When History Becomes Form

By Joan Ockman
Our relationship to the architectural modernity of the last 150 years grows increasingly attenuated. How much has changed in just a few decades! Buildings once touted for their absolute newness survive in our sprawling, chaotic cities like ageing grandparents, posing irksome problems: how to maintain them? how to afford them? can they accommodate contemporary needs? can we contrive new uses to justify their existence? is not the ground they occupy too valuable not to exploit otherwise? what obligations do we have to this patrimony anyway?

The practice of historic preservation (conservation, as it is better known in Europe) relies on a host of highly sophisticated technologies, which often become the focus of preservationists’ attentions. Digital imaging, rapid prototyping, advances in materials science – these are the future of the past. They promise greater accuracy, greater authenticity and, in themselves, little in the way of ideas. We accumulate data, but our knowledge is ever more archival and less empathic, superficial rather than bred in the bone. Meanwhile a burgeoning heritage industry has found ways to turn what used to be literally and figuratively a conservative field into a lucrative engine of development, creating a market for new forms of architectural tourism and spectacle. Despite lingering nostalgia for values that no longer obtain much today – social idealism, say, or high-quality craftsmanship – we place trust in our superior techniques and protocols. We scrupulously expose the seams between the old and new bricks on the façade; we employ environmentally correct procedures; we even build reversibility into the system of intervention, hedging our bets (‘do no harm!’). But the reflex to preserve anything with antiquarian value (and maybe add a visitors’ centre to it) cancels out deeper reflection on our relationship to history, and on the embeddedness of our work in history.
"If I wrote a book called The World as I Found It, I should have to include a report on my body, and should have to say which parts were subordinate to my will, and which were not..." ¹
Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 1921

‘I have always been deeply interested in history’ ³

The work of Robbrecht en Daem architecten is a rare exception. Since the 1970s the Ghent firm has devoted a good portion of its practice to giving new life to historical buildings, and over the past decade it has applied its creative and conceptual acumen to works by significant 20th-century architects. Among those with whom it has undertaken a dialogue are Victor Horta, Henry van de Velde and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. While it is increasingly sought after for commissions and collaborations of this sort – and the architecture of the ‘masters’ is just a subset of its portfolio of historical projects, which also encompass a number of vernacular and other older structures4 – what is unconventional in Robbrecht en Daem’s approach is its profoundly dialogic conception of history. ‘Adaptive reuse’ is far too banal a term to describe it. Instead, the architects treat historical buildings very much the way they treat the buildings they design for displaying art, which are another long-standing focus of their practice, probably the one for which they are best known. As Paul Robbrecht has put it, the primary objective – or object – of their exhibition buildings is the art: ‘to make the presence of art palpable and tangible’.5 By the same token, the object of their historical buildings is the architecture of the past: to give earlier architecture a presence again, to make it apprehensible under new circumstances.

Robbrecht prefers to call this attitude to the architectural art of the past ‘as found’, meaning that it involves a process of discovery. It is not an accident that Alison and Peter Smithson, who were among the first architects to adopt such an attitude in the 1950s, were an important early inspiration for him. Historical buildings come down as givens, pieces of the past that are full of contingencies and specificities. They are also gifts for those who know how to establish a rapport with them across time. Rather than found objects, they might better be described, in fact, as found sites. While still retaining vestiges of their original context (which has often transformed drastically around them), historical buildings possess a singularity, even a strangeness, like islands in a stream. It is this quality – this autonomy – that the architect is called upon to engage and to redeem. Yet how to do so when the problem is to recontextualise them, to integrate them into the 21st-century city?

Cities today are caught up in processes of ever more rapid change. ‘We are the generation that has urban chaos as its normal field of activity’, Robbrecht and Daem state.6 In the 1960s, in The Architecture of the City, Aldo Rossi – another formative influence on their generation of Flemish architects – could still speak of ‘permanences’ in the urbanscape, monuments that retained an atemporal presentness even as their functions became obsolescent. For the Italian architect this conferred a special status on them as repositories of the city’s collective memory.7 Today, however, such sites are more fragile, more exposed to the vicious levelling mechanisms of contemporary civilization. Urban memory is shorter and shallower. The encounter with history requires extraordinary sensitivity and sensibility. To update older places is often to compromise their fundamental integrity, or – no less tragic – to make them into simulacra of themselves. ‘The task of the architect in any renovation or conversion is to find a balance between the reality of the space as found and the dynamics of the project which seeks to renew and define it’, Robbrecht writes. Yet as he acknowledges, ‘There is an unavoidable element of harshness in this process...for it entails the denial of the purpose for which the building was originally conceived, of the life that formerly went on inside it.’8

