Seth Sherwood -- Interior Design, 1/1/2009 12:00:00 AM
You can't toss a brick in the venerable Belgian city of Bruges without hitting, well, more bricks. It's a town so quaint, blocky, and angular that it looks snapped together by some Flemish Norman Rockwell with a Lego fetish. Bricks pave the streets. Bricks line the canals. Bricks fit together to form the rustic gabled town houses, Gothic churches, and magnificent Baroque edifices that have won the historic town center UNESCO World Heritage status.
So when architect Freek Persyn and his copartners Peter Swinnen and Johan Anrys at 51N4E (named for the geographical coordinates of Brussels, where the firm is based) came to building a rear addition to a 19th-century Bruges canal house, they naturally thought of bricks—and categorically rejected them. "The material was to have no contextual relationship to the city," Persyn says, "to create an interior that disconnects you from it."
After demolishing three small structures in the backyard to create space for the addition, the architects wound up choosing cedar planking, both for its naturalness and its subdued color, which eventually will fade to a pleasing gray. The flexibility of the wood allowed the team to fashion a curvaceous double-height chamber with a vaulted ceiling, an airy space that feels simultaneously organic and futuristic. They laid a polished concrete floor and cut an elliptical skylight in the roof. Only the brick end walls, formed by the house and the backyard fence respectively, recall the masonry city outside.
The sky room, as it's dubbed, is emblematic of the transformation 51N4E performed on the rest of the three-bedroom house, which functions as a residence and a place of business. In nearly every area of the 2,300-square-foot structure, which is hemmed in by town houses on either side, the architects introduced light and flexibility. "Each space is open to different kinds of use," explains Swinnen. The first-floor library doubles as an office, for instance, while the sky room might work equally well as a lounge, a living room, or even a bedroom. "Every room has autonomy," Anrys adds.
The ground-floor kitchen is a case in point. The architects opened it up to the adjacent stairwell, allowing sunlight to filter in from above, and installed new polished black-concrete flooring. The expansive room's unobtrusive custom furnishings—a long white cooking island, a minimalist black-steel fireplace, and an illuminated wall unit containing resin shelves and the stainless-steel sink—can be made to vanish: A large rectangular pane of opaque black glass, hanging from a track, slides across from above the fireplace to hide the sink, while a panel on the central island flips over the gas burners to create a seamless work table. In a matter of seconds, the room metamorphoses from a kitchen into a conference room.
Even the house's new color scheme suggests that all may not be as it seems. Pulling away a swath of old wallpaper in one room during renovation revealed an underlying shade of paint that Persyn calls "Magritte Blue," a nod to the Belgian surrealist painter René Magritte. The evocative hue became central to the project's color palette. A softer shade of it coats the pristinely repainted facade, replacing a dull gray. A more saturated blue, one developed and patented by Yves Klein, covers the doorway and the winding stair to the master bathroom on the house's top floor.
There, old meets old. The owners decided to maintain the original oak flooring but reposition the wall-mounted tub fittings. They now sit centrally in the room, serving a vintage tub found at a Bruges flea market. And there's not a brick in sight.
From Front Knoll: Table, Chairs (Addition). Franke: Sink (Kitchen). ThroughoutBAS: Structural Engineer. Hornicub: General Contractor.Photography by AKE E:SON Lindman/OWI.