By Wim Cuyvers and Aglaia Konrad
In Angleur, not far from Liège, is the house that architect Jacques Gillet designed for his brother and sister-in-law in 1968 (in close cooperation with sculptor Félix Roulin and engineer René Greisch). It is a detached Belgian house on a fairly large plot some distance from the street. Houses built around it in later years were not considered during the design phase, as is always the case. It is a very ordinary house, with a garden and a driveway and rooms and central heating, erected for a couple with hopes of becoming a family. But the house is built not of baked clay, bricks and roofing tiles, as are most Belgian houses, but completely of reinforcing bars over which concrete was sprayed. Concrete forms roof, walls and floors. This makes the house unusual. Depending on the perspective and intent and time from which it was viewed, the house got all sorts of names: an ecological house, a sculptural house, an organic house, a natural house, a blob.
It hardly makes sense to insist that this is an ecological house. The thin layer of polyurethane insulation that was sprayed on the inner surface of the concrete has turned completely brown through exposure to light. The insulation looks like something between a splendid, awkwardly cut and draped velour curtain and an extremely large dry-rot fungus and has become detached from the concrete skin nearly everywhere; here and there the polyurethane is broken. The beautiful fungus looks warm and homey, but it is clear that it hardly insulates. There are too many windows, which are too large and, furthermore, single-glazed. And windows are cut out of the concrete walls not to allow the warmth of the sun to enter the interior optimally but to receive certain lights and sights and for reasons of plasticity. The many hollows and protrusions create a much too large surface area in contact with the outdoor climate. The concrete surfaces form one large thermal leak. The house is not eco-logical. It was conceived not from a ‘logic’ of frugal acquisition but from the opposite: the illogical, excessive, profuse waste and deliquescence of energy (energies).
In shady areas and at places where water drains away, moss grows rampant on the rustic surface of the house. Moss and algae growing on the exterior of buildings of this kind are photographed and filmed extensively; in the case of ‘rational’, straightforward architecture, such spots are erased from photos with the use of computer software and are a reason to sue the architect. Moss growing on walls and roof, however, do not make this a nature house or a natural house, which might very well be a contradiction in terms. Speaking of organic architecture in general, Jacques Gillet once said that it draws inspiration from nature, but when I asked him whether he knew about the spaces within natural caves in the immediate vicinity and whether these spaces directed him in designing his brother’s house, he didn’t respond. But there can be no doubt that he knew the limestone massifs found everywhere in the vicinity of Liège; the similarity is too striking. On the closed side of the house (despite the difficulty in correctly defining where this side precisely begins and ends), it seems as if we are suddenly face to face with a small limestone massif; there the building is a literal translation of the design language of the karst landscape. But on the other side, where the house is much more open, we see that it con-sists not of massive blocks of limestone but of fairly thin concrete slabs sloping in all directions in a way that you do not find in nature. This part of the house wittingly unmasks the side that is inspired by nature. Jacques Gillet must have realized that spaces inside caves cannot be formalistically translated into or imitated by architecture.
And no, this house is absolutely not a blob. It doesn’t have the streamlined, amoeboid forms that in the 1990s became popular in architecture, where one form fluidly merges into another. This house is not the elegant result of mathematical functions. René Greisch’s calculations were needed to make possible the forms desired by the architect and the sculptor, not the other way around: the engineer’s calculations are not what guided the form. Jacques Gillet showed me a wonderful photograph in which they test-loaded the shell of the house by stacking sacks of cement on it, followed by a young René Greisch, broadly grinning, lying on top.
The house does have certain aspects of a sculpture. It is not one sculpture, however, but many sculptures. In the transitions between these various sculptures, we see how important the role of Félix Roulin was and how deeply Jacques Gillet admired Roulin and, probably even more, the craft and the art of the sculptor in general. Where one form meets another, or where one volume is bevelled, we recognize design features that seem to be borrowed literally from scale models made of clay. It seems as if the concrete has been pared away with a large scalpel or clay scraper: a somewhat strange and difficult transposition of the medium of sculpture to the medium of architecture. Not for nothing was the course that Gillet gave at the Institut Supérieur d’Architecture Lambert Lombard in Liège called "recherche formelle et architecture;" the desire for form assumes a central place in Gillet’s architecture.
