Everything about ‘the bubble house’ is round, from its structure down to the dog kennel. Helena Frith Powell tours an unusual French home
Festes-et-Saint-André, with its traditional stone houses, is everything you would expect of a tiny rural village in the Aude region of south-west France. Only one building sets it apart. Up a steep, rocky track on the edge of the village, which lies south of the medieval town of Carcassone, an extraordinary sight awaits you: a series of interlocking spheres that make up La Maison Bulles, “the bubble house”.
Its owner is Daniel Bord, the village mayor, and its design was inspired by the Finnish architect Antti Lovag, who invented the bubble-house concept in the 1970s. Lovag noted that primitive dwellings, such as caves and igloos, better reflected the way humans move.
“Houses have been built in straight lines and angles because of the weight of tradition, even though new materials and techniques were invented that could have led to more natural shapes,” says Lovag. “These new curvy shapes are now found in buildings that are functional and not for living, such as stadiums, theatres and monuments. Straight lines are not modern or natural; they are aggressive. People don’t move in straight lines.”
Inspiration came from a photograph of a bubble house that Bord saw in a book. “I loved the aesthetic space,” he says. “I had always dreamt about building a house I liked. This was the early 1980s, the children were growing up and we needed somewhere bigger.” So he took himself off to a week-long bubble-house-building course at Lovag’s workshop near Nice. “We made a few bubbles and he took us all through the process. Then I came back here and started work.”
The hardest part, however, was winning over the planners, who greeted Bord’s scheme with suspicion. “The local authorities were worried by the idea, they thought people wouldn’t like it and they weren’t sure about the look of the place.” He admits that it took “a few years” to get planning permission.
Lovag works with structures made of iron rods and polystyrene moulds, the shell being formed from layers of materials, including thermal isolation and waterproof paint for the outermost layer. Composite materials such as glass-resin or glass-cement are now used instead of concrete.
Bord had his work cut out – building alone took about 10 years because he worked mainly on his own. And that was before he had even started on all the furniture and fittings. The chairs are round, as are the windows, the doors, the beds and even the bath – practically the only straight line visible in the whole place is on the oven door. “Right angles are not necessary,” he says, echoing Lovag’s philosophy. “The advantage of the sphere is that it is in tune with nature and the human body.”
The finished property has three bedrooms and covers just over 2,000 square feet – “although it is hard to measure,” concedes Bord, “as it’s all round.” Outside, the garden mirrors the spherical shape, as do the swimming pool, garage and workshop. Even the dog kennel is a bubble.
The main living space is made up of separate areas, for example the kitchen and a sitting area, but there are no walls to divide them. The most impressive feature of the room is the vast oval window which looks out over the hills and woods behind the house. It is light and airy and, even though it is not terribly big, feels spacious. The floor is on different levels, which helps to separate the zones of the room, and the terracotta tiles have been cut into spherical shapes. The centrepiece is a round (what else?) wood-burning stove on a circular burgundy base. The furniture is made mainly of wood and always curved.
Bord says that the most difficult thing to maintain is the exterior look – the spherical shapes that make up the house age quickly. “The bubbles need repainting every four or five years. This one has not been repainted since 1991 and it shows. The cats are the worst, they love to dig their claws into the surface and scratch the paint.”
The kitchen, painted deep burgundy, has a ship-like feel to it and the window resembles an over-sized porthole. Most of the lights – a combination of different-sized spotlights – are circular. Bord’s study on the first floor has an oval window similar to the one in the drawing-room, the shape of which echoes his curved desk below. The low ceilings are all voluptuous curves, while the two cabin-like bedrooms with their wooden built-in beds have oval windows offering views over the countryside.
It doesn’t stop there. In the unusual bathroom the spherical shapes of the bath, door, vanity table, basin and window create a harmonious feel, and the plants inside and outside the window mingle into one so that it is impossible to tell where they are growing from.
The terrace outside is made from half a bubble and accessible via a staircase housed in a tube-like structure. And, although the tiles around the round pool are rectangular, they are laid in semi-circular shapes. There is no formal garden as such, instead vast, circular, plate-like structures contain plantings, while ivy covers the house.
From afar, the bubble house resembles an extra-terrestrial creature that has landed in the forest. The rounded chimney looks like an antenna, the roof’s rounded windows might be eyes. The bubbles themselves form the creature’s hulking frame.
Locally, there is little interest in the house. “It was on television once and so a few people came up to see it,” says Bord. “Some locals came to have a look out of curiosity but most of them aren’t really bothered.”
One local I spoke to was certainly unimpressed. “It must be a bit like living in a collection of Perrier bottles,” he sniffed. “But each to his own.”
There are some French fans of the bubble house, though. According to Christian Roux, the head of the Bubble House Association (Homme et Habitat), there are about 20 in the country. Antti Lovag lives in a bubble house near Nice, and his most famous work is the stunning Palais Bulles which Pierre Cardin bought in 1992 for a reported £5 million. The 16,000sq ft house built in 1978 is close to Théoule-sur-Mer, and nestles in the red rock face of the Esterel Hills, near Fréjus. Cardin uses it for promotions and rents it out for special events. According to Roux, there are more than 100 houses in France that have some bubble element to them. “However, there are still classic bubble houses being built. At the moment, I know of two building sites, one in the Alpes-Maritimes and another in the Var.
” Antti Lovag still runs his week-long courses for those interested in building bubble houses. But for those who want a ready-made one, Daniel Bord’s house is for sale at a guide price of €1 million (£681,000), and he is open to offers. “I want to build another one,” he says. “Perhaps a little smaller now the children have left home. I would like to take advantage of the experience I have had building this one to do another in the same style somewhere close by.” A sort of “son of bubble”. What will the local authorities have to say about that?
La Maison Bulles is for sale through Daniel Bord (00 33 468 313 862). For details of Antti Lovag’s bubble house-building courses, e-mail email@example.com
How to live with curves
- Curved walls enable you to place windows and doors where they are best adapted for the use of a room, or to make the best of the view and the light. In a curved room, the usual references to space have gone. From each location in the house you have a different view or perspective onto the rest of the house, therefore more variety. Lighting is softer and less uniform and aggressive than with flat walls. The illusion of space is greater as there are no set lines for the eye to follow.
- Choose furniture that echoes the shape of the room. Creating a central point in a rounded room pulls the grouping together, and works best with a group of six – comprising, for instance, a sleek sofa, a couple of curved chairs, such as the Brewster chairs from the Nina Campbell Furniture collection (020 7349 7577; www.ninacampbellfurniture.com), which cost – £1,563 each, plus VAT and six metres of a customer’s own material, and round tables at the end of the sofa. A ready-made curved sofa is difficult to fit into a curved space and a bespoke hand-made one is expensive. A Leigh curved-back sofa is a better option (£4,394 plus VAT from Howard Chairs (020 7482 2156; www.howardchairs.com ). Install a mirrored screen in smaller curved rooms – 4ft or 5ft-long panels set across a corner help to create height and an illusion of space.
- Placing a central fireplace in a circular sitting-room can make the room warmer. The smaller volume at the top of the house needs less heating.
- Curved houses resist strong winds better. They are recommended in America in hurricane-hit regions.
- Sources: Nina Campbell, interior designer, and Christian Roux, the Bubble House Association.