Van Hee's private home at Varkensstraat 7, which was constructed new between 1990 and 1997, is situated in Prinsenhof, in an aid quarter of the city of Ghent. In choosing this location, the architect wanted to take a personal stand against urban decay. The house has an L-shaped ground plan and is oriented towards a private patio - an intimate 'outside room'. The patio type of housing is found not only in Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's work, but also in various Belgian "béguinages". In these exceptional urban configurations, the plan of the houses unfolds in their breadth, and they also have a walled garden. In selecting such a configuration, Van Hee embraces a housing type with bath historical and modernist traditions. Between the garden and the interior there is a covered arcade, a transitional area that is at once bath outside and sheltered. On the street side, the new house behaves scrupulously in the built urban context. The bricks have been given a light cement coating so that their pattern remains visible. There is no hard plastering to stress the building's newness, but a classic treatment of the façade, so that the house fits in almost invisibly without lapsing into formal associations. In contrast to the solidity of the surface of the façade, the edge of the roof has a fragile line. The façade's live high vertical windows already hint at the special interior concept. The central space is a large, five-metre-high rectangular living room with a ceiling of wooden beams. The way daylight penetrates into this high space, with sunlight from morning to evening, evidences Van Hee's great mastery in making the orientation an essential part of the design. Architecture is used to make light visible. The large rectangular space evokes the image of the cleanly constructed rooms in aid rural Tuscan houses, spaces with an impressive brightness and exactly the right proportions. A stone stairway leads to the library on the first floor, and next to it there is the bedroom. This bed room is connected to the garden by means of a covered outside stairway, which introduces a fascinating additional route. The large generous space, which does not separate the sitting room and dining room, incorporates a large table in the centre. By locating the table in this way, Van Hee dissociates herself from the stereotypical image of a cosy sitting area forming the care of the house. The kitchen and bath room are in the shortest arm of the L-shape. She deliberately relativises the concept of comfort in order to intensify the physical experience. In order not to escape the daily physical experience of the difference between interior and exterior, the toilet has even been placed outside. On the first floor there are consultation rooms for a practice, a part of the house which can be reached by means of a separate stairway from the hall. Van Hee's architectural office is not combined with the private house. The house developed slowly, over same seven years, taking time for any inessential parts to be removed so that what was already present from the outset would have time to develop. As Le Corbusier said when he spoke of 'travail patient', designing houses requires patient and intense work to penetrate to an essence, a labour far removed from the serial approach. Van Hee's private house is a genuine mirror of her way of living and thinking, an autobiographical house. When it was finally finished, she gained a mention in the 6th Mies Van der Rohe Award for European Architecture in Barcelona in 1997.
CREDITS: Program: Private house Marie-José Van Hee Location: Ghent, Belgium Timeline: 1990 - 2000 Project Team: Marie-José Van Hee (architect), Els Claessens, Tania Vandenbussche Structural Engineer: BAS - Dirk Jaspaert Photography: David Grandorge