Radical acts of everyday life

The architecture of OFFICE Kersten Geers David Van Severen springs from the sprawling, semi-urbanised landscape of Flanders, and celebrates it, transforming the spaces of everyday life into rigorous moments of poetry, islands of subtle but accurate beauty.

"Most of the things I have done that have "architectural" implications are really about non-architecture… anarchitecture… We were thinking about metaphoric voids, gaps, leftover spaces, places that were not developed… metaphoric in the sense that their interest or value wasn't in their possible use…"
— Gordon Matta-Clark

In 1973, the artist Gordon Matta-Clark bought several small, mostly irregularly shaped and always useless plots of land between buildings in Queens and Staten Island, New York City, as part of his project called Reality Properties: Fake Estates . He stated in an interview with Liza Bear for Avalanche magazine in 1974, "Buying them was my own take on the strangeness of existing property demarcation lines. Property is so all-pervasive. Everyone's notion of ownership is determined by the use factor."

Matta-Clark's pioneering work on anarchitecture was to have a profound influence. The Belgian architects of OFFICE Kersten Geers David Van Severen , for example, have pursued and expanded on Matta-Clark's ideas. Their interests lie in difficult contexts, demarcation lines, perimeters, the use of marginalised spaces or negligible contexts. Rather than visions of grandeur, their architectural dreams form within the place-making opportunities created by these limits.

OFFICE Kersten Geers David Van Severen was founded in 2002 by Kersten Geers (Ghent, 1975) and David Van Severen (Ghent, 1978). The two met while studying at the University of Ghent in 1999 during a university trip to Los Angeles. This latter city would be a major influence for both of them. After Ghent they both studied at the Escuela Técnica Superior de Arquitectura in Madrid, where they were further influenced by the practices and theories of their tutors Iñaki Ábalos and Juan Herreros . From their mentors' work they not only adopted the need to see the role of the contemporary architect as a producer of common buildings, but also the injunction to find poetics in conventional things. Ábalos and Herreros studied commonplace buildings such as recycling plants and public libraries, and their theoretical discourse about the practical and the common became a working model for OFFICE Kersten Geers David Van Severen. Since 2006 it has been a full-time collaborative modus operandi .
Top: view of the patio at the
Merchtem weekend house. Above: The plan of the house shows
a sequence of four identical
square spaces: a covered
patio, an outdoor court, a
living room and a garden. The
spaces are diversified only in
their furnishing and special
features, one of which is a
swimming pool
Top: view of the patio at the Merchtem weekend house. Above: The plan of the house shows a sequence of four identical square spaces: a covered patio, an outdoor court, a living room and a garden. The spaces are diversified only in their furnishing and special features, one of which is a swimming pool
Their architecture also embraces the private sphere, where their work shows some resemblances to both Islamic and Roman architecture. They draw inspiration, for example, from Pompeii, where the private houses are open within themselves but closed to the outside world. This is true of grouped units as well, which often feature patios or courtyards enclosed by the buildings. The basic element of their architecture is the wall that divides outside from inside and the perimeter that demarcates the terrain.

Reappearing motifs of their work include exterior patios that elide into interior rooms, doubling effects often achieved with mirror-like glass, the use of the orthogonal plan, grid structures, border walls, columns, sequences of rooms, identical rooms, references to art, and alternations between rough industrial materials and shiny and luxurious materials like marble and leather.
A sliding roof covers the
pool during the cold months,
thus converting this partly
tree-planted courtyard into a
winter garden
A sliding roof covers the pool during the cold months, thus converting this partly tree-planted courtyard into a winter garden
Their first project was Entrance, built in Antwerp, Belgium, in 2003. The title is literal: the space is an entrance and reception for a notary's office. Looking at it, we can see a great deal of what would come after. In the work, they transformed a windowless space into a self-standing mirrored-glass pavilion. Soon after they started to win international competitions, such as the one in South Korea to make a master plan for a new administrative capital of 500,000 residents, with their project A Grammar for the City (2005) designed in collaboration with Dogma. They were also awarded the commission for Border Garden (2005), a project situated at a border crossing between the usa and Mexico. Their winning proposal, in collaboration with Wonne Ickx, features a nine-metre-high white wall in a rectangular frame that interrupts the otherwise endless fence boundary. Inside the frame, an oasis of palm trees is planted on a grid, and there are also pavilions for passport control and administration. Here we can explicitly see the legacy of Matta-Clark redeployed in a political frame as buildings are formed in what is literally a "no man's land" between countries.
In dissonant urban landscapes marked by empty spaces, these architects seek to make new forms of space starting from non-architecture
The entry patio and
the entrance from the street
The entry patio and the entrance from the street
But like Matta-Clark, they remain invested in a rethinking of the urban landscape. Urban centres today are often unplanned and unfurling zones of construction. They confront us with a number of questions about what is to be done. How can we think about building in a city today? How can we live in more compact and sustainable ways? Geers and Van Severen seek to offer a contemporary vocabulary or toolbox for these questions. By imagining buildings without context, and decoupling form and function, they allow themselves to think of buildings that can fill multiple, even changing functions. The three projects described below can help us understand their proposal for a possible reinterpretation of a city today.
The outdoor patio of an
informatics company in Tielt.
Two volumes, identical in
form and scale, face the
same courtyard. The site’s
irregular boundary is
emphasised by the architects
with a brick wall. Painted
white, it varies in height
The outdoor patio of an informatics company in Tielt. Two volumes, identical in form and scale, face the same courtyard. The site’s irregular boundary is emphasised by the architects with a brick wall. Painted white, it varies in height
For the Weekend House in Merchtem (2009-2012), the challenge was to work within the existing context of a traditional row house and typical Belgian allotment (a small house with a long garden), which was to be transformed into a private weekend house. The architects' ingenious solution was to keep the row house as a guesthouse and use the long backyard to build the actual weekend house.

