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Retrospective: Robbrecht en Daem

Stadshal robbrechtendaem © marc de blieck

From their native Ghent to London to Bordeaux and back again, the architecture of Robbrecht and Daem is woven with a continuous thread while achieving an extraordinary breadth of design 

Bourdeaux City Archives — Paul Robbrecht

Bourdeaux City Archives — Paul Robbrecht

Architects don’t get to choose who their clients will be, how solvent they are, or which needs have to be addressed. So, the architect’s oeuvre is the result of cumulative affinities, confidences won, presentations aced, cultural festivals and economic booms, but also off-days, rejections, slights, local conflicts, economic downturns, petty enmities. You don’t choose the body of work; it chooses you. At best, it builds you: slowly forcing you to expand your capacities, to learn another institutional or regulatory dialect. Mostly, an understandable caution on the part of clients, and the energy-sapping demands of invention, leave architects repeating themselves with minor variation. What, then, to make of a body of work so coherent, but so diverse, as that of Robbrecht en Daem? 

Mys House © Kristien Daem

Mys House © Kristien Daem

Mys house — Image: Kristien Daem

Their distinctive voice is already apparent in work in small cities near their native Ghent in the 1980s — the Mys house in Oudenaarde and the bank in Kerksken, near Aalst — where they find the motifs from which to weave the works of the next three decades. With the Mys House (1983-92), they grasp the architect’s position as a latecomer in the work of centuries: adding here, cutting away there. The original house is already remarkable, a case study of the little deceptions that turn the messy reality of random dimensions into the semblance of order. Their additions are simple but slightly dissonant figures: a steep-roofed conservatory, a woodshed as a distorted perspective colonnade. Their cuts are stranger, stronger: a picture window between kitchen sink and garden, a horizontal window sliced into the Classical dining room, a tall conical rooflight in the library. Not only are their spatial interventions the last in a long line, they cede the foreground to discreet works by artists Juan Muñoz and Thierry De Cordier.

At the bank in Kerksken (1987-89), a tall colonnade in raw concrete duels with scattered openings in the white rendered wall behind. The two-storey banking hall is lit by a series of cuts on all sides. The light cast by a segment-shaped rooflight is anchored to the ground in a spiralling movement by the diagonal of the stair. The grandeur of the colonnade and hushed sacred feel of the interior are exaggerated for a local bank branch, but the handling of light, shadow, mass and scale is coherent and strong. In both the transformation and the new building, the architects distil their distinctive personal sensibility into works that hold their own in the dispersed, heterogeneous urban fabric of Flanders.

Kerksken bank © Kristien Daem

Kerksken bank © Kristien Daem

Kerksken bank — Image: Kristien Daem

The first indication that Robbrecht en Daem are civic architects comes with Leopold de Waelplaats, the square in front of the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp, a collaboration with Marie-José van Hee (1997-99). With the winged charioteers like giant birds of prey atop the museum portico, and the streets radiating out, the square is dramatic, intense, grand. Two canopies of plane trees and the granite cobbles on the pavements and roads create the sense of a single space despite the elongated form and the traffic that runs through. At the centre of the square, part-contained by steps rising to the portico, is the reflecting pool, Cristina Iglesias’s ‘Deep Fountain’. Draining slowly into a gash in its centre, leaving a sloping shore of bronze leaves, it crystallises the dynamics between movement and repose, dramatic focus and indifferent background, and the cultural and the port city. The energies of horizontal movement and monumental weight are channelled in a series of overlapping territories in which overt design is barely visible, but which prompt different ways of behaving in public: moving, staying, sitting, leaning, looking, being observed. 

At the Concertgebouw in Bruges (1999-2002), they turn an incidental element of the competition brief into a defining experience and emblem. The chamber music hall is pulled off-centre into a tower facing the main square and part-enclosing an entrance courtyard. A tall concrete room with a spiral of balconies winding up around the performance space, it is a space for intimate direct performance, where being there counts for more than the theatrical illusion of being somewhere else. 

