The House of the Flight of Birds is the most accurate translation of the Portuguese name of this house on the north shore of St Michael, the principal island of the Azores located in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. It is the work of Bernardo Rodrigues, a young architect from Porto who was born and raised on the island not far from the site of the house. Perched on a hill overlooking the ragged north coast, in the midst of square divisions of land, the birdlike figure of the building faces the strong winds coming from the north with a wall, and the spectacular landscape on the west with a large window. It is protected by a double membrane: the outside wall and a glass curtain wall inside. Both give the private dwelling a sense of intimate enclosure while meticulously framing the outside view, inspired, no doubt, by the early works of Le Corbusier: the rectangular opening on the roof terrace recalls a similar feature in the Villa Savoye, and the division of the south window evokes the fenestration in the inner courtyard of the monastery of La Tourette. The name of the house recalls the myth of Daedalus, the first architect, who constructed the labyrinth, and fashioned wax wings for himself and his son to escape the island of Crete, inspired by the flight of birds, as were many among those who followed him in this vocation. Ignoring his father’s warning, Icarus approached the sun too closely; his wings melted, he lost his feathers and fell headlong into the sea. James Joyce believed that what the birds know today, man will know tomorrow, prompted, no doubt, by the Greek belief in the power of divination watching the flight of birds. Here on St Michael, Bernardo Rodrigues, inspired by Leonardo Da Vinci’s notes on the flight of birds, has constructed a flying machine, an architectural composition that enables the mind to conceive life as a dream. While bedrooms are confined to the upper level, the living room, dining room and kitchen are at ground level. A patio and a shallow pool mediate between inside and outside and give the house well-defined boundaries. Above the kitchen, a large, wide chimney offers plenty of light and air, emphasizing the connection to the vernacular architecture in which similar tall chimneys often appear. We are thus caught up in the mystery of the flight of birds. Flocks of birds, the original inhabitants of the islands, moving in a singular order without detectable means of coordinating their flight, have always exercised our imagination: they suggest a power to order movement which we are not aware of, and hence a movement capable of a harmonious existence that we are potentially capable of but still have not discovered the means to attain. Such are the inspirations that this house, by its surprising form, will itself inspire. On the island there are several fine private houses and public buildings by local architects and architects from Lisbon such as the two private houses by Pedro Borges and the lecture halls by Inés Lobo at the university in Ponta Delgada, but nothing that takes such outlandish measures to achieve that which is without measure as this House of Birds. Together with his sister’s house, built earlier, and the new church, still under construction, an inverted pyramid structure on the south shore, Bernardo Rodrigues offers us a surprising new departure, a courageous undertaking, as fascinating as it is difficult. Working against age-old patterns of settlement and island life, not to speak of construction and building method, it is exceedingly difficult to introduce so radical a departure. To succeed one must convince the local public of the wisdom and benefit of such alternative ways. It is easy to imagine how challenging this must have been. What has been achieved in the past decade in the field of contemporary architecture on these islands is therefore of a great importance. Bernardo Rodrigues is among a small number of islanders who went to study architecture in mainland Portugal and managed to return to contribute buildings of critical value and international acclaim. The dream of Icarus has attracted painters, poets and architects in the last century; the House of the Flights of Birds is shining element in this constellation.
Yehuda E Safran, Paris 1.VII.11
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