Since 1977 Van Hee has worked steadily on projects that see the light of day at regular intervals. There seems to be little sense of haste during the design process. We should not imagine a flurry of activity at her office, rather an architect patiently perfecting her schemes.
There is no indication of a shift in the themes of her designs. At most one might feel that with time these themes have achieved depth or have been styled with added refinement. Van Hee seems, in short, to satisfy that mythical ideal image of the architect who works on her oeuvre in utter tranquillity. The similarities between the objectives, not the variations in design tasks, are what determine the result.
These likenesses between projects are so evident as to lead the spectator to suspect a well-wrought underlying theory. Here, surely, is someone who knows what she wants to achieve and is thoroughly adept at finding the right architectural means to realize her intentions. Making an acquaintance with the person behind the work reveals that this is not the case. A second romanticized picture – or rather a cliché – now breaks the spell, namely the architect as creative individual, as spatial artist, possibly a genius in her own conceptual world but unequipped to face the real one.
Van Hee denies having a personal theory and refuses to enter into the intentions of her designs on a higher level of abstraction. Her work is the message, not an example of a message. Which brings us to a classic misunderstanding in the art world: ‘Discussing art is difficult because everyone knows and feels how unnecessary and misplaced this is. Good art speaks for itself and requires no comment.’ In an essay in De Witte Raaf Van Hee’s fellow townsman Bart Verschaffel has tried to rectify this misunderstanding by stating that we are willing to discuss art not just to superficially repeat the sensory experience by ‘translating’ this into words, but because the artwork ‘elicits a desire to be discussed, to be written about, to be analysed, to be interpreted.’1) If we feel a work is interesting, that it appeals to us, we then have the inclination to return to it after the initial encounter, this time ‘armed with a question, a thought, an association.’ And why should the artist, in this case the architect, be unwilling to collaborate on this confrontation?
Van Hee’s oeuvre consists by and large of private houses. This is not only due to the structure of the architectural profession in Belgium, which prevents many architects from working outside this field, it is in Van Hee’s case undoubtedly related to her (implicit) architectural vision. She was born to design housing, or she has so closely identified herself with that sector as to create that impression. From the themes that persistently recur in her work she has distilled a vision on domesticity.
The centre of the houses is invariably given over – nothing exceptional about this, of course – to the main living quarters. Between these living areas and the street one generally finds a buffer zone. The facade duplicates itself, the wall ‘splits’, as Koen van Synghel describes it,2) shielding the act of dwelling from public life. For example, in the Coppens-Van Hee House, a gigantic company residence in Deinze (1993), the architect generated a spacious double-height hall with innumerable doors to the living area, bedrooms and the many built-in storage units. This room acts as a ‘coulisse’ of sorts within the house, a margin from which the living areas – which are linked to begin with, and even connected to the rooms above by a second stair – are variously accessible. In the more urbanly situated house (and pharmacy) in Wemmel (1995) the roof terrace and a narrow balcony extending it hold the outside world at arm’s length. Terrace and balcony are in fact inappropriate terms: they have storey-high parapets with tall narrow openings, as if windows in a double elevation.
The same thing usually happens on the garden side. Here too the facade doubles, except that the distance between the two walls is many times greater and the outer leaf enfolds the external space, thus drawing together house and garden. The garden or the terrace, whichever the case may be, is ideally an enclosed area for living. The best example of this is Van Hee’s own house, recently realized in Ghent. Set in a densely built-up area, the external space is laid out as the principal living area. The L-shaped house gives shape to a courtyard of gravel, plant pots and a pergola, with a large wooden table providing space for all manner of activities. The lavatory is discovered along the courtyard and is only reached from outside, as if to prove that here in the courtyard, one has not left the house. A number of cats live in the yard; a large garden containing flowerbeds and a herb garden effects a transition to the street beyond.
Just how deeply all the preconditions have to be considered if the result is to convince, is demonstrated by the Breat-De Paepe House (1996), once again in Ghent, but in quite another type of neighbourhood. Here it is not the concentration of people that prevails with the house providing a modest hiatus, but the rampant disorder of the modern city, where planning has failed to keep up with developments or refused to take them into account. A densification on an unfinished lot, a tall apartment building and a desolate parking area with impossible residuals of foliage dominate the site. Van Hee has set out to exclude the surrounding buildings and profit from the open space, however unarticulated this may be. Garden walls were prohibited, so she has enlisted a car-port to generate a patio at the front of the house. The living room is upstairs, where it keeps its distance from the square though still turned towards it. The client’s wish to place openings in the side and rear elevation has only weakened the concept and forfeited every effort to achieve a sense of secutity.
And security is the operative word in Van Hee’s architecture. This she achieves by pushing back the boundary between exterior and interior, an act that draws heavily on the available space. Part of the house, or a portion of the ground, is defined as the border area and is fitted out as such. So the more space there is, the better Van Hee’s projects usually function.
That border area subordinated to the core of the house, and as such is under strict surveillance; border traffic is not encouraged. The border is a barrier, not an overlap between two domains. It defends the core, the intimacy of dwelling, the soul of the inhabitant. For Van Hee the principal criterion in the designing of a house is that of whether she would be willing to live in it herself. At the end of the day, each building task is an architect’s quest for self discovery. For there dwells the soul of the architect as well as that of the inhabitant. That might help to explain Van Hee’s silence on the subject. Perhaps her personal involvement is too great to be sublimated in a single theory. In the security of her houses the public domain would be an unwelcome guest. They are a place for reflection and sentiments, not for professional discussion, or the printed word.