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Flight of Fancy

Architect Ettore Sottsass designs a house and aviary around client Ernest Mourmans’s obsessions with exotic stone, wood and birds.

Ernest Mourmans’s house outside the Dutch city of Maastricht is really two houses, which interlock like clasped hands. One is a fantasy residence for people; the other, a fantasy dwelling for exotic birds, one of the owner’s passions. Odd though each habitat is, the extraordinary thing is their symbiotic union. This unity is achieved not by repeating elements of the human in the bird house (or vice versa) but by shattering the houses into so many components that, to the casual observer, there seem to be at least a dozen structures massed in the Mourmans complex. The binary nature of the composition is subsumed in a playful, witty, postmodern multiplicity. Ettore Sottsass, the innovative Italian architect who desiend the house in collaboration with colleague Johanna Grawunder, found his inspiration in life itself. “Existence does not follow a straight line; it has curves, voices, jumps, returns, breaks,” Sottsass explains. “If the job of the architect is to design the stage set for the comedy/drama of existence, then this stage must also always be changing.”

From one vantage point outdoors you can look at the house and see triangular pavilions, masonry cliffs, floating rectangles, implausible rotundas, and roofs disguised by plantings. You see walls of orange, avocado, or turquoise tile; of glazed brick; of black slate; of dark-dired ventilated brick turned sideways so that the holes face outward; of concrete; and of aluminum and glass, all contrasting with gray stone pavement.

Inside, the array of materials is no less spectacular, though the effect here is somehow soothing. One moves easily through airy rooms clad in vivid stone and strange woods, following what Sottsass and Grawunder call the natural percorsi, or pathways, of the house. Sottsass designed almost all the furniture for the house, so that the project is a Gesamtkunstwerk (synthesis of the arts). As Le Corbusier’s greatest patrons did, Mourmans allowed Sottsass to redesign pieces of the house as it was built, to change finishes over and over again, to do all at any cost to get it just right. “I like to say that soccer is a metaphor for existence: there is a plan, but what was planned never happens, so, every minute of the game, plans are being changed,” says Sottsass. “Many new elements enter the game, and they can be more about the senses than the intellect. You make a new observation about materials and the relations between materials; or you explore an interest in color as a language of emotion. Architecture becomes a design for a story in progress.”

Now in his 80s, Sottsass is approaching the end of a career as one of the most innovative and influential figures in modern design. He resists standard classifications. “I am not a modernist architect, and can never be one, because I am a Mediterranean,” he says. “Modernism was invented in the north, and in the north there are Protestants, and they eat pork, potatoes, and turnips. They don’t know the perfume of flowers, only the odor of wet grass.”

As a northerner, Mourmans might demur. But he and Sottsass have known each other for years, and they have formed a model architect-client relationship. For the most part, Mourmans kept out of the way. The only things that he really stipulated were the land and location, the square footage, the thing about the birds, and some interior finishes. The finishes are one of Mourmans’s obsessions. “I buy blocks of stone and pieces of wood as if they were paintings,” he explains. “I fall in love with them and must have them. It’s like an illness for me.”

So he asked Sottsass to incorporate bright blue Brazilian marble, which looks like petrified sky; exquisite pearwood for a stair one almost fears to walk on; a complete trunk of a fruit tree with a rare fungal disease that makes it look like it has been draped in black lace; an exotic veined sandstone from Iran. There are no light switches or wall sockets to mar the lines of the beautiful wall surfaces in the Mourmans house (though there are floor sockets). Electronics, climate controls, and fixed lighting are all operated with remote controls.

Of course, the strangest and most interesting thing about the house really is the birds. Mourmans has been fascinated by birds for as long as he can remember, and he is active in all kinds of international bird charities. He sponsors a center in Brazil that breeds endangered species through artificial insemination and releases them back into the wild. He is attached to a research center in Belgium that does the more delicate breeding of birds that will not reproduce at the Brazilian operation. The Belgian researchers transport most of the offspring back to their native land, keeping some of them in captivity so that there will be breeding stocks if the populations in the rain forests become entirely depleted. Mourmans has also worked for the preservation of the Siberian crane, and has helped build an outreach program that teaches children in western China to recognize these birds and to protect their habitats.

In his new house, Mourmans finally has his birds to hand. About half the windows in the part of the house built for human beings look onto bird rooms. When you are in the living room or the kitchen, for example, you will be gazing at rain forest re=created within gigantic greenhouse structures linked by plant-filled glass corridors that the birds can fly along. The birds are peculiar, diverse, in their own particular way often very beautiful, and sometimes rather ugly. There are ducks with odd mounds of feathers on top of their bills, and some large black birds like hawks with strange wattles like chewed-up bubble gum hanging from their throats. There are strutting birds that are striped like brown tigers, and there are hordes of pink flamingos. There are birds with running streaks around their eyes that look like Nike insignia.

Mourmans has one of the world’s most important galleries for contemporary art furniture. (Sottsass is one of those whose work he represents, along with Ron Arad and Marc Newson.) The pieces are all massive and heavy and remarkable and rare. Mourmans himself looks like what he sells and collects. He’s got one of those ample Dutch faces out of Frans Hals, and a big jolly laugh, and long hair with frayed ends. He’s an enthusiast who wants you to love the things he loves. Though he takes great pride in his birds and his house, there’s nothing snobbish about him. He rules over a perfectly constructed, very weird, altogether remarkable private empire of dreams made bona fide.