MARIE JOSÉ VAN HEE
I understand that you’ve arranged to do this as a presentation of work combined with a discussion, which I think is a really nice idea. We invited David to invite a guest and he chose Marie-José whom we also find very interesting as an architect. I’ll let David do the introduction, and you’ll also be leading the conversation, so over to you.
Thanks. I think I should start by explaining why we are here together. When I started teaching, in my first year, we took all of our students to Ghent, and we visited Marie-José’s house. That was already ten years ago. I remember feeling, maybe, that in some places you go to, time slows down, and in this house I really felt as if there was a particular atmosphere. We spent time walking around it, maybe it was the courtyard, the house, the gradual realisation that all the spaces had been carefully choreographed, that there was little that affected you in an overt conscious way, and a lot that stayed with you in the memory of the place. It was also one of the projects that the students took a lot from as well. Ten years later I was asked to be a visiting professor at KU Leuven, and I got in touch again and visited Marie-José at her and Paul Robbrecht’s office. I remember having a very enjoyable conversation about practice, about the value of persevering, they were both incredibly good humoured all the time, and incredibly encouraging, and I remember thinking, however hard it’s been back home in the office, doing what I do, I felt as if there was a kind of intellectual home, where the attitudes, the warmth between the architects but also between the guests, was something that was very much part of an architecture culture that I wanted to identify with.
So when Samuel asked me whom I’d like to invite to give a talk, I immediately thought of Marie-José. I also thought, what it was about that conversation that I enjoyed in her office, what does it mean for our work, for our projects and for architecture more broadly? So, I thought of two things, which I guess we’re going to touch upon tonight, one of them is that that conversation might become incredibly important in ones relationship to stakeholders, to the people that use the project, to the people that live there. There’s a client in the room, whom I met earlier, for one of Marie-José’s houses, and I thought, presumably the ability to have a conversation about life and the life that one would live in a home is crucial to, effectively, making a project happen. Architects perhaps assume that we have a lot of agency to make things happen but really it’s through our clients and the wider stakeholder group. And I thought the conversation that one would have was critical.
Then also the time spent making the project, and I remember Marie-José said one thing that really stuck with me, all of our clients have accepted that the project will take some time. No one in London ever says that. In fact the culture in London is, could we do this any faster, could people work any harder, is there a piece of software that will reduce anything I do into a more condensed space of time? I remember feeling that the time spent making a drawing would in fact be commensurate with the investment in the final outcome, that one could only find the project through labour, and I think some of the drawings will reveal that I hope. Maybe these things made me think of slow food, that we forget what it is to enjoy things, or to truly make things, and that that is something that one has to resist. Perhaps ultimately, if there was a politics to this invitation, it was to try and resist those forces within architectural production that focus efforts on the reduction of time, the economy of material, the reduction of risk, effectively a kind of short-termism that focuses everything on immediate concerns. Maybe this could be part of a wider project to defend those things that take time, and hence the title—Lifetime.
I’m going to talk about four projects starting with a conversion we did in 2009. It’s a house in the middle of the woods near the village.
Photograph by David Grandorge
We took off the original roof but we kept the walls. The old house we converted it from was a kind of Swiss chalet. We wanted to have something very clear something very open to the landscape. We kept a lot of the original walls, even on the first floor, but we made a completely new envelope around the house, not only inside but also outside by making a terrace around, where in a wooded area, you can sit and look over the landscape. We kept all the original window openings but surrounded them with new wooden frames, and that continues all the way around the façade.
When you’re working on these projects in the office, how would you describe the relationships between spaces like this? I try to design keeping in mind that architecture is kind of a backdrop to a performance, it’s theatrical, so that when you create devices like openings from one space to another it enhances this aspect. How do you think about these things in your office?
