Juliaan Lampens was a brutalist architect from Belgium, who had a major impact on the field, and yet remains a less spoken about figure. He created a modest yet impactful oeuvre of distinct and sharp buildings that are a delight to rediscover. Join me in looking at some of his most striking designs.
The Belgian modernist Juliaan Lampens (1926) experimented with the use of raw concrete and created sculpture-like exteriors leading onto open vistas. His architecture goes beyond designs for conventional living and instead suggests a utopian avant-garde of living without barriers.
Digging a little deeper into Lampens’ life and work, it quickly becomes apparent that there is more to his architecture than brutalism by numbers. Belgian curator Angelique Campens has been studying Lampens’ work since her university years and knew him well. The architect had a reputation for being reserved, keeping his business to himself to the point of avoiding contact with colleagues. He didn’t even travel much, reveals Campens. ‘But he had a lot of books. He admired Oscar Niemeyer and was influenced by Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe.’ He may seem to have lacked the desire for architectural pilgrimage, but Lampens practised non-stop from his base in Eke, East Flanders, from 1950 until his last work was built in 2002 – creating a legacy of about 50, mostly residential, projects.
Juliaan Lampens’ Life and Career
Juliaan Lampens was born in 1926 in De Pinte, near Ghent, Belgium. He founded his own architectural practice in Eke in 1950 after studying art at the Higher Institute for Art and Vocational Training of the Sint-Lucas School in Gent. Juliaan Lampens was mainly active in East Flanders. The Chapel of Kerselare (Oudenaarde, 1966), House Vandenhaute – Kiebooms (Zingem, 1967) and House Van Wassenhove (Deurle, 1972 – 1974) are considered to be his absolute masterpieces. The most ‘famous’ project was the chapel located in Kerselaere, built in 1966. Back then politics dominated architecture so he decided to cheat by showing fake plans of a classical chapel, only the pastor saw the real plans of the chapel. To enter the belly of this architectural beast, one follows a prescribed course that pulls one down a narrow eternal corridor, past a reflecting pool, and then into the chapel itself, a space of dramatic solitude. As Francis Strauven, the dean of Belgian architectural scholars, writes:
The ambiguity of front and rear, the tension between inside and outside, the slipping from open to closed, from high to low, the change in situation from dynamic to peaceful, give this room a special, unusual character, so unusual that it cannot be positioned within the typology of modern church building. In the diverse panorama of churches that arose in the 20th century, no precedent for Kerselare can be found.
Snapping crocodile jaws were the inspiration for Lampens’s extraordinary Church at Kerselare, though I don’t think anyone would suggest it is a work of kitsch. As legend would have it, in the 15th century one of the patrons of the church was attacked by a crocodile while on pilgrimage in Egypt. The vicious reptile was — thank heaven — subdued, embalmed, and transformed into a relic. This was later replaced by a wooden facsimile and later still dispensed with altogether. Lampens chose to resurrect it architecturally. If you don’t know the backstory of the Lampens building, you’d never think crocodile.
Other than that his work consists mostly out of houses. The open house concept seems to be contagious since he has built similar homes for the children who have grown up in them. Although he started his career with more traditional architecture, Lampens’ visit to Expo 58 in Brussels changed his architectural style to brutalism and concrete, much like the styles of Le Corbusier and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Some of his other designs include his personal house (built in 1960). In his domestic interiors, Lampens offsets concrete’s harshness with the warmth of wood and an openness to nature. He designed his own house with an open plan, and pressed his clients to follow along in this suit, which he considered a more “rational” mode of living. “Once you’ve lived in such a house, you will want nothing else.” That he managed to convince so many to do so is altogether remarkable, given that he was building in what were essentially conservative middle-class suburbs. His Vandenhaute House, an exemplar, is a broad square room looking out on a rear garden. A pair of cylindrical volumes enclose toilet and bath, and a hanging concrete baffle defines the kitchen/dining area. Whether or not one shares Lampens’s taste for this kind of living, it’s impossible not to admire his conviction.
