Sunday20 August 2017

Villa Schor, Brussels, by Office Kersten Geers David Van Severen

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Office KGDVS’s excavation of the ground floor of a bourgeois suburban villa to introduce a strictly gridded concrete plinth is an effective example of its desire to subvert the familiar

Before applying pen to paper, architects face a wide choice of criteria against which they might set about inventing form. They can seek to draw on the character of a given site or to establish a quite alternative character on the basis of an ideal past or future.

They can look to considerations of technical performance or functional organisation, to notions of national identity, popular culture or political ideology. Since its formation in 2002, however, the Brussels- based Office Kersten Geers David Van Severen has consistently made work that eschews all of these familiar dependencies. It holds, rather, to a belief in the value of an architecture that maintains an aristocratic detachment from the activities that it houses and the world in which it is built. In this respect the firm is unusual but not unique.

Both Valerio Olgiati and Sanaa, for example, might be said to share its commitment to making architecture defined by a sense of autonomy. And yet the motivations behind Office KGDVS’s work are ultimately quite at odds with those directing these architects’ output.

The buildings of Sanaa and Olgiati are, in effect, worlds unto themselves, worlds from which the messy contingencies of the actual world have been studiously excluded. Office KGDVS’s projects share that work’s sense of opposition to its context but not, critically, its obliviousness. Indeed, the experience of the buildings is invariably to find one’s attention directed back to the world that lies outwith the architect’s control. In their formal neutrality and geometric precision the buildings offer a foil to that world, representing it back to us in a new and often surreal light. As such, the fundamental act at play in every Office KGDVS project might be said to be one of framing.

The fundamental act at play in every Office KGDVS project might be said to be one of framing

In past work that action has tended to find articulation in various types of barrier — high perimeter walls, encompassing colonnades, grassed bunds — laid out on an implacably orthogonal geometry so as to divide each site into immediately legible interior and exterior territories. Their sections frequently being little more than extrusions, it is in their plans of these projects that their fundamental ambitions are inscribed. However, in the case of its latest project, the drastic remodelling of a post-war Brussels villa for the Schor family, the vertical dimension has taken on a new significance in the scheme’s formulation.

The frame here is a plinth, or more precisely a single-storey structure of columns and beams which, in an act of no little outrageousness, has been slipped beneath the existing building.

So ruthless is the house’s recontextualisation that its former condition is not easy to glean. Standing on a street that tracks the contour of a hill, its site is defined by a change of level of one storey between the road and rear garden. It occupies just over half the width of its plot and in its original incarnation the area to the side was set at the upper level. Visitors reached it by way of external steps encountering, on their arrival, the front door located on the side elevation.

Villa Schor, Brussels by Office Kersten Geers David Van Severe

In Office KGDVS’s reworking, the built-up ground to the side of the house, a substantial quantity to its rear and the entirety of fabric that constituted the building’s lowest floor — the site of a garage and utility spaces — have been removed. In their place, the plinth has been introduced, extending not just under the house but across the plot’s full width and 4m behind the house’s garden elevation.

Viewed from the street, this new ensemble presents a positively comic effect. The facades of the old house have been restored but essentially left as found. Comprising white painted brickwork, punctuated by shuttered French doors and crowned by a steep dormer-bearing roof, they offer as perfect an image of bourgeois respectability as one could hope to find.

Below, the plinth extends over the course of 11 tightly packed bays, an expression of its governing grid at its most relentless. A newly located front door occupies the middle bay while those to its left are infilled in full-height glass and those to its right in translucent marble. In what will prove to be a characteristic upending of received notions of luxury, it is behind this stretch of facade that the new garage has been sited.

On first sight, the frame would appear to have been constructed entirely in precast concrete. However, where the structure has been required to form the building envelope that choice presented challenges both in terms of cold-bridging and in relation to the practice’s desire to retain an elemental expression, unmuddied by any subsidiary framing to windows or infill panels. The solution represents a formidable sleight of hand.

