Attitudes towards architecture and design are, I think, influenced by the differing physical and social environments that give them birth. I’ve always looked to Switzerland, Italy, Australia and Japan for my interiors inspiration, places that aren’t afraid of the radically modern. There are some very good modern British architects, too, perhaps in a slightly gentler way – the work of David Chipperfield and John Pawson always inspires – though as always in Britain, modernism – the slightly-pejoratively named ‘International Style’ – seems to come with overtones of wealth and exclusivity.
One place that has remained somewhat below the radar in respect to modern architecture , is the Low Countries. I think it is fair to say that in Britain, Belgium in particular has always had a rather non-identity. But there is a large amount of excellent, distinctive design being produced in both Belgium and The Netherlands, of whom some of the fashion designers such as Dries van Noten and Anne Demeulmeester are higher profile. But the same spirit of under-stated and crisp minimalism is increasingly to be found in the work of those countries’ architects too, with practices such as Minus and Klaarchitectuur gaining a growing reputation, as well as a number of smaller practices such as Frederic Kielmoes. It has had some success in diverting me for the time being at least, from my more usual diet.
On reflection, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that a culture that produced medieval Flemish gothic is good at architecture generally – though I must admit the old stuff always used to feel rather dour and overblown to me, until I learned to like it by spending time in Lille.
What is interesting about the Flemish take on modernism is that it seems closely suited to the quiet, unassuming landscapes, often post-industrial towns and pale light in which it is seen. Perhaps that is why its use of stark contrast works so well, with both very blond and very dark woods, slubby greys, inky blacks and just the very occasional ‘pop’ of saturated colour giving a little more support than is usual to the pure, slightly bluish-whites. It is rather different from the all-white of more ‘traditional’ modernism, which relies to a greater extent on strong natural light and a dry climate for maximum impact. Here, the restricted palette allows colour to come from either possessions or carefully-framed views of the exterior, which become almost art-works in their own right when seen against the monochrome interiors.
It is a striking and almost austere aesthetic, with overtones of the Old Masters as well as a nod to mid-century style in the simple, natural material chosen for the signature furniture pieces. It has an ethereal edge to it, too, which sits especially nicely within the region’s coastlines of dunes, grasses and big skies. It demonstrates, too, that modernism does not require glamorous surroundings in order to work.
As with many cultural matters, there is a visible continuity with the work of the previously-mentioned British architects such as Chipperfield and Pawson, though I rather like the fact that the Flemish work is perhaps a degree more sombre than the more forgiving British versions. In addition to the buildings themselves, the Belgians have a number of companies producing crisp, high-tech lighting and other fixtures, with companies like Modular and Deltalight being in the avant-guard.
What is more, there are some fascinating juxtapositions of ancient and modern taking place, which seems to work particularly well with the slightly gloomy traditional architecture of the region.
So there we are: a ‘school’ of architecture worth watching, and one that might have things to lend to Britain’s aesthetic as well. I suspect that many will consider such pure interiors impossible to live normal lives in – but I’m not so sure. There is nothing here that says ordinary, messy life should not go on within: it’s just a matter of how the buildings are organised to keep it contained.
And a few more things to add to the growing list of notable Belgians.