Without arbitrariness

In the course of their work on 20th-century architecture, Robbrecht en Daem has concerned itself with a wide gamut of styles ranging from art nouveau to high modernism to post-Second World War brutalism. In every case, however, the project has involved an intensive search for something specific rather than a preconceived aesthetic interpretation. Every building becomes a unique, material instance, even as the architects’ working method remains remarkably consistent. For this reason their own aesthetic is difficult to categorise; it is resistant to the latest fashions and to ‘correct’ ideological discourses. If both their buildings and their written explanations tend toward the laconic, they are careful to avoid minimalist clichés and to shun preciosity. They simplify without oversimplifying. They leaven high seriousness with concessions to everyday life. They grant history its ironies, even welcome them.

Among Robbrecht en Daem’s first projects for a historically notable building was the expansion of the Whitechapel Gallery in London’s East End. Designed by Charles Harrison Townsend in 1895–9 and opened in 1901, the gallery has been a venue for a number of landmark exhibitions over the course of its lifetime. Among these, appropriately enough in the present context, was the 1956 show This Is Tomorrow, in which a collaborative installation by the Smithsons, the photographer Nigel Henderson and the artist Eduardo Paolozzi figured prominently. A kind of fisherman’s hut, or maybe a post-apocalyptic shelter for a character out of a Samuel Beckett novel, Patio and Pavilion was an emblematic statement of both post-war Britain and of the Smithsons’ as-found philosophy. Constructed of ‘poor’ materials and decked with archaic and cast-off objects, it consciously projected an image of art brut.

The original architect of the Whitechapel Gallery, Harrison Townsend, has never enjoyed an international reputation. He was nonetheless a talented designer. His sui generis architecture gives evidence that he was working his way out of the Arts and Crafts movement of John Ruskin and William Morris and, like his contemporaries Charles Voysey and Charles Rennie Mackintosh, experimenting with a free style of expression comparable to the art nouveau on the Continent.9 The Whitechapel has a façade of light-coloured terracotta punctuated with a giant asymmetrical entrance archway and two curiously stunted towers that are ornamented with bands of shallow foliage and crowned with turrets. The pair of towers frames a recessed central panel that was intended to contain a figurative mosaic by Walter Crane but remained empty over the years. Adjoining the Townsend building is a red-brick public library built a few years earlier, quirky in a typically Victorian way and architecturally less remarkable. The Whitechapel’s acquisition of the library building enabled the gallery to double its space and led to the expansion project.

Carried out between 2003 and 2009, Robbrecht en Daem’s scheme maintains the eccentricities of the original buildings, making the street elevation into an engaging two-part reinvention. In 2012 the unfinished panel on the Townsend building temporarily became a blank canvas for the artist Rachel Whiteread, who provided an abstract sculptural relief commenting on the turn-of-the-century architecture. On the library side, a weathervane commissioned from the artist Rodney Graham provides a humorous note. Inside, the architects deftly attended to the gallery’s programmatic needs, stitching the double structure together with a new circulation system while maintaining the different identities of its parts, recalibrating skylights and other openings for optimal illumination and orientation, and shaping inviting spaces for experiencing art. Exposed brick walls, graceful ironwork trusses and slender iron columns are historical trouvailles that lend the interiors both lyricism and richness. 

Entangled complexities

The largest and undoubtedly the most challenging historical projects Robbrecht en Daem has taken on to date – both scheduled to take several more years to complete – are for building complexes by Victor Horta and Henry van de Velde. The two architects were the leading lights of the Belgian art nouveau movement at the turn of the 20th century and arch-rivals in their day. In each case the building on which Robbrecht en Daem is working – Horta in Brussels, Van de Velde in Ghent – is a late magnum opus, designed decades after the style the architects had pioneered had been superseded, and a prestigious urban monument. Apart from these commonalities, the buildings differ dramatically in the contemporary spatial and contextual problems they present.

