Vernacular variations

De Vylder Vinck Taillieu's subtly humorous alterations to the regional architecture of Flanders playfully offer it new purpose. A visit to three new projects by the Belgian office.

This article was originally published in Domus 966 / February 2013

"... to choose incidents and situations from common life, and to relate or describe them, throughout, as far as was possible, in a selection of language really used by men; and, at the same time, to throw over them a certain colouring of imagination, whereby ordinary things should be presented to the mind in an unusual way…"
—Wordsworth

"Then the angel may appear, then nature, then things, then others, then, if ever, the achievement of the ordinary, the faith to be plain, or not to be."
—Stanley Cavell

These citations from Wordsworth's preface to his Lyrical Ballads and Stanley Cavell's late romantic reflections on the ordinary establish the kind of thinking that animates the architecture of the Belgian practice architecten de vylder vinck taillieu (A DVVT). The firm is composed of Jan De Vylder, Inge Vinck and Jo Taillieu, who all studied at Sint-Lucas in Ghent. Theirs is an architecture that begins in the milieu of everyday existence. Unlike many other architectural styles of today, they go back to the basics of the craft of architecture: they love to build, and this pleasure manifests itself in their actual constructions. Their projects offer a counterbalance to the often rigid and cold structures that are built everywhere these days. Intuitiveness, straightforwardness, playfulness and coincidences are central to their work.
Top: the
rear façade of Twiggy, a
townhouse in central Ghent.
Protected as a heritage
monument, it was originally
an office block, converted
by the Belgian office into a
fashion store. Above: The façade of Weze, 2012
Top: the rear façade of Twiggy, a townhouse in central Ghent. Protected as a heritage monument, it was originally an office block, converted by the Belgian office into a fashion store. Above: The façade of Weze, 2012
They have erected all kinds of buildings throughout Flanders, ranging from large projects — such as rehearsal rooms for the dance-theatre collective Les Ballets C de la B (see Domus 928, 2009), the lod opera production house and the offices of the Toneelhuis theatre company — to smaller schemes and many renovations that are of equal importance to the human scale of architecture. Their several larger projects currently being developed include the Wivina apartments for the elderly, the Dienstencentrum Ledeberg — a service centre that houses offices for the police — theatre infrastructure, etc.

A DVVT undertake masterful renovations of Belgian vernacular houses, turning the difficulties and obstacles of such projects into opportunities. Treating every project separately and starting each time from a blank mental slate, they do not strive for a signature architectural style in their work. Their architecture is very subtle, never dramatically present and does not aim to make overt statements. It's an architecture that starts from the needs of the client, the programme and the ensuing practical constraints. The materiality of the given is their only guide, and a fresh aesthetic approach emerges out of every new context.
Subtle alterations
distinguish the Belgian
studio’s work, such as in the new staircase
that can be glimpsed on the
street front
Subtle alterations distinguish the Belgian studio’s work, such as in the new staircase that can be glimpsed on the street front
Their aesthetics makes no overarching claim other than to bring out the beauty and potential of what they find. The look of their projects is often determined by practical motivations and solutions, and the decorations that arise from these factors. The ordinary becomes the foundation, the cornerstone. A wide range of ideas are formed during the on-site process, inspired by found objects and emerging through interactions and discussions with contractors.

There is also a layer of humour, with a cultivated wink embedded in the sites for those who take the time to see it. Their buildings become paintings that often conceal a trompe l'oeil , a deception of the the eye. They love to play tricks while at the same time hiding their hand in the construction. Here are three examples of these themes.
Their buildings become paintings that often conceal a trompe l’oeil. They love to play tricks while hiding their hand in the construction
In Weze,
the <em>trompe l’oeil</em> effect of the
outside door to the kitchen is created using
the same bricks as those of
the façade, but with
a reduced thickness, while the
mortar joints were aligned
with the surrounding wall
In Weze, the trompe l’oeil effect of the outside door to the kitchen is created using the same bricks as those of the façade, but with a reduced thickness, while the mortar joints were aligned with the surrounding wall
Weze, 2012
One of their latest renovations is the Weze house, which they converted form a small old school by means of just three slight alterations that manage to maintain the atmosphere and idea of a classroom.

Firstly, an extra entrance was required to access the kitchen on the front façade. However, due to the rhythm of the windows on this front, it would have been almost impossible to insert a door in an aesthetically well-considered way. This difficulty became an opportunity for the architects to explore their interest in sleight-of- hand architectural effects. The result was a trompe l'oeil door made of the same material as the façade, and accordingly equipped with sliced brick detailing and mortar joints that follow the pattern of the surrounding wall. Thus, when the door is closed it seems to disappear into the façade, its presence only given away by the concrete doorstep that triggers one's attention. The architects call it the "Delhaize door"; Delhaize is a Belgian food retailer, hence it is a door to pass through to bring the groceries home.
Subtle alterations
distinguish the Belgian
studio’s work, such as the
colour contrast on the rear
façade of the house
Subtle alterations distinguish the Belgian studio’s work, such as the colour contrast on the rear façade of the house
Secondly, the kitchen is faced with green multiplex boards, with the handles in the same material to give the kitchen a fine modular rhythm. The architects' third intervention was to add a wall in soaped wood to close off the kitchen from the living room. Into the wall they incorporated a trompe l'oeil pivoted doorcabinet and a pass-through opening that mimics the windows on the façade (even the glass in the lower part is made out of the same cathedral glass as the pre-existing windows).

