B-Architecten Draws on Modernist Archetypes for Remodel of 1930’s Belgian House
First stepping into this house in the leafy suburbs of Antwerp, Belgium, architect Dirk Engelen saw an unhappy mishmash of eras. The structure, built in 1936, had been remodeled twice, first in the 1950’s and then in the 1970’s. “The original details were lost. The huge front window was half boarded-up, and the flying staircase was very ’70’s,” he recalls.
Nevertheless, the composition of pure volumes remained beautiful. “The original architect, Nachman Kaplansky, was a Polish émigré who did really accomplished modernist work in the ‘30’s,” Engelen explains. He’s knowledgeable about the subject because, as one of three founding partners of B-Architecten, he has carved out a niche repurposing 20th-century structures with great flair. His friend Olga Pérez, who had purchased the house with her husband, had the background to appreciate the house’s essential qualities, too: A trained designer, she was busy opening a children’s concept store. (She’s now in the process of starting a venture called ByPerez.)
Pérez would hatch ideas, then pass them on to Engelen. “The challenge of the project was to express all the client requirements in a high-end contemporary design that still allowed the original architecture to speak,” he says, adding that he felt spurred on by Kaplansky’s spirit. “He pushed us, as architects, to try to achieve the same level of quality.” Consulting Kaplansky’s drawings, however, confirmed that there was nothing of his interior left, save the old radiators. Engelen stripped out everything else, including the partition walls, resulting in an open-plan 6,400 square feet on three levels.
What the drawings did reveal was an art deco interior with ocean-liner styling that included a curved staircase, accommodated by a bowed wall. Both the stair and the wall had been obliterated long ago, but Pérez suggested adding a nautiluslike staircase reminiscent of Le Corbusier. “It wasn’t in the original drawings, of course, but it breathes the same air,” Engelen says. Another addition in the Kaplansky mode is the large porthole window cut out of a wall near the entry.
On the front elevation, meanwhile, the windows had once stretched 16 feet tall. Engelen not only reopened the partially boarded-up apertures but also replaced the ugly aluminum frames with perfectly detailed steel versions made in accordance with 1930’s specifications. Steel likewise frames an accordion door added to the living area for direct access to the large rear garden—an indoor-outdoor connection being high on Pérez’s list of goals for the remodel.
The living and dining spaces gained a new heart in the form of a fireplace standing between them. Flooring on most of the ground level is travertine. In a dramatic contrast, the pale stone changes to richly flecked black terrazzo in the kitchen, her favorite part of the house. “It’s like a cave, a great place to focus on cooking,” she says. To increase the kitchen’s square footage, Engelen had moved the exterior wall 20 inches, painstakingly dismantling and rebuilding the brickwork. “As seen from the garden, this expansion actually improves the composition of volumes,” he comments.
Upstairs presents another story of contrasts. Four bedrooms intended for children—the couple’s young son and daughter as well as older ones from a previous marriage—are quite simple compared to the opulent master suite. Its dressing room features purple fabric-covered closet doors and, for a vanity, a jaw-dropping round pedestal table supporting round mirrors that can revolve like reflective planets. The common thread is that everything is bespoke: from the master bathroom’s tiled tub, another tip of the hat to Le Corbusier, and the modular plywood furniture in the children’s rooms right down to the egg-shape doorknobs.
Enlarging upstairs windows improved the view of the garden, given a rambling, almost wild look by native plants and grasses. At the bottom of the garden, stepping stones cross a new pond to reach a pavilion in board-formed concrete. This ground-up structure—something of a novelty for B-Architecten, with its focus on rejuvenating tired mid-century designs—contains a large skylit space at one end of which stands a concrete partition concealing a bathroom, so overnight guests can stay here. One might even think of the pavilion itself as an architectural guest, a brutalist visitor to a prewar world.
Project Team: Sarai Bervoets; Nele Boussemaere; Christophe Combes; Evert Crols; Ilse de Ridder; Christoph Fischer; Sven Grooten: B-Architecten. Bart & Pieter Garden Architects: Landscaping Consultant. Util Struktuurstudies: Structural Engineer. MCM Algemeen Bouwbedrijf: General Contractor.