by Christophe Van Gerrewey
Architecture creates boundaries, and at the same time tries to entice us into shifting boundaries. How is this possible? In the work done by the Barak architectural firm, a cooperative comprising Carl Bourgeois and Tijl Vanmeirhaeghe, this question is no longer asked. The facades, walls, partitions, boards and sloping roofs that are such a prominent presence are inviolable, until, contrary to all expectations, it turns out they can be omitted and give rise to openings. As the Dutch writer Van der Heijden put it in his novel De gevarendriehoek, it is in these places that the world ends. Not for long, but long enough to be able to start again with renewed intensity.
One example that is by now quite well known is the Vandeneynde house they built in Sint-Amandsberg in 2005 and published in A+ (no. 204). It is a simple terraced house to which four extra rooms have been added. The view from the back garden shows the startling logic behind this conversion: the classic, Belgian rear extensions along one of the garden walls were extended in every dimension, so that a single uninterrupted slab emerges from the house, from head to toe, from front to back, and from top to bottom. The building envelope allowed by the regulations then does the rest. This gives rise to a closed tower with an almost blank rear facade that is oddly reminiscent of the Design for a world without people by the much-lamented Dutch architect Gert Jan Willemse. Here too the rear facade remains a wall for an ominously long stretch, until it turns out that a small window has been inserted, right at the bottom of the first floor. In a world full of people, the dream of openness and freedom has been replaced by the dream of the window that is appropriate and controlled, and for that reason so generous, in an opaque skin whose presence is quite distinct. It is only on the ground floor that the interior unfolds outwards, by means of a series of six window frames oriented towards the walled back garden and, because of their bellows arrangement, towards each other too. What makes the increase in floor area so exceptional, as created by the extension to the classic layout of this terraced house, is the combination of a blank rear facade with the opening up of the side facade in a series of points. Five skylights, painted light grey, have been introduced at an angle of 45 degrees into the flat surface of this facade that is clad in natural Spanish slate. These skylights would normally be found in the flat roofs of the back extensions, but here, facing sideways, they undermine the common preconceptions of life in a terraced house.
However, it is also important that the same window is repeated five times: if, in a world of individual conversions and infinite adaptations, it is impossible to serialise habitation, then it is at least possible for the elements that constitute it. It reduces the cost of building and thereby introduces the recognisable aesthetics of necessity. This applies to the skylights in the Vandeneynde house, but also to virtually every window in Barak's houses and projects. In the Vanderwiele house in the Belgian Ardennes there are 17 identical elongated upright windows in the facades: 3 sets of 2 in the front facade on the drive side, a double window and a single door on the left side and alongside the entrance steps, and a single and a double window, both repeated on the first floor, facing the back garden, while the wall on the right-hand side is blank. Their positions and combinations mean that several settings are created in this chalet using minimal resources and a limited floor area: an entrance hall, four double windows in the living room with space for a balcony, one long window in the kitchen, and, in the bedrooms on the first floor, windows at chest height which thus stretch up far beyond eye-level. Here especially we see revealed the truth of the 'Barakian' philosophy of the aperture: 'the occupants slam doors and wash windows, and look inside or outside through apertures'. This is to be found in the short, childishly simple but ominous 'principles' the architects wrote for this exhibition. Looking outside, but not staring, becomes an everyday event in many of their projects: in the Van Dinter house, the framed, scanty view of the nearby wood, or the grand-scale windows stretching from wall to wall in the top bedroom; in the Beyers house the long windows filtered by the grasses in the garden; in the Casteleyn house the sewing-box facade at the rear, with small shutters, doors, blank sections, terraces, balustrades and glass areas. It goes without saying that all architects 'cross borders' and consider where outside ends and inside begins - or vice versa. But in the present architectural world, the fact that Barak's work creates windows by means of walls, just as words and sentences arise through what is not said, is a concentrated rarity.