The new house of brick is divided in an enfilade of four formally identical rooms that each serve a different function: a courtyard, a pool house, a living room and a garden. Although they have anchor points that identify their function (for example, the swimming pool), the four rooms can nonetheless be freely used, planned and re-planned. This focus on flexibility is even pronounced in the roof, where a mobile glass rooftop can slide over the courtyard and the pool house, allowing the owner to transform the swimming room into a greenhouse in the winter and open it in the summer.
The street block houses
the reception and the
computer shop. A narrow
opening affords glimpses of a
garden from the outside. The
elevations of the two buildings
are clad by a curtain wall of
thin metal columns
The street block houses the reception and the computer shop. A narrow opening affords glimpses of a garden from the outside. The elevations of the two buildings are clad by a curtain wall of thin metal columns
In the passageways, the brick walls are double so that sliding glass doors can disappear into the space between. This also made space for a fireplace between the walls across the living room towards the swimming pool. Here we can see some of the cultural texturing of their works, as this choice creates a visual register similar to the seaside house in Godard's Contempt : Casa Malaparte , designed in 1937 by the Italian architect Adalberto Libera. A cornice of white-painted steel runs across the rooms. It functions as a rail for the movable roof as well as a gutter on the outside, showing once again the doubling of form and function.
The architects use a giant truss
of steel I-beams to to indicate the
presence of the computer shop on
the street. The brick facing repeats
that of the boundary wall next door
The architects use a giant truss of steel I-beams to to indicate the presence of the computer shop on the street. The brick facing repeats that of the boundary wall next door
In the semi-public space of the computer shop in Tielt (2007-2010), the architects worked with the irregular line of an elongated plot and heightened the importance of the residual spaces. They positioned two identical volumes facing each other at the front and rear of the plot, separating them in the middle with a concrete slab patio that functions as a parking and entrance area. Between the exterior floor, built area and exterior walls, irregular residual spaces function as gardens. The surrounding exterior walls — which rise to seven metres at their highest point on the street side — demarcate the plot and form a sort of rampart around the two buildings.

The street-side volume accommodates the store and reception, and the other volume the logistics spaces. The no-frills industrial interior is delineated by exterior walls that create a sort of shell within the core of the two freestanding structures. The volumes are based on thin steel columns and beams and steel deck floors.
In the West Flanders
Chamber of Commerce, the
architects treat the theme (an
office complex) as if it were
a large villa. The building
has a dual nature, featuring a glazed
curtain wall on the street
front
In the West Flanders Chamber of Commerce, the architects treat the theme (an office complex) as if it were a large villa. The building has a dual nature, featuring a glazed curtain wall on the street front
Polycarbonate is used around the structure at points where it faces the bordering exterior wall, and the other areas are in glass with standard aluminium profiles, displaying the aesthetics of an office facade. The exterior of the brick walls facing the outside of the plot are left exposed, while the walls facing the inside are painted white like the interior, drawing on the same idea as in the weekend house in Merchtem.

For the office building of the Chamber of Commerce in Kortrijk, West Flanders (2008-2010), the architects reversed all their ideas from private housing where they work from inside to outside. Here instead they worked from outside to inside, forming a building based on ideas of representation and transparency.
The elevation facing the inner
courtyard is protected by a
metal texture that screens
the structure from the sun
The elevation facing the inner courtyard is protected by a metal texture that screens the structure from the sun
On the street side, the L-shaped building presents an all-glass facade, while the south front with its plaza and a lower-lying patio are finished with a steel grid that shelters them from the sun. By using a metal grid that continues from the facade into the plaza, this latter area takes on the appearance of a stage. The glass front, meanwhile, renders the inside completely visible from the exterior, placing the people at work (and the work itself) on display to the outside world. Entrances are located at the side of the square-shaped plaza, which is embraced by the L-shaped building. The plaza is exploited to create the idea of a box when the site is viewed from the street, making it look larger from the outside than it actually is and shifting the building's meaning through representation.

The fixed functions of the building, such as the kitchen, elevator, toilets and technical spaces, are pushed to the ends of the L-shaped building to open up the rest of the rough-finished interior. From the outside, thick concrete floor slabs can be seen through the facade, contrasting with the slender beams. Lastly, by placing the staircases in the middle of the space and painting them yellow and red, the architects demonstrate their focus on transitional and in-between spaces.
Sculptural
forms, painted red and yellow,
identify the two staircases,
interrupting the building’s
otherwise generally uniform
black and grey
Sculptural forms, painted red and yellow, identify the two staircases, interrupting the building’s otherwise generally uniform black and grey
In dissonant urban landscapes marked by empty spaces, these architects seek to make new forms of space starting from non-architecture. In so doing, they give a value to these non-spaces. Their proposal for this process of changing the uses and values of the contemporary urban environment is grounded in three typologies: public, semi-public and private spaces that alternate forms of transparency, opacity and their unusual coupling. Angelique Campens, independent writer, researcher and curator
The West Flanders
Chamber of Commerce
The West Flanders Chamber of Commerce

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