Layered architecture for rural Paddenbroek

Paddenbroek is one of the projects in the exhibition Prefigurations, which reveals the contribution of architecture and design to societal change through 40 ground-breaking projects. You can still visit the exhibition until 23 October. The exhibition is a production of the cultural innovation house Architecture Workroom Brussels in connection with the cultural movement De Grote Verbouwing 2020-2030.

In 1988, the Austrian architect Herman Czech argued in a short but powerful text to approach architecture as ‘reconstruction’ from now on. Whether renovation, extension or new construction, architecture – according to Czech – is always a continuum of a spatial continuum. Czech is indebted to his Viennese ancestors Jozef Frank and Adolf Loos and gathers fragments into new compositions. With the Paddenbroek nature education center in Gooik, Jo Taillieu architecten realizes a powerful building that continues Czeck’s thinking and gives new meaning to the concept of sustainable architecture.

A stone’s throw from Brussels, in the rolling landscape of Gooik, a large conservatory adorns one of the elevations. It contains a meeting place around nature. The agency responded to the request to house the program in a new building with a plea to recalibrate the existing buildings. After all, the seeds of the nature program were contained in the mix of existing architecture: a house, a barn and outbuildings with a furnace. The focus on conservation made it possible to realize a layered architecture and to anchor the new program in the existing one.

In close collaboration with Daidalos Peutz, Taillieu architects developed a remarkable conservatory structure that was pushed over the existing buildings. Carefully designed and custom-made, the three-part stepped white steel roof structure gives spaciousness to the program and recognizability to the building. It also addresses important climate requirements within a limited budget. While the south side of the roof is covered with solar panels and finished with black painted Heraklit, the north side is glazed. Daylight flows abundantly into this non-insulated space, where single glazing, natural ventilation and thermal curtains provide the necessary comfort. The tolerant landscape created under the roof spreads over two levels and sometimes serves as an exit zone for the café and then again as a reception, picnic or gathering place for children and hikers. The old house provides space for isolated offices and a meeting room. The small outbuilding with oven functions as a teaching room and the barn contains a café, sanitary facilities and a multi-floor. It feels familiar. You sit, walk, meet, talk and eat in rooms that used to be the farm, the yard or a hallway.

But Paddenbroek is so much more than an intelligent conservatory. The inventiveness of Jo Taillieu’s architecture lies in the surprising handling of the existing fragments. These were restored, cleaned, cleaned, but also cut, disconnected and made independent. Sometimes a hearth was split in two, sometimes a window was bricked up or a frame. Sometimes an old brick wall was polished, then filled in again or covered with a layer of clay. While a burgundy steel structure supports the house’s roof, self-supporting window frames offer magnificent views of the surrounding countryside. Carefully carved, carefully preserved, interrupted with care, these are the architectural fragments that make each room in Paddebroek special. Materiality and detailing are treated here not out of necessity, but out of the pleasure of architecture. The multifunctional room’s balustrade is a good example of this. This pragmatic problem is solved in the hands of Jo Taillieu architects with an elegantly designed element that introduces play into the space. Because not all rooms under the conservatory roof had to be insulated, other details could be designed with equal freedom. For example, the windows in the classroom or the slate decoration in the conference room. The many fragments give the architecture a special layering in plan, section and detail, a layering that is as dynamic as it is balanced.

For several decades, sustainable architecture seemed incompatible with a powerful gesture, with beauty. With Paddenbroek, Jo Taillieu architects prove that things can be done differently. The office realized a compelling building in Gooik that embraces the existing condition in a surprising new configuration. Disconnecting fragments and connecting layers of meaning results in honest architecture; architecture that makes its own (origin) history visible and gives Herman Czech’s ‘Umbau’ a new meaning in one gesture.

Text by Bart Decroos

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