And of course walls are built using materials. In the world of everyday building, it is often the building material that is the signifier, rather than the typology, layout, organisation or ornament - bricks mean houses, concrete means a bunker, wood means a garden house. Even that which is understood by the term 'contemporary architecture' operates in accordance with these codes: glass means a villa or a building accessible to the public, brick means solidity and a healthy lack of innovative urges, steel implies a structure of high technological stature. In Barak's work, both the popular and the more justifiable systematics are considered a neurosis. This is made clearest in the design for the Deprez house. It is a classic imitation farmhouse on an equally classic residential estate - at least as far as its external form is concerned, imposed as it was by (so-called) urban planning regulations. That's where it stops, or rather, that's where it caves in, literally. Bourgeois and Vanmeirhaeghe are looking forward to the day when all Flemish wall ties will have rusted through, and the outer layers of cavity walls will of their own accord collapse one by one, crushing garden gnomes and antique amphoras as collateral damage. After all, for so many years these brick facades have been pointless, since those other, strict, insulation regulations have made every house into a 'plastic bag' that is both airtight and damp-proof. When a house is equipped with damp-proofing, and the whole thing is made rainproof, a ventilation cavity is unnecessary. Which is why, in the Deprez house, the insulation is applied directly onto the inside wall, in the form of heavy insulating tiles which also form the outer facade. Which is why, from the outside, and to anyone who makes an abstraction of the colour of the facade, it seems like just the umpteenth house on an estate. But once inside one finds oneself in a suburban, Flemish and subdivided version of Le Corbusier's Guiette house: a staircase running from the front to the back literally cuts the house in two, while a staircase along the left-hand wall provides an extra means of circulation. Between these two circulation slabs unfolds a meticulous circuit of rooms that use each other and the staircases to make themselves accessible and lived in. There is nothing generic here, and at the same time everything makes for surprises. The exhaustive statement of intention says: 'The current occupants do not just stare, but use boards in the rooms so as to occupy them'. The use of boards - nowhere more prominent than the interior of the Vandewiele house, which is clad in oriented strand board (OSB) - may give the impression that Barak creates modern architecture for the poorer Flemish people. In the same way as Louis Paul Boon called mussels the poor man's oysters, or as Geert Bekaert put it, the 'poetry of the commonplace'. But that is not all that is going on here. The building done by this generation of architects is no longer naive, just as it is no longer quiet. If it does remain silent, it does so like naughty children who see through the adult world only too well. It has long ago digested the indigestion of a flourishing architectural culture, and it has put its own profession on the sidelines. The triumph of the occupants' use of the house, always temporary and unpredictable, over the architect's best intentions is here turned inside out. But this does not mean that Barak is actually unable to offer luxury. A brief which is spacious in every sense need not result in a design without substance. The interior these architects built for the Haeseryn lawyers firm, also in Ghent, rises between a facade on the street side and a rear with a view of an enclosed courtyard with garages. An open-plan office is arranged into a landscape of reflecting glass by four internal glass walls parallel with the two facades and at right-angles to an uninterrupted wall of cabinets. This wall of cabinets and doors is made from the black boards usually used to clad the inside of lorries. The drawers and shelves in the cabinets have been painted in red, like gaping mouths. At regular intervals the doors lead into small 'changing cubicles' which, situated just before the offices, refer to the metamorphosis lawyers undergo when they perform their function in the semi-public domain. This gives the offices a well-considered and stylised face, although the material is such that it attracts marks, scratches and spots. In the cellar of the office floor, where until recently the former bank had its safes, there is now a meeting room. A double-height void like a crater leads between the offices to an upright window in the slightly sloping ceiling. The room thus created, underground but lit in an almost sacral way, is closed off by the gigantic door of this former vault. It is an emblem of this architecture: its serviceability is assured precisely because desires, pretensions and principles become visible just around the corner.
It is striking how the clients' desires and fears seem to be in parallel. It sometimes seems as if, as 'preconditions', they are all put in the same category. In a letter to Wim Cuyvers, Paul Vermeulen once asked, 'Does it annoy you that your critics find your houses constructive, positive?' Barak's work reveals a new aspect of the continuous process of filiation and descent brought to light by the series of '35m_ young architecture' exhibitions: in a certain sense it enables us to reinterpret Cuyvers' oeuvre. It becomes clear, for example, that one of the most widespread misunderstandings in Belgian architecture is that Cuyvers' houses are not intended to be positive, and are not unashamedly intended for other people's happiness. After all, like Barak's houses, they make their occupants happy in the same way as Humphrey Bogart makes Ingrid Bergman happy at the end of Casablanca. She had expected to be leaving with Bogart for the USA, so they could at last live out their secret but passionate love to the full. But while the plane's propellers are already turning, she is deserted by the tough but honourable Bogart - the perfect example of a rough diamond. Go with your husband, he says, and one day you will realise I was right. He needs you for his work, and mankind needs his work. 'We'll always have Paris'. The happiness that comes from architecture is always a cruel happiness. There is no other possibility. In most cases the client does not even need to be persuaded of this.
