Project Vincent Van Duysen
Photos courtesy of Frederik Vercruysse, Mark O’Flaherty
Text Antonella Boisi

A lovely paved square with tall trees in the historical center of Antwerp, Belgium. A quiet, green, relaxing place. Like Graanmarkt 13, the curious equation of a hybrid concept store, a typological oddity hidden behind the austere facade of a neoclassical building, protected by heritage regulations and therefore left intact, with three functions: shop-gallery, restaurant and rental apartment. All under the same roof. No shop window, no sign.

Only when you enter can you perceive that you are in a ‘house of marvels,’ a place of continuous surprises, which Tim Van Geloven and Ilse Cornelissens have decided to open and to share, assigning the transformation to the Flemish architect Vincent Van Duysen. “The place has been radically stripped down, though respecting the local spirit, while pushing the design towards a new hospitality dimension”, he explains. “We have redesigned the back facade, the rhythm of the floor slabs, the flooring, the vertical connections that now gravitate around the exposed concrete staircase, and we have inserted a lift.

At the upper level, we have inserted The Apartment with a living room like a greenhouse, with a row of panoramic windows towards the large terrace with a view of the treetops and the city. A unified space, organized around the fireplace and equipped with a dining zone and kitchen for guests”. In back of the building a small garden, with an old ginkgo tree, a vegetable garden and a series of hives offer a daily supply of herbs and honey, which award-winning chef Seppe Nobels uses to prepare his gourmet dishes in the restaurant in the semi-basement.

The ground level hosts the shop-gallery offering international fashions and accessories discovered by the globetrotting couple during their travels, together with desiderabilia like the objects for the home by Michael Verheyden and the notebooks of Astier de Villatte. “We always had the dream of opening what was originally our family home to selected guests. We wanted it to remain a hospitable place. A well-kept secret, until we packed our things and moved to a house with a garden, together with the children” says Cornelissens.

“At the start there was the idea of making a Bed & Breakfast, but when we saw Vincent’s design we decided to transform it into a luxurious rental flat”. With four bedrooms, two baths, a living room, a dining area and a kitchen, the duplex is now a welcoming and very sophisticated residence. Connected to but also independent from the whole complex. A perfect showcase for the terse, almost brutalist style of the architectural expression of Van Duysen, who comments on the project: “My participation was on a human level, at first, and then on a professional plane. With both Ilse and Tim, who chose me after a visit to my home, which they fell in love with, and with Dimitri Saddi, founder and managing partner of .PSLAB, the Lebanese brand with which I did the technical lighting design.

There was a chemistry between us – we shared a number of elective affinities: the love of honest materials, also recycled, things made by hand, with great care, an emotional approach to the project, in terms of life experience and tactile factors, taking memory into account but projecting it into an innovative vision. I immediately understood that we would do projects together, though I wasn’t sure just what they would be. When Ilse and Tim asked me to transform this building into a home for them, and a place where they could start a new activity, including a shop, a gallery, a restaurant, I thought that might be an opportunity to develop the whole concept of the lights with .PSLAB – I wanted to bring Lebanon and its cosmopolitan spirit into my city.

In the restaurant, on the other hand, the idea was to bring the feeling of the garden and the square into the basement. With the benches, similar to those outside, the green bistro chairs, the flower-lamps around the two structural pillars, redesigning the space with a dynamic, poetic expression. My architecture remains very contemplative. Again in this case, I have imagined open, dilated spaces, where the mind is free to roam, e a composition of volumes that try to harmoniously ‘blend’ through a particular focus on the intrinsic qualities of materials, with the aim of creating warmth, atmosphere, tranquil beauty.

The furnishings are a result of all this. Like the light. This is the first time I have designed a collection of lighting fixtures”. Where does this approach to architecture come from? “From environmental factors, first of all. Tranquility is part of the DNA of the Flemish. Antwerp itself is like that, calm, without much traffic, though you live in an international dimension. Then there are personal factors, a career that has made me develop a precise sensibility: I went to school during the era of postmodernism, I was in Italy in the 1980s, where I worked at Studio Associati, I absorbed a context overflowing with visual stimuli and expressive accents. I was in search of serenity, peace, purity. I am not a minimalist (though my work is often labeled as such).

Minimalism is an artistic movement that began in the US in the 1990s. In my travels in Morocco and North America I was fascinated by the earthen houses in the desert, basic structures, artifacts in the middle of nowhere. But I have also always been fascinated by Romanesque architecture, the Cistercian abbeys in the south of France. I can identify with the essential forms of objects, furnishings, space, volumes. I think the Graanmarkt, even if it is a commercial project, can convey this sense of tranquility and serenity”.