publisher: NAi publishers
graphic design: Irma Boom
Atmosphering the Every-Day
Notes on the Architecture of 51N4E
By Ilka & Andreas Ruby
The 51N4E projects breathe a hunger for space that can hardly been alleviated soon enough, a passion for architecture that cannot wait until the construction is started and therefore impatiently reaches for the first thing it can lay its hands on: the brief. Whereas most architects see it as just a detailed specification of the building, it seems to them that the brief already lays out the draft territory the project may eventually cover. In addition, the brief is anything but innocent, since it sets the precondition for a decisive part for the future potential of architecture. Hence the vigilance with which the space providers of 51N4E study the briefs of their projects, in order to trace the preliminary decisions and implied scenarios that are usually already intimated (but rarely spelt out in detail). And, in case they do not agree with these, which frequently happens, they turn the brief into the object of a first plastic transformation. In the process not only are single parts replaced, completed, eliminated or joined again, off and on the basic ambition of the project is given a completely new definition.
For instance, the brief from "Allotment Athletica" requested new housing typologies for a suburb development in Flandres. However, 51N4E concluded that most people who move to a suburb have already made up their minds about the type of house they want to live in, the single-family dwelling. Instead of offering some competition to those operating in this market, the architects believed it would be more worthwhile to reflect on the infrastructure and public space. Firstly because this space is jointly used by all and secondly because he could lend an identity to this development which would make it distinctly different from numberless districts of a similar type. In the case of the LAMOT? project, the re-designation of a former brewery in Malines, 51N4E had initially been entrusted with the development of the interior architecture of a museum of the 20th century. But the architects first interfered in the contents planned for the museum, a collection of modern art from artists in the town of Malines. They believed the quality of the collection was not good enough to justify a museum. Instead they convinced the principals, the town council of Malines, to make the space in the museum available to the town as a temporary useful stage for cultural initiatives, since until then it did not have any place of its won (e.g. theatre, library, gallery, concert hall).
Their project for the Groeninge museum was the result of a competition, which had only requested the renovation of the ageing museum building. But since the museum had invited architects rather than artisans, 51N4E came to the conclusion that this project could not be limited to the elimination of the structural damage. They also developed a draft for a fundamental re-launch of the museum. To be able to start their work, in spite of the extremely tight budget, they developed a master plan which could be realised in three separate stages.
The money available was sufficient for the first stage, which in actual fact covered the renovation required under the competition programme. Both other stages were to be announced at a later time in order to gain time to find further financial sources.
Figure – Ground – Revaluation
This new formulation of the brief often causes a complete reorganisation of the project scenario, which could be described as a reversal of the relation between Figure and Ground. As it is, the architects were for their project "re:park" asked to present the results of a study of the state of the Brussels Jubelpark at an exhibition. This plan, to translate a mountain of documents into a form understandable to the general public, to stage an exhibition on the park in this park itself was somehow unsurpassable in its absurdity. To interrupt this solipsism 51N4E simply declared the park itself to be the exhibition. With sometimes astonishingly simple, but effective means they activated exactly the potential in the park which had been referred to in the study on the park as being in a deplorable state. To put an end to, for instance, the ineffective use of the park, they made it more attractive to visitors, with a number of park seats providing a place where people can relax for a while, similar to the Jardin de Luxembourg in Paris. Moreover, they revived the architecture in the park part of which had, until then, had been completely neglected, such as the Horta pavilion – an early work by the Belgian art nouveau architect; it was closed only three days after it had been inaugurated in 1896, because the sculptural relief "Les Passions Humaines" was deemed by his contemporaries to be a threat to public moral standards. Until recently it could only be viewed through a keyhole, but now 51N4E opened the gates to the building and to a café and a full programme of cultural events such as lectures, concerts and DJ sets. And, finally, they staged the admittedly biggest stain on the park – a motor tunnel, crossing underneath the park and appearing on the surface in its middle – as a unique attraction and they draw the drivers’ attention to what is happening in the park with billboards. In this way the energy which, according to the original brief, had been concentrated on one point, was distributed over the entire park. By mixing the classic dialectics between figure (architecture) and ground (park), re:park raises the Ground to become the actual figure in the park.