Other major works of his include the Eke Public Library (built in 1970), and the House Derwael–Thienpont in Gavere(built in 1973). In 1974, Lampens began as a professor for the Institut Saint-Luc in Ghent, and earned the title of Full Professor in 1985. Juliaan Lampens died on 6 November 2019 at the age of 93. The Belgian architect Juliaan Lampens falls into this rare class, though he is all but unknown to the wider world, as his practice has been almost entirely confined to a small area in Flanders around Ghent, where he was born in 1926. A new monograph on his work with contributions by Hans Olbrich Obrist and Joseph Grima will not pull him completely out of obscurity, but it is at least a step in the right direction. Maybe he’d be more famous if he was known as the architect who designed the chapel inspired by a crocodile’s jaws, but we’ll get to that.
Juliaan Lampens’ Approach to Architecture
The architecture of Juliaan Lampens goes beyond conventional living and is instead suggestive of the utopist avant-garde of living without barriers. In 1950, the architect set up his own business in Belgium, in the village of Eke on the outskirts of Ghent. Having been profoundly influenced by his experience of the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair, Lampens subsequently made a radical change of course and built his own house in 1960, which represented a major turning point in his career. Lampens worked almost exclusively with concrete, wood and glass. Formally, his homes were designed to showcase an interior and exterior harmony with their surrounding environment and nature. Borders, cardinal orientation and lines of sight were all central to the placement and construction of the home. Typically, Lampens’s houses are closed to the public on one side but are otherwise completely open to nature, with the result that there is always a formal exchange between transparency and closure.
He constantly tried to reach an absolute reconciliation in the antagonism between Le Corbusier’s whimsy and Mies van der Rohe’s control. He also had deep admiration for Oscar Niemeyer, Romanesque architecture and the bunkers along the Atlantic Wall. For Lampens, these constructions on the Atlantic coast constituted the most beautiful examples of brutalism. Though not directly associated with brutalism, the architecture of Juliaan Lampens stands as a significant variant of this style: materially in his use of raw concrete, and formally in his deployment of the bunker typology. For some time he experimented with raw concrete in order to develop his style of bunker-like exteriors combined with open vistas and sculptural motifs.
Lampens’s idea of living was based on various features to form a complete open plan without pillars or even walls, and all the rooms were placed so they seemingly conjoined with each other (kitchen, living room, bedrooms and bathroom all in one open space). Unlike the bourgeois insistence on individuality and patriarchy, this style privileges community and equality within the living space while focusing on life together as a family unit as a way of returning to a more basic way of living.
Some architects gain rapid international acclaim, while others are only acknowledged much later in their careers. The work of Juliaan Lampens gained international attention only in 2010, thanks to the publication ‘Juliaan Lampens’, edited by Angélique Campens and with photos by Jan Kempenaers. Before, the work of the ‘fotgotten architect’ was only known in Belgium. In 1991, a retrospective took place at arts centre deSingel in Antwerp. He was awarded the Belgian Award for Architecture in 1995. In 2014 however, the prominent Japanese architecture magazine A+U published a special edition on Juliaan Lampens. It shows the increasing international interest in his work. If Lampens seemed always to be creating something new, it was because he always believed there was something new to learn: “To students I say, for the first ten years you’re an architectural student, and after that you stay a student architect for the rest of your life.” Students of all ages would do well to learn from him and his compact but very potent body of work.
Juliaan Lampens’ 10 Most Iconic Designs
1.Kerselare Chapel, Oudenarde
The commission for the Chapel of Our Blessed Lady of Kerselare followed soon after the completion of Lampens’ house. However, the design with which he won the 1961 competition – with Professor Rutger Langaskens, one of his former teachers – was very different from what you see today. Upon winning, Lampens reworked the building, making it so altered from the original and so alien to the neighbourhood that during the concrete casting, passers-by thought it would be a silo. Despite this, and with the incumbent pastor’s support, the high-ceilinged chapel – resembling a giant concrete skip – opened in 1966. It featured bespoke concrete benches (currently removed), a large glass wall and a central concrete skylight, while the protruding mono-pitched roof provided outdoor shelter for the congregation.
