Invisible Bordeaux recently came across one of the city’s most unusual – and, it turns out, controversial – permanent art installatio...

La Maison aux personnages: art house in the middle of our street

Invisible Bordeaux recently came across one of the city’s most unusual – and, it turns out, controversial – permanent art installations: a house located on a traffic island near to the Pellegrin general hospital, sandwiched on all sides by streets and the tram A line. Welcome to “la Maison aux personnages”.

The exhibit is the work of Russian artists Ilya and Emilia Kabakov and was unveiled in October 2009: it consists of a two-storey house comprising a number of rooms, each of which has been designed and filled with scenery and accessories to look like it is inhabited by an imaginary character. Visitors can tour the exterior of the house, peek in through the windows (including the upstairs room which can be reached via an outdoor staircase), and take in the various still-life scenes, with poetically-worded panels about the associated characters there to provide additional context and pointers. 

This is la Maison aux personnages, although at first glance there is nothing to suggest the house is a permanent artistic installation. Pellegrin hospital can be seen to the left.
Much like the outsize tracksuit trouser sculpture covered in the previous Invisible Bordeaux item, la Maison aux personnages was commissioned as part of a campaign to install modern public artwork at various points along the metropole’s tram network. The house and its surrounding square were arguably the most ambitious of the resulting pieces. Ahead of the official inauguration (in the presence of the artists, city mayor Alain Juppé, France’s then culture minister Frédéric Mitterrand, and the then president of the metropole, Vincent Feltesse), the area was a building site over a seven-month period.

All of which leads us on to one of the most surprising aspects of the installation: remarkably, the 148-square-metre air-conditioned house and its garden were purpose-built to become this artistic exhibit. Working to the designs drawn up by Ilya and Emilia Kabakov themselves (some of the original sketches can be viewed here) and inspired by the characteristics of Bordeaux’s échoppes and townhouses, the building was conceived by the architects Samira Aït-Mehdi and Sylvain Latizeau, and delivered by the contractors DV Construction.

Given the expense involved (somewhere in the region of 500 to 600,000 euros), the project has proved controversial. The politician Emmanuelle Ajon, a Bordeaux city councillor and Gironde department vice-president, condemned the venture by writing that it was “indecent to let homeless people look in on what it is like to have a roof, and to spend 560,000 euros on a house which will only ever be exhibited and never occupied”.

Peering inside.
A Direct Matin Bordeaux7 report collected opinion among locals who were dubious about the exhibit “which nobody ever visits”, “blocks the view” and is, in terms which echoed those of Emmanuelle Ajon, “a house that cannot be entered while there are homeless people sleeping rough nearby”. Finally, the associated Yelp page includes a comment from somebody who lives across the road, and who mentions the incessant traffic which isn’t exactly conducive to people reaching the house, let alone taking time out there to rest and reflect on its meaning. The writer signs off by saying “the work might be interesting but it remains invisible”.

Which, appropriately enough, is where Invisible Bordeaux steps in: I braved the elements to plot my way through the traffic across to the house, in order to report back on what there is to see through the windows. So here goes: I think the most interesting rooms to view were those entitled “En barque sous les voiles” (which includes a pretty wooden sailboat), “La soif d’inventions” (which appears to be a mad professor’s workshop, complete with illuminated fairy lights and a lot of work in progress) and “Ne jamais rien jeter” (with its collection of collections, i.e. hundreds of labelled items, along with a number of suspended objects and little cards with open questions to the viewer written on them). Of the others, “Le paradis sous le plafond”, in the upstairs room, featured little more than an armchair and a ladder to nowhere – it felt a bit overly minimalist and underwhelming. Most of the remaining rooms were more conventional living and sleeping quarters, and looking inside did feel a little voyeuristic, if you can picture a voyeur also standing there scratching his head about the meaning of it all.

Four of the rooms: "En barque sous les voiles", "La soif d'inventions", "Ne jamais rien jeter" and "Le paradis sous le plafond".
Anyway, having written all of the above, it turns out I’ve almost forgotten to acknowledge the Soviet Union-raised, New York-based artists themselves; just who are they? Ilya Kabakov was born in 1933 in what is now Ukraine’s fourth largest city, Dnepropetrovsk. For much of his life, his main activity
The Kabakovs,
picture source:
was that of an illustrator for children’s books, but from 1980 onwards he became well-established as a painter and writer. In 1988, he began collaborating with his future wife, Emilia (née Lekach), born in 1945 also in Dnepropetrovsk, who studied Music and Spanish in Moscow before moving to Israel then New York, where she became a curator and art dealer.

The couple have worked together ever since and have earned distinctions including France’s Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres in 1995 and Austria’s Oskar Kokoschka Preis in 2002. Their work, which “fuses elements of the everyday with those of the conceptual” (according to, has been exhibited in venues including New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam and the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg. The Bordeaux installation is just one of many public commissions delivered throughout Europe and elsewhere

So, how can Bordeaux’s Maison aux personnages be defined? If you extract adjectives from this article you’ll find words such as invisible, controversial, indecent, but also unusual, imaginary, poetic and interesting. As with all forms of artwork, there are as many definitions as there are people viewing the piece. If you haven’t witnessed the house yet, perhaps your time has come.

> Find it on the Invisible Bordeaux map: La Maison aux personnages, place Amélie Raba Léon, Bordeaux.

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