The 747 Wing House in the midst of the Malibu Mountains re-imagines the giant wings of an aeroplane as roofs, making a statement for green architecture and paying homage to modern engineering prowess at the same time.
When American artist Tony Duquette died in 1999, he left behind a body of work that challenged the limits of eccentricity. His stage and film set designs, and his works with home interiors and even costumes, to this day re-assure the ones who are bothered by conventionality.
Early on in the decade, he and his wife, Elizabeth, had squeezed in every ounce of their creative fervour in building their own ‘Shangri-La’ on an ethereal 150-acre patch in the midst of the Malibu Mountains.
This beloved art/residence project, named ‘Sortilegium’ by the couple, was destroyed in one of the most notorious fires that hit Malibu in 1993. What were left at this spot were some ‘pagoda-like’ structures, and when it was acquired by Mercedes-Benz heiress Francie Rehwald five years ago, it was time for a new structure to rise from the ashes.
She roped in the talents of David R Hertz to re-imagine the place using “feminine” shapes. Hertz, bowled over by the scenic beauty and the palpable history of the structure that existed earlier, immediately thought of aeroplane wings as roofs.
And these were not the propellers of any aeroplane; they had to be of a Boeing 747-200 which means 230 feet of length, 195 feet of width and 63 feet of height with over 17,000 cubic feet of cargo area to work with.
Hertz was conscious about not disturbing the topography much, and about using the existing materials to the fullest possible extent. The wings serve as roofs atop non-fussy walls made of concrete, shotcrete and rammed-earth. This is a brilliantly cost-effective and green idea to work in the surroundings that include a mountain range, the Pacific Ocean and a valley.
The ‘747 Wing House’ spreads across 55 acres of beauteous land where its glass encasing and rustic look stand in complete humility.
The back story of how the wings came to be architectural props can span many conversations. Abandoned aeroplanes in the Californian desert were inspected, budgets fine-tuned, the building authority consulted and a registration with FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) completed before it was decided that buying a whole plane made more sense.
The idea was to strip as many parts of the metallic hulk as possible and use it creatively, à la, Duquette style. The cost involved in getting them to the site raised many eyebrows, considering that the ultimate ambition was to construct a green structure. But the labour and material costs thus reduced are major components of the sustainable plan for this structure.
Both the main wings and 2 stabilisers from the tail form the roof over the master bedroom. A 50-foot long fuselage section caps the art studio, while the guest house is topped by another part of the fuselage and the upper first class cabin deck. The front portion of the plane has been brilliantly turned into a ‘Meditation Pavilion’; with the cockpit windows providing the natural illumination.
The way this residence has turned out, it looks remarkably like a sci-fi movie prop that mushroomed out of the rocky ground overnight. The wings accord it a sturdy silhouette; at the same time looking like the whole thing is going to take off into the mountains any moment.
In true green spirit, there are few accenting flashes here, pebbles break textural sweeps, vegetation is non-pruned, natural light is ample and it religiously makes the walls change colours thoughout the day.
The use of the wings, apart from an ingenious green idea, is an ode to one of the most remarkable engineering feats of this generation. “The 747 represented the single largest industrial achievement in modern history and its abandonment in the deserts makes a statement about the obsolescence and ephemeral nature of our technology and our society,” states the project’s description.
Duquette was a master of transforming ‘found objects’ into creative totems. His prized art project may have met a tragic end, but its 20th century re-invention works on 2 levels – it reconstructs a grand, beautiful home at the spot; and it keeps up a sustainable ideal that is much aspired to in today’s world.
Text By Shruti Nambiar
Photographs Courtesy The Architect