BUILDING AN UNBUILT ICONInterview
Editor of AA Conversations Manijeh Verghese speaks to Intermediate 10 Unit Master Valentin Bontjes van Beek about building Maison Dom-ino in Venice.
25 September 2014
This summer, Le Corbusier’s unbuilt housing prototype Maison Dom-ino was finally realised outside the Italian pavilion at the 14th Venice Architecture Biennale. Commissioned by the AA and built by Inter 10 Unit Master Valentin Bontjes van Beek, the project saw the iconic sketch being brought to life, rendered from engineered timber rather than in the modernist material language of concrete and steel that it was originally envisioned as being made out of. In order to find out more about how the project came about, the challenges and unexpected twists encountered along the way, and the significance of building this unbuilt icon, we met with Valentin to find out more:
When do you first remember hearing about Maison Dom-ino, and what did it mean to you prior to this project?
Now that you ask me, I actually don’t remember the first encounter. It seems to have always just been there. I was taught by Nicholas Bullock and he talked about the modern movement but that actually doesn’t include the Dom-ino. Funnily enough, it actually pre-dates it. I always knew it, mostly as a reference. But I didn’t look it up, and I never came across it in Corbusier’s books. I only saw it as secondary source material in a collection among other things so it didn’t really have a big presence in my day to day life.
How did the project of building it in Venice happen?
I’m not entirely sure if it was Tom (Weaver) or Brett (Steele) who first talked to me about it – but I remember clearly that Brett was going through the end of year exhibition last year, picking images for the Director’s show, and I was standing with him when he said, “Let’s build the Dom-ino.” At that point, he still wanted to do it in concrete. And I intuitively thought no, we should do it in wood because that is something that I know about and it was very achievable. But back then, I didn’t know that there weren’t any construction drawings, or any kind of clear instructions of how to build it. It doesn’t exist. There’s no plan of it or any proper calculations. There’s an idea, sketches, and a reference to concrete but there was no real solution of how to build it in concrete.
Why did you instinctively decide that it should be built out of wood?
I’ve been looking at wood for quite some time, building a lot of furniture mainly in engineered timber or plywood, and that’s largely to do with the fact that I don’t have a workshop. I get everything fabricated and then I assemble it on site. It cuts out the actual construction. So, if I was to build anything of that size, I imagined it to be in that vein. Also because Dom-ino was a diagram and a sketch, it was closer to something that was complete, like a piece of furniture. It was self-contained. It didn’t need to become anything else. I felt if we were going to rebuild it we should capture this quality about it. The Dom-ino needs the abstraction of not being in what it was supposed to be made out of – concrete. It would also visibly transform over a short period of time whereas concrete, while it does age, would probably maintain its surface quality and you would need many, many more years for it to age.
Images of the completed Maison Dom-ino in the Giardini at the 14th Venice Architecture Biennale.
Image credit: Rory Sherlock
When it came to building and designing Dom-ino, what were the other challenges you faced? Since there were no construction drawings, how did you get the proportions right, since this is a project that exists in everyone’s minds and is also prominently positioned at the Venice Biennale?
To begin with we didn’t know it was going to be at the Biennale so we didn’t realise that it would be dismantled and have to move. All of that came later, this was really the first instinct of how can we make it affordable, proportion wise, and then once this idea of producing it off-site became real I started to talk to a series of engineers. There was one sketch of Le Corbusier’s which had the dimensions of each piece of the plan, so we started with that. And there was one section that gave us a height reference. We could reconstruct, as closely as possible in plan and elevation, what the Dom-ino would look like, which to our surprise did not really resemble the perspective. It was slightly different but in its spirit it was very close.
It was only when I began to talk to engineers in London, that the idea of Venice started to emerge. I really wanted to build the drawing. I didn’t want it to be different and I wanted it to be a relatively integral system to at least conceptually mirror Corbusier’s initial concept. After a couple of conversations with engineers I decided, instead, to approach the people who work with engineered timber. They have in-house engineers so I would get the production and the engineering from the same source. And so we began to develop it, and then the criteria became even tougher: the pieces had to fit so we had these little expensive joints that could be dismantled. That’s also a question of cost because normally we could have done them all out of wood, which would have been tough to take apart and reuse so instead the joints are now these sophisticated aluminium connections.
