by ANNA McNAY
Ruimteveldwerk is a collective comprising four architects – twin brothers Brecht and Sander van Duppen (b1987, Leuven), Pieter Brosens (b1976, Antwerp) and Pieter Cloeckaert (b1984, Leuven) – who seek to expand the boundaries of architecture and connect it to urban planning, sociology, history, art and activism. Their participatory, experimental projects involve vulnerable subgroups of society, such as refugees in Oslo, and, for the Bruges Triennial 2018, the elderly residents of the Saint Trudo almshouses. For this project, they have created an offline space in the heart of the courtyard where the residents and visitors alike can enjoy an oasis of peace in the centre of the city, raising questions about the sacred notion of silence – and human interaction – in today’s digital era.
Ruimteveldwerk. G.O.D. Installation view on 8 June 2018. © VisitBruges/Jan D’hondt.
Studio International visited the site and spoke to Brecht van Duppen about the trajectory of the project.
Anna McNay: We’re standing here in the courtyard of the Saint Trudo almshouses inside your installation, G.O.D. – a kind of open frame, with floating white translucent curtains and benches. On either side of us are two long plant boxes with flowers and vegetables. Beyond that, the private space just outside each house begins, and, in some instances, there are ropes or signs warning people not to intrude. It’s all a little surreal – a quiet space in the city centre, peaceful and serene, yet a conflation of the public within the private, inviting the noisy outside in to enjoy the silence. Can you tell me a bit about how the project came about and the site you chose to work with?
Brecht van Duppen: Bruges has a total of 46 almshouses in the city centre. Many were built by wealthy people in the middle ages as their tickets to heaven. They were the first form of social housing, giving elderly people, who are alone, a space to live. They were also built by the guilds for the bakers, shoemakers, and so on, as a kind of social service for when they were older. Today, they are still owned by the social services. They always take the same form: a courtyard with very small white houses around it and the name of the founder painted on the facade.
When we were invited to participate in the triennial, the curators asked us to work with the almshouses. We visited them all. It was really amazing. Bruges is a quiet city, apart from the central tourist zone. It’s really nice that in a city centre you can find these silent spots. It’s strange, too, because when people are looking for peace and quiet, they go far away into nature, never into the city. The courtyard here, with the buildings around it, offers silence. It’s beautiful and it’s cosy. The architecture is interesting, but the history is interesting, too, because it’s social housing with public space – the courtyard is open to anyone who wants to come in. So, we have the quality of silence but also this conflict because people can come in and break that silence. We wanted our work to be a minimal intervention – not like some of the more flashy ones around the city that invite Instagram pictures. We felt we didn’t have to try too much in this space, just leave it like it is, but make it a zone where visitors can come.
We have spent a lot of time with the residents in the planning of this. We’ve been working on the project since the end of 2016. One of the huge things for everybody was always the plants: at first, the residents kept saying it wasn’t their garden so they couldn’t – or wouldn’t – plant anything. We wanted to try to find some solutions to make it more of a private garden for them, but also a public space where people could come in from the outside and enjoy the peace and quiet – a kind of meeting place between the outside and the inside. As architects, we are used to working with space, and we were trying to think how we could have an intervention in this space that wouldn’t affect the residents’ private space. Already, the public, when they come in, sometimes go right up to the windows and peer inside. So, we thought we’d put a kind of border between their windows and this central, neutral zone. That’s why we’ve put curtains around the central frame.
Some days people just sit in here enjoying conversations, so then they can open the curtains, but, if they want, they can keep them closed. And it’s really strange because, now that everything is installed, it’s actually the opposite of what we anticipated – the residents are not the ones asking to close the curtains, it’s the visitors who want to close them because they like the way they move and float, a bit like the sea.
AMc: What’s here in the courtyard normally? Is there a garden at all?
BvD: No, we created this whole garden, including adding the trees. The most important thing was that we wanted to show the quality of this space. We also wanted to reassure the residents. We thought maybe we could encourage their interaction in the project by putting in a garden where they could sit and eat. The next time we came to see them, they really started to come out of their houses a bit more. We had to push them a bit, but they started to cross their boundaries.
The owner of the site has very strict regulations about the almshouse gardens. You can’t light a fire and you can’t make it your own garden at all, really. It’s all controlled by the city. But, as part of this project, we have permission to break the rules. There’s the opportunity to do something with the garden. At first it was very difficult to persuade the residents. They didn’t think it was possible because of the regulations. At the beginning, we had to do the imagining for them about what was possible in the garden. So, in addition to the frame with the curtains, we added the two long plant boxes. Now, we are working to get a message to the people visiting. They get given a question about silence in the city, and privacy, and we hope they will interact. The residents can then see this interaction and sometimes they come out to talk to the visitors. A lot of people come here from the city to take a rest. That’s exactly what we wanted – for people just to enjoy the silence, the beauty, the light and the movement of the curtains.
