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Gijs Van Vaerenbergh: on architectural ‘misuse’

009 arcade

‘Bending, cutting, mirroring, assembling, and drawing in space’; Gijs Van Vaerenbergh define their practice through five principal formal operations

Both Leuven-born and based, Pieterjan Gijs and Arnout Van Vaerenbergh work deep in the rich and multifarious zone between artistic and architectural disciplines. This territory has not gone untrodden; Gijs Van Vaerenbergh cite Gordon Matta-Clark, Dan Graham, Richard Serra, and Luc Deleu as particularly influential to the development of their practice. The material interaction between art and architecture, however, is replete with interpretative potential, the interrogation of which is in-itself a productive endeavour.

Beyond the largely formal imagery evoked by Gijs Van Vaerenbergh’s five operations, the language used by the Belgian duo belies a specifically relational dynamism with which they approach their practice. Their vocabulary is littered with words such as ‘crossroad,’ ‘network,’ and ‘encounter;’ while identifying Leuven as ‘peripheral’ in relation to Brussels, they speak of the broader Belgian context from which they work as being situated at the intersection of different languages, cultures, cities, and regions. The frequency with which these relational terms come up has an effect of embodied potential; a density of creative force that is ready to spring up.

Perhaps this attention to connectivity comes precisely from a sense of mobility in how they place their practice in relation to artistic and architectural disciplines. They speak about coming to architecture through their studies, rather than as an originary calling, but their description of their current practice speaks more of an oblique departure from any circumscribed architectural field: ‘the central question we were asking ourselves was how to use — or better “misuse” — our knowledge of architecture.’ This notion of ‘misuse’ is one that speaks clearly of how Gijs Van Vaerenbergh understand the function of this inter-disciplinary relationship, as one that twists, or subverts expectation.

Six Vaults

Six Vaults

Conceived as a viewing machine, Six Vaults is formed of a concrete block through which six extruded arch forms have been cut. Image: Matthijs van der Burght

The manifestations of this architectural misuse come through in the form of familiar structural types that have been abstracted, subtracted, inverted, or otherwise undermined, and redeployed as spatial interventions rather than as structural systems: The Upside Dome formed a metallic ghost of the never-completed dome that hung from the ceiling of St Michiel’s church in Leuven. For Tryptich, the façade renovation for the BAC Atelier building where Gijs Van Vaerenbergh are artists-in-residence, the central windows of the former Leuven Institute for Bacteriology have been replaced with a mirrored glass that reflects the sky, the remaining pilastered arches appearing as a gate to the heavens.

Last year, Gijs Van Vaerenbergh opened a new installation in the Flanders floodplains around Kruibeke. Arcade consists of five Corten arches that zig-zag over the pedestrian walkway crossing the ringdijk, Kruibeke’s secondary flood defence that separates the town from the surrounding polders. While formally minimal, Arcade’s nod to the rich history of perambulatory structures makes a rather complex gesture. The installation does a lot to articulate the pedestrian passage, and the height of the ringdijk, but with further examination the context of the historic arcade somewhat overtakes.

002 arcade

Arcade: Corten archtes zig-zag over the pedestrian walkway in the Kruibeke polders

Corten arches zig-zag over the pedestrian walkway in the Kruibeke polders. Image: Filip Dujardin

Crucially, these arches have been plucked from their traditionally urban context and, in opposition to their usual function, they provide no shelter. If the purpose of the typological arcade is to serve as connective tissue, covering pedestrians en route, or in the Parisian fashion to represent a field of leisure, then what does the strange displacement of this particular type do to its new site? Emphasising the landscaped passage over the ringdijk as it does, Arcade’s function is certainly connective. As a stark set of arcing verticals in an otherwise low and vegetal landscape, it draws attention, and footfall, but it also reflects this attention back to the natural landscape. Though this is likely due to the framing effect of the arches’ material body, a theoretical framing of the polders as the leisure-ground to Arcade’s arterial passage is worth entertaining.

However theoretical you want to be in examining the precise mechanism by which Gijs Van Vaerenbergh subvert the architectural narrative of their installations, this idea of ‘misuse,’ as turning a discipline’s own corpus back on itself, is what makes their work so surprising, so technical, and ultimately, so delightful.

Lead image by Filip Dujardin