The non-profit organization Monnikenheide has become a laboratory for health care architecture in Belgium during the last decade. It is located in a small forest in Zoersel, a municipality in the province of Antwerp. Monnikenheide offers services to people with a mental disability and their families. On the terrain, an outpatients’ clinic was established, together with a short stay home, and a home for people who need constant guidance during their dwelling. In 2009, because of the growing need for new residences, Monnikenheide decided to build a new home. After a small competition, the Brussels office 51N4E was asked to build the ‘Huis aan ’t Laar’ (‘House at the open space in the forest’) – a residential project with 16 studio flats for (young) adults with an intellectual disability. The clients live in this house day and night, and they are part of a group of eight members. Each group has one companion.
The first design decision by 51N4E was to accommodate these two groups in one building – a decision that is not evident, and that is mostly avoided by reverting to the construction of different pavilions. For practical and psychological reasons, it is better for these clients not to have contact on a daily basis with more than eight other individuals. Therefore, the ‘Huis aan ’t Laar’ consists, in a certain sense, out of two identical houses. Nevertheless, the building does nowhere show its double nature, except in the remarkable split stairway, which cuts like a scissor through the heart of the house. These flights of stairs are at the beginning of two separate routes, connecting eight individual rooms, a bathroom, a washhouse and a living room with a kitchen, leading outdoors to the garden. At some places, like in the studio flat of the companions, the two circuits meet. The combining of the two groups and their spaces results in a compact building, consisting of three stories and a cellar. It functions perfectly, although it never simply shows its own nature or structure.
This somewhat mysterious quality is proper to the exterior as well. The floor plan of the building is irregular, as it is defined by both internal and external conditions. In order to avoid the all too rectangular and overtly functional rooms that are mostly designed for health care architecture, 51N4E wanted every room to have at least one corner – and at least one window looking out in a different direction than the other one. This does indeed result in different studio flats, that are not that large (although with an average of 27 square metres they surpass the standard), but that nevertheless can be very easily divided into different living spheres – for sleeping, watching television, reading or just looking out the window, at the many trees. Exactly because of the existing trees (and of the splendid views they offer), the contour of the building is stretched or dented in order to approach the direct environment, or to move away from it.
And so this project is at the same time a perfect example of contemporary and dignified health care architecture, and a denial of every formal cliché that could be attached to a building with this kind of service. Whoever approaches it, becomes gradually aware of its presence in between the trees, mounted on the top of a small green hill. On one side, the slope suddenly falls, making space for what seem to be the roots of the building, but what is rather the entrance to the cellar, where bikes can be parked and deliveries can be made. On the other side, the hill inclines slowly, so that the slope can be tread on from inside the living room, and can be used for eating or sitting outside. It is not only the anchorage in the (artificial) landscape that defines the appearance of the building – it is also the contrast between the green of the natural environment, the blue of the sky, and the black of the facade. Black, indeed – only the windows, seemingly scattered at random, are like yellow, square patches, stuck to the facade as soon as the evening falls. This facade is made of boards of Siberian larch, slightly carbonized so that the surface is blackened, and the durability is heightened. This treatment of the facade material might – together with the pert, both formal and functional design attitude – be considered as an homage to the houses of the Japanese architect Terunobu Fujimori, whose projects often have a somewhat fantastical or at least unworldly character. The same goes for the ‘Huis aan ’t Laar’ that, as if it came from a dream, does not wish to reveal its meaning. But whoever lives in it, or has paid a visit to it, knows how obviously it functions.
Author: Christophe Van Gerrewey