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Architecture Misfit #39: Juliaan Lampens

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Since April 2017 there had been a draft post on Belgian architect Juliaan Lampens and, as I don’t follow online architectural media, only found out a week ago that he died last year – though knowing that at the time wouldn’t have changed anything. This post began as a career case study but it soon became clear Lampens was Architecture Misfit #39.

Lampens’ built work is accomplished and frequently inspired and unique but what makes him special is his relationship with his career. Very early on he discovered what made sense to him and never deviated from the pursuit of that. There’s no journey of artistic progression to see, report, theorize or otherwise consume. The house he designed for himself in 1960 and lived in for the next sixty years is not that different from the last house he designed in 2002. His projects have no social agenda other than not spoiling the landscape in which they are placed. He felt no need to devise and espouse a theory. He did not travel to seek commissions beyond the town of Ghent where he was born, lived, worked and died. He avoided all publicity so he wouldn’t be compared to others and he avoided having his projects published in magazines so they wouldn’t be compared to each other. His only marketing was the buildings themselves and client’ word-of-mouth. He gave two interviews. In 2011 when he was 85 he was interviewed by Hans Ulrich Obrist for a monograph. The other was in 2014 for Japanese magazine a+u. Lampens was content to live in the one place and design buildings for the people that asked him to. It’s probably not possible to be this kind of architect anymore. I hope I’m wrong.

Obituaries all told much the same story and, though I’m not disputing the facts, I’m uneasy about their lack of variation.

  1. Lampens was a Brutalist architect, little known outside Belgium.
  2. Lampens’ first buildings were traditional in style but in 1958 he visited the Brussels Expo and decided he was some sort of Modernist.
  3. Lampens developed his own personal style of raw concrete and monolithic buildings resembling fortresses or bunkers that blend in their context and natural landscape.

This narrative is usually illustrated with the following buildings.

1960: Own House, Eke, Belgium

Like many architects, Lampens designed his own house as a statement of what he believed in architecturally and so function as a word-of-mouth marketing tool for further business. It worked. It was open plan, as Lampens’ later houses tended to be, and its concrete roof was supported by brick walls. He believed buildings should be sculpture that should enhance their surroundings. This is all the theory we get.

photo: Dieter Lampens

In the photo at left, below, note the irregular ceiling arrangement of what look like bricks but are probably light fittings.

The plan already shows many features Lampens would re-use. Most noticeable is a simple shape for the enclosure and a minimum of internal planning within that, along with a lack of emphasis on furniture placement. Both suggest an interest in designing structures that can be arbitrarily inhabited – at least conceptually.

1966: The chapel of Our Blessed Lady of Kerselare Edelare, Belgium

Here we get to see more concrete in a manner we associate with Kenzo Tange and a purpose we associate with Le Corbusier. The planning is not that different from the 1960 house.. This links to a heritage management plan containing much information [in Dutch] about this building.

1967: Vandenhaute-Kiebooms House Zingem, Belgium

An article in Wallpaper* said “Through his architecture Lampens championed a family-focused and egalitarian way of living that went against the grain of his contemporaries’ bourgeois emphasis on individuality and hierarchy”. This is a reference to the Vandenhaute-Kiebooms House in which a family of six lived in a 14m x 14m space without conventional markers of visual or aural privacy.

The only fixed elements are three half-closed concrete cylinders that rise from the floor to house the bath, toilet and the staircase to the cellar. The kitchen is semi-enclosed by a square of walls hanging from the ceiling. Everything else in the house can be reorganized around these elements. The free-standing timber units are bedroom furniture with beds attached. It’s been only eight years since Lampens started his practice and already he’s making some very strong decisions.

This plan shows how the house is organized. It’s not large. The roof drains into the circular pond via a device we’ve just seen in the chapel. Note the boundary between the hard and soft landscaping.

1968: House Diane Lampens Gavere, Belgium

The brick walls, tile floor, metal fireplace, timber ceiling and timber room divider/furniture partitions show Lampens sense for all materials, not just concrete. He seems to have intuitively understood that a variety of different materials in close proximity always suggests abundance even when none of them are premium materials. We would call it a Scandinavian use of materials if the internal walls were painted white. (You won’t see paint in any of the buildings here.)

