Those, like us, who have a weakness for crude concrete architecture, will like the work of Juliaan Lampens (1926-2019). The powerful roughness of the concrete of the volumes of the Belgian architect is inescapable when one passes in front of two of his most famous buildings, both close to Ghent: the chapel of Notre-Dame de Kerselare, in the village of Edelare, and the Van Wassenhove house in Sint-Martens -Latem.
However, when you dig a little deeper into Lampens’ life and work, it quickly becomes clear that there is more to his architecture than brutalism in numbers. Belgian curator Angelique Campens has studied Lampens’ work since her university days and knows him well. The architect had a reputation for being reserved, keeping his things to himself to the point of avoiding contact with his colleagues. He hasn’t even traveled much, reveals Campens. “But he had a lot of books. He admired Oscar Niemeyer and was influenced by Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe. ‘ He may appear to have lacked the desire for architectural pilgrimage, but Lampens practiced non-stop from his base in Eke, East Flanders, from 1950 until the construction of his last work in 2002, creating a legacy of around 50 projects, mainly residential, including the Eke Chapel and Library.
Lampens was born in 1926 in De Pinte and grew up in the nearby town of Eke, the son of a cabinetmaker. After working as a technical draftsman, he studied architecture in Ghent and started his own business right after graduation, starting it with orders from his father’s bourgeois clientele. While following a more conventional design style at first, he nurtured an interest in modernism. “His visit to the 1958 Universal Exhibition in Brussels was a turning point for him,” Campens explains. “Soon after, his designs changed dramatically. He thought Le Corbusier was too sculptural and Mies too structured, but he wanted to combine the two.
Released from the original film in Wallpaper * 133, April 2010, featuring the Chapel of Our Lady of Kerselare, in the village of Edelare
Lampens’ first modern design was his own house and office in Eke, built in 1960. The house, a simple low box with a sturdy horizontal roof of concrete slabs and wooden details, was a taste of things to come. come. Testing the idea of lightness, the architect created the structure almost without load-bearing walls, based on a grid of steel posts. Glazed with the exception of a brick wall concealing it from the street, the house visually connects to the exterior at the rear and is wide open to the interior, with bare brick and concrete exposed. For the region at the time, Lampens’ approach was radical. The intimacy of the street, a connection with the natural environment, the use of exposed raw materials and an open-plan interior have become recurring themes in his work. Lampens also paid special attention to the smaller details of concrete architecture, such as the roof drains, which he described as “functional ornaments.”
The commission for the Notre-Dame de Kerselare chapel followed soon after the completion of the Lampens house. However, the design with which he won the 1961 competition – with Professor Rutger Langaskens, one of his former teachers – was very different from what you see today. After winning, Lampens reworked the building, making it so altered from the original and so alien to the neighborhood that when pouring concrete, passers-by thought it would be a silo. Despite this, and with the support of the outgoing pastor, the high-ceilinged chapel – resembling a giant concrete bucket – opened in 1966. It featured custom-made concrete benches (currently removed), a large wall of glass and a central concrete skylight, while the single sloping roof provided external shelter for the congregation.
It was the chapel’s large untreated surfaces that led many to label Lampens as a brutalist, a label he never accepted. “He never felt part of a group,” says Campens. The chapel and his house in Eke were milestones in Lampens’ career. Part of his aloof, though good-natured character, is reflected in esoteric, yet sturdy and surprisingly open conceptions; shy on the street, they’re welcoming once you’re inside. Certainly, they have earned him many new orders.
The Van Wassenhove house in Sint-Martens-Latem. Propagation of the original functionality in Wallpaper * 133, April 2010
Among these, the Van Wassenhove residence, completed in 1974. The teacher Albert Van Wassenhove, admiring the Kerselare chapel, asked Lampens for a similar house. In response, and taking into account the limited views of the plot, the architect created an irregular raw concrete volume, blind on both sides and semi-buried in a hill. For the fluid interior, as for other projects, Lampens designed furniture – chairs, tables and lounge chairs – all simple and mostly in wood.
Lampens’ most daring work is the Vandenhaure-Kiebooms house in Huise, completed in 1967. The client, Gérard Vandenhaute, hoped for a house that pushed the boundaries. His wish was granted. Designed along the usual Lampens lines – a minimal single-level glass box topped by a flat thick concrete roof – the house is without pillars or walls inside; even the bathroom is open to the rest of the interior, privacy being ensured only by a cylindrical concrete partition at shoulder height. In a play of transparency and openness, the only other fixed element is the kitchen. The roof rests on a solid concrete wall facing the street and on two steel pillars on the opposite side.
Sketches of everything from small details to larger concepts, Lampens has produced hundreds of drawings throughout his career, signing each and every one. Yet he never cherished paper architecture. “He called it ’embryonic’ architecture. For him, the drawings were secondary. The construction work remained the important thing, ”says Campens. Today, these drawings are kept in the Eke library, where the Juliaan Lampens Foundation takes care of its archives, managed among others by his son Dieter Lampens and Campens.
Lampens’ experimental and concrete architectural work remains largely unexplored. A group show in Brazil that he took part in years ago is probably his only appearance outside of Belgium. But there remains a dedicated local audience for his idiosyncratic designs. It is telling that the owners of the houses in Lampens have lived there for a long time. Campens’ monograph on the architect was published in 2010, and in 2012 the Van Wassenhove house was bequeathed to Ghent University. Now on long-term loan to the Dhondt-Dhaenens museum in Deurle, it acquired the status of a monument in Belgium in 2017. §
A version of this article first appeared in the April 2010 issue of Wallpaper * (W * 133)