A look at three projects and their approach to an unconventional vision of architecture
Originally published in AR January 1979, this piece was republished online in July 2016
‘C’est l’exception qui est la regle generale’. This brief remark of the architect Lucien Kroll sums up his architectural approach. His most famous buildings, the living quarters of the medical students and the University of Louvain at Woluwe, now look like fragments of an old city. The visual aspect of his work initially looks totally anarchic but beneath it is a serious attempt to create buildings that do not impose on their users.
To put it mildly, Lucien Kroll’s approach to architecture is unconventional. There are no past masters to whom he turns for inspiration; his buildings derive solely from rigorous application of his own philosophy of what a building should be.
The exterior of the convent for Dominican sisters at Ottignies uses materials to suggest simplicity and humility
Kroll’s descriptions of the conventional products derived from the Modern Movement are laced with the adjectives of oppression: the administrators who commission designers are fond of ‘paramilitary models’; Pruitt-Igoe in St Louis (and developments like it) are the products of generations of ‘somewhat militaristic architects’; the dark glazed windows on the wall of a contemporary office presents a ‘fascist facade’. ‘The programme called for separate rooms. We made them completely regular, like ruled metric paper, and in the facade we used reflecting glass like the sunglasses of American policemen.’
Kroll builds cheaply, using man’s most basic building materials. He has a fondness for artificial slate roofing tiles-mostly the kind made by Eternit: ‘They are cheap, very tough, they accept moss, and live with the weather’. His favourite images are of lichens and lush, succulent plant growth, of weathered rock and the haphazard placing of stones to form walls made by unskilled workers. He likes things built by man that look as if they have been there forever, absorbed into the landscape. Indeed, landscaping, designed by his wife Simone, is an integral part of any design. Scarcely a hard surface is envisaged without its future covering of ivies or virginia creeper. Kroll is striving to bring his buildings as close as possible to nature, to provide as ‘natural’ a place for fallible, unpredictable man. This explains why he sees no contradiction in building new, hard up against the old, of using concrete blocks to repair an old weathered brick wall, of using sheets of glazed skylight in the roof of an ancient timber barn. Homogeneity of form, and materials, is artificial he says. Large surfaces of brick, like the construction of formal spaces in architecture constitute the victimisation of the inhabitant by the architect. So not one of his walls will be built entirely of the same material concrete blocks and brick, of different sizes and colours, pave and slates are interspersed -frequently at the discretion of the bricklayer. Stones from the earth run up the wall; roof tiles run down to meet them. It is Kroll’s way of building organically, of trying to create buildings that do not impose themselves on their occupants, that relate to people.
The large barn at the farm at Froidment has been converted into a church by the simple device of turning the roof into a large skylight
Kroll is at pains to gather the commitment of both the future occupants of his buildings and the workers on his sites and involve them all in the design and construction of the new building. He is anxious that people should get the frame for living that most suits their way of life. He wants to preserve the traditions of craftsmanship and deplores trends towards heavy prefabrication and increasing specialisation.
At the University of Louvain some of Kroll’s details live up to his description of the building as ‘a natural creation of rocks with worn edges’
For all his care for those who will use his buildings, Lucien Kroll is not popular in Belgium. His views are understandably at variance with those of the establishment. At first sight, his best known work, the new buildings for the University of Louvain at Woluwe on the outskirts of Brussels are a complete jumble, their facades a totally disordered (one might say anarchic) collection of brick, glass, grills, balconies, grey tiles, staircases. The authorities dislike them so much that in 1977 they dismissed Kroll as architect. They have threatened to tear them down, and have already destroyed the planting which was beginning to climb up the buildings. But Kroll’s design is ingenious. Inside the residences, rooms on a variety of levels have been designed to be shared by students in small self-contained units, centred around a staircase. The bedrooms have all been designed to give direct access to a private balcony or terrace outside; internally walls can be built or taken down to give more or less rooms. They are flexible, adaptable, the sun comes in in the right places, and they are great fun to be in. Many of the principles that governed this design are repeated in the more recent house for Mr and Mrs Sperling illustrated here. There is an inherent contradiction in Kroll’s approach to architecture. For the buildings he has designed all bear the unmistakable stamp, the trademarks of Lucien Kroll, architect. By virtue of his belief in what architecture should be and his skill as a designer, he cannot but impose his view on society or manipulate those who use his buildings. The involvement of his users and builders notwithstanding, are the buildings he produces anymore the product of spontaneous, organic growth than Buckingham Palace? It is a dilemma that he is aware of. But that Kroll can indeed bring about a successful ecological marriage between new and old building and natural vegetation can be seen in his project for the Dominican Fathers at Froidment; that he has won the hearts of his users is apparent in the remark of the Dominican sister at the convent at Ottignies, who, despite reservations about the materials and details of the building, said: ‘When we moved in, we felt at home immediately. He did exactly what we wanted in his completely original way.’
