Completed in December 2001, the house for the Barak family has seven rooms, with enough space under the canopy for additional rooms in the future. The 1,176 square-foot (109-square-meter) house, with its 754 square-foot (70-square-meter) terrace, cost $146,000 to build.
A Heretical Design
Roche and Stephanie Lavaux, his partner since 1993, form the Paris-based architecture practice of R & Sie... Pronounced in French, the letters read "hérésie," or "heresy" in English. (The three dots mean that they are open to new partners joining the firm.)
"Heretical" is a good term for Maison Barak. A tent over concrete block boxes is unexpected in a region of traditional white walls and red-tile roofs. But it was important for this house to blend with the surroundings and not compete with the nearby historic Château Sommières.
The house had to be nearly invisible to be built in a protected zone surrounding the château. Anyone wanting to build within a 1640-foot- (500-meter) wide swath around the château requires permission from Les Architectes des Bâtiments de France. These architects represent the state in matters of architectural heritage and planning.
The "stealth" of the house was important in securing that permission. Fortunately, says Roche, the fact that this project draws its topology from the terrain must have appealed to the heritage organization. Described as a "green thing" by the baffled examining architect, Maison Barak "entered a black hole in the planning regulations."
"The furtive aspect was also a strategy to get the authorization of construction," says Roche. He had realized that the tent would conceal future extensions to the solid structure underneath, fulfilling the client's wish to be able to add rooms without reapplying for permission.
Maison Barak thus resembles the Stealth Bomber, which can slip invisibly under an enemy's radar. Any future extensions to the house will deliberately pass unnoticed by the authorities.
Multidisciplinary Design and Construction
The house's polyurethane panels, which Roche designed on a computer, are held together with carbon fiber wires that run through plastic clips spaced between 12 and 16 inches (30 and 40 centimeters) apart. The tension and diameter of the cables, in addition to the diameter (1.38 inches/35 millimeters) of the 72 adjustable metal tubular poles that support the tent, were calculated by a local engineer.
The galvanized steel poles range from 12 inches (30 centimeters) to 10 feet (3 meters) in length. Christian Hubert Delisle, builder of artists' installations, produced the prototype for the poles. These can be altered in length by up to 6 inches (15 centimeters), by twisting the circular top ring, which is the head of a threaded bolt.
Delisle's input kept construction costs down. The family employed a contractor to construct the bare concrete block building, but Delisle and two friends built the tent, thus bringing the overall cost within range of the Barak family's budget.
By shading the block walls, the polyurethane mesh helps to regulate the building's internal temperature and in stormy weather gives added protection to the construction beneath. EMIS, a manufacturer of fabrics used in agriculture, based in Aix-en-Provence, supplied both the fabric and the clips.
Despite the fabric's appearance, however, Maison Barak is quite sedentary. It has a shallow foundation of 12 inches (30 centimeters) of concrete laid on bedrock. Geothermal heating pipes lie 39 inches (1 meter) below ground in the garden.
A reverse-cycle heating system uses the difference between the ground temperature and the outside air temperature to produce enough energy to heat a fluid circulating through the under-floor network of pipes.
To combat mosquitoes, which are common in the south of France, Roche and Lavaux used a curtain of translucent plastic strips. This mosquito barrier also serves as a flexible room divider between the kitchen and the other living areas.
The partition may look like high design, but it is common in quite ordinary Spanish and Portuguese houses, though usually in more vibrant colors. The Manufacture de Stores du Languedoc, a shade-manufacturing company, produced the kitchen curtain for Maison Barak.
It is the combination of solidity and flexibility, apparent impermanence and permanence, that makes Maison Barak such an unusual object on the French landscape. The goal, says Roche, is "to mix outside and inside."
Robert Such lives and works in Paris, France. He writes about architecture in Europe for The New York Times, The Independent on Sunday, The Architectural Review, Blueprint, and other publications in the United States and Europe.