SOLOHOUSE @ 20

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The Solohouse is twenty years old. At my age, twenty years does not seem so long, except when I think that it is the length of time between 1940 and 1960, the period when I was growing up, and I can remember with amazement all the changes, to myself and the world, that took place over that span of years. And then I also remember how much has changed since 1988, the year of this project’s birth. Considering that, I think the Solohouse has aged reasonably well. Of course, it no longer exists, except in photos and a few drawings, having been destroyed some years ago.

The Solohouse, I should explain, is as close as I have come (so far) to building a structure that could be called, in the usual sense, a building. It was built of steel and wood, about one-sixteenth full size. At five feet tall, it was not big enough to enter or physically inhabit, but nevertheless addressed the basic construction problems of an actual building—such as the selection and joining of materials, and constructional stability—in a highly tectonic sense. The architect and master builder Christopher Otterbine was my contractor and, as in all creative building projects, my design collaborator.

The concept of the Solohouse was, ostensibly, that it was a house for one person. But, even more so, I conceived it as an ‘atom’ of architecture, one that embodied the essential properties of architecture that were fundamental to building up ‘molecules’ and ‘compound substances,’ like building groups, even towns and cities. The single dwelling is the fundamental space of human habitation, and there must be a clear idea in an architect’s thought about it, before he or she can talk about larger human settlements. The Solohouse was the embodiment of mine. Later, in projects for Berlin, Paris, Sarajevo, Havana and San Francisco, the Solohouse mutated and combined many times, responding to different cultural, political, and geographical situations, but its underlying principles remained.

In a previous post—INTEGRITY—I spell out basic ideas about materials, structure, and function in more or less orthodox Modernist terms, that guided the design of the Solohouse. And yet, it does not “look like” a Modernist building, and indeed it is not. The thin steel shell structure gains its strength though shape, not mass or an internal skeleton. The materials are allowed to age and have no imperative to remain eternally new. The function is ambiguity itself, the burdensome idea of ‘freespace’—one must invent the way to inhabit the house, because it is not pre-determined. That’s the way principles work, assuming many variations, shapes and forms over time and its changes to the way we understand materials, structure, and function. Still, the human condition remains the same, which is what makes it ‘human,’ joining us to the past, and also giving us not only inspiration, but a guide for creating the future.

LW


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