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Hôtel Wolfers: Henry van de Velde's frozen ruin

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A wolf in sheep’s clothing: designed by Henry van de Velde, Hôtel Wolfers is frozen in a state of ruin, an artwork in its own right

Conspicuous in a genteel southern suburb of mild-mannered 19th-century townhouses in Brussels, the round-cornered, Roman-bricked Hôtel Wolfers was designed in 1929 by Henry van de Velde. A staunch Modernist and director of the Bauhaus’s predecessor – the Grand Ducal School of Arts and Crafts in Weimar – he must have flinched at the neighbourhood’s chocolate-box trinketism.

Floor plan hotel wolfers lz

Floor plan hotel wolfers lz

But all is not what it seems. Behind the thick, brown-brick walls, the house lies in a state of decay, the paint blistering and flaking off the walls, scarcely furnished. In the cavernous dining room, a small lonely vitrine contains photos documenting the house when it was first built, taken by the photographer Willy Kessels, alongside fragile flakes of paint from the walls, windows and doors. In the photographs, the building’s facades appear almost as they do today, but the interior is modestly furnished and plainly decorated, the walls empty and pale.

Everything looks as it should in a simple Modernist interior. But look closely, and visible in the grainy black and white images is a surreal glow emanating from the doors’ surfaces. More congruous perhaps in a lavish Art Deco interior, the doors were in fact coated in a thin layer of ethereal silver-leaf, reflecting a soft light into the spaces. Reading the contents of the vitrine as ‘architectural testimonies’, the artist Richard Venlet reinstated one of these silver doors in 2015, one of the only instances of renovation in the last 40 years. 

©rv—door daled

©rv—door daled

Image by Richard Venlet

In 1977, the art collector Herman Daled purchased Hôtel Wolfers from its third owner, almost in its original state. It was promptly listed as a national monument. The house had not been significantly modified since it was built, the rooms worn and many neglected and uninhabited for many years. While most excited new homeowners would waste no time reaching for the nearest IKEA catalogue or purchasing paint testers and carpet samples, Daled resisted, restricting his renovation to the careful restoration of the iron-framed windows to Van de Velde’s characteristic dark green and the reinstatement of the roof cornicing. 

By today’s standards, the spaces of the house as they stand are inhospitable at best. Here Daled has lived for the last 40 years, treating the spaces as artworks in their own right, allowed to age without intervention. Venlet has also designed a daybed for the house in association with the Maniera gallery, reducing the outline of the building’s floor plan to the scale of a human body and upholstering it in sheepskin – a degree of comfort ironically unimaginable in the decaying shell of Hôtel Wolfers.

But the house is also uninhabitable for different reasons. With its enormous reception rooms echoing with the ghostly memory of petit-bourgeois dinner chatter, three staircases (one ceremonial, two for staff) and the kitchen in the basement with plates shuttled to the dining room by servants, Hôtel Wolfers accommodates a lifestyle long since extinct. ‘The kind of life it was designed for belongs to the past’, explains architecture professor and writer Bart Verschaffel. 

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Image by Richard Venlet

How do you live in a monument? The answer, Daled explains, is that you don’t. ‘Je n’y habite pas. J’y suis present’: Daled does not live in the house, he is merely present. He uses only the master bedroom and bathroom on the first floor, and prepares and eats his meals in the basement kitchen, shaping his life around the house rather than the usual custom (adopted with fervour in our DIY age) to shape our homes to our way of life. His sizeable art collection is noticeably absent, instead forming a large part of MoMa’s collection in New York. 

‘As time passes, when the building is a ruin, the spirit of its making comes back,’ Louis Kahn said in 1973. Hôtel Wolfers is preserved as a modern ruin, frozen in ‘an everlasting temporary condition’ of decay. ‘Everyone who passes can hear the story it wants to tell about its own making,’ Kahn adds, ‘it is no longer in servitude; the spirit is back.’ 

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