Bruges may be best known for its centuries-old stepped-gable structures edging cobblestoned streets and narrow canals, and for its urban squares enclosed by idiosyncratic Gothic and Flemish Renaissance buildings. Nonetheless, the small Belgian port has produced at least one architecture firm that leans not to the earthy romanticism of the medieval picturesque, but to the transcendent romanticism of the Modern Movement.
Benny Govaert and his partner, Damiaan Vanhoutte, who founded a practice in Bruges in 1989, have adhered to the crisp geometries of modern pioneers such as Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier since their architectural studies at the Higher Architecture Institute in Ghent. “We also love Richard Neutra's and Rudolf Schindler's California houses in the Hollywood era,” adds Vanhoutte. In recent years the two architects have attracted attention for their poured-concrete, low-rise, rectilinear volumes found in the D-Hotel in nearby Marke (2009), and the award-winning visitors center for the World War I Tyne Cot Cemetery (2008), near Ypres.
Govaert longed to live in a house of his own design, and fortunately his wife, Martine Neirinck, was sympathetic: as a photographer and the architects' office manager she was at home with Govaert & Vanhoutte's unswerving allegiance to minimal and austere geometries. Govaert found a narrow 230-by-99-foot slice of land in a sylvan residential area on the outskirts of the historic city for which he would design a 2,874-square-foot house for his family, including a young son and daughter. Responding to the grassy, tree-studded property, the architect-client opted for the ineffable transparency and translucency of glass that would make the house dissolve into its natural setting. “As a starting point I placed the long [168 feet] and narrow [23 feet] glass box against a wood back wall at the northeast edge of the property,” he says. The living areas face south and west onto the tree-shaded lawn through an expansive, floor-to-ceiling wall of glass.
In his desire to keep the rectangular form intact, Govaert carved into the overall volume in three places: First he cut a large notch for the driveway to the underground garage; then he took a slice out of the northwest corner to create a lap pool that skims past the bedroom wing; and finally he made a small incision between the bedroom wing and the rear wood wall for a back entrance.
The architect wanted to retain the flat, horizontal roof plane at a 14-foot height above-ground for the full length of the steel-frame house. In order to fit bedrooms and a family room into the single volume, he created two levels, with a lower one (containing the master bedroom and the family room) sunk a half-level below grade. Since this bedroom wing jogs 6 feet back to accommodate the lap pool, not only does the lower level receive light, but it has an intriguing view overlooking the water's edge.
As you enter the house views unfold: From the street you see only a glass end bay of the kitchen, a driveway, and the narrow profile of the whitened African teak back wall. The “front door”—actually a floor-to-ceiling narrow panel in the wood wall—opens into a glazed vestibule bridging the driveway. Stepping into the kitchen/dining area, you are drawn visually to the smooth, flat lawn through 9-by-13½-foot glass panels attached to bladelike steel columns.
The legendary Modernist compulsion to align all joints according to severely meticulous arithmetic measurements is much in evidence: You may notice the generous basalt floor pavers (3 by 4½ feet) line up precisely with the butt-jointed glass walls; the length of the dining table (12 feet) echoes the width of the kitchen's service block. We could go on.
From the dining area, you are pulled into the living room, where a concrete chimney wall floats above the fireplace hearth. (A steel beam perpendicular to the suspended wall carries the load to the poured-concrete substructure of the family room a half-level down.) Descending a stair's metal treads cantilevered from the perimeter wall, you find yourself in a family room that soars to a 21-foot height. “I wanted to emphasize extreme horizontal and vertical spaces in the house,” Govaert says. The master bedroom behind the family room is smaller and more secluded. It, too, overlooks the lap pool.
By ascending a ramp from the living room, you can find the bedrooms of the son and daughter each individually decorated—and awash in colorful art and personal objects. While Govaert intended the rear wall to be solid for the full length of the house, with the glass bar extruded from it, he cut out a large glazed opening in this taut wood plane on the east side of the ramp. “Actually, I didn't want to puncture the wall with an opening,” says the architect. “But Martine insisted, and she's right. It brings more light and view to the family room.”
Back in Bruges, bridges replace modern ramps; cobblestones substitute for basalt pavers, and stone and brick abound, rather than glass. There is much to marvel at in the city's rich architectural stew of spires, scrolls, serpentine contours, and craggy textures. Yet the memory of Benny Govaert's glass pavilion surrounded by grass and trees lingers as a soothing tonic: ethereal, elegant, and transporting.
Completion Date: February 2010
Size: 2,874 square feet
Total construction cost: withheld
Location: Belgium, Bruges (Sint-Andries) Doornstraat 292a
Koningin Astridlaan 25/4
Phone: +32 50 388822
Fax: +32 50 392314
Owner: Benny Govaert and Martine
Personnel in architect's firm who should receive special credit:
Interior designer: Govaert&Vanhoutte Architects
Engineer(s): Claeys Engineering Bvba
General contractor: Eddy De Mey Oostende
Photographer(s): Tim Van De Velde
CAD system, project management, or other software used: AutoCad
Manufacturer of any structural components unique to this project: Eddy De Mey
Concrete slabs: Eddy De Mey
Curtain wall: Coco bvba
Metal doors: Lootens Line
Sliding doors: Lootens Line
Paints and stains: Paul Van Menen
Floor and wall tile: Vloeren Franssens Beernem
Carpet: BIC carpets
Tables: Fabiaan Van Severen
Other furniture: Living Divani