House in Tunis
The project in Tunis was always an unusual one for me. As a general
rule I don’t do work for close friends, nor do I take on projects where
a less than total design or vision is required – in my experience,
nothing less than complete absorption in every detail of a building
will do. In this instance, circumstances overthrew precedent.
From the moment the histories of Christoph, Yves and this house first
became bound up in one another, intrigue got the better of me.
Christoph and Yves had originally intended to find somewhere in
Majorca, but found the prices there prohibitive. Tunis proved to be a
compelling alternative. As easy to get to as Majorca, it was
considerably less expensive and infinitely more exotic. It also had the
advantage of being French-speaking. Here they could live in a vibrant,
beautiful city with access to the desert and the beach.
A property was identified and I flew down with my family for the
handing over of the keys. At the last moment, formality
erupted into drama. The elderly owner had received the money, but,
suddenly overcome with emotion, did not want to give up his
house. There was a huge scene with much shouting and waving of
arms on both sides. I remember vividly the narrowness of the alley in
which the argument was conducted and the unmistakable acridity of
cat. The keys eventually changed hands.
The house which Christoph and Yves had bought was a typical seventeenth
century house in the Medina, reached via the city’s covered souk. It
was arranged on two floors, but with many variations in level within
these floors. The house was designed to provide accommodation for
a large extended family. Although relatively small, its arrangement of
spaces opening off a courtyard – removing the need for corridors
- was extremely efficient. Each family group would have had living and
sleeping quarters off the central courtyard, with meals served to all
by staff working from a single kitchen. It was a house designed for a
hot climate, with a range of outside areas – mostly on roofs - allowing
its inhabitants to chase the shade. While there were a few
windows onto the street, most faced onto the courtyard, the various
grilles allowing subdued light to filter into the interior. The
proportions of this interior were exciting and very different from
western ones – a succession of tall, attenuated spaces. Many of
the rooms retained beautiful original features – tiled walls and
floors, pillars and vaulted ceilings. Despite a degree of
dereliction, this was a house with a very strong fabric and character.
One of the joys of the project for me proved to be researching an
unfamiliar building type: we had to understand the house before we
could change it. Both Yves and Christoph already had a good
knowledge of Moorish architecture. They knew from the beginning that
here was a house perfectly susceptible to the more conventionally
western patterns of life they envisaged for it, without the need for a
radical departure from former incarnations.
My role here was, as I have said, not my customary one. In place
of the control of every aspect of a project which normally
characterises my work, was responsibility for certain elements of the
concept and design. I would supply plans, elevations and some
details, whilst Christoph and Yves would run the project and organise
the building work. In this case it worked very well. The
slowish pace of work on site meant that there was scope for further
design details to be supplied as the need arose. Christoph would
telephone when something required clarification or adjustment.
Letters and faxes were exchanged across countries and continents.
The first job was to assign functions to rooms. I was then to
design a kitchen and bathrooms, furniture, storage provision and
lighting. We finally settled on a private suite for Christoph and
Yves upstairs, with cold weather dining and living rooms and two facing
guestrooms with bathrooms on the ground floor. The design of the
bathrooms was crucial. In this hot climate, bathing has to be
pleasurable – if you have a really hot bath, you feel cooler when you
get out. I wanted to create modern hamams. The existing fabric of
the designated bathrooms was wonderful, at once austere and ornate -
stone floors, slender columns, lofty, vaulted ceilings and small, high
windows with coloured glass. I designed vast, unadorned stone
tubs and solid block basins with smooth hemispherical cavities. The
baths are a good example of the collaborative nature of the whole
enterprise, being made on site in local stone by a Tunisian builder
using drawings supplied from London and fitted with imported taps.
Outside, it was a matter of clearing away external accretions and
adding stairs to improve access to the roof areas. I chose to house the
stairs within the drama of a nine-metre double wall open to the sky.
The roof terraces - used both early in the morning and in the relative
cool of the evening - needed a certain amount of rethinking in order to
become exceptional and not merely useful spaces.
I visited several times. Building work came to an end during one of
these stays. In honour of my contribution to the rebirth of the
house, I was invited to take the first bath. I turned on the
shower, took off my clothes in a leisurely fashion and admired my work
- I confess to feeling pretty pleased with myself. The pool of warm
water seeped languidly across the perfect stone slabs. I stepped
out of my reverie and into the torrent of water, only to receive a huge
electric shock – enough to throw me to the floor. The local electrician
had artfully arranged the wiring such that the entire system was live.
I like an invigorating shower, but this exceeded all expectations.
There comes a moment when the client moves in and colonises the spaces
you have made and which you know so intimately – it’s a strange moment
for the architect. This was never part of the experience of the Tunis
project. Things are different when your relationship with a
building is not of the usual, all-encompassing intensity – you don’t
have to worry about every detail, you don’t blame yourself for things
that aren’t right. The finished house is a glory. I would
probably have done more if I had had total design control, but then
again, maybe I wouldn’t - with an old house, what you don’t do is of
critical significance. What is certain is that here, unusually, I was
not trying to build a pattern of life into the architecture, that was
not my role – that was for Christoph, Yves and the house itself to