This interest in materials extended to steel, stainless steel, ceramic tile, timber and plastic laminate, all of which you can see in this kitchen. Again, the house has its living functions conceptually separate yet internal to the enclosure.

1970: Eke Public Library Eke, Belgium

The library interior features Lampens’ characteristic timber ceilings with circular roof lights, an irregular pattern of ceiling light fixtures and some magnificent timber shelves.

1973: House Derwael–Thienpont Gavere, Belgium

Here, again, we have a house with a concrete roof of which little is seen, as well as a timber ceiling, tile floor and timber fittings. Lampens’ preference was to use timber for ceilings and the parts of the building people came into contact with. A entrance door would never be metal.

Lampens believed every drawing should be beautiful.

In these next two images we again see that irregular arrangement of ceiling lights. [I like this idea. All too many rooms nowadays have recessed downlights placed in thoughtless grids across entire ceilings, providing uniform illumination as if living rooms were offices with no such thing as a dark corner.]

1974: Van Wassenhove House Laethem-Saint-Martin (near Ghent), Belgium

This house is said to be Lampens’ masterpiece. From the street approach it does the bunker thing, and this time we see nothing but concrete and a timber door.

The plan is characteristic yet different at the same time. Again, note that boundary between the hard and soft landscaping. The window wall faces due south.

The open plan has several levels and a timber cylinder enclosing the bed. The study overlooks the living space.

1988: House De La Ruelle–Van Moffaert Sint-Martens-Latem, Belgium

This house has several features we now associate with Lampens – the circular roof light, the use of timber in the interior, the irregular arrangement of ceiling lights, the open plan, the concern for rainwater. What’s different is the use of long pieces of precast concrete stacked like logs.

This house is a concrete block addition to an existing prefabricated timber structure and perhaps because of that, plans are hard to come by.

1990: House LampensDieter Gavere, Belgium

This house was for one of Lampens’ sons. Again, plans are difficult to find.

2002: House VelgheVerlinden Deinze, Belguim

This was Lampens’ last house and it’s remarkable for how much it has in common with his first house from 1960. There is still a blank wall on the public side of the house while the other sides are as open as possible. In the case of this house, the blank wall is perhaps most justifiable but no conclusion can be made without seeing the site boundaries and access road.

It’s also the only house I’ve seen where there is an internal 45° corner, turned rather effortlessly by the kitchen and table.

This time there’s not one but two exaggerated rainwater spouts. The arrangement of light fittings on the ceiling was always one of those inexplicable design decisions that can be neither justified nor criticized – it just is. This enclosed yard outside the bathroom is another.

Here’s what we have.

1950-1960: unrecorded early houses
1960: Own House, Eke, Belgium
1966: The chapel of Our Blessed Lady of Kerselare Edelare, Belgium
1967: Vandenhaute-Kiebooms House Zingem, Belgium
1968: House Diane Lampens Gavere, Belgium
1970: Eke Public Library Eke, Belgium
1973: House Derwael–Thienpont Gavere, Belgium
1974: Van Wassenhove House Laethem-Saint-Martin (near Ghent), Belgium
1988: House De La Ruelle–Van Moffaert Sint-Martens-Latem, Belgium
1990: House Dieter Lampens Gavere, Belgium
2002: House VelgheVerlinden Deinze, Belguim

The absence of information on the early houses we can perhaps excuse, although they’re probably nothing to be ashamed of. However, if Lampens’ own house was finished in 1960, then it was six years before his next known building, the chapel was finished. After that, there was one commission every year or two until Van Wassenhove House was completed In 1974. This suggests a sole practitioner or a very small office. The gap between 1974 and 1988 corresponds to Lampens beginning teaching in 1974 at his former school, the Institut Saint-Luc in Ghent. He designed three more houses over the period 1985-2002. Now, there’s nothing compelling architects to be compulsively prolific but Lampens’ reputation seems to rest on one chapel, one public library, and eight houses of which one was for himself and two others for relatives. On the basis of cashflow alone, this simply isn’t possible and can’t be anywhere near the full story. Next week’s post will hopefully redress the balance and give a fuller picture of Lampens’ career so we can better learn from it.

