Inhabited sculpture

Immersed in vegetation, in the wilderness surrounding Liège, lies one of the few realised works of Jacques Gillet: a vital and unknown masterpiece of Belgian modernism, and a defining case study in the real-life experience of organic architecture.

 

Architecture / Adam Štěch

This article was originally published in Domus 966 / February 2013

Recently, Belgian postwar modernism has repeatedly been explored on an international scale. It was the subject of several articles published in specialised journals, and the public has been exposed through exhibitions and monographs to the work of Belgian architects who were previously unknown outside their national borders. Although this country and its people are rarely brought up in the context of architecture or design, the 1950s and '60s represent the extraordinary growth of applied art in Belgium. At that time, design and architecture found widespread application across the entire society, and architects found great potential to experiment with radical modernist ideals in the mass production of housing developments and villa neighbourhoods.

Exponents of the Belgian architectural scene of the 1950s, including Willy Van Der Meeren, Jacques Dupuis, Lucien Engels and Renaat Braem, among others, dealt with the legacy of functionalism in their respective personal styles. The strict functionality and social ideas were enriched, most notably in the case of Willy Van Der Meeren, by surprisingly expressive and almost decorative forms. This standard would soon come to be reflected even in the work of rather provincial architects. A somewhat "soft" modernism, culminating in the 1958 Brussels World's Fair, took on a very obvious expression in Belgium, in extreme cases branching into new historical forms, kitsch, and even pre-postmodern elements.

Meanwhile, many other artists dedicated their entire careers to the pursuit of a clean form of modernism, used to create unexpected architectural spaces. Renaat Braem, whose Antwerp studio was made into a museum in 2006, approached a sculptural interpretation of building by the early 1960s, and his residential projects adopted a soft organic expression in the latter part of the decade. The Van Humbeeck House (1966–1970) in Buggenhout or the Villa Alsteens (1966–1969) in Overijse were no longer strict instruments for living decorated only by abstract details, but complex-shaped organisms that often grew into their surroundings. A similar approach to shaping material can be found in the work of the solitary Juliaan Lampens, who interpreted residential buildings and churches as brutalist sculptural volumes in raw concrete, after the example of Le Corbusier's later work.

The initial idea for the Sculpture House dates from the early 1960s, when the Belgian architect Jacques Gillet encountered Bruce Goff’s organic architecture

The use of raw concrete and formal expressiveness are directly linked with the Sculpture House project, begun in 1962 by architect Jacques Gillet, whose constructive principle and idea of intuitive creation challenge the aesthetics of postwar modernism and instead return to the ancient roots of human existence, nature and organic architecture. Gillet, born in Liège in 1931, completed his architectural studies in 1956 at the Académie des Beaux-Arts and began to explore novel forms of construction in concrete, culminating in the experimental form of the Sculpture House.

In an earlier project, Gillet was asked by engineer Jean-Marie Huberty to collaborate on the "aesthetic impression" of Huberty's own house in La Hulpe, near Brussels. Here, Gillet encountered the unexpected possibilities of concrete; for example, the roof was designed with Huberty and fellow civil engineer André Paduart as a shell of two parabolic hyperboloids, only five centimetres thick. Gillet immediately acknowledged the constructional and artistic qualities of the material, whose potential thinness he would go on to use in the Sculpture House.

Gillet, Roulin and Greisch refused to adopt conventional design and construction systems, hence also rejecting the aseptic spaces of functionalism

Before the project began, however, he met two soul mates — sculptor Félix Roulin (1931–) and engineer René Greisch (1929–2000) — whose artistic and engineering visions shared a holistic combination of architecture, art and science that would enhance their intuitive approach to creative work. After several joint projects (few of which were actually built), the trio was asked by Jacques Gillet's brother to design him a house in the suburbs of Liège.

