Cloaked by a wall of trees, this house in Zuidzande combines a compact, robust concrete tower with a delicate and ascetic living space
Mrs Lyttelton can’t have a fortress and large windows too.
Sir Edwin Lutyens, in a letter to his wife, Emily, 11 April 1899
Every building, James Gowan has argued, can be read as a variant or hybrid of two essential types: the castle (closed, secretive and timeless) and the pavilion (open, extrovert and fashionable). Most, no doubt, are hybrids and that is certainly the category to which we should assign the house that the Belgian architect Marie-José Van Hee has built just over the border in the Dutch province of Zeeland. Yet, a common cross-breed this is not. Comprising two distinct parts, each representative of one pole of Gowan’s duality, the design might better be seen in terms of an exercise in compositional schizophrenia.
Van Hee’s client embarked on the project having spent the preceding 20 years travelling the world on business. Approaching 50, he was in a position to retire and keen to return to the rural area he had grown up in. When the longstanding owner of a farm outside the village of Zuidzande died, he bought the 1.2ha plot from the farmer’s family. It had a house and barn, both dating from mid 19th century, but its main attraction lay in the mature trees which formed a barrier against coastal winds around the perimeter of the site and which were peppered liberally within it.
The modest and dilapidated house was inadequate to the new owner’s needs so he elected to demolish it and commission Van Hee to design a replacement. The old house stood close to the road but Van Hee opted to site the new one at the back left-hand corner of the plot. The entrance gates stand at the opposing corner. Driving through, you track the long flanking wall of the barn before encountering the new house, on axis, as you turn through 90 degrees at its far end. There is a parking area alongside the barn, a short walk from the front door of the house: an arrangement that is mildly inconvenient when shopping has to be unloaded but which proves crucial in enabling the house to maintain a direct relationship to its magnificent garden. The absence of an integrated garage also helps keep the house’s scale in check. A planning stipulation set the building’s maximum volume at 850 cubic metres. Van Hee has expanded its capacity through the provision of a substantial basement level with a store, utility area and ground source heat pump but its dimensions remain far from lavish.
The design’s dual nature is evident at first sight. A diminutive three-storey tower of in-situ concrete summons you forward, the entrance signalled clearly by its accommodation within a gated recess at its base. In an area dominated by two-storey brick and timber buildings with pitched roofs, the decision to build tall proved a source of inevitable controversy but the tower is effectively screened from the wider world by the wall of trees that extends behind it. House and trees are of much the same height, and so too is the high-roofed barn with the effect that the new building reads as the focal element of a charged ensemble rather than a mere stand-alone incident.
Vertical, compact and robust, the tower houses an entrance hall and two floors of bedrooms and bathrooms before giving onto a high parapeted roof terrace. However, on the garden-facing south side, Van Hee has accommodated the living spaces in a wing of markedly opposed expression. Of only a single storey and an expansive and rangy plan, this structure monitors the landscape by way of a long, full-height wall of glazed doors, elsewhere being faced in black-stained timber boards.
The contrast between the house’s two parts is pronounced but not absolute. Black-stained boarding has been deployed sparingly on the tower − to form a projecting bay above the entrance and as a side panel to some of the larger windows − while concrete extends around the living wing in the form of a base that raises its floor 800mm above the garden. In the development of the freestanding ground floor fireplace into a chimney extending up one of the tower’s corners, Van Hee has also provided a strong gestural link. The enigmatic faceted extrusion that bulks out the chimney’s lower half answers no practical requirement but plays a vital function in cultivating the formal relationship between the two parts. The chimney rises from the fulcrum of the lower element’s Y-shaped plan and its twisting action appears to set the pin-wheel spinning. As you walk in the garden, it also presents an invitation to circulate around the house, discovering the constantly shifting relationship of the two parts as you do so.
You find yourself making a similar circular progression repeatedly − if in more compact form − once inside. The front door is at 90 degrees to the main approach, setting up an entrance sequence that involves you spiralling back on yourself as you make your way into the living area. The ground-floor plan is organised by a number of freestanding figures around which you are also required to circulate − the fireplace (which divides the living and dining areas), a pantry (dividing the dining area and kitchen), as well as a central 10-seater dining table of Van Hee’s design. There is a powerful sense of equivalence between this arrangement and that of the naturalistically planted landscape visible outside. Both are open and determinedly non-axial: territories that you traverse by weaving, whether around trees or architectural incidents.
The little lift that extends from the basement to the tower’s second floor is another such incident. A narrow oak stair wraps around it, its progress registered externally by a loose array of tightly dimensioned, frameless and deep-set windows.
Throughout the interior, a level of craft is in evidence that may be at odds with the industrialised culture of contemporary Dutch architecture but which is highly characteristic of Van Hee’s work and that of many of her Flemish compatriots. There is a spirit of asceticism at play: catalogue bought ironmongery has been eschewed in favour of integrated timber handles, a TV and stereo system have been concealed behind doors, walls are finished in a clay-based product with no skirting and left pointedly free of art. Yet such is the interior’s relationship to the encompassing garden that it feels neither bare, nor − despite the often very compact planning − unduly mean. The Smithsons described their Solar Pavilion as no more than a wardrobe designed to facilitate a life lived out of doors; this little house shares something of that inclination. The lifestyle that Van Hee’s client envisaged it supporting has, however, been significantly upended by the unexpected arrival of a new relationship that has produced two young children. What is now the uppermost bedroom was initially designed as a library and cigar room and the client is now considering the possibility of converting the barn to provide further accommodation. Grubby little fingers are putting some of Van Hee’s more exacting details to the test but the house has largely taken these new demands in its stride, revealing itself as an idyllic, much-loved family home.
House in Zuidzande
Architect: Marie-Jose Van Hee Architecten
Photographs: David Grandorge