It was the chapel’s large untreated surfaces that led many to label Lampens a follower of brutalist architecture, a tag he has never accepted. ’He never felt part of a group,’ Campens stresses. The chapel and his Eke house were landmarks in Lampens’ career. Part of his aloof, albeit good-natured, character is reflected in the esoteric, yet sturdy and unexpectedly open designs; street-shy, they are welcoming once you’re inside. Certainly, they gained him many new commissions.
Recent photos show the concrete roof should have had its materiality sustained by a bit more material. Bunkers still litter coastlines for a reason. The yellow supports are thoughtfully designed and positioned as if they’re going to be around for quite some time. That roof’s not going to be made good without major pain.
2. Eke Public Library
This public library in Eke, Belgium, is a concrete cube with angular openings that create dynamic shadows across the building’s facade. The building was opened in 1971, in the town Lampens grew up in. The project has little written on it, yet in the photos available online we can see the subtle beauty of the building. Borders, cardinal orientation and lines of sight were all central to the placement and construction of the home. Typically, Lampens’s houses are closed to the public on one side but are otherwise completely open to nature, with the result that there is always a formal exchange between transparency and closure. He uses similar principles in this building of public infrastructure. The architecture of Juliaan Lampens stands as a significant variant of this style: materially in his use of raw concrete, and formally in his deployment of the bunker typology, which can be seen clearly in the Eke public library.
3. Personal Home
Lampens’ first modern design was his own house and office in Eke, built in 1960. The house, a simple low box with a strong horizontal concrete slab roof and wooden details, was a taste of things to come. Testing the idea of lightness, the architect created the structure with almost no load-bearing walls, based on a steel-column grid. Glass-enclosed apart from a brick wall concealing it from the street, the house connects visually with the outdoors at the back and is largely open-plan inside, with bare brick and concrete on show. For the region at the time, Lampens’ approach was radical. Privacy from the street, a connection with the natural environment, the use of exposed raw materials and an open-plan interior all became recurring themes in his work. Lampens also paid special attention to smaller concete architecture details, such as the roof’s drains, which he described as ’functional ornaments’.
4. The Vandenhaute-Kiebooms House in Zingem
Lampens’ most daring work is the Vandenhaure-Kiebooms house in Huise, completed in 1967. The client, Gerard Vandenhaute, hoped for a house that pushed the envelope. His wish was granted. Designed along Lampens’ usual lines – a minimal, one-level glass box topped off with a thick concrete flat roof – the house is pillar- and wall-less inside; even the bathroom is open to the rest of the interior, with privacy afforded only by a shoulder-height cylindrical concrete partition. In a play of transparency and openness, the only other fixed component is the kitchen. The roof stands on a solid, street-facing concrete wall and two steel pillars on the opposite side.
Sketching everything from tiny details to larger concepts, Lampens produced hundreds of drawings throughout his career, signing every one. Still, he never cherished paper architecture. ’He called it “embryonic” architecture. For him, drawings were secondary. Built work remained the important thing,’ Campens says. Today, these drawings are held at Eke library, where the Juliaan Lampens Foundation takes care of his archive, run by, among others, his son Dieter Lampens and Campens.
5. The Van Wassenhove House in Laethem-Saint-Martin
The Van Wassenhove residence, completed in 1974. School teacher Albert Van Wassenhove, admiring the Kerselare chapel, asked Lampens for a similar house. In response, and taking into account the plot’s limited views, the architect created an irregular rough-cast concrete volume, blind from two sides and semi-sunken into a hill. For the flowing interior, as with other projects, Lampens designed furniture – chairs, tables and chaises longues – all simple and mainly wooden.