The creators' dream came true in 1967 as they began to build a living sculptural object, with almost no project plans. During the process of construction, a spontaneous organic architecture emerged, blending into its environment like a rock, as if it had stood there forever. As Jacques Gillet wrote in 1978, "What is a house, for our characters as individuals, for our family as an entity, for the education of our children, for this very place and for this particular time?" This house, in particular, grew up from the ground.

 
During the process of construction, a spontaneous organic architecture emerged, blending into its environment like a rock
 

The construction method enabled the architects to erect a house in the shape of an “inhabited sculpture”. Its form and spatial organisation were not planned in advance, but created on site during the building process. At some points, the interiors have a spray-finished insulating layer of polyurethane foam

The creators aspired to an original design that would not only fit the specific needs of the architect's brother and his wife, but would also demonstrate the synthesis of different artistic and scientific fields, forming a complex inspired by nature. Criticisms of standardisation and strict modernism also played their part in the project.

The house, whose moss-covered surface has become a natural residential element today, may be the best functioning result from the 1960s experiments in organic and utopian architecture. Alongside Gillet's house, Frederick Kiesler's Endless House, the sculptural houses by André Bloc, the utopian residential visions of the Archigram group, and the experimental 1960s Viennese school were searching for new forms of living and spatial experiments through a return to the past, to the time when mankind lived in caves, to the embryo ensconced in the womb of its mother. The sterile, clean spaces of functionalist houses were replaced by indefinite organic forms that merged naturally with human life. In this case, Gillet's design adapted to its inhabitants, the modern quotidian cave serving its purpose as well as any other house. Jacques Gillet's brother and his family have been living in this house for over 40 years; thus, architectural utopia has become a part of ordinary life.

In the Sculpture House Gillet, Roulin and Greisch applied a technology never previously used for a domestic project: that of a fast-setting concrete, sprayed over a freely modelled wire net to form a thickness of 5 cm

The house was constructed of steel mesh formed in an organic shape around several solid elements, including the concrete floor and chimneys. Its precise location was not predetermined; rather, the designers experimented on site to define the final placement of the walls, using a pliable grid of eight-millimetre- wide steel rods. Next, the designers used a special spraying technique to apply concrete onto the net, forming a five-centimetre-thick solid layer. The spraying was performed by the Pasek company, specialising since 1960 in the application of dry concrete and plaster using a special Refra- Gun nozzle, a process that had to be constantly monitored by workers to ensure even coverage.

The building springs from a close collaboration between three different professionals: the architect Jacques Gillet (1931–), the sculptor Félix Roulin (1931–), and the engineer René Greisch (1929–2000). The trio worked on the project and its realisation from 1965, by appointment from Gillet’s brother, whose family still lives in the house

The final concrete shell was then completed with large window frames, contrasting with the organic concrete envelope and creating unexpected views from the interior out and the exterior in. Inside, the surface of the shell was finished with a sprayed layer of isolating polyurethane foam. After 14 months of work, the house was completed in 1968. If the exterior alludes to natural rock, the interior of the house forms a bright, comfortable cave, echoing the impression of a prehistoric or nomadic dwelling. The main living area, with a living room, dining room and kitchen, is a freely linked space that opens onto the landscape through the large windows. The house has no stairs; the inhabitants access the different floor heights via concrete ramps or irregular steps that recall well-trodden paths in rocky forest grounds. The house is simultaneously an adventurous site and the host of the everyday life of its inhabitants.

Jacques Gillet's Sculpture House

The team, made up of architect Gillet, sculptor Roulin and engineer Greisch, has completed no comparable works since the Sculpture House. Gillet worked as a professor of architecture at the University of Liège and promoted organic architecture through his contact with international practitioners. He invited the legendary Bruce Goff to Liège for a lecture in 1972, inspiring a number of young Belgian architects of the time. Like some of Goff's organic houses in the USA, the Sculpture House in Liège remains an extraordinary example of intuitive architecture, standing out from all the stylistic categorisations and movements. Adam Štech, design and architecture editor and curator based in Prague

Jacques Gillet's Sculpture House