The Horta building is the Palais des Beaux-Arts, or ‘BOZAR’, an immense, multiprogramme cultural centre on the edge of the 18th-century quartier royal. Built into a steep declivity on the slope of the Coudenberg hill, the new Center for Fine Arts steps down eight levels on an irregular and difficult site. Horta was reputedly obliged to give it a low profile so as not to obstruct the vista of the lower town from the royal palace. He began working on the project in 1920, not long after returning from a three-year sojourn in the United States of America during the First World War. Politics and budget problems kept it from moving forward for another two years, during which time the scheme underwent several redesigns. The massive concrete construction finally began coming out of the ground in 1923 and took five years to complete.

A veritable city within the city, containing large and small spaces for art exhibitions, music and theatre performances, lectures, dining and public gatherings, and originally to have had a row of shops on its main elevation on rue Ravenstein, it is a work of ‘entangled complexity’, in Horta’s own description.10 The multilevel structure is ordered according to shifting axes and viewpoints, and the galleries, chambers, stairways and ramping corridors are interwoven with almost Piranesian intricacy. The architect studied every aspect of the building ‘in the greatest detail’, from the infrastructure and acoustics to the ‘sober’ ornamentation.11

Horta’s critics have tended to view BOZAR as a regressive culmination to a career that began in the 1890s with a handful of brilliant art nouveau townhouses unprecedented in their plastic and biomorphic imagination. Yet the building not only displays the mature Horta’s prodigious skill in the handling of space and technical execution, but also harks back to the interiors of his early houses, which likewise have an involuted spatiality barely hinted at on their façades. Like the architecture of Otto Wagner, Josef Hoffmann, Peter Behrens and other originators of the fin de siècle style elsewhere on the Continent, Horta’s work took a turn in a more classical direction around 1905. By the 1920s, he was the dominant figure in the traditionalist camp in Belgium, holding prominent appointments at architectural academies in Antwerp and Brussels. In 1926 he headed the jury of the competition for the League of Nations in Geneva, where the disqualification of Le Corbusier’s entry on a technicality ultimately led to the selection of a second-rate scheme by a French academician. BOZAR’s decor alludes to Greek temples, Egyptian tombs and American art deco skyscrapers. Its geometry of triangles, rectangles and squares has been described as ‘suggestive of the early architecture of Central America or Egypt, reinterpreted by an architect imbued with the principles of classical architecture.’12 Yet the building does not lack inventiveness. Arguably, its eclecticism, which heightens the sense of serendipity as one moves through, reflects its multilayered urban context and complex program.

Although still well used and appreciated by Brussels’ citizens, BOZAR’s facilities have become outdated over the years. In 2004 a master plan for the rehabilitation of the complex was prepared by Barbara van der Wee, a specialist in preservation architecture. Robbrecht en Daem, which initially worked at BOZAR in 1996 when it installed a major Horta retrospective there, was hired to design one of the first components of the plan: a renovation of the Cinematek. A film archive, museum and projection space, awkwardly inserted into the complex in the 1960s, the Cinematek is entered from the elevation on rue Baron Horta (formerly rue de la Bibliothèque). Robbrecht en Daem excavated a new subterranean level to accommodate a large and small movie theatre. This enabled them to reclaim Horta’s original Salle de l’Art Décoratif at entry level as a reception area and an exhibition space for a wunderkammer containing materials related to the early history of cinema. The incorporation of an adjacent courtyard that backs up to the slope of the hill makes visible the archaeological remains of the old city wall, while a new glass partition separating the Cinematek from BOZAR’s main exhibition space reopens a vista that existed originally.

Future renovations, based on a more extensive master plan drawn up in 2013, will entail other fundamental alterations throughout the building as well as close attention to historical details. The alterations are to include new vertical circulation, the clustering and expansion of visitor facilities and reconfigured access to the theatre stages. Two of the larger theatres, Room M and Studio, will be transformed to accommodate contemporary types of performance. At the uppermost level, along the edge of the park, the addition of a new volume for large events is contemplated. This will free up the historical parcours inside for better flow and public usage, including a new café and a bookstore. A combination of substantial restructuring and precisionist interventions, the projected changes are intended to maintain the spirit of Horta’s architecture while enhancing the visibility of Brussels’ ‘invisible palace’.

