This book is about a house that isn’t one. But it is also not two houses. Rather, it’s one house with multiple identities that are all inextricably intertwined. It is the result of 51N4E’s radical and generous transformation of a conventional single-family residence built almost thirty years ago in Sint-Eloois-Winkel, Belgium. Their project is radical because it achieves a maximum transformation with a minimum of means: the gutting of the interior and the walling of the exterior. And it is generous because it doesn’t replace the old house with a new one, but instead gives it a second chance to become a new house. The intervention liberates the house from its rigid domestic program and rhetoric in favor of a productive ambiguity that allows for multiple readings and uses.
While the house continues to serve as a home for its two owners, Michel Espeel and Julie Vandenbroucke, it is no longer singularly devoted to this function. The spaces it offers overwrite the typological canon of the residential house. Some spaces layer atmospheres by combining different functions, like the bathroom-cumcloset or the office-cum-workshop on the second floor. Other spaces are programmed in ways unorthodox for a house. Tucked discretely under the attic, the living room has no direct access to the garden, which is a must-have for the detached single-family house. The shower provides another example; theatrically staged outdoors, it circumvents all routine ways of using a normal shower. Yet other spaces challenge preconceived notions of living by their openness of meaning. The large space on the ground floor, for instance, is not exactly a living room. In fact, it’s not even a room to begin with; it’s just a void that connects the front and back of the house and invites the outdoor space inside. The newly created exterior spaces around the house —no doubt its most astonishing aspect— represent a kind of space largely unexplored within the context of European residential housing. This inhabitable threshold between the interior and exterior of the house is reminiscent of the Engawa, the in-between space of traditional Japanese houses. Neither a terrace nor a courtyard nor a pathway, the space is enclosed by white walls that block the view to the surrounding landscape, provoking one’s imagination to conjure up images of that which is there but cannot be seen.
All these deviations from the conventional spatial routines of the single-family residence make it impossible for the owners and their visitors to feel indifferent about the house. To use it means to re-invent it and to appropriate it daily with different wants and wishes.
The open-ended character of the house is a clear inspiration for this book. Rather than describing the residence, this book continues the project of the house by emulating its driving logic: to open up solid configurations, destabilize fixed meanings, and avoid routine by giving choices and taking chances. The book is therefore about the transformation of the house: the architectural transformation by 51N4E that enabled it to become what it is now, as well as, and perhaps more importantly, the future transformation(s) that it will inspire. To this end, a number of people from the disciplines of art, architecture, photography, theater, and graphic design were invited to spend time in the house. First, theywere invited to visit the house with the owners, and later, they stayed there all by themselves to engage with it in their own idiosyncratic ways. Each contribution in this book is the result of an individual stay in the house. The time that all the authors spent at the house ties this book together; what makes it unique is that each contribution reflects its author’s individual reading of the residence. Together, they present an eclectic cross section of the house, a reading that oscillates between references that are concrete and those that aremore abstract and obscure. In that sense, the book doesn’t tell you what the house really is. Instead,
it confronts you with possible perceptionsof the house, so that you can discover your own take on it. Imagine you’ve been invited to the house of a friend who is not there. Just make yourself at home.
Text Ilka & Andreas Ruby