ESCRITOS-G: “To Place a House”
Published at Apartamento Magazine #8
Photography: Jan Liégeois
The economy of means doesn’t necessarily have to be a lack of potential. The strategic choices of siting and construction materials are a good example of this in the case of House Van Meerbeek, the focus of our conversation this time. The project is a family house located in Vilvoorde, a town in the Flemish region of Belgium. From the street it appears as an abstract box in the middle of a residential area, interacting with its surroundings in an unexpectedly attractive way. Architect Jan Demuynck joins us in our conversation alongside Ekhi Lopetegi, PHD student of Philosophy and musician. We observe some relevant aspects in the movie Funny Games (Michael Haneke, 1997) that we use as the starting point for the conversation.
Funny Games is an ultraviolent movie in which you are, however, faced with violence on very few occasions. The actual moments of terror come from the viewer’s own interior recreation. By means of static, fixed shots Haneke shifts the violence towards the viewer’s interior, who, although hearing and feeling what happens, doesn’t actually see it. It denies the viewer, so he or she is forced to complete the scene mentally.
This is a tool devised to bring up a game of coexisting realities. On one hand pure fiction, and on the other, as the viewer mentally completes the violent scene, we have reality. The real violence occurs through active participation. This aspect makes the film particularly tense.
One could observe an analogous situation in the Van Meerbeek House, which, with the decision of leaving a gap between the building itself and its neighbour –allowing the light to penetrate into the house–, isolates the main elevation and so presents itself as a blank, inert plane. Not only the image of what a house is is shaken, but it transforms the nature of the whole street. It forces us to interpret it in an unexpected way; deeper and more complex.
We could go by, walking down the street and as we stop in front of the main façade, hear a typically domestic scene in the background; the clatter of plates and pans. But as it happens in Haneke’s movie, that scene can only be completed by us. In one instance, the house is denied to us leaving the question open to the observer. But on another level it is completely open to us, exposing all the harshness of the everyday life in a complete cross-section, as if it was an intimate stage.
Thus, although it is a very sober volume, we don’t find a static box, but an undetermined and dynamic space, waiting to adapt to future changes.
In this sense, how determining is the gesture of leaving the gap between the house and its neighbour? Could it even reach a symbolic dimension?
Hi! Let me be the first to try an answer to the questions given by Arquitectura-G.
Personally I think one of the issues at stake here is the question of privacy. Privacy is also what makes Funny Games so frightening. The people being brutally attacked in the film are also brutally isolated from the ‘outside’. They’re stuckin their own houses, in the privacy of their homes as they’re murdered for no reason. Houses have always been understood as somehow private spaces separated from the public life of the street. Privacy comes as a direct result of the act of sheltering. But as shown in Haneke’s film, contemporary ways of understanding privacy (both expressed in architecture and modern way of life) can lead us to a situation where privacy is both a source of protection and of fearful isolation.
Judging the house by the white wall facing the street, we first have the impression that the house isolates its interior from the exterior. This is true to a certain degree. The house next to it is irregular in plan, so the gap between the two houses opens up towards the street and narrows towards the backyard. As A-G points out, this allows light to enter the house, but it also allows the house to spatially and visually relate to the street. As we walk further, the gap between the two houses narrows, but only before leading us to another open space, the backyard. In terms of pure space it seems like the house and, due to the irregular plan of the gap, both opens up and closes in on itself. This is the dynamic nature of the space that allows the house to have a complex relationship with the outside, being both radically isolated from the street (the white wall facing the street) but also related to it, in a rather subtle but strong way (the glass façade). This could also be how the house deals with the subject of privacy too.
That being said, we still need to deal with the white plane facing the street. I’m not sure if it’s accurate to say that the whole nature of the street has been transformed, as we often find blank façades facing many streets (I’m thinking of industrial buildings, garages or even workshops here), but it definitely interrupts the ‘normal’ way houses present themselves to the outside, maybe as some sort of ‘glitch’ on the visual landscape of a street in a residential area.
