During the Brussels World Expo in 1958, the project for the now legendary Philips Pavilion by Le Corbusier in collaboration by Iannis Xenakis, was a milestone in the life of many Belgians. For the first time, the entire world came to Brussels; there was an unprecedented sense of optimism after World War II and an admiration for the progress in technology and design. One of the many visitors was Juliaan Lampens, then a young architect who had since discovered the work of Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe in architecture magazines.

Though he immediately fell in love with the modern style, he saw it as something far off, difficult to realise in his home country. While he was constructing traditional houses to earn a living, he was secretly sketching radical designs that could not be realised in reality. Every now and then, when he tried to introduce a more experimental touch, his ambitions were thwarted. Expo 58 was an eye-opener for him. “The masses saw the possibilities of technology and started to believe in modern architecture. I felt that the climate was ripe to build in a modern way in Belgium”, he said in an interview. A mere two years later he was designing his own house in Eke, which would effectively become a manifesto. The first thing you see when you approach it is the carport, situated between the office and the dwelling. Except for the carport, there are no load-bearing walls. The massive concrete roof deck that covers the entire volume extends over an open stretch of five metres. Inside, Lampens introduced the open floor plan, one of the recurring elements in his later creations. The build- ing is constructed of concrete, glass, wood, and brick. After this, he confined his materials to concrete, glass, and wood. The house demonstrates a beautiful harmony between interior and exterior, transparency and closure. Its remarkable use of concrete seems to express a protective gesture, as would continue to appear in his later designs.

The design of the house went down a bomb. Lampens called it “the ultimate calling card” with which he was able to show prospective clients what is at stake in architecture. This was also the case with Gerard Vandenhoutte, who rang his doorbell asking if he could visit the house – on Christmas Eve. Vandenhoutte had been awestruck by it and wanted the architect to build something similar for him. When Lampens requested to “go a step further”, Vandenhoutte immediately agreed. The house, a markedly horizontal build- ing erected in the countryside, is fully closed-off on the north side, with the other three sides offering an amazing view of the landscape. The villa is constructed entirely of concrete and glass, with its overhanging roof serving as a carport. Lampens indeed went a step further here with the open plan concept. Not even the bathroom was allowed to interrupt the building’s spatial continuity. To that end, he put the bath, toilet, and staircase inside concrete cylinders, each one cut-off at eye level. This contributes to a kind of communal feeling. Though the owners were very happy with the result (“once you live in such a house, you will want nothing else”), others might have had difficulty with the lack of privacy.

Van Wassenhove House (1970-1974) in Sint-Martens-Latem (near Ghent) is somehow comparable. It was designed for a single male high school teacher. Here the open plan was perhaps less of an issue than in a house for a family. It has different floor levels, lending a more secluded feeling and also allowing for a separation of functions. The bed, on a kind of mezzanine, is positioned inside a wooden cylinder, while the study, overlooking the kitchen, is embedded in a concrete box from which the floating dining table appears to grow. As with Lampens’ other structures – especially Our Blessed Lady of Kerselare Pilgrimage Chapel (1966) and the public library in Eke (1970) – it has brutalist touches and references to bunker architecture. Seen from one side, the building looks like a ship, which is further reinforced by a small porthole window. And Lampens’ solution for getting rid of rainwater is brilliant: rather than the directing the water into the usual ugly drainage pipes, it runs down a sculpted, angled slab that sends it flowing into a pond positioned directly outside a glazed wall, creating a Zen scenario. “Each building is a sculpture”, is something Lampens used to say. The sculptural dimension of his work can be traced back to Le Corbusier, whereas the clearly modulated volume, with its vast central core and spacious transparency, owes more to Mies van der Rohe. Though the influence of both architects is apparent, Lampens added his own personal touch. With this house and that of his own, he demonstrates that a concrete building does not necessarily have to be cold and off-putting. Thanks to a strategic use of wood, the villa possesses a very warm and cosy aura. Lampens also designed the furniture, which matches very well with the building and constitutes the feeling of a Gesamtkunstwerk.

When the owner died childless in 2012, the building was offered to the University of Ghent, who in turn offered it to the nearby Museum Dhondt-Dhaenens in Deurle on long-term loan. Within the spirit of its original function, the house provides living/working residencies for artists, writers, and students. From April to October, it is rented out to architecture enthusiasts for short stays. And there’s no better way to understand a building than by living and sleeping, cooking and working in it.

This article appeared in DAM56. Order your personal copy.