“I told my people, 'Just follow the instructions on the website. Don’t invent anything.'” That is how Jan de Vylder, the Belgian architect and (along with Inge Vinck) former partner of Jo Taillieu, explains the straightforward appearance of the escalator rising up through his largest project to date, the renovation of the expo center in the city of Charleroi. “The manufacturers know how to make it work with the least expenditure of time and materials,” he adds, “but some of our team kept trying to make it more complicated or, to them, more elegant. I think we should do only the minimal thing.” That attitude explains why he and Vinck split with Taillieu, who loves his details. It is also indicative of the nature of what de Vylder and Vinck are doing to the hulk of the 1950s building in the former coal mining town of Charleroi. It is almost nothing, but in a pretty elegiac and even heroic manner.
The architects' firm Architecten Jan de Vylder Inge Vinck, or AJDVIV, won the competition for the building’s renovation in 2020 after a first attempt to replace the whole structure with a new performing and visual arts venue, a meeting space, and a community facility failed because of the high cost of the proposed new buildings. What AJDVIV instead suggested was leaving the existing building and gutting it to accommodate not only all those functions, but also the parking garage that was originally part of the scheme. The project is scheduled to open this fall but, when I visited this summer, seems quite unfinished. That is the fault of its design, not the state of the construction schedule.
By taking away everything they felt was unnecessary, the architects were also addressing the much more compact uses the city envisioned. Charleroi is a shrinking town trying to convert its mining past, still present in its monumental industrial structures and the black soot on many of the buildings, into a high-tech and creative future. As part of that effort, the community is looking to provide facilities that will attract young creatives and engineers as an alternative to the hundreds of square feet of convention space Charleroi once used by manufacturers to showcase and sell their wares.
In response to that somewhat vague brief, AJDVIV opened up the expo center’s six main halls in two three-story wings. They are spacious, covering 25,000 square feet each. The architects left only the original structure in place and removed some of that as well. Rather than hiding or fixing up what remained, they touched what they kept as little as possible, letting the layers of paint and stucco from various stages of the building’s life tell its history.
Within three of the halls, AJDVIV made room for all 300 parking spaces the city thinks it will need. For access, the firm took advantage of the steep drop-off of the site from the city level at its front to a valley behind it, adding only striping and a few ramps to make the new function possible. With their minimal structure and skylights, these cavernous spaces evoke the famous photographs of the Michigan Theater in Detroit being used to park cars by contrasting the elegance of the old structure with the contemporary forms of the automobiles.
On the other side of the courtyard where the architects installed the new escalators in all their out-of-the-box simplicity, two floors now will serve the meetings, exhibitions, performances, and other functions that the city envisions will make good use of such flexible space. Here, AJDVIV added new mechanical systems and wiring, while also fixing up and extending back-of-the-house facilities. On the middle floor, the firm built three theaters whose sides they covered in a rough, black insulation material visibly screwed onto its backing. These simple forms sitting in an open expanse are the expo center’s largest new addition.
In what had been the ‘Court of Honor’ between the two main wings, the architects opened up floors and cut holes in some walls to make room for new circulation. They also added handrails, deferentially curving them around existing concrete columns and painting them white. The team painted some of the columns yellow, while others remain bare. Fluorescent tubes affixed to columns, walls, and ceilings serve as lighting fixtures. The most elegant features in the space are the glass block domes that marked the area’s two entrance halls, which AJDVIV retained and restored. Because the court’s walls are missing, you now not only see the two building wings this central space joins, but also the chimneys of the old heating plant that had been tucked into the base of the open area between these two structures.
To complete the raw appearance of the whole complex, AJDVIV left in place the graffiti that had been painted on some of the walls. That is also a way of celebrating an art form that Charleroi is now recognizing as one of its strengths. The architects also are retaining the slope of the earth they uncovered by removing some of the building’s small plazas, leaving it to tumble down from the city entrance site in planted terraces.
There is a sense of ruin porn about AJDVIV’s work. The firm delights in not just reusing old buildings, but also in revealing the textures and fragmented forms that years or decades of use add onto the clean architecture envisioned by their original designers and clients. The firm celebrates its own form of deconstruction by leaving the marks of where it has created openings raw and exposed. Where the architects add, they do so with as little invention as possible, instead using what they find in catalogs and building supply warehouses in its utilitarian state. Their biggest design moves are restricted to such touches as curving handrails around existing structures where necessary.
In this way, AJDVIV represents the most radical aspect of what I call imaginative reuse. The architects try to do as little as possible and, in so doing, release the buildings they work on and in to stand in their own worn beauty. Where they act, they remove, open, cut, and delicately suture the wounds so that human beings can use the resulting spaces.
As you can imagine, not all clients cotton to this approach, and the architects do not make it easier on themselves by also eschewing the kind of expository explanation of their own work that most designers use. Their website is an almost unnavigable spreadsheet, and their project descriptions meander and allude, rather than describe. It is as if they believe that even stating what they do is too much. What architects such as this—and I have found examples of such work around the world for a book I am writing on the topic—are proposing is what I would call a kind of Miesian ghosting. They are taking the Modern master’s call for “almost nothing” (which is actually a dictum he apparently often spoke, but never wrote) and turning it into an architecture that does literally build almost nothing, focusing instead on revealing nothingness or a certain pregnant emptiness within existing situations. In an era in which I believe we cannot afford to use natural resources we cannot replenish and thus should not make new buildings, and in which we are looking to open up our social and economic structures in the very buildings that house and affirm them, this seems to me to be an excellent strategy.
The views and conclusions from this author are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine or of The American Institute of Architects.