The Van Dinter house in Maaseik stands on piles. It is an extension to a warehouse on a business park, but actually on its extreme edge. On the other side is a small stream and the start of a wood. Even in Limburg this is a place plagued by theft. Contact between the house (to be completed in 2008) and the ground is kept to a minimum: there is a small lobby at ground level, and next to the terrace is a stepladder that can be let down to reach the garden. On the ground floor the supporting structure consists of concrete porticos that form a sort of covered play area as an extension of the garden, and at the front a covered parking space. On top of this rests a wooden skeleton structure that contains the actual home: four bedrooms, a bathroom, an office, a kitchen and a living room. So there is no standard cavity wall here either, or rather, there is a cavity that is broad enough to use as a terrace or 'expansion area' for the bedrooms. This cavity works in the same way as the hidden routes around Koolhaas' Villa dall'Ava, but in a group sense: the architecture allows for youthful conspiracies. The requirements of building physics and construction are fulfilled by the 'interior skin of the cavity wall' - the outer facade is a diagonal grid of wooden slats that filter the sun but which can nevertheless open inwards at each of the bedroom windows and mark off an 'anteroom' - and also, of course a gap to look through to the outside or inside.
The De Keyzer house also unfolds vertically. The client specifically asked to take account of global warming, the rising level of the sea (and the River Scheldt), and the increasing possibility of flooding as the years go by. Which is why the principle parts of the building are on the upper floors, and the ground floor is like a watertight tank partially sunk into the ground, with windows just below the ceiling. The brick facade on the outside of the house is a uniform perforated skin. That means that gaps are left in the brickwork in a regular pattern, while the second layer, behind it, may disappear completely, for example where there is an outside terrace. The interplay of these two skins, again combined with uniform gaps in front of windows that are not all glazed, makes the house an anonymous spectacle. Along the banks of the threatening Scheldt, the facade reveals the pattern of the activities inside, but without exposing them completely.
The handling of regulations, conducting cases, and budgets is comparable to the handling of intentions, desires and fears. It is the classic advantage of preconditions in architecture: they make things easier because they make things more difficult. But those things that are used against the current and the familiar run of things are also always subject to critical exposure. One cannot use a knife to open a chest without damaging the knife and without slightly ridiculing its cutting qualities. In Barak's architecture, what is gained always creates friction. This is shown in sharpest focus in one of the brutal bouts of shadowboxing that can be fought in the Flemish building world: that of the semi-detached house. Two 'imitation farmhouses' are waiting to be built next to each other, and it is the architect who first applies for planning permission, and who determines the angle of the roof, the ridge height and the building line of this duo. Barak has acquired a certain expertise in this sort of thing in several previous projects that were not carried out.
However, construction will soon be starting on the semi-detached De Lauw house. Here, the 'critical deconstruction' of the notion of the Flemish villa is less far-reaching, or subtler, than in the Deprez house. The roof angle imposed by its neighbours was adhered to, but there is no regulation that states literally that this angle must be extended over the full breadth. For this reason, slightly more than halfway along the ridge, the ridge height jumps upwards, echoing the Vandeneynde house. All within the norms, but the limit of this norm is so heavily emphasised that it makes 'colouring outside the lines' into a euphemism. Then, the plan of the ground floor is sharply divided into a front and a back by a functional block that has doors at both sides and contains the kitchen, storeroom and staircase. The conventional division into the presentable 'decent room' at the front and a 'living room' at the back is maintained in a very down-to-earth, even rationalised, way. Time-honoured customs are still possible, but only as a memory, and not as a necessity imposed by the structure. There is nothing to distinguish these rooms from each other, but if it is desirable, they can demand it. The facades too emphasise this same assailable uniformity: once again, seven identical double windows that extend down to the floor are located where needed in the outer skin.
