Tuesday at the Hammer: ‘Koolhaas Houselife’


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Too often we -- and by ‘we,’ I mean architects, critics, reporters, editors and photographers -- are so enchanted by chasing the next new thing in architecture that we forget to check back in on notable buildings to see how they’re succeeding, or failing, in the real world once the clients move in and the glare of media attention fades.

‘Koolhaas Houselife,’ an hourlong documentary by Ila Bêka and Louise Lemoîne showing at the Hammer Museum Tuesday night, is an amusing, levelheaded and ultimately quite rich exception to that cycle. Filmed inside a stunning glass-and-concrete 1998 house -- located on the outskirts of Bordeaux, France, and designed by Rem Koolhaas and the Dutch firm Office for Metropolitan Architecture -- the film follows a cleaning woman, Guadalupe Acedo, as she moves through the residence, vacuuming the underside of cantilevered steel stairs and racing to position buckets to catch leaks when it begins to rain. Remarkably, there are no talking heads here, just a series of understated, sometimes deadpan vignettes starring the architecture, Acedo and a few handymen of one kind or another.


As Acedo good-naturedly catalogs the challenges involved in cleaning the house -- which was designed for a client confined to a wheelchair and his family, and features a platform on a hydraulic lift that moves up and down through the center of the structure like an elevator without walls -- the movie threatens briefly to tip toward parody, toward the rather shopworn idea that there’s always a huge, even dangerous gap between the theoretical goals of an avant-garde building and the realities of its day-to-day life. And, indeed, in one section we catch a glimpse of Jacques Tati’s 1958 film Mon Oncle, a send-up of futuristic architecture, playing in the background.

The evidence seems to suggest that the house, while audacious and breathtaking, is sagging a bit beneath the strains of daily use. It also emerges that the wheelchair-bound client has died, leaving his wife to inhabit a piece of architecture in large part custom-made for a man who no longer lives there. (Lemoîne is that couple’s daughter and grew up in the house.)

But the more Acedo talks about the house and its flaws, the more it becomes clear that she not only loves it but is prepared, in her own staunch and bighearted way, to defend it. She spends as many waking hours in the house as anyone, and she treats it with the same kind of affection -- slightly exasperated but deeply genuine -- we typically save for our closest relatives.

‘Koolhaas Houselife’ begins Tuesday at 7 p.m. at the Hammer Museum’s Billy Wilder Theater. Details here.

--Christopher Hawthorne