A Monumental Dream

Niki de Saint Phalle looks into the camera as she paints the Nana figure attached to Reve de L'Oiseau. The artist wears a head scarf, white sweater and pants.
Source: NCAF Archives

"If I had to define myself it wouldn’t be as an artist but as an achiever of dreams"
Niki de Saint Phalle


2019 marks the 50th anniversary of Niki de Saint Phalle beginning to build her first major permanent architectural venture, Le Rêve de L’Oiseau (The Bird’s Dream). This project consists of three sculpture houses, built in the Var region of the south of France, for her friend Rainer von Hessen. LeRêve de L’Oiseau was somewhat shrouded in mystery for a long time. Saint Phalle rarely spoke about the project as Hessen wanted to avoid public attention, allowing him to live there in privacy. Her archives held photos of the construction, under the obscure title 3 pavillons, literature was hard to find and mostly in French, and even the surrounding townsfolk initially had no idea what was being built on the property.

the three structures peek out from thick green trees up on a hillside
Source: Youtube © TV5MONDE / Rmn-Grand Palais, 2014

I have always had a dream of doing architectural things. 
It started with my sculptures getting bigger and bigger.”
Niki de Saint Phalle, The Miami Herald, March 1974


Rainer von Hessen and Niki de Saint Phalle met after he saw a photo of HON, the 1966 installation for Moderna Museet Stockholm, in a German magazine and was intrigued. Their collaborations started when Saint Phalle first designed the costumes and sets to Aristhophanes’s Lysistrata, directed by Hessen (then known under the stage name Diez). Thereafter, Hessen co-authored and directed her play ICH, which was performed at the Staatstheater Kassel in 1968.

Hessen approached Saint Phalle with an idea the same year: “I wanted to build myself a summer retreat. […] I wanted, instead of living in a closed house with everything under one roof, rather to walk through nature in order to get from one room to the next.” 

The concept of the three houses was born: a living space, a kitchen, and an “artsy” outhouse. First sketches and models were created in 1968, and elements from the set designs of ICH, as well as Last Night I had a Dream and were applied. Later, Saint Phalle and Hessen assembled their team that helped make The Bird’s Dream come true, among them Jean Tinguely, Rico Weber and Gilles Margo-Duclot.

To make these fantastical houses Saint Phalle and Hessen covered the basic structures that Hessen had built on his property with chicken wire to create the desired shape. The reliefs they created were then coated with polyester in Paris and applied to the houses. Since its toxic fumes became a serious threat to the artist’s health, Hessen asked the local mason to continue the work with concrete. Saint Phalle learned valuable lessons from this process that she would use in later architectural projects, such as the Golem or Tarot Garden. The enormous sculptures were created from the ground up. The often curvy, rounded shapes were constructed by first welding together metal rods and then covered with chicken wire and sprayed with concrete. 

I love roundness, curves, waves… The world is round, the world 
is a breast. I don’t like right angles. They scare me.” 
Niki de Saint Phalle, Niki de Saint Phalle: Un Rȇve d’ Architecte, 2014


Each sculpture house is unique with distinctive features.

The Bird’s Dream is a kitchen

A large bird with its wings spread on the kitchen roof gives the sculptural group its name. The bird is an iconographic element from ICH and used by Saint Phalle consistently in her work. The outside dining area consists of seating built into one cave-like wall, while the dining table takes the shape of a mushroom. On another outside wall, a dragon is menacing a couple in bed. Next to the plant-shaped front door with a spider, a Nana cook is welcoming visitors with a shopping bag in her hand. Dimensions: width 5.9m; depth 4.8m; height 4.5m

the kitchen viewed from the front with seating area; the kitchen viewed from the side with entrance
Photo Source: NCAF Archives

The Sorceress hides a water closet inside

This structure is covered with long wavy hair, painted with shiny metallic paint, that extends to the ground. The flooring inside is covered with glass mosaic. Once construction completed, Saint Phalle decided that she did not like the square metal door, and wanted it changed. Her wish was fulfilled in the course of a restoration. Dimensions: width 6.0m; depth: 4.7m; height: 4.2m

A silver-painted figure covers the entrance to the water closet. It looks sternly into the distance.
Photo Source: NCAF Archives

Big Clarice is the sleeping space

The original idea for the living area was the shape of a Sphinx. It was not realized due to financial limitations. Instead, Jean Tinguely proposed that the structure housing the bedroom is shaped with Saint Phalle’s signature Nana form.  The breasts of the Nana serve as two children’s bedrooms, which can be accessed by a ladder staircase. There is a bathroom with a giant Nana-shaped bathtub. The name of the house became Big Clarice, after one of Saint Phalle’s close friends, Clarice Rivers.  Dimensions: width 9.5m; depth 5.0m; height 7.0m

A pencil drawing by Niki de Saint Phalle and Jean Tinguely of the outside of Big Clarice in frontal view, as well as primitive structural lines inside and with a canopy. Next a black marker drawing on grid paper showing Big Clarice next to a figure and a tree. The notes in Niki de Saint Phalle's handwriting say: "taille d'un home" and "1969 project pour construction de nano maison"
Bottom pictures shows Rainer von Hessen on a ladder painting orange patches on Big Clarice. Niki de Saint Phalle paints the front kneeling down.
top left: Niki de Saint Phalle & Jean Tinguely, Dessin. Collection Rainer von Hessen
top right: Niki de Saint Phalle, Projet pour construction de nana maison, 1969. Collection MoMA NY
bottom: Photo: Rico Weber / © MAH Fribourg

The original design of the Sphinx would be used 10 years later to build the Empress in Niki de Saint Phalle’s Tarot Garden. The Bird ’s Dream became, in more than one respect, a precursor of the artists’ major work in Italy.

Niki de Saint Phalle goes from sculpture to architecture, it 
inserts works in the nature and not in a museum, and they feel
Niki de Saint Phalle, Le Monde, September 2014


As with most of Saint Phalle’s art, these summer homes caused controversy amongst the townspeople. Some questioned the validity of these homes as art, referenced in local articles titled: “Niki de Saint Phalle’s Challenge of Plan-de-la-Tour: Worthy of Pornography Carnival or the Museum of Modern Art”  (Le Provençal, January 1972) and “These Monsters in the Heart of Provence: Houses that amuse or scandalize” (France-Soir L’Intransigeant, August 1971).

newspaper article in French asks "Who authorized this horror?" Two images in color of the sculptural houses are printed.
Source: NCAF Archives

In 2007 Le Rêve de L’Oiseau was awarded the distinction Patrimoine de XXe siecle; a label given to architectural projects of the 20th century that embody cultural heritage. One year later, the entire property of Le Rêve de L’Oiseau was listed, by the Ministry of Culture, as a Historical Landmark (Monument Historique Classé).

Also in 2008, Rainer von Hessen transferred the deed to this property to the family of Sybille and Jean-Marc Heftler-Louiche, through a 95 years long term lease. After that, it shall return to the Société des Amis du Rȇve de L’Oiseau, a non-profit association which has been created for this purpose. 

Extensive restorations have been executed on this 13 hectare (30 acre) property, since 2008. The property is not, for the time being, open to the public. 

Interested in learning more about Niki de Saint Phalle’s architectural projects?

RMN Grand Palais. DVD titled Niki de Saint Phalle: An Architect's dream from 2014. ASIN number for purchase: B00LLK054

The Niki Charitable Art Foundation would like to thank both Rainer von Hessen and Jean-Marc Heftler-Louiche for their insight and help with this blog.