Our first thoughts were that this is such a nice spot, with such strong silence, but we wondered if we could make it even stronger, somehow. Youngsters and people generally these days are, as I’ve said, always looking outside the city centre to find peace and a space to be offline. So, initially, we were thinking about introducing an offline aspect to this site as well. We were thinking about putting a hedge at the entrance to mark the spot at which visitors would become disconnected from the online, digital world – disconnecting in order to reconnect with people and to have real, social conversations and to meet one other. It was a nice idea, but we realised it would be impossible in the city centre to create a space without wifi or some form of connection. In case an ambulance has to come here, for example, there need to be permanent communication hotspots. So, we realised that this idea was too hi-tech and that maybe we didn’t need to forcibly make people be offline, but just invite them to respect, if you like, the house rules – such as, for example, not using your smartphone at the dinner table. Then we considered making a gate in the first courtyard where visitors could put their smartphone in a bag and hang it up before entering this inner space, making a kind of ceremony out of it, a bit like entering a church or a mosque, where you have to take off your shoes or hat. But this also had its problems, because we’re not working with a museum site, it’s really a public space. That’s why we came up with the idea of creating a frame. It’s something like a contemporary sacred space – a space to be with other people, to reconnect with each other without a smartphone or digital interference. Sherry Turkle, a professor at MIT, writes a lot about this disconnection and reconnection and the private rituals that people create.
That was our idea in the next phase. Bruges is a neo-Gothic city in terms of its architecture, so we thought we might refer to the sacred spaces of the middle ages – the chapel and the narthex. The narthex is the first space, like a porch or antechamber, that you go into before you enter the church proper – the space where people who were not baptised could go. We thought maybe we could create a narthex in front of this building, where you had to leave your mobile phone or switch it off before entering the “chapel”. Disconnecting would be like a form of being baptised. Afterwards, you can enjoy the spiritual quality of this space. In the end, we created a gateway with an LED screen that shows the rules of the site: be silent, turn off your smartphone, etc.
Ruimteveldwerk. G.O.D. Ruimteveldwerk adding pictograms. © VisitBruges/Jan D’hondt.
AMc: How did the residents react to these various ideas?
BvD: A key part of the project was the year-long dialogue with the people who live here, finding out where the critical border between the public space and their interior space lies. This is a public zone, totally maintained by the social services, not by people living here. But some of them do have a little garden furniture on their doorstep, or a small box of flowers, and that is very important to them, that it’s theirs and private, and not for the public. So, some of them created further borders, by putting up ropes and signs asking the public not to cross them or go closer to their private sphere. We wanted to respect this and build enough of a structure to keep visitors from straying. When we showed the residents our proposals they thought they were great, but, at the same time, some of them didn’t want the frame put up in front of their window, or in what they considered to be their space. One lady explained to me that she has a line of sight from her kitchen window and can see right across through the two courtyards to the other side of the street. She invited me in to show me. And so she was adamant that we move the frame 3cm to the side. The frame is now pretty much in the centre, and each resident can have his or her own patch of front garden, his or her line of sight, and then we have this here like the public street.
Ruimteveldwerk. G.O.D. Command signs for visitors. © VisitBruges/Jan D’hondt.
This is the first time that anyone has done any kind of intervention in these gardens, so, from the beginning, we, the city and the organisers were all very interested to see how the residents would respond. The owners see a lot of conflict in these sites between the people living here who have not chosen to live here and who have to accept a lot of neighbours at the same time. In the beginning, they rarely want to come together. It’s very difficult. But with our presence, working outside in the courtyard, they started to come out to talk with us and, without realising it, they also started to talk to each other.
Ruimteveldwerk. G.O.D. A new sign added by a resident. © VisitBruges/Jan D’hondt.
We are reporting all of this to the owner of the almshouses so they can learn that maybe by activating the courtyard space they can have the possibility of intervening in the way the residents interact. This was really effective. While we were building the plant boxes and putting the plants in, the residents started to come outside more and more. When we were talking about architecture, it was all too abstract for them, but by this point it had become something they could recognise and talk about. They not only started talking to each other, but also with the visitors. And they would be giving us advice on how to do things better. Sometimes visitors would also start telling us – and the residents – things to do with the flowers. You can put these flowers in oil and bake them, for example. You can see that the residents enjoy these conversations – they are nice, comfortable talks, not too personal.
Most of the time when young people come in, they ask: “Is this art? Where is the artwork?” They start looking at the plants because they don’t understand that you can just come in and rest here. But then they, too, might have a conversation with the residents. For us, all of these aspects are equally important. It’s not like this is a sculpture that you can come and look at. It’s more like one big social experiment. Visitors don’t know they’re entering an experiment, of course. We don’t want to explain it to them in advance because it will change the way they respond. So, a lot of people come in and then afterwards might be wondering what it was all about. But that’s OK. That’s what we want. For them to come, talk, think, and maybe change direction a little.