Let’s say that I start designing, making the first drawings, and they are mostly pencil drawings. I must say, that the elements are not there from the first moment. That’s why you can imagine what time can do with a project. Because by working on it you just imagine, you live in that project, you imagine walking through it, and then while you explain it in the office, you just walk through that drawing, and you explain in a certain way what you want to do with it, and there’s already a lot in the drawing but you can still add or change things with time. It’s never finished in fact as long as they don’t start to build it, it’s not finished yet. I even try to change things when they are constructing.
I’m quite curious to know how much of that drawing happens either in front of or with the client, or if it’s important that it’s separate. Because I know that in our office it happens quite a lot when the client is there.
Not really. I’m very severe—laughs. I just start with a drawing, and sometimes I go to the client with the drawing and bring an eraser so I can change things. I never design things completely. I continue to draw on the same paper.
That’s something I really identify with, or I wonder whether it’s talked about enough in architectural education, the little acts that happen all the time, effectively embody a project. It’s a kind of live, continuous, growing thing. I think often there’s a culture of presentation that suggests closure, single events around describing projects. I think that taking a sketch to a client and having the confidence to say, well, it is half formed, but it’s something valuable.
It’s never half formed. It’s already a good idea and then I fight for it!
Shall we move on to the next project?
Yes. Every week there’s a market in Deinze, and before when there was the market they would take away the cars, but most of the time it was a road with parking. Their idea was to bring back the open area like it was historically from façade to façade. We had to keep one road that could be locked off if there were festivities. You can see what it was like in older times.
Market square in Deinze
It was very important for us to look back at the history of the city centre because in the meanwhile it had become a bit worn, a bit torn down, there was nothing happening there except on the market days. The area of the project is very big, in fact we did it in different sections, starting with the section next to the waterside, then the marketplace, and now we’re continuing with the part where Tony Fretton is building. The market itself is on a very long strip with some historical buildings, and we wanted to give them a real place by showing it in the pavement. We couldn’t do very much else because during events the space had to be plain and open everywhere. First you have the church, the library and the city hall that will move to the new Tony Fretton building on a new location alongside the river Leie, there are the foundations of an old belfry where we made a new kind of canopy, and then higher up there is an older house with a very beautiful garden. It’s open to the public and continues in the garden behind, in the part behind the buildings along the market. Because the project is in Deinze you have the Flemish painters that are in the museum there that are very important. We took some inspiration from paintings depicting the seasons to add to specific places along the market and we contacted Benoît Van Innis the artist who did designs for these places based on the seasons: winter, summer. We made round benches so people can meet each other.
Market square and Leie riverbanks
Photograph by Frederik Vercruysse
The footprint of the canopy is the old belfry, and we made a ceiling design for the canopy that Benoît made in Portugal with tiles. It should be like a tree in the winter. The last one is the church, winter, and what was very important, because we were talking about pavement for the choice of the colours, to get the colours to be as close as possible to the designs of Benoît Van Innis, we had to do a lot of studies for that, also in the execution to make the lines, making all kinds of very detailed elements. We are still continuing, we have a very nice communication with the city of Deinze, we’re just doing one element after another in time.
It strikes me as incredibly bold, compared to what we can do in the UK this would be seen as radical, the fact that it’s so joyful. Do you feel that this kind of commission is unusual for a public body, the commitment to the narrative, to the seasons, to the variety of the materials? In London it would be quite a challenge to get a local authority to completely go with you. Did you need to persuade them?
Well, in fact it was a competition with three or four offices that were invited, and it was already in our first scheme that the seasonal paintings and layering of colours was important. They were very touched by that because you’re attached to painters of your own country, of your own environment and it inspired them to go on. One thing had already been done, the study of uapS (Paris practice set up by Belgian Anne Mie Depuydt & Erik Van Daele), who had already made a lot of the decisions about parking and the park behind the housing, and there should be a kind of walk around, and to do something with the waterfront. We didn’t start from nothing.
I think one of the strengths seems to be these events or rooms where one feels like one moves from one to the other.