With the new definition of its museum programme LAMOT in fact realises the same operation, except that here the reversal of figure and ground works in the opposite direction: the project collects several cultural programmes that are distributed over the town area and lends them a new place in the figure of the building. This urbane compression is made possible by an indoor plaza, which transforms the first floor of the heterogeneous block into a continuous space. In order to turn this plaza into a thrilling public room in Malines, 51N4E locate a number of publicity generating programmes on all levels. In doing so, they knowingly mix culture (exhibition space) and commerce (conference hall), in order to bring various events together. Instead of a museum of the 20th century (i.e. a permanent exhibition of a museum culture, with a fixed programme, which really refers back to the appreciation of art of the 19th century) Malines will now probably get a museum of the 21st century, (i.e. a programme-wise open space, which will function as a varying exhibition of the ever changing culture of the town.
Ready-made or not
In their project Allotment Athletica, too, 51N4E start putting the priorities of the brief in a different order by concentrating, not on the private dwellings (figure), but on the public space in the suburb and by planning an athletics track in the area. All the same, if the logics of their intervention are checked, the relationship between figure and ground is reversed again: the track now appears as the actual figure and the dwellings as the relevant ground. This surprising emergence of sports in the middle of an ordinary residential environment apparently works fully in accordance with the ready-made principle; early in the 20th century Marcel Duchamps questioned the authority of a museum to decide what is art and what is not – for example by introducing a urinal into the sacred halls of art, as is the case with his famous work "Fountain" of 1911. If we transfer this logic of introducing an object to the 51N4E project, this would mean that that the track was introduced into the suburb as an object. However, a closer look reveals that the analogy falls short, because the transfer between object and context takes place in the opposite direction: whereas the museum with its institutional aura elevates the urinal to a work of art itself, the athletic track changes its surroundings with its effluvium. The track acts as an identity plate with which the suburb distinguishes itself from countless other ones, which to all intents and purposes look exactly the same. With Duchamp, however, the museum still presents the dominant identity of the situation. After all, one does not have the feeling to be in the toilet. With Duchamp in the end only the nature of the object changes (the day-to-day object becomes a work of art). In the case of the Allotment Athletica, on the other hand, the athletic track interferes so much with the suburban streetscape that the character of the whole of the context changes.
Programming versus Atmosphering
This specific form of effect on its context basically distinguishes Allotment Athletica from re:park and LAMOT?. These projects transform their context by positioning programmes. In principle they operate using a strategy which Bernard Tschumi provided with a theoretical basis as "Cross-Programming" in the seventies. A programme, for instance a library, is introduced into a space with whose programme it is not compatible (e.g. a swimming pool). But as the host-space keeps its programme (swimming pool) both programmes clash. The actions allocated to them (reading, swimming) produce new actions in that space (reading under water) and, according to Tschumi, generate what architecture really makes possible: the event. Actually we are dealing with a duplication of programmes: The cross-programming of a swimming pool and a library yields a pool-library. In a certain way cross-programming is a variety of programming, a technique studied by Rem Koolhaas, simultaneously with Tschumi, as a generating principle in architecture (e.g. in his book ‘Delirious New York’). From Koolhaas programming then progressed into the Dutch architecture of the nineties, here especially to bureaus such as MVRDV, NL or ONE. But in the process the limitations of the programming strategy became increasingly clear. For in the end an architect can only rarely manoeuvre himself into a position from which he can really change the programme.