Leopold de Waelplaats square, Antwerp © Image: Kristien Daem

Leopold de Waelplaats square, Antwerp © Kristien Daem

Leopold de Waelplaats square, Antwerp — Image: Kristien Daem

Concertgebouw, Bruges © Jan Termont

Concertgebouw, Bruges © Jan Termont

Concertgebouw, Bruges — Image: Jan Termont

Faced with a museum-city, the architects make the building a participant, not a spectator in the cityscape. Distorted and figured, it shapes multiple public spaces around it, directs visual connections to the monuments of the medieval city, and maintains both a teetering coherence and a sense of entropic energy. The opposite of the passive-aggressive glass box, transparent and abstract, it is instead opaque but communicative. 

Robbrecht en Daem’s translations across the Rhine, the Channel or the Seine highlight the distinctiveness of their approach and of their cultural background. In Rotterdam, London and Bordeaux, their work builds on and around existing structures, a kind of adaptive city-making more characteristic of Mediterranean cities – a ‘slow architecture’ that contrasts with the culture of demolition and production that characterises construction in these countries. Latins of northern Europe, they are supple interpreters and improvisers, deploying skills squeezed out of neighbouring Puritan and Enlightenment cultures.

‘The existing buildings are full of tricks, fitting grand top-lit spaces onto the site of brewers’ yards and narrow houses. Their interventions show a confidence of where to be strong  and where to be weak’

Figured additions and bold cuts broker the forced marriage of an Art Nouveau gallery and a Victorian library, for the Whitechapel Gallery in London (2003-09). The existing buildings are full of tricks, fitting grand top-lit spaces onto the site of brewers’ yards and narrow houses — the grain of medieval London that could be a corner of their native Ghent. Their interventions show a confidence of where to be strong and where to be weak: the old ground floor reading room is strengthened into a rectangular room with deep rooflights pierced in the four corners; the misalignments of the two buildings are enjoyed in the stepping walls and diagonal movement of the foyer running across the width. The incidental is elevated from a tactic to a principle: rooms perforated and linked at the corners form a gently dynamic enfilade in which art is at the centre of the walls and movement is at the edges. 

001 whitechapel gallery london © filip dujardin

001 whitechapel gallery london © Filip Dujardin

Whitechapel Gallery, London — Image: Filip Dujardin

In Bordeaux, for the city archives (2010-15), they start with the masonry shell of a 19th-century warehouse, a fire-damaged remnant of the port infrastructure in an area in headlong development: they make three interventions in and around this shell. The new office wing and pergola define two edges of a new urban garden, echoing aspects of the form and rhythm of the old stone shell: the double pitch of the pergola, the syncopated ground- and first-floor windows of the new wing. The third intervention, a shifted stack of concrete boxes built within the warehouse shell, houses the archives and at the same time shapes the reading room. Compressed between the representative facade that faces the garden and the mass of concrete and paper above, the reading room combines the intimacy of a library carrel with the grandeur of an infrastructural undercroft, and is washed in soft north light. The economical but dispersed interventions shape spaces of surprising richness, weaving personal and public time together.

‘You feel Robbrecht en Daem’s affinity with Van de Velde, shaping concrete and glass into a secular civic gesture, rooting study rhythms in the topography of the city’

At the same time as Robbrecht en Daem’s civic and commercial commissions are growing, and their office too, they adjust their focus to include the very smallest scale, with the design of a series of one-room structures. These include the woodland cabin in the Flemish Ardennes, a dovecote in the Netherlands, two viewing platforms along the canal between Boston and Lincoln, and an exhibition pavilion at Middelheim sculpture park, at the edge of Antwerp.

Het Huis (the House, 2010-12) is at the edge of a woodland clearing, where shaded walks give way to lawns and topiary. It is a rectangular tent of pale grey-green painted steel, cut open by a series of deep gashes, which deform the singular, blank shed into a chain of four rooms of varying dimension, offering backdrops and oblique views. The plate steel walls and roof are stiffened by fine steel ribs; reprised by the fine lattice of steel flats that line the cuts, the structure like an assemblage of slender branches. The pavilion plays with conventions of naturalism, interposing an artfully basic architecture between park and handwork.