Changing much (to appear) to change little

The demands of the project that Robbrecht en Daem is working on in its hometown differ significantly from those of BOZAR. Henry van de Velde’s central library complex at the University of Ghent is located at the highest point in the city on a site that was once a model workers’ housing district and is now an active student quarter. Van de Velde received the commission in 1935 after drawing up a series of preliminary schemes. It was mostly finished by the start of the Second World War. The focal point of the complex, which also includes an attached wing for the Faculty of Art History and Archaeology, is a monumental book tower that occupies the south-west corner of the U-shaped plan and stands 64 metres high, with 20 floors above ground and four below. Containing nothing but book stacks and a rooftop belvedere, the Boekentoren is an urban icon, originally intended to symbolise the city’s commitment to knowledge and higher learning as well as its belief in modernity. Van de Velde imagined it as the fourth point in a constellation on Ghent’s skyline together with the medieval towers of St Nicholas’s Church, St Bavo’s Cathedral and the town belfry.

At the time he designed the library Van de Velde was in his 70s and a staunch proponent of the advanced modern architecture that was now spreading around Europe and abroad. Belgium’s default Beaux-Arts aesthetic was, in his view, decadent and pedantic. From the 1920s on, he waged a battle for ‘the death of the column.’13 This caused him to be regarded with hostility by some of his countrymen (who also resented the fact that he had spent a good portion of his career working outside Belgium). His overall conception for the library complex was one of harmoniously composed, functionally determined masses. Counterpointing the vertical shaft of the book tower are three low horizontal wings housing the other library functions (reception, catalogue and reading rooms, offices) as well as the art history facilities. The building’s elevations are almost devoid of ornament except for bands of steel window frames inset into the concrete revetment. Far from the decorative excesses of his early Bloemenwerf house, the library complex is powerfully simplified. Yet Van de Velde also remained true to his Gesamtkunstwerk roots, designing every detail down to the floor patterns, furniture, doorknobs and radiator covers. Above all else, ‘beauty’ was his driving passion. Commentators on the building have focused on identifying historical precedents for the unusual typology of the book tower, but the overall juxtaposition of the tower with the lower horizontal masses, as well as other details, may be said to evoke the work of Frank Lloyd Wright.14

Van de Velde originally planned to leave the building’s béton brut façades unfaced, but the poor quality of the concrete construction prohibited this. Wartime shortages occasioned other modifications: marble replaced rubber on the floors of the tower, wood furniture was substituted for metal. Under German occupation the tower was used by soldiers as a lookout, and on their retreat parts of the complex were damaged. Additional alterations over the years, deferred maintenance and substandard conservation conditions for the library’s valuable collection of paper took a further toll. 

Civic resolve to renovate the library finally coalesced in the early 2000s. Following an open call for proposals, Robbrecht en Daem was chosen in 2006 to carry out a phased master plan. The architects’ approach to the multifaceted project is, characteristically, thoughtful and unshowy. As they stated in their initial proposal, ‘We change a lot to change nothing at all’. Recognising the urgency of protecting the book collection, they came up with the bold but invisible solution of building a state-of-the-art storage facility for the library’s most precious holdings in a three-level vault underneath the main courtyard. Another early decision, made more for aesthetic reasons, was to replace the marred and discoloured layer that faces the concrete by scraping away the building’s exterior surfaces. Robbrecht has described this laborious process as ‘monk’s work’; it might also serve as a metaphor for the firm’s general approach, which tends just as often to be subtractive as additive. Work has also been completed on a secondary entrance pavilion on the east elevation, which gives students in the art history wing direct access to an up-to-date media centre, new classrooms and an internal link to the library. Eventually a light-filled second-storey café with a canopied terrace will look across a re-landscaped courtyard to the Boekentoren. 

Overall the reshuffling of spaces is intended to respond to the needs of a 21st-century library, to revitalise the public areas of the complex and to zone off back-office functions. Future phases of work will include restoration of the original reading rooms and renovation of the belvedere at the top of the tower, which will its own separate public entrance. As at BOZAR, careful attention is being paid to details such as furniture, light fixtures, balustrades and flooring. Robbrecht en Daem’s objective, as always, is to remain faithful to the original architecture while making it new again. As the architects put it, it is to make things ‘different but the same’. Completion of the project is planned for 2019.

