David Grandorge admires a retirement home in Belgium by DRDH Architects and Architecten de Vylder Vinck Taillieu
In the summer of 2012, I travelled to Huise-Zingem, a village in Flanders, to photograph a care home for the elderly designed by Sergison Bates Architects. I was met at the train station by a woman called Christine, the director of the home I was to visit (and two others in the district), who had kindly offered to take me on the last leg of my journey in her car. During this short trip, we talked about the consequences of Europe’s ageing population. After some polite exchanges, Christine spoke of an oncoming “tsunami of older people”, a seismic demographic shift that must be addressed. Making provision for this would not be easy, but if the needs of the ageing population were not met, she argued, there could be significant human costs. The effect of these sobering statements was countered by the optimism that welled up in me on seeing the thoughtfulness with which she dealt with the clients in her care and the dignity afforded to them in their later years.
I returned to Flanders earlier this year with Daniel Rosbottom, co-director of DRDH Architects, to document its recent housing project for older people in the city of Aarschot, undertaken in close collaboration, from competition through to completion, with the Ghent-based practice Architecten de Vylder Vinck Tallieu. Comprising 35 serviced apartments combined with a social centre serving the wider elderly population of the city, it provides 5,600 square metres of space in all, built for the very economical sum of £6.5m.
The building is proudly civic, a direct challenge to the often insular nature of this building type. It is fortuitously sited at the end of a wide boulevard which marks the line along which the medieval city wall once ran. Its location was determined, in part, by a 2003 urban plan by Robbrecht & Daem Architects that sought to reinforce the route taken by the wall with a green circuit punctuated by public spaces and significant city buildings.
These buildings include, at the top of the tree-lined hill that rises above the site, the last remnant of the medieval wall, the De Torens tower. To the south of this ring are the Church of our Lady and the Begijnhof – the former home of a women’s religious community – from which the language of the new building has been skilfully and precisely appropriated and transformed. Another reference might be found in an elegant four-storey white-painted brick building that stands alone in the woodland to the north-east of the site.
The complex is composed of three pitch-roofed ‘bars’, aligned north-south, echoing the orientation of much of the adjacent city grain. Two of the bars present themselves as three-storey volumes to the street edge, while the third, of four storeys, stops short of the others to make a south-facing public space. This space is intended as a bookend to the market street that extends westward to the city’s central market place. At its south-west corner is a similarly scaled volume that may be read as a gatehouse, closing an existing terrace of houses and containing a large flat for subsidised rent.
All of the volumes are faced with a taut, continuous skin of off-white brickwork, punctured by windows which are black on the long edges and formed of bronze anodised aluminium where they open onto one of the two courts. The pitched roofs, finished with zinc tiles, gently echo the materiality and profiles of adjacent domestic buildings. The simple, reduced palette of materials and forms is given an enjoyable twist as the middle bar increases from three to four storeys and subtly deviates in plan. The pitched roof is subjected to gentle distortions as it rises to accommodate the changes in height and direction.
This condition is most apparent when viewed from the south, along the boulevard. The picturesque yet abstract quality of the gables seen against the brow of the hill, the selective positioning of openings, and the subtle geometric distortions of the building’s profile, together give it a gently surreal quality that calls to mind the cool emotional temperament of Thomas Struth’s photographic series ‘Unconscious Places’.
The building is entered below a carefully cut vertical niche that extends to the roof, drawing light from the east and enabling the deepest part of the plan to be naturally ventilated and daylit. It provides for a carefully marked threshold around which communal spaces – cafe, public rooms, hairdressers et cetera – are organised.
The thinking about light and air as a basic tenet of dwelling is extended to the design of the serviced apartments above, and of the horizontal circulation. The loose geometry of the circulation areas, determined by the requirements of wheelchair accessibility, is sufficiently generous to give the feeling of a narrow street – an idea reinforced by the robust quality of the chamfered calcium silicate blockwork walls that line the public areas.
To ameliorate the normally abject but functionally efficient condition of the double-loaded corridor, the architects have instigated some deft compositional and spatial devices, which include open each corridor to all four cardinal points along its length. Apartments are clustered around small ‘courts’ with views to the outside. Kitchen windows look onto these, fostering a sense of neighbourliness and community. Autonomy can be asserted through the opening and closing of the shutters to the kitchen window. These shutters – another quotation from the Begijnhof – appear white when closed, but present vivid colours (chosen by the artist Willem Cole) to the corridor when they are open.
At about 55 square metres the apartments are relatively small compared to the Belgian norm, but are thoughtfully planned with large hallways and some spaces arranged enfilade, to accommodate diminishing mobility and maintain privacy. Floors are of terrazzo and parquet, eschewing the vinyl that is the institutional norm.
This is proudly civic building that achieves urban reach through its materiality, massing, profile and placement. As an urban entity it addresses the particularity of place and shows how, through its interrogation, context may contribute to a design process and the quality of its outcome. If not a panacea for all the problems of an ageing population, this project does thoughtfully address the pressing question of how our future retirees might want to live. It takes on issues of social care, with precise architectural consideration, understanding its responsibilities both to the users of the building and the city. It demonstrates that architecture can have agency.
architecten de vylder vinck taillieu, DRDH Architects
Structural and services engineer
Weinerberger Agora Super Wit