For the Beyers house, the yoke of existing situations and imposed regulations is of necessity removed, for the first time in an oeuvre that is still only young. This is in every respect an ample project. In fact it is no less than a villa with a swimming pool. So the question is how and what can replace the elegant conversion of preconditions into both genetic and interpretative advantages - that gift from God that comes to all young architects as they gradually grow up. The answer is a festive villa - festive as in Hitchcock's films: people can keep an eye on each other unhindered, unexpectedly bump into one another or avoid each other unnoticed. The fact that time is always briefly frozen is of course a chance occurrence imposed by the exhibition. Nevertheless it does seem that the design for this house is a combination of expertise gained from other projects. As in the De Keyzer house, the bedrooms are contained in a partly-sunken tank with high windows that offer a view of a garden full of grasses (one of the client's interests); as in the Van Dinter house, access to this one is from underneath, and the car is also parked under the house; as in the Vandewiele house in Vresse, direct contact with the garden is minimal; a circulation shortcut is provided by means of two staircases in opposite directions that form a loop between two floors as in the Casteleyn house; the outline of the house is composed of concrete slabs, while the outer facades are built in brick inside this outline, giving rise to a relationship between the various skins that is comparable to that in the Hesters house, which was not built. It proves that there is a meaningful approach here, which enables an oeuvre to build upon itself.
So anyone who talks about or looks at Barak's work is engaged in the matter of architectural culture. Barak's participation in 35m_ young architecture is also proof of this. But once again, the way this work involves itself in a culture of building, both by being and by showing itself, is not what it seems. Or to be more precise, it shows how the usual principles and social phenomena function, by deliberately not resembling them. Bourgeois and Vanmeirhaeghe have also learnt a lot from Wim Cuyvers regarding their position in the sector. One might call theirs a 'architecture in a minor key' by analogy with the book Deleuze and Guattari wrote about Kafka, with the proviso that, unlike Cuyvers, the Barak architects hardly ever speak about their architecture, if at all. It is no more than a logical development, which moreover sustains the act of building. The architecture speaks for itself, and does so in the way a minority speaks in the language of a 'majority'. This gives an eternal guarantee of the refusal to simply become part of a culture, to be reduced and brought in as an unambiguously usable product in an unambiguously interpreted industry.
Barak has already developed an approach to the notion of the exhibition - though not of their own work - by designing an exhibition concept for Contour, the third video art biennale held in Mechelen last summer. The basic principle was once again a twisting of the budgetary restrictions. Instead of investing in temporary exhibition fittings, they used shelving from a former supermarket. The supermarket was one of the twelve exhibition spaces scattered around the city that were linked together like a network precisely by the use of these shop fittings. This recycling released money for a cloth bag handed to every visitor with a guide and which could be used as an instant cushion in any imaginable situation. In this way the exhibition spread through the streets of Mechelen like a well-organised virus with clearly visible symptoms. As in all 'real' architecture, the most important part of the story was told by the visitors themselves - and their moving, looking, talking or resting bodies.
Finally, or to start with, there is the installation for the '35m_ young architecture' exhibition at deSingel in Antwerp, which is currently eclipsed by the major Hitchcock exhibition, 'The Wrong House', and by Pauhoff's exhibition architecture. The exterior of Richard Venlet's volume, which is the space made available, is thereby made invisible and unusable. Is there anyone who will be astonished to hear that it is precisely this exterior that Barak makes visible and usable? On the floor, ceiling and four walls of the hidden interior, a 35-piece black & white 'facade study' of Venlet's work is shown. As in Magritte's well-known fountain, the coloured planes constantly jump from place to place. The viewpoint used for this study is that of the architects: Bourgeois and Vanmeirhaeghe literally 'look' at the world from the same height. So it is the visitor's height, rarely the same as that of the designer, that determines what comes to the fore. The picture is different for almost everyone. This gives the interior a psychedelic aesthetics that seem to have been taken from a film like A Clockwork Orange. Entering the box is a dizzying experience, if only because it provides proof of how inexhaustible the number of approaches to the exhibition concept turn out to be. However, what is more important is the almost ethical component expressed in this installation, and which is a logical consequence of Barak's architecture. Both are refined combinations of the properties of architecture - focused equalisers whose parameters are facades and horizons, walls and materials, desires and fears, regulations and budgets, cultures and representations. In this way we are granted an ever-changing view of that elusive phenomenon with which it is impossible to work but which is nevertheless the result of every work of architecture, and that of Barak in particular: space.
Christophe Van Gerrewey studied architecture at Ghent University and Literature Studies at KULeuven. Articles of his have appeared in A+, DWB, OASE and De Witte Raaf. At the end of 2007 his essay 'Ruskin. Een reisverhaal bij het werk van Office Kersten Geers David Van Severen' will be published in the Vlees & Beton series.