PASTORAL MEMORIES, revisited
The opposition between cities and countryside in Flanders has
increasingly become a mental rather than a physical one. A long-
standing anti-urban policy has led to a thorough contamination –
i.e. urbanization – of the Flemish countryside. Multiple networks
connect locations irrespective of their urban or rural status,
enabling ever more frequent movements, eroding physical boundaries,
merging it all into a semi-urban pattern we call the Nebular City.
Inside this Nebular City, rurality has become less a fact than a
choice, less a self-evident tradition than a mental construction.
It is the architect’s task to design this mental construction.
Chaotic Flanders offers many opportunities to make this
choice. The landscape’s compromised rurality rebounds in some of
its compartments. The building site for our villa Braeckman-Staels
is an example of this. The embedded orchard with a view of a
windmill presents a striking condensed image of rurality that one
would seek in vain on the street side. This could be many places,
but it happens to be Sint-Martens-Latem, a village renowned as a
pied-à-terre for the Flemish expressionist painters of rural life.
Restrictive building regulations, nourished by former-day artistic
icons uphold a self-image that is increasingly grotesque. Opposing
this restrictive identity, we drew upon the unsettled
transformative power of personal recollections shared by clients
Memories of American country houses “where the
living was easy” triggered the design. This resulted in a house
that doesn’t emphasize its frontality and seems both compact and
composite. The spiralling plan slowly ascends from the slightly
sunken entrance level and offers both self-contained rooms and
composite spatial views. The shifting rooftops mark both the
exterior and the interior; in a few rooms, such as the porch and
the bathroom, the rooftop appears to be central to the room.
The house is built in brick and concrete, for better thermic
performance, and cladded with lightweight timber that fits the long
spans in the facades. Untreated copper for the roofs and pipes,
cooked paint for the timber cladding and untreated hardwood
windows, some sliding in front of the timber, are meant to slowly
blend by weathering. Geometric eccentricities gradually blur into a
vaguely pastoral idyl.
Ten years later, the idyl has grown into a full-bodied and
well differentiated garden. A garden cottage has been added,
downscaling, as an addition to a farmyard would, the design choices
of the master house to a more subordinate building type. For the
roof, corrugated steel was chosen over copper, also due to
increased environmental awareness. The concrete cellar is topped
with a wooden frame construction. The rooms of the cottage – a
toolshed, a chicken nursery, a cellar for playing electronically
amplified music and a hobby room – have separate entrances and no
internal links. The tool shed doors open widely onto a generous
outdoor workspace, sheltered by the protruding roof. Ladders
connect both the cellar and the hobby room with tiny attics, each
containing a sleeping alcove. All this makes the cottage compact
and elementary and leaves the villa’s comfort unrivaled. A rain
barrel and a woodstove provide it with autonomy.
Villa Braeckman-Staels: 1996-2000
Team: Axel Cayman, Henk De Smet, Marleen Goethals, Tom Thijs, Paul Vermeulen
Garden cottage Braeckman-Staels: 2011-2013
Team: Henk De Smet, Nikolaj De Meulder, Paul Vermeulen