Why Pharrell Williams’ house is good for architectural poetry

Pharrell’s image problem is good for architectural poetry

The singer Pharrell Williams has never been afraid of thorny architectural debate. ‘Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof,’ he sang in the 2013 chart sensation Happy, raising engrossing questions. What sensation is Williams describing, exactly, here? Is that necessarily a happy feeling? Does a room without a roof even qualify as a room? When you dig into it, doesn’t it suggest ruin, abandonment and insecurity rather than shelter and joy? 

In a couple of deft strokes, Williams invokes a paradox worthy of Rene Magritte, using the language of the domestic and the everyday to invoke a haunting panorama of unease. You might think that this is the self-isolation talking, but these thoughts have been brewing away for me since long before the pandemic emergency gripped the UK. In fact it’s been nagging at me since Williams listed his Beverley Hills mansion for sale in the now-distant halcyon days of early March.

Once again, the singer revealed himself as a 21st-century answer to Bernard Tschumi or Peter Eisenman, challenging our conceptions of the relationships between form and function. The $17 million house covers 17,000ft2, with 10 bedrooms, 11 bathrooms and parking for 30 cars, according to reports at TMZ.com and rap-up.com. So far, fairly typical for a hugely successful musician. It was the appearance of the house that got the discourse flowing on the social networks. The facades are curtain walls of blue-green sheet glass, and the wings of the house meet in a double-height atrium animated by a statement staircase. The various parts of the sprawling structure are differentiated by a geometric roof, seemingly metal, punctured by skylights. The stepped approach to the front has fairly hard landscaping, and centres on a freestanding abstract sculpture.

‘I think a couple of my pals went to 6th form at Pharrell’s house’

All very opulent, and the interiors are pretty tasteful by the standards of the extremely rich. But the exterior isn’t exactly homely, as scores of people said, circulating pictures on Twitter. ‘I think a couple of my pals went to 6th form at Pharrell’s house’ said @Gerry­McLaughlin, one of many community college references. It was also compared to a minor municipal airport, a small private hospital, or part of a suburban office park. 

What was it about Williams’ house that prompted this outpouring of grass-roots architectural criticism? It was not that it was bad, or ugly; nor was it a burst of kneejerk anti-modernism. Instead the issue was typological. It didn’t look much like a house, so much so that people felt compelled to comment. 

Scale has something to do with this, as it’s undeniably a very large house. But plenty of very large houses still look like houses. The real source of the controversy was the glass wrapped around it, its blue-green tint, trimmed with white and gunmetal grey – inoffensive and moderately classy, but evidently also recognisably institutional. It all has the clean, mouthwashy tang of a dental school. Update your mood-boards accordingly. 

I think that what really got people talking, though, was the originality of the comparisons that could be made. Pretty much everyone has a little typological library inside them, a language that we all learn early on, mostly without being taught it. It’s generally independent of architectural style, and it helps us understand the world around us on sight. Within that language, there is a very tatty list of derogatory cliches, generally used to denigrate modern architecture: the prison, the airport, the crematorium, the alien spacecraft. Often these are very confused in what they actually evoke, a topic for another day. But the Williams abode was something fresh, Listerine fresh, and having immediately twigged that it didn’t look like a home, people had to rummage around in their shared typological lexicon for a way to describe what it did look like. Really, this collaborative game of simile and imagery was a brief and rare moment of architectural poetry, and it made me Happy.

Will Wiles is an author. Read him here every other month


CLAP ALONG...

This column was begun before the coronavirus crisis had fully reached the UK and completed after the national lockdown had been announced. I feel I might have been a bit unfair to Pharrell, because right now a room without a roof does sound like a cheerful place.