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The Tree of Ghent

Just as the famed Treaty of 1814 called for peace between the United Kingdom and the United States, the large beech tree on Dieter Van Everbroeck's property harmonizes the relationship between site and structure.
The 300-year-old beech tree supplies shade, movement, sound, and color to the site, and provides a towering natural counterpoint to the renovated home's long, low expanses of glass.

When Belgian architect Dieter Van Everbroeck and his girlfriend, chemist Bep De Reu, set out to find a home, “a banal bungalow from the 1960s,” as Van Everbroeck describes it, was not on their wish list. In fact the couple fell for a spectacular 300-year-old beech tree in a former deer park of a chateau on the outskirts of the historic Flemish city of Ghent.  It just happened to come with a bungalow.

The beech, with its huge circumference of sleek bark and shimmering leaves, supplies shade, movement, sound, and color to the site, and provides a towering natural counterpoint to the renovated home’s long, low expanses of glass. The dynamic relationship that Van Everbroeck created between the house and the beech tree is impressive—especially when you consider that the remnants of the original boxy bungalow with a pitched roof are still somewhere underneath.

In the interest of sustainability and economy the couple opted against wholesale demolition, and were keen to salvage what they could from the old house. “We wanted to minimize the ecological footprint of our new house,” explains Van Everbroeck. “That meant we preserved the original building as much as possible. But we didn’t just want to restyle the bungalow, to make it look more hip—we hate that kind of approach.” Instead, they decided to incorporate it into a new design that creates a more dynamic relationship with the site.

Van Everbroeck extended the wing that sits at 90 degrees to the rest of the bungalow, resulting in a stretched-out L with glass facades surrounding the tree. The pitched roof was removed, and the front of the bungalow replaced with glass. The back of the old house was left intact, providing a ready-made room division for the bedrooms and bathroom in the only closed part of the structure. Cladding the home in rich, golden louro gamela wood unified the two disparate parts and hid the brickwork of the original.

The expansive new wings maximize the home’s proximity to the beech tree, allowing the couple and their three-year-old daughter Zoe to move all around it even while indoors. “We had a problem, and this was the solution we found,” says Van Everbroeck. “Since good architecture is always about the site, never about style, it was our beech tree that held the key. As the tree is so tall, it made sense to stretch the house horizontally, to create an interplay between vertical and horizontal elements.” The horizontal is emphasized indoors by the decision to keep spaces as open as possible, resulting in an almost industrial-feeling, light-filled interior where expanses of glass dissolve the boundary between the house and its site. As Van Everbroeck explains, “The tree becomes part of the interior this way.  And in fact the tree makes this solution possible, because it provides the shade that stops the house from overheating in summer.”

Color is important in Van Everbroeck’s work, and he was eager to apply his color theories, derived from modern artists like Yves Klein and that most color-oriented of modern architects, Le Corbusier, to his own home. “I always suggest using bold colors to clients,” he says. “It gives more clarity, it means you can focus on certain parts of a building, and it gives more insight into the layout. In the case of this house, color is used only on freestanding elements, to emphasize the fact that they are freestanding. That’s a design principle, and there’s nothing ad hoc about it.”

Accordingly, the supporting aluminum posts that dot the glass walls have been painted matte black, “in order to give a more graphic effect,” says Van Everbroeck, and the doors are all a matte dark brown. The cloakroom/bathroom block at the main entrance has been painted in blue and green on alternate walls (according to Le Corbusier, blue and green negate and dissolve space), while the opposite wall dividing the kitchen from the main space is orange—selected to magnify the glowing effect of the setting sun (as well as being the shade that Corbu claims to affirm and assert space). “A site has its qualities and color can emphasize these,” says Van Everbroeck.

The kitchen is a vibrant deep blue. “It’s the same color Le Corbusier used in the corridor of his Villa Savoye in Poissy,” Van Everbroeck reports. “We saw it there, and loved it. The colors we’ve used are all shades derived [from] him. Of course, he championed the use of color in architecture and developed two color collections for the Swiss wallpaper company Salubra, which are collected in the source book <i>Polychromie Architecturale</i>.”

All other walls and ceilings are white. “We chose the brilliant white shade RAL 9010,” Van Everbroeck says. “That’s because it’s the standard—the one they use in traffic signs—and it’s the most pure white there is. Color is nothing more than breaking light, and on pure white you see the most beautiful variations. But I would never paint everything white,” he continues. “When you do, you lose the character of different elements. With white walls, floor, and ceiling, everything becomes one blurred space.
It can be very beautiful, for example, to have a white epoxy floor, but that would give a Space Odyssey effect. White makes everything abstract—which is why museums are usually all white.”

The beech also provides its own visual effects, including a carpet of red-gold leaves in the fall. “I try to let the leaves stay on the ground as long as possible,” says Van Everbroeck. “I don’t sweep them up, as the color is so remarkable.” The copper and bronze shades of the autumn leaves echo the warm tones of the wood used on the house. Van Everbroeck is keen to point out that only FSC-labeled wood was used, on account of its environmental credentials.

These splashes of color haven’t prevented Van Everbroeck and De Reu’s home from occasionally being used as an exhibition space. It has also hosted dinners for 80, and receptions for 200. “We wanted a multifunctional space, because that generates a kind of freedom,” says Van Everbroeck. “Our goal was to create a house with no representative functions, purely for living.”

They selected light fixtures such as industrial outdoor spots (more commonly seen in parking lots) and plain fluorescent strips, while relying on dimmers to soften the effect. “We wanted lighting where the beauty is the light, not the fitting,” the architect explains. The floor is dark gray polished concrete; the furniture ranges from standard office tables and chairs to vintage seating from the 1970s, and even blocks of insulation foam, chosen for their “glorious” color. “The beauty isn’t in the things themselves,” he says. “It’s in the composition.”

It’s an approach that typifies his work for private clients, but also his collaborations on larger public projects with fellow architects Lies Van der Straeten and Wim Van Zele, who together with Van Everbroeck run the office B5. “Being your own client is the hardest job of all,” Van Everbroeck says with a knowing smile. “You have to persuade yourself that it’s just another assignment. You have to abstract yourself from the fact that you’re actually going to live in it.”

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