• • •

Juliaan Lampens
1 Jan. 1926 – 6 Nov. 2019

for keeping it simple

misfits salutes you!

• • •


Juliaan Lampens, 2011 edited buy Angelique Campens

Juliaan Lampens is one of eleven books awarded the Prix Fernand Baudin Prijs, a prize giving special recognition to those books which demonstrate an outstanding quality both in their conception (editorial and graphic), and in their production (printing and binding). The calaogue for the prize, this year produced in collaboration with designer Manuela Dechamps Otamendi, is distributed together with the prize-winning books for the original price of the publication. About Juliaan Lampens: “This book is built around the main projects of Belgian architect Juliaan Lampens. With a small but very personal ouvre (a few houses, a chapel and a library), Lampens succeeded in building some of the most radical architecture in Belgium. The book unfolds in 3 ways: a black and white overview of the projects with text and archival material (photographs and plans), 2 colour sections with photographs by Jan Kempenaers, showing these buildings in their current state and a cross-reading by Sara Noel Costa de Aurajo.” -Thomas Desmet of Studio Luc Derycke (With written contributions by Angelique Campens, Sara Noel Costa De Araujo, Joseph Grima, Jan Kempenaers, Hans Ulrich Obrist and Francis Strauven.)


  • great read graham, thanks. refreshing to see someone so, dare i say pure; I fear I’d feel naive to try tread a similar path.. you talk about his light fittings as “inexplicable design decisions, that can be neither justified nor criticised”. i’d be interested in hearing more of your thoughts on this. I’m sure I’ve seen you mention it before, could you point me in the right direction, or maybe a topic for the future? thanks again.

    • Hello Sam. Yes, Lampens seems to have been very pure. Photographs of his houses all show them lived-in. I’ve only seen House Wassenhove with “architectural” photos of it cleared of all signs of life – perhaps because of its heritage status and it being open to visitors since 2014 (I only just read). But yes, the pattern of light fittings. It at once seems a rational thing to do as a way of reconciling task lighting and background lighting and a familiar thing in that there is random pattern of bright things above one’s head. Stars? He never stopped doing this in 60 years and it’s still as fresh in 2002 as it was in 1960. A compulsive designer working for media attention would not repeat themselves in this way. Every instance would be different. That pond in the 2002 house is another example. If you look closely at the earlier plans you can see curved boundaries between the hard and soft landscaping in houses in 1964 and 1968 (if I remember rightly).

      But you’re right. I have mentioned this before. The most recent was in that post It’s Just Design but I”m pretty sure I was referring back to the Japanese architect Tōgō Murano who made many of this type of decision and all are inexplicably perfect yet refuse any rationalization other than that one person decided it should be that way. Moreover, at the same time, these decisions don’t seem affected or arrogant. We just accept them and enjoy them for what they are.

      I know that in my first paragraph I attempted to rationalize Lampens’ choice of that particular pattern of light fittings but no one pattern is going to be that much more “functional” than a regular grid. It’s just that there will be a different mood and I confessed to liking this. As it happens, I’m currently living in a hotel and there are no ceiling light fittings, just bedside lamps, one on the desk, a standard lamp in the corner, one wall fitting by the coffee maker and a lamp behind the mirror. There’s sufficient light and the right light to do everything without turning night into day. I wonder if uniformity of lighting isn’t a characteristic of modern life? Grids of recessed downlighter seems to be an indicator of abundance. However, the pool area of this hotel has “background” music and every five metres there’s another speaker. Every palm tree has one and they are hidden in the bushes, in lines along the walls, etc. There is nowhere to escape this music except underwater. The speakers have been and then placed so that the same volume of sound is heard across the entire pool deck. This is excellent salesmanship by BOSE speaker sellers but nobody seems to have questioned why there needs to be a uniform level of sound with no quiet corners to escape it. Add to this the fact that the music in the Middle East is generally too loud, and it’s not a nice experience. My annoyance at this probably made me more aware to Lampens’ lights.

      Thanks for asking, Sam. Keep a look out for examples of things you think fit into this category.