After the initial concrete vs. wood debate, how did you decide on the final finish of the pavilion?
The confirmation about the Biennale only came around the beginning of May, which was really, really late. That had a knock-on effect, making us redesign the joints because they couldn’t be delivered in that short period of time, which in turn affected how everything would look and be finished. That gave us a 10 day window to build in Venice from delivery to return. We finished on the Saturday before Easter Sunday, and during that period we didn’t have a drop of rain. The whole object in the sun and in the shade looked very complete, sort of like a large piece of furniture. We had this idea of giving it a white-washed coat where you could feel the wood through it, giving it a sense of unity like with concrete, but it almost had this already.
The truth is that I’ve never really liked sealing wood. My own furniture at home is all made out of wood and I never treat it, even with my young daughter. While some people would put varnish or wax on it, I don’t because I like sun-aged wood a lot. On the outside it turns silver, which is very close to concrete and since concrete would have taken on the texture of the wooden formwork, visually they would have been quite similar. Since I can’t remember when Dom-ino really entered my subconscious, the model will reflect this, and look as though its been there for a long time or has always been there. It just happens to stand there.
What is the future plan for the Dom-ino, as far as you know?
It’s definitely going to come back to London at some point. I think we’re going to build it next year at Easter for the end of year show and to collide with the exhibition that we’re doing here. There are plans of going to Japan, and Brett was talking about North America for a Jeff Koons, LA version, which would be very nice for it to take on a new materiality.
It would be nice if it reflects its surroundings, to adapt it’s chameleonic nature wherever it goes. This even starts with the Biennale where this authenticity of materiality is so fitting for the Fundamentals theme.
Yes, there’s something compelling about saying that it’s entirely made out of wood. The engineers were fantastic in making that happen although they used their own special joint which has a steel collar fixture. However, there isn’t any steel embedded in the beams; they were all structural beams. But it was also a financial question. At the moment the Dom-ino is gauged very closely to its original dimension but also to the standard plywood sheet size.
Yes, I saw your article for AArchitecture where you said that it’s slightly shorter than the original sketch?
It is slightly shorter because otherwise the lever of the stair would have been too long. But we kept the width the same. Our initial proposal was very close to the original but the lever would have required another column, or more foundation under the stairs which I really didn’t want. The actual dimension has to do with a standard 4×8 sheet of ply. It’s another system that refers to the original idea of Corbusier but also had the economy of not having to cut so much, reducing the labour costs considerably. This also allowed us to put it up in just 10 days. It really heightens the intelligence of the piece.
What is really interesting, is how much design we actually had to do on it although it’s seemingly designed. Even the fact that we have 3mm gaps between each board, was through a great idea from Lee (Regan, AA Exhibitions). We got tile spacers allowed us to read the individual panel size in the overall object. It is another way of emphasising the systemic nature of the building. It also reminds us of a dwelling since once you enter it, you notice the proportions and also how they’re quite Miesian, only at a human scale. Mies was more bombastic but Corbusier was always more attuned to the social aspect.
As a final question, how does it feel to build the unbuilt icon?
I didn’t think about it much so I don’t know. Of course I asked myself why hasn’t it been built? And I have to admit, at the beginning, I wasn’t particularly convinced that this really was something that needed to be built. It was only by changing the criteria that it became a new problem. Then I approached it very pragmatically. It’s like a recipe that has to be translated, or a score of music, it has to be applied with the contemporary constraints and rules. And I actually think, now that people have seen it, it probably will become less enigmatic. It was very interesting when I met Bernard Tschumi at the Biennale, and he said, the most interesting part will be how this will change the way Dom-ino has been used, since it was used in so many different ways, rightly or wrongly. I thought that was a very nice way for him to think about it, and maybe in the next couple of years, that will have a big effect on the significance of the Dom-ino. For me, I’m just pleased it’s still standing!
For more information:
Intermediate 10 Unit Brief
The Dom-ino Effect Symposium
Pier Vittorio Aureli & Eleanor Dodman discuss Maison Dom-ino in AArchitecture 22
Valentin Bontjes van Beek on Building a Drawing in AArchitecture 22