Ruimteveldwerk. G.O.D. Residents adding new boundaries, private / public. © VisitBruges/Jan D’hondt.
AMc: So, the people – the residents and the visitors – are an integral part of the art, really.
BvD: Yes, that’s the whole idea. One journalist came from a national paper and wrote an article about the triennial. He wrote about all the interventions across the city and then said that there was this one strange group, who hadn’t made a sculpture or a visible statement, but who, by doing that, had made a big statement. He got what we are about. It is more like an understatement that creates an experiment than an artwork.
We are also working with an anthropologist who is following the project and writing a thesis. She is interviewing the people who live here. It was her idea to include vegetables in the plant boxes. For her, it was important to make a connection with the elderly people. She comes here each week to take care of the plant boxes, together with the residents. They invite her into their homes and she can get different information from them than we can. She says that they like the project but they don’t understand it. They know it’s something to do with interaction and creating a space for visitors, but the ideas around silence and the private-public boundary are too abstract for them. It was also her idea to add the questions for the visitors to respond to, highlighting these three key themes of being offline, privacy and silence in the city. By putting the questions on the table in the central frame, people can sit down and think about them. She showed us some projects by Yoko Ono, including the Wish Tree at the Peggy Guggenheim Museum in Venice, and now we are trying out something similar, asking people to write their thoughts on some material and tie them to the trees.
Ruimteveldwerk. G.O.D. Installation view showing addition of a public bench. © VisitBruges/Jan D’hondt.
AMc: Can you tell me a little about the structure itself, and the furniture inside it? The frame is quite clean and simple, but the furniture seems quite old.
BvD: It was important for us that the structure we made was a very clean, simple frame. Everything else could be a little crappy, but the most important element is the frame. The benches are typical Bruggian public benches. This bench here was standing next to the garden furniture over there. We just brought it into this central, public space. We don’t particularly like the bench, but it is very recognisable as a public bench with the details of the dragons – typical Bruges. We didn’t have to design it, but the frame is our design. For the rest, we just wanted to use recognisable things, such as the boxes with the plants. They’re just made from cheap materials, not beautiful wood. It’s important that people recognise them for what they are. It’s the rehabilitation of a place that’s important.
Ruimteveldwerk. G.O.D. Installation view. © VisitBruges/Jan D’hondt.
AMc: What about the name of the project, G.O.D.?
BvD: G.O.D. It’s a Godshuis [Dutch for almshouse]. We added the full stops between the letters for secularity. It’s nice to refer to God because, as I’ve said, this is a contemporary sacred space, but it’s not like we believe in anything ourselves. We refer to the title to evoke something religious, like a mosque or a church, where you come in. That way, visitors respect the silence. But we didn’t want to make it about Christianity. We wanted to make it more neutral. We also invented meanings for each letter, G, O and D. These are all scrolling across the LED screen at the gateway. We’re offering different meanings for the word “God”, like “Get Offline Devoted”. We came up with lots of possible meanings for the “D”: discussions, devoted, diversity – many words.
AMc: You're actually full-time architects in the week. What is Ruimteveldwerk for you? How does it fit into your life as a whole?
BvD: We work four days a week in the office as more classical architects, then we have this collective for which we have one day a week when we don’t work for the money. We all enjoy working with people because architecture is about commercial projects and you don’t often have social elements. We are not anthropologists, but we also have to do the job of connecting people. When you have a construction site, there are a lot of different people from different backgrounds involved. We have people making furniture, the engineers doing the acoustics, etc. When you are working on a sports infrastructure, for example, you have the people who will be using the sports infrastructure. It’s all different input, and you have, as architects, to bring it all together, to find the middle point.
Ruimteveldwerk, Modes of Movement, Oslo Architecture Triennale, 2016.
Ruimteveldwerk, at its core, consists of the four of us, all architects. The name means “Space-Fieldwork”. As architects, we work with public space, but we also want to work on the site itself, hence the fieldwork element. It’s always an experiment: we want to test things, we want to go beyond the borders of the classical architecture jobs we have in the office. We are not pros in participatory projects, so it’s just a case of doing it and seeing what happens. It doesn’t always run smoothly, but for each project we bring in people from other areas of expertise. We recently did a project in Oslo where we worked together with a refugee organisation and with people in an asylum centre. We made a card game as a guide for refugees. It’s nice to have something to do other than just being in the office. It’s important to us not just to spend our time in front of a computer screen.
• G.O.D. can be seen at the Bruges Triennial until 16 September 2018