New houses in Belgium and Holland reveal the quiet lyricism of Marie-José Van Hee. Critique and photos by David Grandorge.

View of the house at Opwijk (2004-11) from the street.

Different modes of practice afford more or less freedom to consider architecture’s fundamental nature and mitigate the extent of the compromises that the external world imposes on it. This freedom is fought for and not always without cost.

The Flemish architect Marie-José Van Hee has rallied against these compromises throughout thirty years of practice in which she has produced a highly considered and consistent body of work. She has pursued an authentic architecture with diligence, tenacity and a healthy scepticism of prevailing conditions.

I became aware of Van Hee’s work through a recommendation and, in the summer of 2003, visited her own house in the medieval district of Patershol in Ghent with a colleague, Matthew Barton. It is a special building. Configured in an L-shape that protects a private courtyard, it contains a series of skilfully connected spaces that provide both for a sense of security and wonder. The living space that mediates between street and courtyard is one of many long spaces used in a long way. The detail and finish of openings and surfaces are questioned at every turn but are articulated in a relaxed manner. The toilet is located outside and serves, like many other aspects of the house, as a means to intensify everyday experiences.

The qualities embodied in this building are evident in much of Van Hee’s oeuvre, including two recently completed houses at Opwijk and Zuidzande. Common to both was a significant gestation period, due in part to planning delays and prolonged construction, but also a consequence of a strongly iterative, rigorous and collaborative design process. The results are compelling.

Opwijk is a well-established and fairly dense town 15 miles north of Brussels. Van Hee’s project comprises a house for a family with three children and a consulting room for the mother, a child psychiatrist. As with many of Van Hee’s projects, the client was both inspirational and supportive.

The house faces onto a small square in the centre of the town and obliquely onto a winding road to the south. It is massed to allow the spire of the small church of St Paul’s to be seen from the middle-distance. The facade to the square is composed of a partially recessed/partially flush window that gives light to the consulting room behind, a deep recessed balcony that connects to a utility room and bathrooms at different levels, and its counterpoint, a modestly cantilevered volume that contains a landing to the internal stair. It is both civic and abstract and is of ambiguous scale. The facade to the south is more domestic and laconic. Together they conceal the generous ground-floor living spaces that extend deep into the plot.

Interior views of the house at Opwijk.

Interior views of the house at Opwijk.

The house is entered from the south through a tall lobby. To the right of this space is a deep passage that leads to the consulting room. To the left is a hallway lit from a patio cut into the plan and, from above, by a window that allows for views to and from the first-floor landing. The hallway to the left leads to the living space through an oversized circulatory space that acts both as an acoustic cushion to the psychiatry practice and, when that room is not in use, as an overspill play space for the children. All of these spaces can be closed down with side-pivoting and sliding doors constructed of asymmetrically arranged stained Afrormosia boards of differing widths. This treatment is extended to the adjoining walls to a datum that corresponds with the height of the doors.

The dining and cooking facilities are conjoined in a wedge-shaped space that is lit from the courtyard at the side and by several circular apertures in the lined concrete roof. It extends into a mono-pitched living room that is partially separated from the dining area by a large storage unit. The handling of daylight throughout these spaces is exquisite and is equally rich in both diffuse and sunlit conditions. The living room, though lofty, is a slightly darker, more contained space that promotes greater intimacy. To the side of the living room is a lobby enclosed with sliding doors that leads to both the internal courtyard to the south and the garden to the west. Contained within the lobby is a toilet and shower room that belongs to the garden in the summer and becomes part of the house in winter.

Ground, first and second floor plans of the house at Opwijk (basement not shown): 1 entrance, 2 private entrance, 3 waiting room, 4 practice, 5 office, 6 car port, 7 bike storage, 8 seating, 9 kitchen, 10 living room, 11 bathroom, 12 garden storage, 13 courtyard, 14 garden, 15 laundry, 16 terrace, 17 bedroom.

The bedrooms rotate around the upper storeys of the front part of the house and are separated vertically by half-levels reached by a timber stair that winds through the house. There is no handrail to the stair – Van Hee eschews them whenever possible. The first landing, the extended domain of the eldest daughter’s bedroom, affords views to the hallway below and to the roofscape of the lower part of the house, a view that will improve when the flat roof is planted in the near future. The upper landing that leads to the parents’ bedroom at the top of the house gives a view onto the square below.

The house is luxurious in terms of the amount of space provided, and its handling, but the articulation of the architecture is characterised by modesty and decorum. Details are simple and robust, never fussy, and materials are allowed to be what they are. The brick face to the structure, with thick mortar joints, reinforces this simplicity of expression.

Views from and to the landscape at the house at Zuidzande (2007-11).

Van Hee’s project in Zuidzande is a different animal. Again, it was initiated by an extraordinary client, a man who after many years of business travel wanted to retire to the Dutch coast where he was born. The site, an orchard surrounded by a ditch, was purchased in 2007. Non-native trees were removed and the ditch was cleaned before construction started two years later.

The house has a minimal footprint on the terrain. It consists of a 13.5-metre-high, horizontally boardmarked concrete tower conjoined with two timber-framed wings cloaked with black-stained Thermowood. The play of geometries is reconciled at ground level in the concrete hearth and above by the chimney that rises through the house to top off the tower.

Ground, first and second floor, and roof plans of Zuidzande house

The house presents different faces to each side of the orchard. Large glazed sliding doors, protected by a steel and timber canopy, open up the interior to the south. The concrete body appears thick and thin from different aspects. From the agricultural fields that surround the orchard, it looks like a dovecote rising above the canopy of the trees. It feels mythical yet present, real.

The house is entered through a recessed cut in the concrete volume that protects the entrance lobby from the strong winds that blow across the flat landscape. It also serves to extend the threshold between inside and outside into the house. This is reinforced through the sizeable intermediary room that leads to the living, dining and kitchen areas in the east wing and an office to the southwest. The upper levels are reached via a contained, then open stair that serves a bedroom and bathroom at first-floor level, a bedroom and library on the second floor and culminates in an external terrace and breathtaking views over the landscape.

Entrance to house at Zuidzande

As in much of Van Hee’s work, there is a lyrical aspect to this project that transcends the functional requirements of the brief. Van Hee is silent on this matter, arguing that the projects’ meanings are embedded in the fabric, space and form of the building and its relationship to context. These meanings are revealed to the user in time. Van Hee marries her poetic spatial and compositional sensibility with a strong pragmatism. Hers is an exemplary form of practice.

Interior views of house at Zuidzande

David Grandorge runs a diploma unit at London Metropolitan University.

Project teams
Architect: Marie-José Van Hee; project architects: Mattias Deboutte, Dietlinde Verhaeghe, Wim Voorspoels (Opwijk), Sam De Vocht (Zuidzande); structural engineer: BAS; services engineer: HPe; concrete: Fiebra-Maes; carpentry: De Witte (Opwijk), Detrac nv; joinery: Jan Verwerft (Opwijk), Peter Van Tornhout and Atelier Ternier.

First published in AT224, January 2012

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