A Weekend in Bordeaux
Rem Koolhaas, Houselife, and Cité Frugès
In conjunction with the class The Idea of Comfort, a group of students travelled to see a tripartite exhibition organized by the CNAP (Centre National des Arts Plastics) in Bordeaux, led by Juliette Pollet, curator of the show. Objects from the national collection were displayed at the Masion à Bordeaux designed by Rem Koolhaas, in the exposition Houselife at the Musée des Arts Decoratifs de Bordeaux, and in one of Le Corbusier’s buildings at the Cité Frugès in Pessac. Each site emphasized a different aspect of design and design history, but common themes connected each space into a cohesive whole, even if they were physically separate. The relationship between design and architecture, the interplay between old and new, and technological evolutions, were considered in some form at every site. The visit also provided an enlightening look behind the scenes of Juliette’s curatorial work.
The Rem Koolhaas Maison Lemoine (or Maison à Bordeaux) is a private residence that was open exceptionally for this exhibition, and only at certain times on certain days. It was fascinating to hear tales of the installation: managing giant crates in a small space, walking into glass walls, bumping low beams and stubbing toes on concrete stairs. The best anecdote was about the height of the platform, which was left with a small space that allowed for a view of the rooms below. How did they decide how much space to leave? “The size of a baby’s head,” Juliette explained, so that an adventurous toddler couldn’t accidentally get stuck. This led Melany Tellen, who worked as an architect in the States, to remark on the freedom—and hazards—allowed by the lack of building codes in France.
At the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, after a quick pause café, the focus shifted from architecture to eras, with contemporary designs scattered amongst historic pieces throughout the 19th century interior of the masion particulier that houses the Bordeaux museum. The combination brought new life to the older objects, bringing them out of a history of dimly lit period rooms (although many of the rooms were still rather dim) and invigorating them with a new perspective. It also benefited the contemporary works, which were often created in reaction to design history. Making this history immediate for the viewer gave the objects context and allowed them to have a more complex presence then they possess when sequestered in a white cube.
After a hearty dinner and good night’s sleep, we made the trek out to Pessac (although it really wasn’t much of a trek, just one bus from city center and short walk to the site). The “city”
planned by Le Corbusier comprises 50 buildings, many of which are falling apart and a few of which have disappeared completely. Some are still inhabited, and one houses the museum/visitor’s center. It was fascinating to compare the elaborate post-modern mansion of Koolhaas with the pre-fabricated modernist worker housing of Le Corbusier. Like the objects in the Decorative Arts museum, examining the 1920s house brought new light to features incorporated in the architecture of the 1990s. The highlight of the trip was Noisy Jelly, a project displayed in Houselife but available here for interaction. As students of design and museology, it was excellent to be allowed not just to touch, but to play with an object.
After a semester discussing The Idea of Comfort, it is hard to ride on a train or sit in a chair without thinking of the theories and designs built around the human body and experience. This visit touched on these themes on many levels, from the experience of travelling to and around the city, to seeing the designs we’d been discussing first hand. It was an exciting and educational weekend—even so, I’m looking forward to a good sleep in my own bed, without thinking too much about all the social, cultural and physical constructs that make it seem so comfortable.