The original plan of this high-modernist house by Belgian architect Paul Neefs consists of a square 16,5 x16,5 m with a central space that flows diagonally from the front right corner towards the opposing rear left corner. This flow is guided by two curved walls that define a generous open space where daily life can unfold in close relationship with the surrounding garden and landscape. The entrance hall, kitchen, garage, office space and bedrooms are organised behind these curved walls as rather elementary rooms along the exterior perimeter of the house. The residual space between these rectangular-shaped rooms and the curved walls is used to accommodate a storage space, a toilet and a bathroom, too small to meet today's standards. In this layout, with secondary functions positioned along the inner side of the curved walls, the fluidity of space becomes a single-sided happening for the living area and the generative play of two circles meeting (in) a square can hardly be felt once you get behind the curve.
The design by i.s.m.architecten shows great respect for the architecture of Neefs. On the ground floor, it largely adheres to the stylistic elements and original layout of the house. Only the kitchen has been considerably enlarged and a small bathroom and toilet have been reinstalled in one of the former bedrooms. By relocating these functions, one of the distinctive curves could be liberated and, the space thus created, be used to create a portal to the top floor. So far, no indication that on top of this high-modernist house, a completely different story² unfolds: 'ismism in action behind the curve'.
The new volume on the roof seems like a self-evident and almost conspicuous extension that builds upon compositional elements and rhythm of the original building from the outside. Inside, however, the architectural space no longer results from a univocal geometric concept but consists of a scenographic assemblage of autonomous spatial constituent elements. By naming and describing five of these constituents, we try to illustrate, understand and get a grip on this otherness of spatiality on the one hand and the recurrent i.s.m.architecten's design strategies on the other.
The birch veneer gangway
The way in which the newly built i.s.m.volume connects to the original modernist house evokes the image of an alien object grafting itself onto the body of the house via an impressively precise curved incision into which a gangway is lowered for docking. The portal, walls and steps of the gangway, as well as the floor of the alien object, are entirely covered with birch veneer plywood as if everything was hewn from one large massive block of wood. The gangway pierces the wall in the night hall where the former service functions were hidden. Only a thin frame of plywood around the hole in the original white plastered wall hints to something happening on the roof.
A classic gangway is equipped with wheels that absorb the swaying of the ship caused by the billows in the water when docking. Because of the wheels, the deck of the gangway never connects perfectly with the quay, but there is always a small step. In this project, something similar happens in the detailing of the perforation in the wall. No wheels of course, but a similar gap between the floor and the portal of the gangway, which makes it seem as if it could be withdrawn at any moment and the alien object could disconnect and leave again. This moment of 'disconnected connection' between modernism and ismism, between old and new, makes you aware of the otherness of the world that you enter as soon as you pass the threshold of this birch veneer gangway.
The polka perforated paravent
When entering the i.s.m.volume, one is visually and physically guided into the space by a floor-to-ceiling polka perforated white screen on one side and a striking graphical line-shaped handrail on the other, both following the curve of the birch veneer gangway. As an extrusion of one of the two curved walls that determine the composition of the ground floor plan of the original house, the perforated screen is clearly visible from the street through one of the large windows on the garden side, whereby it seems to pay an explicit ode to the original architecture.
Due to its articulation as a series of panels in an upright position that seems to be connected in order to make it a self-supporting structure, this white screen resembles a paravent. At a certain point, however, the curve of the freestanding structure meets the tangential outer wall of the new extension and this autonomous furniture-like interior element becomes one with the architecture: paravent becomes wall, structure becomes decoration. At this point of convergence/divergence, there is not only a fusion of interior design and architecture, but it also creates an ambiguity between interior and exterior, giving the space in front of the curved wall behind the large window in the facade the special status of an exterior interiority (or vice versa).
Just like a paravent, the curved wall functions as a screen from the outside, veiling the ismismworld within and barring the need for curtains for the large window. At the same time, it acts as a stage for anything that passes it, no matter whether it's plants, toys, people or pets. Yet, through the numerous perforations, some of the life behind is likewise revealed and the differences in light, both in front and behind the perforated wall, transform it into a screen for an everchanging shadow play with some striking coloured architectural elements in the lead.
Most of the time, the paravent seems to be greenish from the outside due to the light reflecting on the fresh mint green wall behind it. Yet, depending on the viewing angle, light conditions and moment of the day, it can also appear yellow or greyish or bright white. During the day, the skylight projects a blurred soft pink silhouette on it, at night, however, with the lights turned on, the graphical composition of a line and an ellipse takes over.
In the same way, something similar is taking place in the experience from the inside. Entering the space and moving along the paravent, it gives a sense of shelter and privacy. But when you turn your head and look at the wall head-on, the large window to the garden behind it, it is surprisingly transparent. The paravent dissolves into the background, softening its colours and shapes. Because of the curve, this play of opacity and transparency is never an either-or story. It is always a gradient situation where both are present simultaneously.
The peach-pink pimple
When entering the room via the birch veneer gangway, the light from the round skylight is drowned out by the abundant light streaming through the large windows in the façade. The importance of this perforation thus does not lie in its ability to bring daylight into spaces that are hard to reach from the facade, but it lies in its scenographic effect. It completes the composition of the elements that guide the entering of the space and gives it direction and character.
