broken entry system. This is history written not by the winners but by the cleaners. As such, it's the perfect film for someone who wants to burst an intellectual's self-justifying bubble.

Houselife sees Koolhaas' building from the perspective of Guadalupe Acedo, the frank, no-nonsense maid, as she dusts and vacuums. We see not only the public areas, designed to impress with their originality, but also the maid's own quarters, a humdrum, cramped little flat in a hidden corner of the house, stuffed with depressingly standard equipment and fittings bought, no doubt, from a local branch of Darty. We also hear the maid's opinion of the house she looks after: she wouldn't have any house of her own that grey and that stark, she says. Just as no man is a hero to his wife, so no house is a hero to its cleaner.

The Houselife trailer contains nods to the utopian-dystopian tension in two famous films about architecture and technology, Tati's Mon Oncle and Kubrick's 2001. But the Bordeaux house can't help reminding us, also, of the writer's house in A Clockwork Orange, scene of a terrible rape. The writer in that film is, like the invisible owner of the Bordeaux house, confined to a wheelchair after one too many visits from Alex and his droogs. This misfortune somehow throws his utopian-modern house into much darker relief, giving the enviable setting a heavy dramatic irony. There are also shades of Dr Steven Hawking in the way technology here is an impressive -- but finally inadequate -- substitute for an able-bodiedness most of us take for granted.

Of course, theory trickles back into a film admirably void of it the way rain trickles into a dream house through cracks. It's easy, for instance, to see Houselife as an example of what Koolhaas himself has called post-occupancy design, which I've defined as "the stuff that happens to design after it’s left the designer’s workshop (and architecture after it’s left the studio)... the real test of its quality and character. Occupancy and use shouldn’t see the designer and the architect melting away. They should stick around, take notes, and take photos. The processes of time and decay can be beautiful. The way people use stuff and adapt it can be instructive."

In an interview on the Houselife DVD, Koolhaas himself tries to combat the maid's acerbic disrespect. Far from representing reality, Koolhaas says in this clip, the maid is a sort of ideologue, a Schweikian demagogue: "You see two systems colliding, the systems of the platonic conception of cleaning with the platonic conception of architecture. It's not necessarily daily life confronting an exceptional structure, it's two ideologies confronting each other."

I think he's right, but I can't help finding it satisfying to see an extraordinary building mopped down to size by a waddling, polka-dotted housemaid -- its nemesis, apotheosis, and household goddess. If Koolhaas represents the power of architecture, Acedo is a force of nature; you might as well try to resist the weather.

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