1,000 square feet, with light in the middle
John Bentley Mays
This past spring, the editors of Wallpaper*, the achingly chic, cutting-edge British design magazine, took a look around the world of building and picked 30 emerging offices for their annual directory of architects, due out in August. Then they asked each firm on their list of favourites - including Reigo & Bauer, the only Canadian practice on the roster - to whip together a plan for a 1,000-square-foot, affordable and efficient house, build a model of it, and have that model in Berlin, ready to be photographed - all within three weeks.
I don't quite understand how Reigo & Bauer principals Merike (nee Reigo) and Stephen Bauer hit that crazy deadline, while juggling a newborn son and getting on with their regular work. But they did so somehow, and the result is an elegantly simple, expressive embodiment of the design philosophy this talented couple has been evolving over their four years in business. (In addition to its place of honour in Wallpaper*, the project will be featured this autumn in the International Architecture Biennale Rotterdam.) The Wallpaper* brief called for flexibility, and the Bauers have delivered it in their clear, straightforward scheme. In Spec House 03 (as Mr. and Mrs. Bauer titled the work), the square footage mandated by Wallpaper* is distributed over two rectangular storeys. On the first level, essential elements (kitchen, washroom and so on) are concentrated in the middle, leaving the two ends open for whatever combination of spaces the client might like: A living room and dining room, perhaps, or a home office and TV room. The second floor is composed of three rooms, with one bedroom at each end of the rectangle, and a middle area, defined by swinging panels, that could be a third bedroom, a media room or upstairs den. These spatial arrangements are efficient and basic.
The true art of the project, however, is more evident in the house's overall packaging. Imagining Spec House 03 on a traditional city block, the Bauers gave the building a pitched roof - but not an ordinary roof. Its steep angles cut deep into the volume of the house, opening the interior to sunlight and creating little terraces and decks. Tall walls of glass serve to brighten further the rooms within. "Light has always been a real focus in our work," Merike Bauer said. "Big boxy houses are dark in the middle. We have been working on ways to form spaces to get daylight in, especially when you're faced with a higher-density setting like a city block of houses, one after the next. The space between houses is not great. How can you carve out some of the house to allow light to come into the centre?" One reply to that question: You reject the modernist design orthodoxy of the age. "When you're going through architecture school, most students favour modernism, flat roofs, box-like spaces," Stephen Bauer said. "We wanted to find a way to take something that is vernacular and alter it to make it contemporary in every respect. We realized how complex interior spaces can be made by just doing something very simple, how changing the slope of the roof plane, shifting it, can make the interior spaces different in each room." This sculpting of the house's mass is the most attractive aspect of the Bauers' scheme: Not so radical that it drives up construction and design costs beyond the reach of people with modest budgets, or makes the building look strange on the street, but lively enough to give the house a bright, contemporary feel in an urban setting. What you don't see in Spec House 03 - the system of solar-heated water embedded in the floors, the plain wood framing - is done cheaply, so that what you do see remains vivid and eminently livable.
"Some people feel that modern architecture is cold and austere and uninviting," Mrs. Bauer said. "We strive [in our work] for an element of fun, of surprise, and we don't take what we do too seriously. We are finding the balance between being rigorous and playful at the same time."