This modest roof perforation attracts attention due to the striking, almost carnal, colour of its lining. As if it were the 'tâche de beauté' of this architectural project. The 'tâche de beauté' or false mole is an artificial beauty spot that was very fashionable in the seventeenth and eighteenth century to accentuate the whiteness of the skin by contrast and to give a distinctive character to the composition of the face of the wearer. The position of the mouche belongs to an erotic code that allowed the initiate to read the state of mind of a lady.
Like the tâche de beauté, the peach-pink pimple has an essential aesthetic and poetic, almost seductive, role within the design. As a name, the peach-pink pimple is a tongue-twister that, as an architectural element, does something similar to what it does in speech: it falters, makes one stop, it rhymes and makes aware... It frames the sky in a poetic fashion and invites you to look up and enjoy its blue and grey hues.
Fresh mint green zipper
The interior of the newly built volume is divided into a programmatic zone with a bathroom, toilet and bedroom on the one hand and a more polyvalent anteroom (antechamber), including the gangway, on the other. This functional dichotomy is accentuated by the materials and colours
used for the finishing of walls, floor and ceiling: the anteroom has a birch veneer plywood finishing, while the programmatic zone has a smooth grey finishing with a subtle slightly purple hue.
In a spatial situation where two surfaces of a different color or material touch, a line is created: this line acts as a spatial threshold and has an architectural impact. The continuation of this border along the floor, wall and ceiling, further reinforces this mechanism. This is exactly what happens in this project.
The experiential threshold between the birch veneer and the smooth grey surfaces is further accentuated by a series of white frames, similar to those articulating the panels of the paravent.
No perforated metal to fill in the frames here, but a series of fresh mint green plywood panels which, through their detailing, simultaneously show and hide the large cupboard wall and passages to the sleeping zone behind them. This green plane, for the better part, forms a backdrop for the white frames. At a certain point, however, it buckles and the two trajectories diverge. The initial infinitely thin liminal plane acquires a thickness and the threshold gains complexity. The combined spatial operation of this fresh mint green zipper, as we call it, creates room for a more gradual and ambiguous spatial transition. It is an example of what one could call a 'thick liminal plane': the merger of consecutive spatial thresholds that simultaneously separates and connects, simultaneously defines and blurs boundaries.
Post-it yellow monolith
With its colourful finish, sculptural geometric volume and narrative value, the post-it yellow bathroom peninsula are reminiscent of Ettore Sottsass's famous Superbox compositions from the 1960s. These eye-catching objectlike cabinets, inspired by minimalism, pop art and spiritualism, are cladded with plastic laminate with wild colour schemes. Due to their eccentric and alienating character, they seem to be apparitions that belong to another world.
Although conceived as pieces of furniture, in the Superboxes, the ritual takes precedence over the functional. Sottsass himself speaks of objects with a 'ritual weight'. Just as L'Amatore del Magnetofono, one of the Superbox compositions from 1966, makes a ritual out of listening to a tape recorder, the post-it yellow monolith turns the daily act of washing and bathing into an almost theatrical event, with the vanity unit as the absolute protagonist. With a nod to Sottsass and referring to that particular Superbox, one could speak of L'Amatore dell'acqua.
The Superboxes – in essence, storage units on large pedestals - have an important architectural impact due to their freestanding arrangement in space. Similarly, the post-it yellow monolithic furniture stubbornly seems to claim centrality in this design.
This powerful architectural presence combined with the striking color and abstract geometry brings us to the source to which the vanity unit owes its name of post-it yellow monolith: the final scene of Stanley Kubrick's film 2001: A Space Odyssey (from the same period as Sottsass's Superboxes), in which the alien black monolith appears in a lavishly decorated bedroom combining neoclassical decorative elements with a Superstudio grid-like luminescent floor. On closer inspection, this image may not be a visual metaphor for just the bathroom furniture but could also serve to reflect and talk about the entire design as well.
So please, let Zarathustra speak now...
Material Used :
1. First floor facade: tôle nervurée barbares by Tolartois (aluminium anodised) combined with aluminium windows by Sprangers (aluminium anodised)
2. Ground floor facade (kitchen and front door): combination of lacquered steel window and front door and black coated aluminium garage doors
1. First floor flooring: ash parquet and Polyurethane coating
2. First floor walls: oregon pine plywood, varnished
3. Perforated screen: steel perforated sheet, lacquered
4. Cupboards: oregon pine plywood, coloured and varnished + lacquered steel
5. Bathroom: polyurethane coating + coloured plywood and polished stainless steel
6. Portal and staircase: oregon pine plywood, varnished
7. Kitchen: sanded stainless steel + oregon pine plywood, coloured and varnished, + hpl
1. VITRA - Potence by Jean Prouvé
2. ASTRO - Leros Trimless Led
3. NEMO - Applique Cylindrique Petite by Charlotte Periand
4. TRIZO21 - Bouly spot
5. BETTE - Starlet bath tub
6. ST04 - Stool ST04 by i.s.m.architecten