Robbrecht en Daem is currently also working on a smaller building by Van de Velde in the Ghent suburb of Astene. Originally built in 1933–4 as a residence for a successful physician and art collector, Dr Adriaan Martens, and known as the Villa Landing, it sits on a park-like site bordering the river Leie and was once surrounded by formal gardens designed by Georges Waechtelaer. Van de Velde expanded it with a small addition in 1956. In the 1980s the property was converted into a restaurant that is now called Au Bain Marie. Current plans are to add a larger building to the site that will accommodate parties and catering. Once the new building is complete, the original villa will be restored to its 1956 condition. Lending further historical interest to the project is a second, largely intact Van de Velde building located directly across the road, built for the same client in 1932 as an outpatient clinic for his medical practice.  
‘The “as found,” where the art is in the picking up, turning over and putting-with; and the “found,” where the art is in the process and the watchful eye...’ ²
Alison and Peter Smithson, ‘The “As Found” and the “Found,”’ 1990

Objets d’architecture

Two more projects, neither realised, further exemplify the variety of historical architecture with which Robbrecht en Daem has engaged to date and its versatility in tackling unique architectural situations.

The department store De Bijenkorf in Rotterdam was designed by the Hungarian-born American architect Marcel Breuer in 1953–7. A prominent monument of the post-Second World War era, it replaced an earlier Bijenkorf built by Willem Dudok in 1930 and damaged in the blitz that devastated the Dutch city at the outset of the war. Located on Coolsingel, the city’s main commercial thoroughfare leading to the harbour, the five-storey free-standing block abuts another emblematic post-war project, the Lijnbaan, a pedestrian shopping district completed by Jacob Bakema a few years earlier. The store’s travertine façade has a hexagonal pattern – alluding to its name (‘beehive’) – and narrow slit windows, which give it an alluring appearance at night. A 25-metre-high sculpture by the constructivist artist Naum Gabo stands in front. Gabo conceived it in close contact with the architectural team, and it exemplifies the aspiration of post-war artists and architects to a ‘synthesis of the arts’. Gabo also intended his abstract-organic construction, made of metal, marble and prestressed concrete, to be a visual counterpoint to Breuer’s architecture and to serve as a symbol of hope for the city’s renewal.

Inside, Breuer was tasked with designing an ‘ideal’ modern department store. Among the requirements was to maximise perimeter wall surface, provide large expanses of column-free space, create an integrated system of illumination and make shopper circulation efficient. Breuer arrived at his solution after extensive study. Up and down escalators, made of aluminium and teak, cross at the centre of each sales floor to form a giant X, giving shoppers both an architectural focal point and an overview of the store’s merchandise as they move diagonally through space.

Half a century later, the building’s environmental systems are no longer up to current standards and some of Breuer’s innovations are obsolete. In 2013 Robbrecht en Daem was asked to propose a new master plan addressing functional as well as aesthetic issues. The architects’ project concentrated on removing non-original elements, cleansing accumulated grime from the façade while keeping some patina of age and, in a literal esprit de l’escalier, preserving Breuer’s focal concept of the central escalators while redesigning them to integrate with other pieces of shopping ‘furniture’.

The following year the firm confronted an altogether different piece of 20th-century architectural history. The Udarnik (‘Shock Worker’) Theater in Moscow is located opposite the Kremlin and is the corner piece of a large housing complex once occupied by Stalin’s nomenklatura. Designed by Boris Iofan in 1931, the constructivist-style building is exceptional in the Soviet architect’s body of work, which subsequently would partake more of the grandiosity of socialist realism than the utopian spirit of the avant-garde. Its roof, which was designed to be partially retractable but only worked when the building first opened, gives it an iconic presence. 

In 2014 the foundation of the art collector and oligarch Shalva Breus sponsored a competition for the conversion of the Udarnik into a museum of contemporary art. Robbrecht en Daem’s entry, titled ‘The Building as Found’, won first prize over schemes by Arata Isozaki of Japan and Stephan Braunfels of Germany, among other international competitors. Robbrecht en Daem’s proposal left the building’s gritty, hybrid exterior largely intact while transforming the interior into a flexible volume for displaying art. The varied below-ground and street-level galleries and ancillary public spaces culminate in a monumental hall under the barrel-vaulted roof, producing a new social condenser for a present-day art public.

