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Frame of mind: de Vylder Vinck Taillieu's Caritas psychiatric centre

De Vylder Vinck Taillieu’s Caritas psychiatric centre in Melle brings the outside in

The Flanders village of Melle, a few kilometres outside Ghent, lies in the midst of a tangle of highways, canals, industrial estates and fields, an environment typical of the Low Countries. Just outside Melle, nestling in woods, is the Caritas psychiatric centre, a residential hospital for patients of all ages and a wide variety of care needs. The hospital has occupied the site since 1908, when it was built as a series of different ‘pavilion’ buildings, each housing a different programme of treatment and care.

Luchtfoto 01

Luchtfoto 01

Source: De Zusters van Liefde JM Archive

De vylder vinck taillieu historical

De vylder vinck taillieu historical

Source: De Zusters van Liefde JM Archive

The early 20th century had seen leaps forward in mental health care, with the predominantly carceral model of the asylum passing largely into history, and the pavilions at Melle were built for this new system of treatment. But by the present day, PC Caritas had seen its original buildings encounter their own obsolescence, and a visit to the site today sees much of the hospital’s work taking place in low-rise late-20th-century hospital buildings of a decidedly quotidian sort.

It is here, in an environment that is both full of care but also the site of great distress, up to the minute but in places largely redundant, that de Vylder Vinck Taillieu have created a remarkably odd yet rich work of architecture, although you might not know it was there at first glance. One of the original pavilion buildings, two tall storeys plus a gabled mansard, eclectically Flemish in detail and built from banded brickwork, stands gutted, its roof stripped back to the rafters and most of its windows gone.

014 caritas melle

014 caritas melle

One might well just see this as a ruin stripped back to its shell, but getting closer reveals more and more positive interventions in its fabric. The interior has been largely cleaned of finishes, a layer of gravel laid on the ground emphasising the emptiness of the structure. Wandering into the centre of the building, upper floors have in some places been removed to create a vertically stacked courtyard open to the sky.

The exteriority is again heightened by the planting of trees in the centre of the building, as well as the surreal sight of what feel like street lamps set up in empty rooms. Above and around, a new steel structure (painted a particular intumescent green familiar from dVVT’s work) holds walls, floors and lintels in place, and imposes a grid on a structure that was once primarily monolithic in character.

The floors that remain are accessible, and moving up through the building you encounter all manner of odd elements, like the clusters of concrete blocks presumably making good damage to the brickwork, but feeling like an intrusion of minimalist sculpture into the historic fabric, or the new concrete lintels and mullions across empty windows whose white paint and irregular crinkled edges almost seem like cartoon clouds, a slightly ghostly motif that echoes the extended loggias either side of the building. But the real standout elements are the series of simple, apparently off-the-shelf greenhouses that occupy the building – in the courtyard, up the stairs, even out on a balcony. They are buildings-within-buildings, for sure, but they might also be meeting rooms, spaces that suggest that all these fragmentary elements could add up to something potentially functional.

024 caritas melle

024 caritas melle

‘It was not something someone really needed, was asking for, or lacking,’ says Jan de Vylder, explaining the subtle genesis of the project, ‘but now it’s there, if you destroyed it right now, everyone would miss it.’ The origin for the scheme came after the appointment of a new director at PC Caritas, who inherited a programme of demolition of some of the unused pavilions on the campus. A pause in the destruction caused by the discovery of asbestos gave a chance to reconsider if anything might be done with the building, and in discussion with architectural researchers BAVO, a competition was held for ideas. 

dVVT’s suggestions were simple, and took as their basis a contrast between the context of the obsolete ruin and the highly developed programme of the more contemporary buildings on the site. ‘Everything is very organised, everything is very decided, there is no square metre that is not known,’ says De Vylder of the modern buildings, adding that they are without a meaningful relationship to the campus itself. Given that the pavilion was already open to the elements, the suggestion was to do enough work to creatively stabilise the structure to prevent further deterioration, while introducing useful spaces for loosely defined activities, clinical or not, to take place.

