In 2017 when you want to visit any building, public or private, designed by a world-renowned architect, all that is needed is Google and a basic knowledge of what you are after. Seconds after typing in “Koolhaas house Paris”, you are staring at the coordinates (48° 51′ 21″ N, 2° 13′ 5″ E) and a map of how to reach the Villa dall’Ava on Avenue Clodoald, in Saint-Cloud. This is all readily available from a smartphone, so you can learn the details on your way to the Boulogne – Pont de Saint-Cloud Metro stop. Or on the thirty-minute walk from that station. Of course you wouldn’t want to be looking at your phone during the walk; it’s a beautiful area.
During the Fall of 2004 when I was living in Paris, searching for an obscure building was not so straightforward. The intimate details of this private home designed by Rem Koolhaas weren’t splashed all over the Internet. Finding this house was a much more private affair. There was no Google Street view to verify the location before I left my apartment on Rue de Four. There was no smartphone in my pocket to help me if I became lost (smart phones didn’t yet exist). I didn’t even have a cell phone in Paris. All I had was a pocket watch, a discman, and my well worn Plan de Paris par Arrondissement—that amazing little blue map book which is essential for getting to know Paris. I never left my apartment without that book and had memorized huge swathes of the city thanks to it.
To find the Villa dall’Ava my only clues were rumors from previous students who thought it was somewhere in Saint-Cloud, a simple site map from I don’t remember where, and S,M,L,XL. I brought three books with me to Paris from Houston: Dracula, Gravity’s Rainbow, and S,M,L,XL. I finished the first two, but never the third. I did look through that last book enough to find the circle on an aerial photo of Paris, showing the extremely rough location of the house. Knowing the general location, I poured over the map of Saint-Cloud in my Plan de Paris looking for the distinctive curved road arranged symmetrically about an oval traffic circle shown in the schematic site plan.
The day I set out to visit the house was one of those amazing, cool, crisp gray late Autumn days in Paris. It was the type of day that makes those of us who’ve experienced it permanently fall in love with Paris, knowing forever that it’ll always be our favorite city, no matter what happens or what other wonderful places we get to experience or live in. As I walked south through Saint-Cloud (not having Google Maps to tell me it would have been faster to come from the South) my anticipation grew. Until I was on Avenue Clodoald, rounding the curve past the oval traffic circle I wasn’t sure I would even find the Villa dall’Ava. Then from behind the trees the house emerged.
My experience with the Villa dall’Ava was hyper-personal. Visiting that house, when it wasn’t labeled on Google Maps, when it wasn’t visible from Google’s Street View, when it didn’t have a Wiki page, verged on magical. It was just me, Rem’s work, and the music on my portable CD player—probably Jet Sounds by Nicola Conte or Blonde Redhead’s Misery is a Butterfly. I had sixty to seventy minutes of music on repeat that day. One CD. My fellow architecture classmates were off doing something else, probably working in studio. My wife and best friend Carolyn was 5,000 miles away back in Houston. Had someone come up to ask me what I was doing, I would still have been alone. Not speaking much French, even the language of those around me intensified the isolation. I had journeyed to see my first Koolhaas building, one of his earlier works. It was a quest. It took effort. It provided me an opportunity to be alone. A beautiful aloneness I have rarely experienced since.
Ten Year Later, a different world
My wife now works in a building overlooking the Seattle Central Library. When we first moved to Seattle in 2014, we also lived roughly ten blocks away. I now get to see Rem Koolhaas’s addition to Seattle any time I meet my wife for lunch. In addition to seeing her in the middle of the day and going for a nice walk, I have the pleasure of waiting for her in the Safeco Plaza Lobby—a twenty-eight foot tall glass box with a perfectly framed view to the east of the library. The Seattle Central Library is a gem. An all glass library works shocking well in Seattle. It is amazing how it peeks out around the corners of its neighbors, how it is so unlike all the buildings around it, and how it transformed a nice lobby by local firm NBBJ into something spectacular. It is a sign of a great designer when he or she can improve the experiences of the adjacent buildings’ tenants.
Living in Seattle I can visit the library whenever I like (and I should go out to lunch more often with my wife). Whenever I walk by or go into the library, I am never alone. The library is always filled, always surrounded. I get to explore it and experience it the way it was designed to be utilized, as a citizen of Seattle, as a book reader, as someone in an office nearby. And yet while I have spent more time in the library and can use it for its designed purposes, the experiences will never match those precious moments in Paris. Back in Paris in 2004, the high design of Rem Koolhaas was just for me. It wasn’t a statement in a city. It wasn’t a critic of the Villa Savoy. It was a treasure to be found and appreciated by a dedicated and determined student.
I’ve never met Rem Koolhaas, but I have been in the same room as him—along with a few thousand other architects. He was a keynote speaker at the 2016 AIA National Convention (which I also spoke at, though to a room of around a hundred architects). I have a feeling in a smaller setting he would have been much more interesting. I listed to his talk for about fifteen minutes. But I found it dull, rambling, and uninspiring. And he sounded as bored as I was. So I left to get lunch early with some friends. We went over to the Reading Terminal Market to fight the crowds and find something indulgent to eat. We had a great time elbowing past strangers and then staking out a corner of the convention center to sit, talk about architecture, and eat our food.
Subscribe to my blog to read more about the tricky world of being an Architect in the 21st century: Shoegnome on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Youtube. This blog post started as an article for the 2014 issue of Clog on Rem Koolhaas. I never got around to submitting it. I started the article; but like so many things over the past two or three years, I got distracted and only just now finished it.