043 het huis middelheim © filip dujardin

043 het huis middelheim © filip dujardin

Het Huis, Middelheim Park — Image: Filip Dujardin

The crafted small-scale projects are a calculated antidote to the pressures of politics and contracting. But some absences in the practice’s portfolio are more accidental. The Drawing Center at Ground Zero in New York and the adaptation of the Udarnik theatre in Moscow both falter in the face of growing intolerance for liberal culture — populist in the States and authoritarian in Russia. Large foreign projects call for a bit of stadium rock — a claim to specialism, an aura to impress potential funders, the rhetorical confidence to play the media. Robbrecht en Daem’s strategic confidence, their nuanced articulation of part and whole, the culturally rich physicality of their buildings, are perhaps not easily exported without being adulterated. With only intermittent international forays, their work is instead shaped by the ambitions, rivalries and inexhaustibly surprising sites of the cities of the Flemish region.

They have been unconscionably slow to make a dent in their native city. Forty years, just a handful of buildings in Ghent. Beyond an old fortification line, in an area of factories and workers’ housing, their own offices (2005-07) are an adaptation of an old wood warehouse. The architects have teased open the large-span roof, cutting new rooflights and uncovering several bays at the end; a pool sits under the open area, greenery sits in the covered volume of the hall. On one side of the hall is the shallow office building, where the light catches the pale birch ply of walls and ceiling, and pools on the intense, dark polished concrete floor. The project’s combination of focus and disintegration is a very personal reflection on this city of many edges, and on the condition of place in mobile times. 

031 offices r&d © filip dujardin

031 offices r&d © filip dujardin

Robbrecht en Daem offices — Image: Filip Dujardin

Along the Coupure canal in Ghent is the sober Classical apartment building (1993- 97), on whose balcony glazing the line of plane trees appear as watery reflections. At the threshold to its courtyard, its delicate cornice becomes a heavy punctuated window to the sky. Lodged between two spires is the Stadshal (1996-2012), another collaboration with Marie-José van Hee, an upturned ark of wood and glass shingles. It is a forceful excavation in the mineral landscape of cobbles and towers, a scrap of meadow beneath the stones, a hovering presence that divides and links the squares around — an empty space intermittently filled by the everyday and festive life of the city.

At Henry Van de Velde’s Boekentoren (the University Library, begun in 2007), they reinterpret the master reinterpreting the city’s medieval towers. Adapting their work to his, and his to theirs, they hollow out, double up and infill with an astute eye for the existing building’s material and cultural hierarchies. You feel their affinity with the proto-Modernist architect, shaping concrete and glass into a secular civic gesture, rooting study rhythms in the topography of the city.

Kanaalhuizen 09 © kristien daem

Kanaalhuizen 09 © kristien daem

Canalside apartment block, Ghent — Image: Kristien Daem

The small cities of Flanders and the regions of Belgium exist in an uneasy but fertile relation of emulation, competition and occasional co-operation. So it is natural that having built the concert hall in Bruges, the practice would not even be shortlisted for the competition to build a new concert hall in Ghent. Yet it is also natural that having integrated 15,000m2 of new building into a medieval city, the call should come to integrate 100,000m2 of shopping centre in the medieval centre of Kortrijk. Current projects include new institutions in urban areas undergoing large-scale change. The hospital in the Cadix district in the Antwerp docks is a glass ziggurat with an expansive public plinth. Flemish public broadcaster VRT’s new headquarters in Brussels, designed with Dierendonckblancke Architecten, VK Engineering and Arup, is a faceted glass office block, with the news studio at its head, linked by a roofed yard. Despite wildly different briefs and sites, the architects’ tactics, both of organisation and of figuration, are unmistakable.

