Snapshot and façade

Maarten Delbeke
in: Moderne tijden, Teksten over architectuur, Vlees & Beton, no. 72, 2007, pp. 152-153

One way in which to interpret Macken & Macken’s Warande is as if a a large screen – the façade – had been placed around the new performing arts hall. The new hall (Kuub) is at the perimeter of the site, parallel to the existing building. On the perimeter, the screen touches the hall. Elsewhere, the margin between the hall and the screen contains the ticket counter, foyer, café, offices and a rehearsal room and workshop, distributed over four floors. The margin is largest in the area between the hall and the old Warande, where it provides room for the entrance, the main public amenities and stairs. The exterior part of that area forms a plaza along the length of the new building, not only providing access to the Warandep’ant, but also horizontally marking the boundary between the superstructure and the underground pedestal, which becomes visible at the incision on the other side of the building.

The placement, composition and form of the screen around the hall is more subtle than would appear at first sight. The curtain wall is an independent element defining a monolithic volume as well as a composition of frames showcasing the interior and determining the view from inside to outside. The fact that these two fundamental and in fact contrasting approaches to the exterior wall of the building – the wallas a façade or as a snapshot – have been collapsed, means that the screen does not merely serve to filter the transmission between interior and exterior, or to showcase the interior, or to define a clear sculpture. It does all those things simultaneously, thus truly acting as an interpreter of the building. The volume’s content is retold, to some extent clarified, but also transformed: rearranged, highlighted, camouflaged or concealed.

On the three entirely flat elevations the different logics of the façade and the snapshot take shape as two hierarchically equal linear patterns. Horizontal lines indicate the storeys. Those subdivisions intersect the pattern of verticals and staggered horizontals defining the rectangular arrangement, in which, where necessary, robust window frames have been placed. The continuous verticals and horizontals determine the alternation of transparent and translucent facing material. The translucent and transparent surfaces now represent the horizontal, then the vertical articulation of the interior, or suggest a volume or a void behind the elevation. The lines in the façade abstract from the thicknesses of floors and walls, and the transparent surfaces constantly vary in relation to the interior – as a window in a wall (in the Kuub) or as a transparent wall (in the rehearsal room), or as a planar surface (the workshop area and the offices above).
As a result, depending on one’s point of view, the building seems in the course of the day or as activities vary, to be in a constant state of decomposition and rearrangement. 
This changeability, achieved as it is with robust and rigid design tools, solidifies in the front that is turned towards the existing building. Here, the new Warande acquires an almost classical appearance. The rehearsal room juts out a little to form an understated canopy, which, together with a series of columns made from I-profile sections, marks the entry zone; the staircase volume indicates, with the incision for the underground patio, the boundary of the entrance plaza. With these unspectacular yet remarkable gestures the Warande extension turns towards the older building, thus inviting comparison with it.

Inevitably, the outward appearance of the new building will indeed be measured against what Paul Vermeulen has described as the ‘almost frantic introversion’ of Vanhout and Schellekens’s design. Facing the extending brick mass of the first building, there appears to stand a clear, sharply-defined volume. But maybe the relationship between the two buildings is more complex than that. Although the old Warande permits surprisingly little communication between interior and exterior, its articulation implies the presence of different programme components: whereas the Kuub disappears into the volume of the Warandep’ant, the hall in the first building clearly represents a distinctive entity. Nevertheless, the original Warande does not address its surroundings: the various parts of the building are geometrical volumes which reveal little of their inner life. And precisely because the building consists of a succession of different entities, its only exterior wall is the all-embracing brick skin. It has no façade, no ‘face’. So there is no risk of incomprehension, aloofness or misunderstanding.

The design is undoubtedly partly the result of views on the dissemination of culture that prevailed in the 1970s, and it is certainly legitimate to recognise the evolution of these ideas in the relationship between the old and the new Warande. But if we stick to architecture and take into account that the front elevation is the part of the building where architecture explicitly indicates what it stands for, or perhaps even what truth it wishes to tell, Macken & Macken have reversed the strategy of their predecessors. The Warandep’ant is wrapped in a skin. It would seem to promise, with its transparency, that it not only shows, but also shows off what takes place inside. But the meticulous design of this interface is the very reason why the inner happening is revealed in a changing series of selected snapshots and will always present a different aspect of itself to its neighbour, its surroundings and the town. This elevation selects and transforms, thus demonstrating that architecture is better at representing the semblance of truth than seeking to be truthful.