As all of these are reflections made by a plain observer I wonder what the reasons behind the decisions made are from the point of view of the architect.
I’m not really surprised that Ekhi brings up the aspect of privacy. This is a matter I am often asked about, both in a professional context and by laypeople. The thing is there’s no consensus in the reading of the house.
Some people comment on the house as being very closed up –‘don’t you like sunlight?’– and some comment on exactly the opposite. The funny thing is though, the comments coming from the street seem to align with the observation that maybe there is something paradoxical in the way that privacy was handled. I’ll comment on this point later.
First I would like to point out a few paradoxes on the interpretation of privacy itself.
Ekhi’s point of view on privacy is interesting. We tend to forget there are very basic reasons like; keeping dry and warm, that makes us build shelters. Then indeed separating an inside from an outside is an obvious consequence of sheltering, and privacy is simply the next obvious consequence of this process. Thus, privacy provided by the architecture is not necessarily intentional as it comes naturally, let’s say as a by-product.
I am quite happy with this insight because as an architect it often frustrates me when clients speak out dramatically of their need for privacy. Their own interpretations towards a solution is an important condition for commissioning their architectural contract yet, in doing so, they actually throw away much more interesting solutions before the design process even begins. I think today’s interpretation of the privacy needed in homes is somewhat twisted and misplaced. Our social context is less related to the physical space around us than it used to be half a century ago. This might be a loss in some ways, but I also tend to think that social stress coming from the immediate environment is consequently less as well. Privacy nowadays rather means to turn off your mobile phone for a while, instead of closing the shutters of your windows.
This said, I think there might be some confusion about the actual degree of privacy as, conventionally understood, this house provides. The solution is much less provocative than it might seem at first glance, and the parallel with the movie Funny Games A-G suggests lies on another level as well, I think. Being situated as a full sidewall, the vertical window divisions of this glazed wall have quite deep sections for windbracing. Through the limited viewing angle given by the crosswise position towards the street, this further restricts the view into the deeper end of the building. Next, the limited width of the gap gives the pedestrian passing by, on average, some three seconds to observe the full section of the house. This does not allow time to focus or to intrude. Too much information at once to develop a reading, so to speak.
The paradox is rather that people on their cosy Sunday afternoon family walk who stop to comment or observe put themselves in clear view from the house whilst, depending on the time of day, shifting reflections in the glazed wall still obscure their view to the interior.
Some time ago, in a more conventional private house project, I struggled to convince the owner to include just a fully glazed front door, despite the obvious additional quality in views and daylight. The lady of the house mentioned her dilemma to a neighbour who indeed agreed that this would give the house too much of an indecent view inwards.
I am convinced that, although this reaction was probably perfectly honest, the neighbours’ real concern was much more that she herself, in public space, walking her dog, would lose privacy. To cut the story short: privacy seems to be an issue for the people outside really rather than for those who live inside. A strange paradox if you ask me.
It’s possible that, as Jan suggests, the current concept of privacy has changed and the act of turning off the mobile phone is a greater source of privacy than closing the shutters. We are reminded of the consequences François Ascher outlined in Principles of New Urbanism. He states that many facilities and devices, once owned by the public, have now become privately owned possessions. For example, in the past there was a clock in every city´s bell tower and later there was one in every house. Later still, with the advent of the pocket or wristwatch, it became a personal belonging. The same has happened with the phone. At first there were a few in each city, later, there was one in every house, and now, with the creation of the mobile phone, it has once again become a personal device.
There is however, a significant difference between both examples. The telephone is a communication device and making it mobile and personal has meant we no longer call somewhere, but rather someone.
On the other hand, we agree with Jan when he says privacy in a house is a consequence of the architecture, but not the main objective. From this statement we can infer that certain architecture generates, as a by-product over time, a certain culture. In the conversation we shared with Nestor Piriz in the previous issue of Apartamento Magazine we talked about modesty or shyness that lies in Mediterranean culture. This modesty is related to the traditional, vernacular architecture, which is a consequence of climate. The sun brought about houses with small windows. This developed a somewhat inward looking attribute and a culture of little permeability between interior and public exterior.
