Villa 1 was Powerhouse Company’s first project: our chance to present our manifesto to the world.
We were a fledgling practice then, working from kitchen-table offices in Rotterdam and Copenhagen. But we knew exactly what we wanted to build (a house with great spatial qualities and meticulous detailing) and how we wanted to build it (in a smooth, service-driven process).
The design of Villa 1 was inspired by the site, the clients’ paradoxical desire to live “in a modern glass house with all the cosiness of an old farmhouse”, and by Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House and the work of Saarinen.
The project embodies our ideas about professionalism. Architects are generalists. They have to cooperate with engineers and specialists and accommodate the wishes of the client. We believe that architecture must be service-minded, because great service results in better designs.
The plot was in a wood which, like so much of Dutch nature, is entirely manmade. Planted for commercial reasons in the 1950s, it is now protected by special ‘building-in-nature’ regulations which meant that our villa could be only three metres high, with a limited volume above ground.
Because the house’s spatial needs required twice the volume allowed by the regulations, we designed it upside down, placing all the bedrooms underground with the daytime functions on top.
With half of the building placed below ground, maximizing daylight became an essential feature of the project. The plan of Villa 1 is based on the sun’s path as it glides through the clearing in the forest – a transition that we experienced by camping out on the site for two days. As a result of our observations, the plan includes many design decisions based purely on light and view.
Our clients’ desires were rather contradictory
Our clients’ desires were rather contradictory. They mentioned the cosiness of Nordic farmhouses where on entering there is huge fireplace in the heart of the house, the monumentality of Palladio’s Villa Rotonda and Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House as living qualities they yearned for. They wanted their home to be open yet intimate; modern yet traditional; transparent yet protective; and tailor-made yet flexible.
To take advantage of the beautiful woodland views, we imagined the distinctive Y-shape of the house, which creates three wings, each glazed on both sides. There’s a wing for work, study and music; one for cooking and eating; and one for living and painting.
In the basement, the Y creates a similar functional clarity: one wing is for the master bedroom; one for cars; and one the guest rooms and storage. A patio provides light (and a separate entrance) for the guest rooms.
The central area where all the wings meet is the heart of the house. It forms a large space that serves as entrance hall, dining room, bar and music room.
A wide transparent façade bathes every room on the ground floor in light and woodland views. Our ‘centrifugal’ approach to the spatial organisation means that all the mass is concentrated in three central core pieces of ‘furniture’, one for each wing, which contains all the services and structural elements. These solid pieces divide the glazed spaces into rooms, without shutting them off from each other.
The basement has a different atmosphere, with less daylight but more spatial richness. The effect is almost archaeological. Rooms appear carved out, suggesting caves. Elements like vaulted ceilings and thick walls recall Roman architecture.
The contrast between the light-filled, airy ground floor and the intimate, heavy basement creates a surprisingly varied spatial experience.
The furniture pieces on the ground floor are very different in their design, materials, feel and even smell. We used wood for the north wing, slate for the east and concrete for the south.
In the north wing, an American nut-wood form ‘swallows’ a staircase, cupboards, guest bed and a small bathroom. Its exterior curves shape the entrance, small and large study rooms and an acoustically sound piano room.
The kitchen is the second piece of ‘furniture’. It is made of Norwegian slate and incorporates all the kitchen appliances and storage, a toilet and a bar. It is as solid as a rock, yet gentle in its use – a sort of primordial sophistication.
The third and final furniture piece consists of two concrete walls that incorporate a fireplace, storage space and a video projector. This element opens up to create a patio bordered by a living room, garden room and atelier.
A seamless skin of glass covers the building. The façade is suspended between window frames hidden in the ceiling and floor. There is no vertical structure, only thin silicone joints holding the glass.
There is a single interruption to the glass façade: a monumental marble sliding wall (a sort of mobilized Mies van der Rohe wall) which opens up the intimacy of the living room to the terrace.
Although made of marble, the sliding wall is extremely light as it is mounted on honeycomb aluminum plates (a Chinese invention called stone-veneer now produced in Texas, USA, with predominantly Middle Eastern stone). The marble sliding wall wraps around a cross-shaped column clad with a black rubber skin: this is what we call the ‘Miessian Gimp’ (a reference to the Gimp character from Pulp Fiction).
Structurally, the house is a stack of different industrial building techniques. The basement is cast in concrete. The roof, with extreme cantilevers, is a complex steel structure designed by the audacious structural engineer Gilbert van der Lee. The bookshelf in the north wing is made entirely of solid steel plates and functions as a structural Vierendeel frame stabilizing the structure of the roof.
To finish Villa 1’s flush glass façade with no vertical mullions in sight, to engineer the marble sliding wall, to meet the deadline and budget (we stuck to both successfully), and to fit all the client requirements into a single house – these were all exhilarating challenges for us, in which the craft of architecture could be fully deployed.
We are especially pleased with the wide spectrum of spatial quality we achieved with this house, the level of detailing which coexists with the overall sense of unity and calmness, and above all the fact that we made our client very happy.
Although unique, in many ways Villa 1 proved to be the shape of things to come for Powerhouse Company. Subsequently, we’ve completed several other high-end residential projects, including Spiral House, Villa L and Village House.
Villas are the most personal yet perhaps the most complex kind of architectural project. We have learned to regard the villa is a kind of architecture lab. We really enjoy being close to the client and creating a unique environment for living in. Client desires inspire us to come up with new solutions. Ideally, the process of designing a villa is like an adventure with an epic dimension: moving from fantasy to realization. Villas have played an important role in how we define ourselves, as a client-driven, service-orientated, and imaginative architecture office.