The Broodthaers Effect
With a view to this limitation it is worthwhile to revert to Allotment Athletica. For, obviously we are dealing here with something which is different from cross-programming. Here it is not so much the programme as the atmosphere of a programme (athletics) which is introduced in a space (the suburban street), which presents a sharp contrast. But the incompatibility of action (sports) and space (suburban street) remains implicit; it is not blown out of proportion. Much more does the introduction of the incompatible atmosphere serve to cut down to size the codes of conduct of that space that are defined by its programme and to open it up for new behavioural patterns. These new behavioural patterns are introduced in an evocative manner, similar to how in a film the insertion of an alienating soundtrack may completely change an image. This process is basically different from the ready-made. Here, it is a matter of an intervention which affects its context so deeply that it no longer manifests itself as an isolated object, but is swallowed up in the changing of the entire situation. Marcel Broodthaers presented this principle as a paradigm in his "Jardin d’Hiver" installed in the Palais de Beaux arts in Brussels in 1974. This composition consisted of an unusual combination of pictures and objects. The pictures showed representations which seemed to have been taken from zoological and botanic encyclopaedias of the 19th century. They were shown either in picture frames hung on the wall or horizontally displayed in wooden showcases as are seen in science museums. In addition, however, and this played a decisive role, Broodthaers adorned the exhibition room with a few palm trees and garden chairs, as actually could have been used in a Jardin d’Hiver, a winter garden. This atmospheric alienation of the exhibition hall evokes an infinitely subtle behavioural change in the spectator, fills him for a moment with a sense of finding himself in a botanic garden or a science museum. Without really noticing it himself the spectator of the artwork briefly takes leave of his role, no longer tries to find the message conveyed by the work before his eyes, forgets the question what the artist wanted to say to him. Instead he begins to take an interest in the information about botany and zoology, not hampered by any prejudicial curiosity. Although he really came to concentrate on art. This subliminal behavioural change caused by the situational use of atmospheric codes, as Broodthaers managed to create so perfectly, is the decisive effect of what we want to describe as atmosphering as opposed to programming. Atmosphering makes it possible to change a situation effectively without entering into an open conflict with the customary expectations in such halls. Allotment Athletica formulates this overlapping of realities very graphically: the effect of the track is, in first instance, that pedestrians and drivers behave differently from the way they would in an ordinary suburban street. For both use the track, even if they do so on lanes of different materials: Cars proceed on the outer lane of red tarmac, pedestrians run on the inner lane made of rubber (the same material as in a proper athletic track). The difference with a normal street is that the pedestrian area and the motor area are not divided by a barrier. So, both parties must be much more considerate of each other. Drivers will drive more slowly, also because on this surface normally used by human beings a car gives the impression of being totally out of place. For pedestrians the track offers more possibilities than a normal footpath, if only because walking on the springy layer feels different from a hard blacktop and correspondingly suggests different movements. And probably the track even transmits a little of that infamous community spirit of sports in the street, but that was allowed to change the presentation of public space in a suburb not insignificantly. This desire to change spaces, our expectations with regard to it, as well as our patterns of behaviour, run like a thread through the work of 51N4E. It is apparent in practically all their projects, regardless of standard, context and programme. Continuously they manipulate the mixture of the real to coax new flavours from it; again and again they try to find the minimal shifting that suffices to let one situation turn into another. In certain conditions it may lead to the operation being felt less strongly than its effect. Their renovation of a farmhouse brings this homeopathic concept of change clearly into view. Instead of placing the swimming pool in the garden behind the house, they put it in the middle of the inner courtyard, there where the dungheap used to be. Still this combination from the most private programme and the most public room in the house is not released in a folder-like collage, because the swimming pool, although developed from a standard product, cannot be expresses as such. It is covered, not with bright blue tiles, but with black PVC, which robs it from any sportsmanlike sentiment. As the bottom cannot be seen, the water seems to be deeper, whereas the reflections of the outside world on its surface show up more strongly. Since the basin has also been slightly elevated from the ground and provided with a projecting sitting edge, the pool as a whole has the effect of a public well. Finally, this typological disguise of the pool also includes the courtyard in which it is situated; one would almost believe one is transferred to a small public square in the village. And precisely this atmospheric double illumination of the space is the reason why the lady of the house can bathe in the pool, while her husband’s clients cross the courtyard on their way to his office. The kitchen of the farmhouse exemplifies the effect of atmosphering on an inside room. It is interesting to note that here 51N4E uses the same strategy as in its outdoor projects from Allotment Athletica to the swimming pool: a partial intervention in a context, which in itself remains untouched. The principals wanted a kitchen bigger than the old one and the former stable offered itself as the right place for it. However, the budget proved to be too small to allow the available space to be turned into a kitchen. 