The window made it possible to bring natural light into the far end of the kitchen since there are no windows on the façade opposite the Delhaize door. Here again, decoration derives from need. A trompe l'oeil revolving wall in the form of a pivoted doorcabinet provides access to the kitchen from the rest of the house. This wall can be left open or even turned around so the shelves of the kitchen face towards the living room.
In the Weze house, access to the kitchen is
provided through a secondary
entrance that was created in
the thick perimeter wall at
the back of the house. In a
second phase the courtyard
is to accommodate an atelier,
plans for which are already
being developed. A structure
of fair-faced bricks is
envisaged with a single-pitch
roof supported by a series of
metal column-beams
In the Weze house, access to the kitchen is provided through a secondary entrance that was created in the thick perimeter wall at the back of the house. In a second phase the courtyard is to accommodate an atelier, plans for which are already being developed. A structure of fair-faced bricks is envisaged with a single-pitch roof supported by a series of metal column-beams
Twiggy, 2012
"The old house; we need to keep it, it's a monument. Except for one floor! And we mirror it; in the doors of the changing rooms, behind the counter, in the thick façade."
—architecten de vylder vinck taillieu

Here the architects were asked to convert a former 18th-century townhouse, protected as a heritage monument, into a clothes shop for women and men. While the street side was to remain untouched, the specific task was to define the circulation to allow customers to reach the different floors. Furthermore, in addition to the internal staircase, safety regulations required them to include an external staircase along the rear heritage façade.
A furnished wall with a
rotating door-cabinet and
a pass-through allows the
kitchen and the living
room of the Weze house to be connected
A furnished wall with a rotating door-cabinet and a pass-through allows the kitchen and the living room of the Weze house to be connected
This addition was made possible by pushing out the rear elevation and creating a stairwell in the space between the added rear façade and the pre-existing rear façade. The resulting elevation appears to unfold as it mirrors or copies the original rear façade. Here again, the trompe l'oeil makes its return. Rather than designing a totally new construction, the architects used and played with the existing style in the conception of this added volume, which has introduced a fascinating, almost sculptural dimension to the building.

The new stairwell became like a house of mirrors, with the inside of the rear façade covered in mirrors except for the openings of the windows, which are left visible between the reflective surfaces. From the new concrete stairs one looks across to the other staircase running parallel.
The living room of the Weze house
The living room of the Weze house
Apart from the stairwell and mirrors, almost nothing has been added. Instead, the architects took things away, stripping the wallpaper and leaving the wall underneath unfinished as its new décor. As is often the case with houses, over time this building has received many layers of modifications, for example with the addition of a number of doorways. The architects removed the doors but left the openings, and marked their subtraction with fluorescent red-orange paint to accentuate the absurdities, highlighting the mistakes like schoolteachers.

Finally, they removed the ceiling between two floors in order to create a single double-height space, but without erasing the difference between the two stories, as can be seen in the sudden change of panelling. Moreover, by leaving the fireplace intact on the wall of the upper storey, they reveal what seems to be a floating fireplace. Everywhere there are look-throughs, and the resulting store is virtually a labyrinth of passages.
Inside the house, all the
constructional and systems
elements have been left
unfaced, while open beams
visually connect the two
levels and allow light to filter
in from above
Inside the house, all the constructional and systems elements have been left unfaced, while open beams visually connect the two levels and allow light to filter in from above
Meulestede, 2011
This house was designed for a competition organised by Ghent's municipal urban development company AG SOB (Autonoom Gemeentelijk Stadsontwikkelingsbedrijf Gent). The competition brief called for a preliminary design for a terraced house and plot project in Ghent. The idea was to provide bare (constructionready) plots at an affordable price to private buyers, and anyone who bought one of these plots would be obliged to work with one of the ten groups of architects that had been pre-selected through the competition. In each case the design is adapted to the needs of the individual buyer and assignment.
The interior of the Weze house
The interior of the Weze house
The Meulestede terraced house was finished in 2011. The street façade is constructed of layers of different sizes of light-baked, clay-coloured, fast-build bricks. These sorts of bricks are normally plastered, but the architects left parts of them visible in their original form. Inside, sections of the fast-build brick walls are painted white and others are left fair-faced. The base or substructure is 11 metres deep and the superstructure is 6,83 metres deep. On the rear façade the superstructure is covered with brick-patterned shingles. Inside everything reveals how it was constructed; nothing is hidden. One sees an intermingling of concrete, wood, glass and painted or unpainted fast-build bricks. Almost every element arises from practical needs and is shown as it is, even down to the electrical wiring.
Left, since a new
stair well had to be
built into the back of the
Twiggy house, and the elevation
could not be altered due to
conservation restraints, the
architects literally cut out and
“extruded” a block of façade
corresponding to the stair
volume while maintaining its
identical design. Right, By removing the slab
between two floors of the
store to create a doubleheight
space, the architects
fully express their playful
design philosophy. Utilising
demolished walls, <em>trompes
l’oeil</em> and the ironical
conversion of earlier features,
they have even left a fireplace
in its original position, now
floating in midair
Left, since a new stair well had to be built into the back of the Twiggy house, and the elevation could not be altered due to conservation restraints, the architects literally cut out and “extruded” a block of façade corresponding to the stair volume while maintaining its identical design. Right, By removing the slab between two floors of the store to create a doubleheight space, the architects fully express their playful design philosophy. Utilising demolished walls, trompes l’oeil and the ironical conversion of earlier features, they have even left a fireplace in its original position, now floating in midair
The spaces between the wooden beams that shoulder parts of the first floor are filled in on one side (where zones such as the bedroom are located), while in other parts (such as for the staircase) the gaps are left open to allow light to penetrate vertically from the higher-placed windows on the first and second floors. Instead of the standard light concentrated in a single point, the inhabitants thus receive a more pleasurable defuse light that comes from above. Angelique Campens, writer, researcher and curator

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