075 caritas melle

075 caritas melle

On the one hand, this allowed for clear examples of the aleatoric gestures that find their way into many of dVVT’s projects, where errors or surprises on site become the source of new and intriguing elements of their projects. Here, much of the repair could be defined via rules rather than detailed drawings, which leads to some of the stranger material juxtapositions and vignettes that are to be found throughout the building that would be very difficult to justify in a fully worked out design. These stabilising elements are similar to the sort that one finds in ruined homes and castles, ad hoc structural and weathering details for the sole purpose of arresting decline, and whose outsiderish juxtapositions nevertheless (or in fact, directly) give great aesthetic pleasure. 

This as-found ruination is often exploited by architects in such celebrated examples as Chipperfield’s Neues Museum in Berlin or Witherford Watson Mann’s Astley Castle in Warwickshire, to name just two. But the dVVT ruin-work here is more detached, and allows for what might be a crucially open-ended process of interpretation of the structure. ‘After the building had been put in use, we got a lot of “imaginary” or “dreamy” interpretations of what we had done,’ says de Vylder. For example, one might be tempted to make a connection between the damage and healing that has happened to the building, and that of the patients, and indeed this is a metaphor occasionally used by the doctors at the hospital. ‘I would say that this was not really the symbolism we wanted to give to what we do,’ admits de Vylder, ‘but this is the outcome of how the building has been perceived or appreciated or valued by people … it’s about giving the possibility to introduce imagination as a way of understanding.’ 

De vylder vinck taillieu plans

De vylder vinck taillieu plans

Click to download

De vylder vinck taillieu section

De vylder vinck taillieu section

Click to download

A more stretched metaphor at work is that of the folly, the often-functionless but always ambiguous architecture of garden pleasure structures. Perhaps an inappropriate word to use considering the therapeutic context, but the etymology has been used by architects before, most notably at Tschumi’s Parc de la Villette, and if you squint you might discern a distant familial resonance with the Caritas project. This isn’t too unfair a comparison, as a quiet stream of latent ‘Deconstructivism’ is sometimes visible in dVVT’s work, but the comparison is probably too pat to work typologically. 

But if we think of the folly metaphor as having to do with unplanned activity, then it is a more interesting comparison, and one which seems to tie in with the aims of the project as a whole. Images from the hospital brochure show some kind of therapy taking place inside the greenhouses, but that’s not all that can happen. ‘I was there a couple of weeks ago for an interview and it was really nice, and on all levels they were playing games with young children’, says de Vylder, ‘some doctors use it in a systematic and organised manner to carry out their treatment, but other people just trespass there or pass through, people from off campus stop there on a sunny afternoon for a small picnic.’  

068 caritas melle

068 caritas melle

dVVT’s Venice Biennale Freespace exhibition primarily featured the Caritas project, which in itself is in a state of flux and subject to alteration and redevelopment over time. The timber used in Venice will go back to Ghent and be used to make further repairs to the floors of the building, and there are plans to relocate greenhouses to give more internal space, and even create a small café within the shell. The openness to unplanned activity here extends to an openness to continuing work on the project, potentially also encompassing other disused buildings on the site, and a commitment to a certain experimental methodology that is never easily achieved, but here seems like an organic part of the process. 

It’s true that there’s something slightly frivolous or whimsical about the project at first encounter, with the reasoning behind the various ambiguities of use, space and aesthetic difficult to discern. But the project is not extravagant, and for a cost not far above the costs of completely demolishing the original pavilion, the hospital has a stimulating and quite beautiful environment that is theirs to use as they see fit. ‘You know, especially at the beginning we had believers and non-believers,’ says de Vylder, admitting to the challenges of such freedom, ‘but now they say “yeah actually we still can’t describe what this is about, or what is the real merit, the real function or the real addition, but we love to be here!”’ 

This piece is featured in the AR’s September 2018 on Belgium – click here to pick up your copy today

Architects: Architecten de Vylder Vinck Taillieu in collaboration with BAVO

All photographs by Filip Dujardin, unless otherwise stated

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