An earlier iteration of 1974 Van Wassenhove House is configured the same way with the emphasis on a protecting wall enclosing a conceptually independent interior configuration. It’s basically what any house is – an enclosure that can be lived in. The layout of the Van Wassenhove House as-built is no different. However, the orientation is. The unbuilt plan has the bedroom and study facing south and the living/dining-kitchen facing but most likely with borrowed light from the south. The built layout has the living area facing east while the bedroom and bathroom are lit from the west, with borrowed light to the living area. This is made possible of course, by the bedroom and bathroom walls not being full height. When he died, the owner Albert Wassenhove, gifted his house to the University of Ghent who in turn gave it on a long-term loan to the museum Dhondt-Dhaenens in Deurle. The house was renovated in 2015 thanks to the support of Philippe and Miene Gillion, and it is now available for residencies and short stays.
6. House Velghe in Deinze
Neither interested in the latest ‘–isms’, nor wanting to belong to the momentaneous spotlights of the happy fancy, Lampens consistently focused on the hard work itself. Through his self imposed ‘standing-out’ off-centre he has long been shunned by architectural critics yet this peripheral attitude enabled him to silently continue on the essence of his work by which he has become ‘outstanding’ in a timeless way as an architect.
“We have to be aware of the details from the very beginning of the design process as details are essential to complete architecture. It might be very easy to work out good concepts, but we have to complete beautiful details at the early design stage to actually build architecture. This “switch” can be cultivated by repeated experiences, and one of the experiences is drawing”
The details are sometimes surprisingly natural and curving, for an architect who is labelled as brutalist. He uses concrete to create liquid forms that create a floating terrace in the backyard. A mirror in the bathroom mimics the curving lines of this walking area. The interior is filled with richly patterned and knotted wood. The floors are made of concrete, that blends seamlessly with the rest of the building. Large circular skylights let the light pour in, as do massive walls made entirely of glass.
7. House Lampens – Hartmann
In a departure from Lampens predominant use of concrete, this house is constructed with grey brick. The front facade features a circular window and is entirely covered in a beautiful sheath of ivy. The driveway is sheltered by overhanging tree branches, creating a lush and green entry into the house. The house is much more vertical than his other creations, which tend to be low to the ground and feature large portions of glass windows. Unlike his other structures that have a bunker like quality, this one resembles something more of a spaceship.
8. The House Derwael–Thienpont in Gavere
This house is filled on the inside with beautiful warm wood, and layers of glass that create an open and airy quality. This, like many of his buildings, contrasts with the heavy fortress of concrete seen from the outside. This is not something we associate with Brutalism, or even Modernism where the conceit of having inside and outside space “flow into one another” means no such distinction is drawn. It is true that Lampens’ houses have large areas of glazing but it is rare to have an intermediate space such as a terrace or covered porch. I expect this is because In Belgium (as in the UK) the weather is such that many a garden is best appreciated from indoors.
The nearby coastlines of Belgium, France and The Netherlands are littered with WWII bunkers that are indeed massive, monolithic, mute, protective and made of concrete, as fortifications tend to be. These next three photographs by Jonathan Andrew, of some in France, convey the architectonic dimension of these structures.
“For Lampens, these constructions on the Atlantic coast constituted the most beautiful examples of brutalism. Though not directly associated with brutalism, the architecture of Juliaan Lampens stands as a significant variant of this style: materially in his use of raw concrete, and formally in his deployment of the bunker typology. For some time he experimented with raw concrete in order to develop his style of bunker-like exteriors combined with open vistas and sculptural motifs.”
9. Loft Lauwens
Some people won’t see the wood for the concrete but much of Lampens’ work makes strong use of timber and would not be called Brutalist by any definition. Loft Lauwens (circa 1974) is a good example. It’s only publication is in a Japanese magazine, perhaps because the Japanese are less preoccupied with what’s concrete and what’s not. Loft Lauwens is a house built inside an industrial shed has an exposed truss amongst much timber. The effect is neither industrial nor organic. Lampens was quoted as saying he prefers timber for the parts of buildings people touch but the stair handrail is metal.
Juliaan Lampens in some ways defied categorization, perhaps making him such an evasive figure in the history of architecture. He never reached the cult status of many architects whose brilliance seems absolutely commensurate with his own. His combination of stark brutalist exteriors, with natural open interiors and curving details made him a distinct and unique designer.