When I used to walk along the market I would think it’s so long; everything was linear all along, with the footpath and the street and then the parking lot, and then again the street, all going in parallel with the length of the market, and by making those areas around the church, you’re walking from one element to another and it makes you forget how long the market is.
You describing it like that has reminded me of a conversation about walking through a house. I guess one assumes that when we’re designing something, we’re occupied with spatial issues, but it seems that actually it’s often time and the journey through that is more important. Like music it has fast points, slow points, high points, low points. Thinking about all your projects, perhaps the aspect of time is a more accurate way of describing how you communicate it, even in the office or with other people?
Yes, but I also like to make beautiful spaces.
But it seems that in order to talk about experience you need to talk about duration, and even though what we make is space, if we were to talk exclusively about space it would be a very abstract conversation, but talking about time, a journey, moving through space in order to do things, in a journey to a shop, it automatically makes it not abstract, we feel it, it’s bonding, it’s very easy for another person, even non-architects to appreciate.
The next project is for housing in Kortrijk. It wasn’t built. And I have read a very beautiful article about phantom pain written by William Mann, the feeling you have when something is not constructed, because as an architect you like it to be constructed. I’m not a paper architect. When you are living so long with a project, when you’re doing a competition, or this project wasn’t even a competition, because we had a contractor, it was a Publiek Private Samenwerking (Public-Private Collaboration) and the private partner left the construction team and the project ended. This happened even though our costs were lower than the estimate. It was really painful. The site is very close to the centre and the station. One of the important factors was that the site was between two roads, and instead of just continuing the façades we added a kind of gap between the buildings so we got some more public paths through the city. At the same time because one of the difficulties is always how you get garages that are underground, so the access goes down in that gap. We had the idea of giving each house its own front door, even if it’s an apartment upstairs we have one staircase with one door, but most of the houses are on the ground-floor with the first-floor facing the backyard where we put all the bedrooms. The ground-floor houses each have a kind of courtyard, which means that where there’s a courtyard, the underground parking can’t exist, because I wanted the courtyards to be solid ground for planting, not twenty centimetres of soil. The houses are built up over each other; they overlap.
Housing at Tuinstraat and Nieuwstraat
The gap is a bit inspired by southern villages. You have a narrow street that opens in places, with walls that have plants growing over them. This project would not be possible now. It has a lot of insulation problems. There’s too much external façade. With today’s regulations this would not be possible anymore. My final project is a private house, and the client is here, so I have to be careful—laughs. This is how the site was before.
Existing house in Zuidzande
It was in a very bad state and we talked to the committee. In Holland there’s a kind of committee that you can go and talk to, and with the client we went several times to visit them to explain what the steps of the project were. The house looked southward over the road, but the best place in the site was at the back overlooking the old barn and the garden with the fruit trees. For us it was very interesting to put the new house there because you would enter the plot and have to go around the barn before you would see the house. It made it feel like a real entrance. The committee had no objections. The second thing is that the site is very close to the sea. When you’re on the rooftop, and if you’re very tall you can see the boats—laughs! The inspiration for making a tower came from the idea that we could make something that could be in balance with the big barn. So we started looking at things that could explain the tower idea and which we could use to explain to the committee why it was a really good idea. Then we found something in the village next to Zuidzande where there had been a farm with a tower. So together with other ideas like the pigeonnier (dovecote), we went with all kinds of models to the committee and they agreed and said we could even do a bit more, give it more form, that it didn’t have to be too straight. Here’s an image showing the entrance around the barn.
House in Zuidzande
Photograph by David Grandorge
We kept most of the original trees (non regional trees were removed by the client). The house is in a kind of V form for the living room, because in that way you kind of make a back to the north side and to the west where the wind and rain comes from, and you look over the complete garden. In the centre of the plan is the chimney and you can see the tower shap.
House in Zuidzande
Photograph by David Grandorge