The Embodiment of a Study

Bye House (Wall House 2) was designed in the early 1970’s by John Hejduk for a site in Connecticut, USA, but was never built. Ten years ago the town of Groningen, in the north of the Netherlands, undertook to build this famous house on a lakeside site on the town’s outskirts. Early in September, one year after Hejduk’s death, the house was completed.

photo Wenkbrauwalbatros

In the early 1970’s, while he was teaching at the Cooper Union in New York, Hejduk made a number of study designs for a house that placed living in the context of time by means of a Wall. The Wall symbolises the physical transition from past to future through the present, a transition between back and front, closed and open. The Wall, one-and-a-half metres thick, forms the basis of the house. The entrance and living elements literally hang from it. To reinforce this idea, a narrow gap is left between the Wall and the elements. Hence the Wall is not directly manifest in the interiors but can only be perceived visually. It is without doubt a theoretical house, based on an idea about the physical confrontation between space and time, elaborated in complex composed of separate elements. In that sense it is a unique icon, a museological manifestation of an important architectural concept.

Following the opening, Wim van den Bergh, an authority on Hejduk, delivered the Bouma Lecture, which was organised by GRAS. Among the issues he touched upon were those characteristics that could turn a house into a home. He illustrated this with some examples where the house can be read as an autobiography of the architect or is realised in very close co-operation with the client.

Wall House 2, also known as Bye House, was designed in 1973 for the client Bye for a real site in the USA. It was not built at the time however. Set in the hilly landscape of Connecticut, the house was to be approached from the side so that the entrance was not immediately apparent. Having passed along the lengthy corridor and reached the other side of the Wall, you are presented with a wide-open vista. In Groningen this progression is approximated as faithfully as possible: the street, the path, and the vista crowned by dramatic clouds. Despite these features, the Wall House is sited in a quintessentially Dutch suburb with row upon row of cheerful new dwellings. The context brings the Wall House back to everyday reality

Assessing the suitability of the Wall House as a suburban dwelling in Groningen, you have to conclude that it’s far from ideal. Without a clearly defined front or rear side, the house occupies what by Dutch standards is a large site. But the external space is needed to allow the house to read as a sculpture on a pedestal. This space cannot be accessed directly from the living room. To do that, you must first walk back along the corridor to the main entrance. Despite the large volume the interior appears small. The Wall casts an oppressive shadow across the house. Attached to the Wall, the living spaces focus on the lake view through their strip windows. The kitchen and dining space, the middle of the three volumes, does not even have windows that open. One single swing window by the draining board gives onto the half-metre-wide recess separating the Wall and kitchen. The house stands in a neighbourhood, but on no side does it have the shelter that would turn this house into a home.

But an assessment of the Wall House as a dwelling in this setting is of another order than an assessment of the Wall House as a built icon. It is almost certain fact that a potential buyer is ready to pay three million guilders (1.3 Euros) for this architectural monument, only to furnish it with those everyday household items of furniture, curtains, kitchenware and the like. However, that is not to say that you can judge the Wall House as if it were just a house designed for one of the many new residential areas in the Netherlands. It remains the embodiment of an architectural theory that would be best shown to advantage if it were to remain public property and opened for visitors. There is a good chance that the house, once inhabited, will be reduced by the media to a sculpture without meaning, depriving visitors of the experience of moving along the Wall.