Ceci n’est pas une golf clubhouse

One final historical project, undoubtedly the most conceptually fascinating Robbrecht en Daem has realised to date, involved the temporary construction of a full-scale model of a clubhouse designed by Mies van der Rohe for a golf course outside Krefeld, Germany. The original design, of 1930, was an invited submission to a competition that had to be abandoned because of the economic crisis at the time. It dates from the same period in the German architect’s career as the Barcelona Pavilion and the Tugendhat House. The invitation stemmed from Mies’s close association with leading members of Krefeld’s textile industry, including the factory owners Hermann Lange and Josef Esters, for whom he had recently completed adjacent residences.

The curatorial concept of a 1:1 model – based on extant project drawings of the Golfclubhaus housed in the archives of the Museum of Modern Art in New York – came from the art historian and Mies scholar Christiane Lange, Hermann Lange’s great-granddaughter. Robbrecht en Daem had previously collaborated with Lange on an exhibition of furniture by Mies and Lilly Reich held in 2007 at the Lange and Esters houses, which now are part of a museum for contemporary art. The architects installed the furniture in each room on platforms floating just a few centimetres off the ground. This subtlest of gestures conveyed to visitors that what they were walking through was not a house but rather a simulation of one. In the small space between the floor and the platform, the historical relationship between once-functional objects – including the two buildings themselves – and objects now solely for aesthetic contemplation became articulate.

But the clubhouse project, carried out in 2013, posed an entirely different type of design problem. Constructed on a site close to the one that was originally envisaged, it obliged Robbrecht en Daem to make educated guesses about Mies’s intentions because of the sketchiness of the archival documents as well as the lack of clear specifications as to materials and some of the dimensions. This made the project one of carefully calibrated interpretation. Rather than in a spirit of literalness, every decision was made in fidelity to a more abstract and rigorous concept of ‘Miesian’ space. With their customary discretion, the architects not only left unresolvable questions open, but also explicitly acknowledged the subjectivity of their intervention, and indeed made the model’s conjectural nature thematic. The choice to build the walls out of clear-varnished plywood – which, with its strong graining, recalled Mies’s use of richly veined marble at Barcelona and Tugendhat, albeit with less opulence – and the decision to leave the structure unfinished thus had the effect of intensifying the project’s conceptual nature. This process of abstraction distinguishes Robbrecht en Daem’s approach from that of most architectural reconstructions, which conventionally strive for verisimilitude and suppress uncertainties. As material fictions, the latter inevitably betray their historical inauthenticity as well as their nostalgic attitude toward the past. This is true even of the most sophisticated and technically convincing of them, including the permanent reconstruction of the Barcelona Pavilion carried out in the 1980s.

Instead of a reconstruction, then, what Robbrecht en Daem produced was a constructed idea, the model of an idea, an idea as model, yet one that visitors could experience concretely, at least for a brief time. (The clubhouse was on view for five months before being disassembled, two months shorter than the original Barcelona Pavilion.) In raising a host of challenging intellectual questions, the clubhouse was, in a sense, the opposite of ‘architecture as found’ – unless, of course, unbuilt ideas may also be considered to be found objects. ‘Our aim’, the architects have written, ‘was to make it possible to experience the essence of Mies van der Rohe’s clubhouse project... We wanted to concentrate purely on the essence.’15 This statement is reminiscent of one by Gerhard Richter, the contemporary painter whom Robbrecht most admires: ‘I believe that the quintessential task of every painter in any time has been to concentrate on the essential.’16 

The known and the new

In the introduction to his book Age of the Masters, published in 1975, Reyner Banham commented that it was difficult not to feel a sense of liberation now that the ‘father figures’ of modern architecture were all dead. In their day, architects like Mies, Wright and Le Corbusier had been so dominant that ‘their work seemed to circumscribe the range of action of architects all over the world’. Yet writing at a moment when the ‘end of prohibitions’ was being trumpeted by a new generation of postmodernists, Banham could not help feeling a sense of loss: ‘Even when modern architecture seemed plunged in its worst confusions it could still summon up a burst of creative energy that gave the lie to premature reports of its demise. Modern architecture is dead; long live modern architecture!’17