‘Latins of northern Europe, they are supple interpreters and improvisers, deploying skills squeezed out of neighbouring Puritan and Enlightenment cultures’

After 40 years of practice, by dint of both accident and choice, Robbrecht en Daem’s work has attained an unusual breadth. Theirs is a kind of general practice, or serial specialisation. Their designs for house, bank, post office, public square, concert hall, art gallery, library and archives, apartment building, shopping centre, cotton importers’ offices, hospital, TV studio, chamber music, golf club, biotech farm, brewery, garden pavilion are scattered across this region of small and medium-sized cities. Their productivity and acceptance are sparse enough that each project draws on the culture of their surroundings, strong enough that the variety of this work surpasses the accidental. An eminent but far from dominant presence in Flanders, they have the nous to operate between the expectations of institutional investors and active local government, and the literacy to further articulate urban masterplans with their buildings. They have the humility to serve existing monuments, and to make space for artists’ interventions. Their small projects translate openness into multiplicity, confidently stating a constructional theme and transgressing it until its identity is only just intact. Their institutional projects find a productive tension between generous public territories and assertive civic emblems. They tease multiplicity out of monoliths, but conversely find the underlying grammar of ragbag urban assemblages or layered histories. Gradually their work has revealed itself as a series of one-offs, bound top and tail – by the grammar of their assembly and by their collective usage – into a cross-section of urban life. Incrementally, obliquely, they have built a body of work, a patchwork city of the mind.

Petra Decouttere / Robbrecht en Daem Architecten

Petra Decouttere / Robbrecht en Daem Architecten

The cover for the firm’s monograph featuring a model of the headquarters for the broadcasters VRT — Image: Petra Decouttere / Robbrecht en Daem Architecten

Ghent University Library, 2007-ongoing

Ghent University Library — Walter Vorjohann

Ghent University Library — Walter Vorjohann

New entrance at Ghent University Library — Image: Walter Vorjohann

Originally designed in the 1930s, Henry van de Velde’s library at Ghent University with its famous Boekentoren (book tower) with three million volumes is being upgraded and restored to meet the technical and experiential demands of a modern academic library.

A remodelled entrance will create a sequence of spaces around the inner garden, including a café, reading room (top right), workspaces for a digital age and a canopied terrace (part of Van de Velde’s design but never executed). The belvedere at the top of the 64m high tower will be made fully accessible, offering new views of the city. 

Ghent university – robbrecht en daem drawings

Ghent university – robbrecht en daem drawings

Ghent University Library — click to download

Het Huis, Middelheim Park, Antwerp, 2012

004 het huis middelheim © filip dujardin

004 het huis middelheim © filip dujardin

Het Huis, Middelheim Park — Image: Filip Dujardin

Set in Middelheim Park, Het Huis is a pavilion for the display of sculpture. Its fluid footprint is enclosed in a tracery of bent and curved steel plates in a grey-green hue, echoing and blending with the lush surroundings of the park. Paths to and around Het Huis extend diagonally to the originally straight paths of the formal garden, weaving the pavilion into the landscape. Resting on a polished concrete base, the structure appears to float. Vertical recesses form entrances, dividing the space into four and admitting natural light. The difference in the height of the walls generates a complex, composite roof geometry which, with its boxed ceiling, unifies the interior.

Het huis – robbrecht en daem drawings

Het huis – robbrecht en daem drawings

Het Huis — click to download

Municipal archives, Bordeaux, 2016

011 archives bordeaux © filip dujardin

011 archives bordeaux © filip dujardin

Municipal archives, Bordeaux — Image: Filip Dujardin

The 19th-century former warehouse of the Halles aux Farines has been transformed into the municipal archives of Bordeaux, the first element of the proposed future eco-district of Bastide Niel. The site’s industrial history assumes new functional and conceptual meanings: storerooms, where the archive boxes are housed, occupy the same location where goods were previously stacked. Individual concrete boxes slide into a cantilever above the reading room, making the presence of documents and archive material palpable. A new perpendicular volume houses associated functions such as reception, exhibition space, educational workshops and auditorium on the ground floor, with offices and a restaurant on first-floor level. Offices and the reading room overlook a publicly accessible landscaped courtyard.

Municipal archives robbrecht en daem drawings

Municipal archives robbrecht en daem drawings

Municipal archives, Bordeaux — click to download

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

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