The flag gives it away. The cliffs around the town of Cape Coast, Ghana, on the Gulf of Guinea—where slave ships once left Africa for the Americas—are littered with architectural corpses: old buildings left to rot, new ones abandoned midconstruction. From a distance, the concrete house perched on pilings near the fishing village of Biriwa looks like yet another wreck. The long stained-concrete wall facing the Atlantic Ocean is exposed to the elements.
But the flag says something different. A crisp red rectangle sporting three cartoonish heads with copyright symbols as the eyes, it flutters proudly in the ocean breeze on a neat bamboo pole. Anyone who knows—really knows—his or her contemporary art might recognize it as the work of General Idea, the Canadian collective of postmodernist artists. But even those who don’t get the reference would realize that this particular flag is far too smart to have been left to fly beside a derelict building on a desolate stretch of the Ghanaian coast.
They would be right, because the house belongs to the German artists Carsten Höller, 50, the subject of a survey at the New Museum in New York on view until January 15, and Marcel Odenbach, 58, who is to stage an exhibition at Dallas Contemporary in Texas later this year. Having devoted much of the past decade to the tortuous process of designing the house and overseeing its construction, the two now fly in from Europe—Höller lives in Stockholm, Sweden, and Odenbach in Cologne, Germany—to spend part of each year here. “There is something magic about this place,” says Höller. “Unexpected things happen all the time; there is a lot of unpredictability. I feel very different when I am here and am able to look at my work from a different perspective.”
Dystopian though it appears from afar, the house is a stellar example of what the architectural historian Bernard Rudofsky called “architecture without architects,” having been designed with its location in mind rather than architectural convention. A shallow concrete box hoisted to a height at which it seems set to glide into the Atlantic, the structure is equipped to survive scorching heat, fetid humidity, tropical storms, rainy seasons, and anything else the Ghanaian climate subjects it to—while allowing its occupants to enjoy the dazzling views from the cliffs and across the water. “When the sun goes down,” says Höller, “the light is golden, and the house looks as though it is about to take off.”
He and Odenbach each have a room on opposite sides of the building, shaped like skinny parallelograms with huge windows overlooking the ocean. The cavernous space between them includes a communal living area and kitchen with one long wall open to the Atlantic and nothing to stop the wind and rain from blowing through. During the day the surf can be seen—and heard—crashing on the gray rocks of the beach; at night, the water disappears into an eerie black chasm, with the roaring of the waves the only clue that the ocean is out there. “The sound is fantastic,” says Odenbach. “Often I start playing music and then turn it off because I would rather listen to the waves.”