A generation after Banham’s own death and in the era of global and digital culture, the modern masters no longer elicit the Oedipal emotions they once did. The very notion of a ‘modern movement’ is vitiated by our longer perspective on 20th-century architecture, which has served to reveal modernism’s uneven development and many contradictions. Today the ‘historical project’, most broadly construed, is to determine what, if anything, is still vital and usable in the old narrative of mastery and progress. Robbrecht and Daem approach this unfinished project with critical distance – without sentimentality but with curiosity and respect. ‘The architect is the restorer of the known’, they have written, a little enigmatically.18 They mean, perhaps, the known that we no longer know. Or the things we know only by intimately living them. Verum ipsum factum: we know only what we make ourselves.
1 Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, trans. D.F. Pears and B.F. McGuinness (London, 1961), p. 117.
2 In David Robbins, ed., The Independent Group: Postwar Britain and the Aesthetics of Plenty (Cambridge, MA, 1990), p. 201.
3 Paul Robbrecht, in ‘A Conversation, November 1997. Farshid Moussavi and Paul Robbrecht’, in Steven Jacobs, ed., Works in Architecture: Paul Robbrecht & Hilde Daem (Ghent, 1998), p. 148.
4 For example: the Felix Archives in the Sint-Felix Warehouse in Antwerp (2006), the City Archives in the former Jules Waucquez warehouses in Brussels (2006–) and the early Mys House in Oudenaarde (1983–92).
5 Paul Robbrecht, in ‘Does Architecture Always Have To Be Good? Yes, Though the Art May Challenge That. A conversation between Paul Robbrecht and Chris Dercon’, in Chris Dercon, Julian Heynen and Sara Weyns, , Het Huis: Thomas Schütte Sculpturen; Robbrecht en Daem Architecten, Middelheim Museum (Antwerp, 2012), p. 39.
6 Paul Robbrecht and Hilde Daem, Aue Pavilions (Cologne, 1994), p. 10.
7 Aldo Rossi, The Architecture of the City (Cambridge, MA, 1982), pp. 57–60.
8 Paul Robbrecht, ‘Architectural Redefinition and Its Affect’, AA Files 32 (Autumn 1996), p. 13.
9 Hermann Muthesius described Townsend in 1900 as a ‘prophet of the new style’ in England, and Nikolaus Pevsner especially admired him. Besides the Whitechapel, Townsend also realised two other distinctive public institutions in London in the 1890s: the Bishopsgate Institute and the Horniman Museum. All three were built in poorer neighbourhoods for the benefit of the local community. See Hermann Muthesius, Die englische Baukunst der Gegenwart: Beispiele neuer englischer Profanbauten (Leipzig and Berlin, 1900), p. 30; and Nikolaus Pevsner, Pioneers of Modern Design from William Morris to Walter Gropius (New York, 1949), pp. 97–9.
10 Quoted in Françoise Aubry and Jos Vandenbreeden, Horta: Art Nouveau to Modernism (Ghent, 1996), p. 144.
11 Ibid., p. 151.
12 Ibid., p. 176.
13 See, for example, Henry van de Velde, Vie et mort de la colonne (Brussels, 1942).
14 As in the Johnson Wax building in Racine, Wisconsin, built during the same period. The iconography of the book tower’s belvedere is particularly reminiscent of Wright’s Unity Temple in Oak Park, Illinois.
15 Paul Robbrecht and Johannes Robbrecht, ‘Figures in a Landscape’, in Christiane Lange, ed., Mies 1:1. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. The Golf Club Project (Cologne, 2014), p. 104.
16 Interview with Robert Storr in Gerhard Richter: Doubt and Belief in Painting (New York, 2003), p. 169.
17 Reyner Banham, Age of the Masters: A Personal View of Modern Architecture (London, 1975), pp. 3, 6.
18 Paul Robbrecht and Hilde Daem, Aue Pavilions (Cologne, 1994), p. 11.
Original Publication: Joan Ockamn, “When History Becomes Form”, in An architectural Anthology (Brussels, 2017), p. 222.