Jacques Gillet wanted to give his brother’s house a sculptural form. The form he was looking for is the enlargement not of a purified and formalistically perfected image, but of a complex artefact by a sculptor who wrestles with the material. The house has many faces: outside it is monolithic, imposing; inside the rooms are small, close, almost cramped, often a bit awkwardly arranged around the functions provided, as inept as our expressions of love. Contrary to what you might expect of a house that has been described as ‘organic’, the house is exceptionally static, not flexible. It is obvious that it has never been modified in the 50 years of its existence, that no annexe has been added to the house, that in all these years no windows have been bricked up or cut out, that no walls have been knocked down. The size, the shape, the views and the complex structure determine the spaces: it is not a house where you decide from one day to the next to have the living room be the bedroom. And, ultimately, the house appears to be at its best where it is static, where the house is floor, wall or roof-ceiling: the unchangeable, inviolable concrete cocoon. The two-dimensional moving parts are clearly poorer: the doors, the windows with their latches and hinges and the unfortunately ‘organically’ clad garage door, the overly obvious rectangular cutouts of the window sashes, as frames that allow us to focus on a patch of sky, some flowers, part of the crown of a tree... The movable furniture and the functional objects – the floor lamps with fabric shades, the coffee grinder, the toaster, the ballpoint pens in a jar, the tablecloth, the floor mat, the winter roses in a flower pot – do not seem to belong here; it is as if they are too many, as if they do not have the correct scale but, more than anything else, all these objects differ in no way from what we see in all the ordinary loveless houses that we know. Nevertheless, as the elderly residents shuffle slowly through the house, now and then they seem to find support in these very pieces of furniture and utilitarian objects. I do not mean to say that the furniture and so forth should have been designed in the same style as the house. On the contrary, they do not belong to the house. The cocoon is the house.
The children left home a long time ago; only the man and his wife still live there. Both are old; they have reached an age devoid of illusions, the age at which everyone finally realizes the following day may be the last. Oily stains mark the concrete here and there, where they have laid their hands for fifty years to support themselves, to keep from bumping their heads or to have the pleasure of touching the raw material, as craftsmen touch the rough handle of the hammer time and again, work for the pleasure derived from continually feeling the same material. It is interesting how the old architect, Gillet, and both elderly occupants tell exactly the same stories about the house and about living in the house. Separately, all three mention the uncomfortably high step at the window that lets you climb onto the roof and that you need this uncomfortably high step to be reminded, each time, that it is not an ordinary door: that you don’t walk through a door to a roof garden but that you climb up on the roof by going through a window. None of the three minds that somewhere a windowpane breaks now and again because the concrete moves too much; after a while, when it gets too bad, you have them replaced; it is not something to get wound up about, and the same goes for cracks in the concrete that need to be filled on occasion with a bit of epoxy resin. They have lots of these stories, which undoubtedly must have developed among them after the house had been built. The house is evidence of deep trust and acceptance; it is a kind of love. Love is not critical. It is doomed to die with its occupants, and not because it was conceived and tailor-made for them; the occupants of the house share the same mutual love for the house, for each other, for the man’s brother, the architect. The house is a skeleton, a cocoon for their love; the love dies with the occupants. The windows will keep breaking and will no longer be replaced and will be reduced to shards by the wind; the insulation will crumble even more and flutter to the ground. Eventually the heirs will divvy up the furniture and the other items and carry everything out of the house. No one else should live here, no new couple looking for an architectural curiosity; they would start renovating and insulating and safeguarding, which is precisely the opposite of love. What will survive is a beautiful empty cocoon of love, stripped of triviality. Love is, without a doubt, subjective.
Article first published in OASE#81 in 2010 © NAi Publishers, 2010
Translation: InOtherWords, Donna de Vries-Hermansader
All photographs by Aglaia Konrad were taken during the preparation of her work Sculpture House, 2007, 16mm film, color, 4:3, no sound. © The Artist