DAMN°: One of your best-known projects is Refuge II, which is an atypical realisation. Can you tell us something about its genesis?

Wim Goes:
Refugee II is a particular project. The client who commissioned it was diagnosed with ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis), an aggressive terminal condition affecting the muscular apparatus and hence one’s mobility. So we needed a space that would guarantee accessibility and be adjustable over time to meet the increasing need for assistance as the condition progresses.

Refuge II 01 ©Filip Dujardin
We soon came to realise that a transformation of the main house would have been too complex and time consuming. So we decided to use the existing carport – a simple concrete-frame structure attached to the house and functioning as an improvised playground for schoolchildren – and turn it into a dwelling appropriate to the client’s needs. What followed is a two-faceted story: on the one side, there was the living space itself with its very specific requirements; on the other, the building process that would bring together a group of more than 100 people with little or no building experience. This group of friends and family, helped by specialists for the heating and domotics, had volunteered to participate in the construction. They spent a summer building and in parallel celebrating life, with plenty of food, wine, tea, and coffee. The majority of the group did not have any building experience. Hence, the choice of materials was crucial. I chose straw and clay, not to express a specific architectural statement but to facilitate a sense of familiarity and accessibility between the makers and the material. Many of us have childhood memories of playing in a hayloft and building sandcastles on the beach. This familiarity broke through any intimidation about the construction process. All of a sudden, people felt it was possible.

DAMN°: How did you manage to make the new structure fit the client’s specific needs?

Refuge II 02 ©Filip Dujardin scaled
There were factors we had to reckon with, like the width of the door, a certain angle to get in with a wheelchair, or later with a body elevator, and so on. We also needed a special toilet, shower, vanity unit, etc. It goes without saying that these were essential elements. However, this project is not about limitations but about freedom. The internal space, essentially one long room, was designed to provide a barrier-free area for eating, sleeping, and washing. It also had to be open to visitors, as it would become increasingly difficult for the client to leave the house. Curtains controllable by means of a panel were incorporated, to allow the client to create varying degrees of intimacy, depending on the occasion or need.

More important to us was the basic intention to devise a space free of mental as well as physical barriers, to allow the relationship between the client and his friends and family not to be compromised by his condition. This was partly achieved through aspects of the design, but more crucially, through the rituals and connections between the friends and family constructing the project.

Yohji Yamamoto 01 ©Filippo Bamberghi
Refuge II 03 ©Wim Goes Architectuur
Another important factor here was the perception of time. It was conceived in the spring, built in the summer, and ready to use in the autumn. And, ultimately, it will be disassembled during a winter. The same people who built the extension will also do the deconstructing. 83 per cent of the straw & loam will be scattered across the landscape as fertiliser, with the remaining material recycled and the equipment returned to the respective sponsors. The only vestiges of Refuge II will be two openings in the brick wall that look out onto the herb garden planted by the volunteers. So, in a way, the inevitable will not mean the end, but a source of hope, another kind of hope.

DAMN°: Your work has an intimate quality and a human scale; something that all architecture should be about but too often is not.

It isn’t up to me to talk about architecture in general. But I find it vital to connect architecture with people. Or rather, connect people through architecture. We try to make architecture that is open, to free it from the ‘concepts’ that attempt to force the user to understand it in a specific way. Everybody has a different background, point of view, and sensitivity. So I always hope that people can relate our architecture to their own history and confer their own meaning on it. When you really live in the architecture, it becomes yours. We want to create the possibility for that to happen as freely as possible.

DAMN°: How then do you see the relationship between architecture and design?

It has something to do with scale. For some projects, we also design the door handle, because that is the first thing you touch when entering the building. It might look like a small detail, but it is part of the whole. As such, its significance should not be underestimated. As an architect, I find it necessary to consider everything from the door handle to the foundations, and all the corresponding interrelationships. Once there’s a dialogue between the range of scales, you can actually live in the environment.

DAMN°: You’ve worked on various project typologies, from a fashion boutique for Yohji Yamamoto in Antwerp to an art gallery in Berlin, to private homes and a design for a public square. Do you have a favourite type?

There is a tendency to brand or pigeonhole architects, whether it’s through typology, style, or whatever else. And that happens both by the architects themselves and by the industry. It is a way to reach recognisability through readability. It makes functioning in this communicative world much easier. But I find that uninteresting. I’m more keen to understand the client’s wishes and afterwards to respond to the questions raised by the project. As such, we tend to work on projects that vary in scale, typology, budget, and so forth, with very different outcomes. The reason I chose straw and sand for Refuge II – a material I had never worked with before – was because of the people applying it.

When we designed Yohji Yamamoto’s flagship store in Antwerp, we dealt with a Japanese client who had a Japanese vision. I am European and have a Western vision, so I produce architecture that relates to the Western way of making architecture. If I would have attempted to build a Japanese building, it would have looked like decoration. But in a way, I also tried to delve deep enough to reach a universal place that was open to different minds and cultures. That might have been why Yamamoto recognised himself in the project. I find it essential to respond to the client’s brief, and subsequently, the project. Which is the reason every work seems to develop its own life.