Viewed from the street this new ensemble presents a positively comic effect

Where the frame becomes an elevation, the standard concrete structure is exchanged for an assembly of identical dimension, profile and colour, but in stained timber. This detail deals invisibly with the mounting of infill panels but does determine that all glazing in the project is fixed. Doors fitted with openable shutters provide cross-ventilation to most rooms but the street-facing study is the one exception. Not the least remarkable aspect of the project is the unwavering support that the clients have extended to their architect’s nothing if not exacting vision.

From the glazed front door we can see through the entire depth of the plan and glimpse the steeply sloping bank that now negotiates the change between the garden’s upper and lower levels. The view is hemmed in by columns to either side, which are set out on the same insistent module as we encountered on the facade. In fact the same module — or thereabouts: the grid is fractionally wider in one direction than in the other — determines the location of every single element in the plan.

Eight spaces are disposed symmetrically to either side of the central axis, and each is circumscribed by the same cage-like structure of perimeter columns and beams. Between them, these areas — six rooms and two courtyards — accommodate all communal functions, allowing the floors retained above to be given over to bedrooms and bathrooms.

Villa Schor, Brussels by Office Kersten Geers David Van Severe

Source: Stefano Graziani

The excavation of the garden presents the ground floor to view.

As is often the case with Office KGDVS’s work, the project’s imagery evokes memories of both very high and low architecture. The expansive interior articulated by a relentless march of columns is a defining feature of both the classical hypostyle hall and the contemporary parking garage, and both models swim in and out of focus as we try to come to grips with what has been created here. And yet this is not an open interior but one in which a significant level of compartmentalisation has been imposed, once again presenting the handling of the infill as a key architectural question.

It is an old problem — one that Palladio faced in his attempts to repurpose the open architecture of the classical temple for domestic use — which has here been addressed by the eschewal of anything that registers as a wall. Rather, full-height cabinets have been slotted between the columns where partitions have been required, their construction variously in plate steel and plywood effectively expressing the ease with which they might be removed.

As often with the practice, the imagery evokes memories of both very high and low architecture

By mirroring the beams on the ground plane, the floors have also been transformed into a variety of infill. They have been specified in different materials — terrazzo, woodblock, leather, large-format concrete pavers — cultivating a variety of atmospheres that might not be guessed from a perusal of the regimented plan. Indeed, while the primary structure conveys a stern pragmatism, the infill brings an almost Loosian sense of decadence into play. The use of marble — which not only encloses the garage but also faces one of the retaining walls bordering the grass bank — represents the most lavish commitment to that idea.

However, in a gleeful juxtaposition of materials of very different cost, green-stained plywood has been employed for the construction of the stairs to the upper levels, while the balustrade that guards the top of the flight is one of a number of elements that have been minimally detailed in circular hollow sections and painted a lurid turquoise. This moment of discovery of what is the essentially conservative remodelling of the upper levels is one of the scheme’s most captivating moments: an encounter nearly as discombobulating as our arrival in a Louis XIV bedroom in the closing scenes of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

It is a moot point whether it might not have been cheaper to demolish the existing building and start from scratch but either way, the Schors have to be applauded for a very remarkable act of patronage. Somewhat regrettably, demolition is the route that one of their immediate neighbours has elected to follow, diminishing the provocative relationship that the Villa Schor presents to what was formerly a street of houses of similar period and form. The project nonetheless embodies Office KGDVS’s concern to make work that radically transforms our perception of the larger world.

Former Brussels resident René Magritte described the unexpected juxtaposition of objects that characterised his paintings as “a union that suggests the essential mystery of the world”. In its sly, deadpan perversity there is a powerful sense of that ambition at work in this mesmerisingly odd building too.

Office Kersten Geers David Van Severen
Landscape design Bureau Bas Smets
Structural engineer UTIL Structuurstudies
Technical consultant Nicolas Vandevijver (Criteria)


Readers' comments (1)

  • Mike Duriez

    Only very slightly subversive and surreal, but mainly a waste of time and effort. Rather like trying to recycle the spacial concept of Frank Gehry's Berlin Holocaust Memorial to form a basement home extension.

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