Constructing a space where a client with a terminal illness could spend the last years of his life forced Wim Goes Architectuur to face the issue of mortality
‘To be immortal is commonplace’, wrote Jorge Luis Borges, ‘except for man, all creatures are immortal, for they are ignorant of death.’ It is an ignorance that architects bestow on their buildings – while the majority are not under the impression their work will last until the end of time, there is certainly a problem seeing beyond our own lifespan (usually shorter than that of concrete or brick). This is what Aaron Betsky termed an ‘obsession with permanence’, be it through making no concessions for flexibility or sustainability, or assuming a social context will remain static.
Architecture’s challenge to this is of course the pop-up: a foray into the world of shorter lifespans, material experimentation, fewer restrictions and more tangible immediate impact. Reincarnated and subsumed more recently by commerce and branding, for temporary architecture you can choose your point of historical reference: the Ise Shrine in Japan rebuilt every 20 years, booksellers by the Seine, Cedric Price’s Fun Palace or Bernard Tschumi’s cinematic architecture. All fundamentally share an elevation of event or process above built form (even if the event is the form) – they exist for only as long as they are deemed needed. Above all, they are architecture that is aware of death, and – of particular importance to the judges of the AR Pop-up award – embraces mortality.
We may not look at what Betsky called the ‘joyous makers of colorful pavilions’ and consider our own mortality (unless we are particularly averse to pop-ups), but this is at the heart of even the most cynically driven (limited-edition, one-time only) pop-up project. Suddenly the life cycle of the built environment is in tune with a timescale that is more relatable, more empowering.
‘Many of this group did not know what to expect, and certainly didn’t have any experience of building’
All of this is thrown into stark relief when the cycle of architectural life meets that of human life – and, in 2014, the Belgian practice Wim Goes Architectuur was approached by a client in the wake of a diagnosis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). An aggressive condition with no known cure, the time from onset to death is two to four years, during which most will ultimately become unable to move or speak, rendering the majority of environments entirely unsuitable. With the client’s bungalow in Flanders being too time-consuming to adapt, the decision was made to adapt the adjacent carport – a simple concrete frame connected to the house and used as an improvised playground by schoolchildren – into a care space, Refuge II.
‘The story of the house is twofold’ says Goes, ‘there is the story of the house itself with its very specific requirements … and of the building as a process to bring together a group of over 100 people’. This group of friends and family, aided and guided by specialists for aspects such as heating and domotics, worked with the practice’s designs to realise the project, all while celebrating life with food, wine, tea and coffee. Many of this group did not know what to expect, and certainly didn’t have any experience of building. The choice of materials such as straw and clay was not only to facilitate fast construction and future ‘recycling’, but also to make the build accessible and familiar. It was not to be seen as ‘Architecture’ per se, but as a group building project – what Goes says was ‘really about living and working together’.
This space, essentially one long room, was designed to provide a ‘barrier-free space’ for eating, sleeping and washing, separated by curtains and fitted with equipment provided by sponsors. The programme was split into five stages in line with the progression of the condition (currently at stage five) so, as the client becomes less mobile, the space will adapt and be better suited to providing as much accessibility and comfort as possible.
A terminal diagnosis signals the beginning of a period spent living with death. For the team, overcoming the mental barrier the diagnosis created was as important as any physical challenges to ensure interaction between the client and friends and family was not hindered by the diagnosis. This barrier is, of course, deeply personal and likely to vary – the project was not presented as a definite solution but as somewhere ‘psychologically accessible’ that would, as Goes states, make sure the client is for the most part ‘not treated any differently’ by those close to him.
The conceit of the seasons was used to present the project’s cyclical nature: conceived and built in the spring and summer, used through autumn and removed in the winter. In a process documented over a series of months, a simple wall of straw sandwiched between a layer of glass and loam walls was built across the carport openings, the concrete frame remaining visible. The brick wall at the rear of the carport, already having a door through to the garden, was given two large openings with deep recesses.
‘All that will remain is the two punctures in the brick wall, voids looking through to the herb garden planted by the volunteers’
‘There was no hierarchy’, says Goes, ‘yet there was a beautiful kind of uncertainty.’ With the life of the building so intertwined with the life of the client, the process of learning how to build and, at times, having to improvise, was mirrored by the process of individuals coming to terms with the client’s situation. Improvisations and quick fixes saw the conversion begin to take on a character, despite Goes seeming adamant that it remained more of a conduit than any sort of explicitly architectural form. When flooding meant a series of unplanned wooden elements had to be added to the bottom of the wall to press waterproofing to the tiles underneath, Goes reflects, ‘I was unhappy at first with these wooden elements … the project had no architectural ambition, but the sticks seemed to develop into an architectural language’.
Nonetheless, Goes appreciates the fact that the simple way in which materials come together lends meaning – ‘the joint is a predecessor of the ornament’ – and a project built in such a context will find it hard to avoid meanings and associations.
Part of the project was displayed at the 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale, for which Belgium’s theme was craftsmanship and bravoure, ultimately asking what craftsmanship can mean in times of scarcity. Refuge II certainly has scarcity: the team was not highly experienced, time was short, money was short, at times hope certainly will have been short. Here, the bravery was in responding so quickly and rationally.
The client has chosen to spend his final hours in the space. After this farewell, those who built the structure will deconstruct it. Eighty-three per cent of the materials – straw and loam – will be scattered, while the remainder will be recycled. The equipment will be returned to sponsors. All that will remain is the two punctures in the brick wall, voids looking through to the herb garden planted by the volunteers. If, as Borges says, ‘the terrible, incomprehensible is to know that one is immortal’, the acceptance of mortality and hope in the face of tragedy witnessed throughout this project seems to be a declaration that death – our own and that of architecture – should not be ignored or feared.
Architect: Wim Goes Architectuur
Project team: Johannes Berry, Tim De Messemaeker, Wim Goes, Anja Houbaert
Photographs: Filip Dujardin (colour), Wim Goes Architectuur (b/w)