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BRAECKMAN-STAELSDE SMET VERMEULEN ARCHITECTEN

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 AND ARCHITECTS.

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.