On the contrary, in northern Europe the lack of sun has resulted in a more see-through façade form of architecture. This makes a somewhat cultured Mediterranean individual have some voyeuristic tendencies when confronted with this kind of residential architecture. However, this behavior causes nothing but indifference in the occupants of those houses, who have developed a different culture of dwelling. In these situations we can see that the desire for privacy of the inhabitants is more prominent in the minds of exterior viewers, rather than those being viewed inside.
It is a well known annecdote that when Rem Koolhaas was working on the construction of Villa dall´Ava, construction was suspended during some periods because the neighbours, who were accustomed to a certain level of privacy in their high-class suburb, could not conceive of the indecent and exhibitionist nature of the house.
Analyzing it objectively, it seems obvious that the scene of a man sitting on a park bench reading the newspaper, and the scene of the same man reading the same newspaper in his living room, should attract the same level of interest to a neighbour or a passer-by. It’s simply an everyday scene. Usually people don’t care about being seen from the street if they are working in a glazed-façade office, but there are people that would prefer not to be seen doing exactly the same activity in their homes. Subconsciously, the context of a workplace is related to social behavior and the home with its intimacy. It’s undeniable that within the home there are some activities that belong more to the social ambit, like cooking, eating or reading, and there are some others more related to biological or physiological things that require some degree of privacy.
We believe that unlike the backyard, the exterior corridor is a part of the house, and we think this statement speaks of both the plan and the cross section. This gap is not simply a horizontal extension of the ground floor. The presence of this gap and the neighbour’s wall is so intimately related to the interior in every floor that it’s inseparable from the whole. For us this house hasn’t a rectangular shaped plan but polygonal, taking over the geometry of the original lot.
Once this is said, we understand that House Van Meerbeek brings together the needs of the inhabitant by means of three strips. The inner one shelters in the most primary sense. It accommodates the biologic – the animal. The intermediate strip, perhaps more day-activity oriented, takes in the social habits in a safe atmosphere, and the third one is an encapsulation of the open air in the gap.
We’d also like to talk particularly about the intermediate strip we noted, located in the center of the privacy gradient provided by the three strips. We could say that each strip couldn’t be understood in solitude; the fact that you get wet when it’s raining in the outer strip brings value to the safety of the intermediate strip, and the bareness of the intermediate brings value to the shelter of the innermost strip.
The suggestion that the different degrees of enclosure provided by Mediterranean architecture and northern European architecture, as a consequence of the climate is obvious, although this is indeed a cultural matter and not simply a linear matter of geographical position on the globe. Both in southern Europe and in Scandinavia window openings in traditional architecture are quite limited. From a climate point of view it seems much more natural to make more open architecture in moderate climates like, for example, the Netherlands. Although within that region, there are also great variances in very short stretches. Crossing our close-by northern border into the Netherlands, it suddenly feels as if the houses have shrunk and the windows have grown out of proportion. It is indeed striking how the average Dutch household in the average Dutch street exposes itself openly. Puzzled by this –as it is very different to the Flemish building culture– I learned that in fact Calvinism embedded the habit of communicating the household’s morality and decency very openly and directly through large windows.
It puts Rem Koolhaas and his dispute with the neighbours during the construction of Villa Dall’Ava in a ‘should have known’ position, as Paris is not Rotterdam and the French are not the Dutch.
If the House Van Meerbeek were to be put 100km north, it would have more street credibility on the level of permeability. But when reflecting on the subject of how far you can go in bending local building regulations before breaking them, in reality this house never could have been built in Holland. In that regard we Flemish share more Latin attitudes than the other Germanic cultures.
I really have not much more to add to the analysis of the three strips. The evolution in privacy and the outside corridor being a part of the house, rendering its shape polygonally, is decribed very comprehensively by A-G. Except that maybe, in case it reads as if the project had a profound intellectual motivation; it was more so an intuitive response and a whole series of very down to earth reasons that generated the basic concept of the building. The low budget made us pull it away from the existing building, to a more compact and rectangular shape, making it far less expensive to construct. The resulting gap bridges the entrance and the garden from the street, so the house could be shifted down to the garden level without any split levels inside.