51N4E solved this problem by rearranging their priorities and spent 70% of the budget on 30% of the space (which became the kitchen), while they spent only 30% of the budget on the remaining 70% of the space (which became a sort of dining room and pantry). Whereas the former stable has been fitted with only the most essential storage infrastructure, the kitchen prides itself on a selection of luxurious materials such as Carrara marble, Coriander and BMW wood laminate. Because of this dialectic of the atmosphere both rooms help to transform each other: the untreated rawness of the pantry-kitchen reveals the almost mannerism-like, exaggerated minimalism of the stage-kitchen, whose aesthetic super-determination on the other hand lends aesthetic value to the pantry (similar to a New York loft, which was turned into a gallery). How indissolubly these models are intertwined, is revealed by their dividing line: a sliding door that allows the kitchen to be either completely separated from the pantry or open to it. It consists of a 5 mm thick marble sheet, which has been glued onto a metal honeycomb supporting wall – luxury and trash united in schizophrenic harmony. Programme-wise the rooms are like stage and back-stage area and remind us of the principle of a house open to the public in the baroque castle and the double access needed for it: to the outside there is a range of stately rooms (there, where once kings resided and today hordes of tourists are processed), and behind, facing the inner courtyard, an unobtrusive service corridor (which is denied the tourists of today) along which a seemingly invisible staff of servants looks after the meals, hygiene and heating of their masters. The most radical demonstration of this technique of atmospheric conversion is given by 51N4E in their project for the Groeninge museum in Bruges. Here too it is a matter of an interior conversion in an existing building. But whereas in the kitchen the alienation is the result of the simultaneous presence of the new and the old situation of the room, the Groeninge museum draws its tension first of all from the atmospheric doing away with typology in the museum. For instance, the floor of the exhibition halls is made of white mosaic glass tiles, on which soft and heavy, bright red terry carpets have been laid; their shape differs from room to room. The feeling one gets in the sanitary department is that of perfection. This cross-atmosphering from the museum to the wash rooms turns the perception of the paintings into a basically new experience. For the release of the exhibition hall of its museum code also sets the visitors free from their fixed roll model as art viewers and stimulates them instead to new forms of observation, beyond their practised behavioural routine. The carpets invite to sit down on them (which, however, is prohibited and provides a continuous cat-and-mouse play between attendants and visitors). Instead of the normal settees the architects created a piece of furniture for observation that can be used in many ways: either one sits on it in a normal position, or mount it negotiating a couple of big steps to view the paintings from a higher point. Covered with the same mosaic glass tiles as the floor, the ‘stage settee’ seems to be an integrated part of the hall. In other halls this element is replaced by a number of chairs randomly distributed in the hall. This infrastructure of observation corresponds with the way the individual paintings are hung and was developed by 51N4E; it takes the significance of the individual art works into consideration. Excellent pieces have a room to themselves, so the eyes will be fully focussed on that particular work. On the other hand, other paintings, that stand out because they belong to a particular genre or a certain trend, are grouped together to an ensemble filling a wall or part of it, reminding one of the Abi Warburg’s "Bilderatlas Mnemosyne". A different technique to activate observation presents a room where the walls are painted in a dark, light-absorbing colour. As a result the white floor becomes so bright that visitors watch the wall and the painting, if only to protect their eyes – and so probably see the painting much more intensely than in a classic museum environment. To prevent any routine from developing here, the chronologically arranged tour is interrupted by a room, in which paintings are suspended from wire trellis. Once a visitor has passed through this back-stage area of the museum, he will have been made especially susceptible to the stage-setting in the other exhibition halls. 51N4E do everything to carry the tale of the neutral museum hall (so eagerly used by architects as a fig leaf to conceal their own staging) ad absurdum. Therefore they expand the atmospheric staging of the museum to its outside areas as well; these are then furnished with carefully selected atmospheres, exactly as the exhibition halls (which are to be provided with the most varied colours and scents in a range of gardens, at least in a future building phase). Obviously the museum no longer functions as an autonomous space, a time-out from the city and its living environment, but is a part of it. It marks a stage in the sequence of experiences, which may include the tourist’s experience of the city: buying, coffee, culture. Correspondingly, the museum also provides a fresh look on the city. Compressing the various atmospheric scenarios within the narrow limits of its domain it evokes the presentation of a world within a world. In a way it uses Walt Disney’s principle of the theme park as a catalyst to set off a fresh perception of the context. As it is, visitors leaving the museum through the gardens, may often recognise how much Bruges itself acts as a theme park, i.e. as a three-dimensional extrusion of the historic picture, it seems to be creating of its own self. And, when the town eventually acts as an undeclared exhibition, this means to its temporary and permanent residents by the same token that, outside the museum, they need not give up their role of visitor. Finally, the work done by 51N4E is a continuous search for techniques of intervention, which are not restricted to the subject intervention, but can launch a new definition of the rules of the game for the entire situation. This attitude is unusual. The fact it is formulated by such a young bureau may be interpreted as a sign of an increasingly strong ambition, which seems to have faded into the background with the majority of our contemporary architects: realities should not be simply reproduced, but one should be willing to transform them.