The weather changes quickly on the Austrian Zeller See. At daybreak, fog rises from the tranquil lake, creeping into the quiet village on its western shore. The midday sun pierces passing clouds, light and shadow playing in chiaroscuro over the Alpine landscape. An afternoon sun shower dampens the valley; rooftops glisten and the surface of the lake glimmers.
This is the scene witnessed from the Austrian House, the latest residence by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas. It is his first built house in almost three decades—his most recent, the Maison à Bordeaux was completed in 1998; it was preceded by the Dutch House in 1995, and the Villa dall’Ava in 1991. All have been hailed as masterpieces. Created in close collaboration with architect Federico Pompignoli, this home marks a surprising evolution in the career of one of the world’s most celebrated designers.
Planning for this project began over a dinner six years ago. No sooner had the client revealed he owned a microscopic, perhaps unbuildable, hillside plot near his hometown, than Koolhaas proposed a project, intrigued by the challenge. It was a relief, the client recalls, from the megaprojects that have become standard fare for Koolhaas’s firm OMA, the Office for Metropolitan Architecture. Measured against Koolhaas’s considerable oeuvre, this comparatively small structure—about 3,000 square feet—undoubtedly ranks among the architect’s greatest investments of time-per-square-foot. Koolhaas presented his plans for the house in person at the town hall. “The city architect hailed it as the most significant building in Zell am See since the church,” the client recalls. “St. Hippolyt was built in 1215.”
First glimpsed from town, the house resembles an outcropping of white marble emerging from the hillside. After a winter snowfall, it is all but invisible. Slipped between two squat, Alpine-style buildings along a narrow drive, the structure occupies a steep site scarcely more than 40 feet wide, the former side yard of the house next door. After subtracting setbacks required by the local building code—a little over 13 feet on either side—the resulting mass is a narrow tower rising from the street, much of its bulk buried, like an iceberg, within the hillside. “How can an underground house enable the penetration of daylight and views that are crucial for living?” Koolhaas asks, neatly summarizing the project’s fundamental contradiction. “It meant that the section of the house was critical,” he continues, referring to the structure’s intricately stacked levels. Aboveground, the house’s white concrete has a lustrous finish that looks and feels like fine porcelain.