And indeed, as a subsequent decision, the glazed wall was utilized to regain the outside space, which in a way, informed the specific character of the space and triggered the strip-wise layout.
The glazed wall then expresses just enough smoothness and reflection into the whole to leave both the neighbours’ wall and the house itself rather brutal and ‘unfinished’.
Many features of the house have been outlined already. I really don’t have much to add to them, so I should probably try to summarize them.
On one hand the polygonal form of the plot’s plan brings up the debate of the way the house relates to the outside, taking the gap as part of the house itself. Jan mentioned the way this has been conceived, somehow emerging from intuition rather than an intellectual approach. I totally understand that debate on architectural works usually happens after the house has been built, in a way that is not theoretical, but rather ‘down to earth’ and intuitive. In my opinion in knowing the ‘low budgets’ and other factors behind the formal and architectural decisions made is what makes it even more interesting.
On the other hand there is a debate on privacy and how its status has been modified since communication devices took over. Besides the material and formal environment in which architecture worked for years, we now face a situation where the ‘informational environment’ is another key element. So privacy has been redefined and we could talk of different degrees and levels of privacy. As A-G pointed out, more often than phoning someone’s ‘house’ we usually phone ‘somebody’ and that is not related to the house as a spatial and static element, but to an individual that could be anywhere at anytime.
Following the debate on privacy there’s a discussion on the north-south dichotomy as related to the way façades have been ‘pierced’ by windows, usually focused on climate as a determining factor. Mentioning the Calvinist influence on a cultural level makes me think of how complex and diverse this problem might be.
My only remark would be that the issue of privacy needs to be analyzed in a rather complex way, including architecture as part of the actual ‘forms of life’. If not, we’d probably pose the question in an abstract way and obtain as a result inaccurate conclusions on dwelling and other cultural behaviors (say ‘Mediterranean shyness’).
I’m thinking as an example of the ‘patio andaluz’ in the southern regions of Spain. The birth of this kind of patio is complex and relates to many elements, say religion or agriculture. It basically provides privacy by including an open space inside the house (where objects can be displayed for example), but as a result it articulates public life in the core of the house itself, which seems like a paradox. On the other hand, its use and symbolic value has changed throughout history and none of us would think of the Andalusian as a reserved culture, as their public life seems so relevant.
I think that ‘private’ and ‘public’ are related to specific conditions and probably can’t be understood out of their own context. What is true is that they’re both a result of a common activity that is the same in any given context, namely the activity of giving shelter that we’ve mentioned. I wonder if at a theoretical level that is the essential feature (and not any other) to the activity of building that we call architecture.
As Ekhi mentions, the question of privacy is a very complex reality. We have so many variables in the game that it makes it difficult to reduce it to a sentence. Even in the case of two brothers, raised in the same house, with the same cultural/ religious background, later on each one can have different needs of privacy. This is because the determining factor comes perhaps primarily from their personalities and dwelling habits.
We focused the conversation mainly on the debate around privacy, as a consequence of sheltering, and we would like to chat a little more about the house itself.
One of the first things that attracted our attention to the house was the construction’s simplicity. The choice of materials (concrete, timber frame, thermal insulation bricks, IKEA closets) and above all, raw finishes speak of the low budget Jan noted. Beyond that there’s a certain attitude though, a way of approaching the materiality of the project where the low budget is not a disadvantage but an opportunity to leave the house in its construction essence. What you see is what it actually is. It seems the rawness is not a by-product of the low budget but rather an intentional decision.
Apart from the choice of materials and finishes, there are some decisions like leaving the traces of the old house in the neighbour’s wall that apparently come from the low budget –it’s cheaper to just leave it there– but there’s an intention in doing so, an intuition. We wonder how the house would have been having twice the budget.