Convent for Dominican Sisters, Ottignies
A series of houses grouped communally-but they are designed to divide up into separate units if the convent community dwindles.
Rising along a slope in the midst of a pine wood are two buildings, centred around a small, mounded garden. This is a convent for a group of elderly Dominican sisters, completed by Kroll in late 1975. In briefing Kroll, the sisters wished to avoid the image of power conventionally associated with a convent. They were also aware of themselves as a dying breed. They wished to create a physical arrangement for communal living that could gradually be given over to other uses as their numbers- originally 13, now 11-dwindled. Kroll has designed a series of units that can be sealed off, one at a time, to provide a group of individual houses in future. The materials once again, local brick, concrete blocks, rough castings that have been left rough and lozenge shaped Eternit tiles- were specified not only for their cheapness but for an appearance of poverty. Internally there is more of the detailing one associates with Kroll: the corridors are staggered, to appear shorter; felt carpeting from inside a room curves out into that of the corridor. The open tread pine staircases are here; so are fireplaces and chimney breasts of exposed brickwork. Once again skylights have been used to give effect to important rooms. The chapel, in the basement, away from domestic circulation is lit by a huge window and glass roof from the entrance. Much of the roof of the double height main meeting hall is glazed. Old oak doors from vast antique wardrobes used in the former convent have been used in the dormitory wing for cupboard doors.
A Kroll trick-floor surfaces that leak from one space to another.
Double height main meeting hall.
Dominican house, Froidment
Froidment is a former fortified farm that has been converted to provide a church for the village of Brabant, to the south of Brussels, and a permanent home for about 25 Dominican priests and nuns. The similarity of plan and form between the farm and the ancient design of monasteries made the conversion particularly sympathetic. In the north the grange barn became the church, the central farmyard, the cloister, the chapter house is in a former cowshed to the east, rooms for guests in the old farmhouse to the west. The stable became the refectory.
South facade of the residential block.
This is no ordinary monastery. The priests and nuns do not wear habits and they live communally with two families with children. The ‘guest rooms’ represent conference accommodation for groups of 30. The library (which specialises in the eighteenth century religious thought of Liege) is also the village’s public library. The public footpath which ran through the centre of the farmyard has been retained.
The Dominicans did not want the farm and its extensions to look new or luxurious. So traces of whitewash remain on the old warm bricks. It blends-unexpectedly well- with the concrete blockwork of the new, rounded library. The barn, built in 1773, was converted almost instantaneously into a church by the brilliant device of putting a huge skylight into the roof. This immediately focuses attention on the altar in the centre of the barn while creating a feeling of height and space. Seating is on a series of wide steps. Rope mesh hung on timber struts forms the edge of the balcony, around three sides of the central area. The church is almost embarrassingly popular.
Old farm buildings are now guest rooms and adjoin the community’s residential building.
The most extensive area of new building is the residential block built above the old stable. The facade facing the courtyard and roofline have been preserved; to the south, the facade is completely new. Each person has two levels on which to live: a double height sitting room with private balcony or terrace and a smaller bedroom above. No new bricks were bought for the job and the original was conserved as far as was economical. Inside, new areas are of white painted blockwork, floors and ceilings are concrete. Eternit tiles are on the roof. Finishes throughout are extremely simple. In all, the whole succeeds in suggesting that it has been there for ever, a part of the landscape and the community which it serves.
House near Brussels
‘Organic’ landscaping breaks down the edges of buildings with stones, water and plants.
The house for Mr and Mrs Sperling is set in an eerie, blasted, almost forgotten region on the outskirts of Brussels. Until recently the land was used for growing grapes in glasshouses. Now plots are being sold for private housing. But acres of gently rolling slopes are still covered with glasshouses. The empty ones reveal lengths of obscene tubing and bare vines; where grapes are ripening the glasshouses seem stuffed with green. There is not a tree in sight.
Detail of balcony railing outside each of the living rooms in the community house.
A mixture of old and new simplicity indoors.
Into this Kroll has set a tall box of a house, the outside clad in a mixture of light grey Eternit tiles, blockwork and brick. The pitched roof is dominated by a giant glass skylight. The house is planned around a central lightwell containing the hall and staircase beneath the roof tight. The house is designed in the round, with rooms going off to the left of the staircase as you move up the house. Practically every room is at a slightly different level, dug out from differing levels of earth so that, cleverly, all living areas and rooms that need direct access out of doors (the garage, kitchen, dining, living rooms) have a terrace. The dining room terrace faces south, the living room west, the kitchen east.
The exterior of the Sperling house is simple, almost conventional.
The central stair is clearly articulated.
The staircase is Kroll’s standard: open tread pine. The colours tor the woodwork are good and strong: yellow, green, maroon. Walls are exposed block work and brick; floors and landings are quarry tiled; living rooms are felt carpeted. The dominant impression is of a simple, unpretentious house, filled with sunlight.
Top lit sunny staircase is painted in strong colours.
There are slight changes of level between rooms.