The house´s brutal and unfinished atmosphere is totally aligned with the way of dwelling suggested by the plan; sufficiently defined but leaving some spaces uncertain and ambiguous, planned but, as Jan says, ‘unfinished’. We would like to know if this has some relation to the program requested by the client or if it’s something that emerged during the design process.
As a young child in the late ‘60s, I grew up in the Cité Modèle in Brussels, one of the rather few post-war modernist social housing complexes that can be found in Belgium, designed by Renaat Braem. (google an image of ‘modelwijk braem’). It was built to serve the World Exhibition in Brussels in 1958 but it wasn’t finished on time. Although I was not aware of this being a specific environment, I remember being somehow fascinated by this architecture, both the modernist building we lived in and the surrounding remains of the World Exhibition ‘58. (google an image of ‘expo 58’)
My family though fled back to their coastal villages every weekend that it was possible. Instead of the large but very light and new buildings on pilotis with cars driving in between, and outside pedestrian corridors hanging high above ground level, these small villages had very soil-bound and compact brickwork houses, painted white, cosy and cluttered, together around massive churches. (google an image of ‘Lissewege’). I have always been puzzled by the contrast between these very different environments, both of which define my roots.
As a student and as a younger architect I always ended up making white and clean architecture, as a sort of acknowledgement of the modernist architecture I admired, and certainly as a sort of opposition against popular nesting culture, which I felt was mostly a cheap pastiche.
But from a certain point on in my practice, I could not get around the need to include the natural quality of the very basic old fashioned housing culture I was opposing at first. I think from that point on, designing architecture became less of a performance to be met and more about finding an essence. House Van Meerbeek is an attempt to do so.
The house has a wood stove warming all three layers, a lounge chair is put in the kitchen and a bed next to the stove. It lacks the functional separation that mostly organizes the floor plan of contemporary houses. In that way it refers to my memory of the small two-room houses at the coast. The house is built using rather massive brickwork. It has thick floors as well.
In the first comments I pointed out that the closed front elevation versus the completely glazed side elevation had not necessarily a lot to do with specific thoughts on privacy. I still felt like merging this down to earth, brickwork box with the formal freshness and sharpness of the architecture I learned to design.
Giving each of the four elevations its own contrasting texture, right down to the sharp edges of every corner, splits the walls into seemingly thin surfaces. To emphasize this, the surfaces were left mostly uncut. As a consequence the elevations were to be left fully glazed or practically fully closed, but nothing too much in between. That’s really all there is to it.
It´s interesting that we got back to the same starting point somehow. Not to the discussion on privacy but to the ‘oldfashioned’ housing unit that we used as an example to discuss privacy. It’s also interesting that we got back to this point by means of a story told, as if the biographical could somehow explain certain decisions made on an architectural level. The same happened on the discussion with Nestor Piriz, although in a different way. It seems as if the aesthetics inherited from the 20th century would hit its own limits when applied to a smaller scale where the old fashioned re-emerges constantly. And in the end rather than a logical explanation we’d only have a narrative to be told. The ‘story’ behind the decisions on sheltering seems to be as important as the pure aesthetic coherence of any knowledge or tradition learnt beforehand.
Not tied specifically to anything or anyone, only to the certainties of our biography, what we formalize is an interpretation of our experiences.
This is what we are, this is what we do. These are the times we live in.
Nevertheless there are features that recur and that provide contemporary solutions to certain generational concerns that affect us all.
We could probably talk about biography confluences in a particular time rather than an architectural movement that follows some ‘manifesto’ gregariously. From the outside, we think we could talk of it as ‘young Flemish architecture’, which we highly value in our practice.
In this context, Jan, you say that there is no deep intellectual reflection in the design process, but we sense purely architectural decisions, like the sharp edges and contrasting surface textures you mentioned, which speak of a personal universe and a way of being. However, the house is not an obvious dissection of personal desires. When observing the house, on the surface these biographical traces are not evident. One can only read the coherence of the whole and an underlying attitude.
It escapes the purely utilitarian interpretation of what a house is, because it is more than that. In the end architecture is to adopt an attitude.