Prudent De Wispelaere
Charles Vandenhove & Associés, Liège (Belgium)
Associated to Charles Vandenhove, Prudent De Wispelaere, welcomed us in his office situated in the Torrentius Hotel, a wonderful 16th century house, which was renovated at the end of the seventies.
Charles Vandenhove started his architect career in Liège (Belgium), in the middle of the fifties and he founded the Charles Vandenhove & Associés office in 1987, one of the most emblematic of the country since decades. They built many residences: the Liège University Hospital at Sart-Tilman (1965-1987), the renovation of the Cour Saint Antoine (1978) in the same town, the Abbesses Theatre in Paris, completed by some residences on the Butte Montmartre (1996), the Ceramics House in Maastricht (2011) or the Saint-Gilles Terraces complex in Liège (2014), among others. It is when reading a book, edited in 1975, on the most important works of Charles Vandenhove that Prudent De Wispelaere, then a student, was seduced by this architect’s approach. As soon as he graduated, he becomes a trainee and then an associate. Today, he leads the office, he talks about his master, about emblematic projects, about the evolution of the architect’s profession, in the light of a four-decade long fidelity to someone who has devoted his whole life to the search of an obvious, but retained beauty. The necessity to take account of the monumental heritage and the preservation of the architect’s fundamental approach is the basis of the passion he shares with Charles Vandenhove, i.e., to be able to raise architecture above the building constraints – without at the same time denying its function – to award it an aesthetic value creating emotion, transcended sometimes up to a sacred character.
Archi-Europe: Which is the spirit of Charles Vandenhove’s specific architecture?
Prudent De Wispelaere: Symmetry, repetition, harmonic relation, classic composition (using the word’s large meaning), choice of materials, feeling of details and integration of contemporary artists’ works are a few of the elements recognizable as the central theme, throughout a complete work inspired by great masters such as Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, Louis Kahn, Carlo Scarpa and many others. A functional and contemporary architecture, but turning the back to organic, deconstructive or exhibitionist architecture. We notice then a constancy in the approach throughout the years, even if an evolution naturally takes place during a 60-year career, depending on the sensitivity of the period. As an example, the renovation of historical houses in Liège following a classic plan, with new houses facing them on a public square, inspired by Aldo Rossi’s writings.
Archi-Europe: During many decades, the architect profession has also changed…
Prudent De Wispelaere: I am very concerned about the future of the architect. Yes, the profession has changed. And the evolution is getting faster and faster. Permanently you have to reassess yourself. Our work has become incredibly sophisticated, in a way that our role, the one of orchestra conductor, who must give life and rhythm to projects, is almost put in danger… During our 25-year experience in The Netherlands, we had already noticed that the architect was just an actor among others. The responsibility and the power of project management has been in the course of time breached by series of consultants, covering all competences, in economy, logistics, sustainability etc. Furthermore, regulations have become plethoric and unavoidable, which is oppressive, although they are legitimate. The consumers and project managers are also more and more exposed to these contingencies. The architect is more and more diverted from his primary task by taking energy away from him and allowing others to decide especially when important investments are at stake, at public or private institution level. Through the competitions, the project managers must manage a budget, a program, a planning and don’t want to take any risks. So, they choose to subcontract the complex matters to important companies integrating all the disciplines. For this reason, there is less and less room for craftsman-architects.
Archi-Europe: What do you mean by “craftsman-architects”?
Prudent De Wispelaere: We designed the Sart-Tilman University Hospital 40 years ago, a 185 000sqm project, without any computer and only a team of 8 persons. This project today could not be undertaken in such conditions. We are presently confronted to a contradictory situation, when some buildings designed by our office at that moment have to be renovated and we are not entitled to do the job. Indeed, our desire not to grow, and to meticulously and globally show our interest for diversified projects, with a small motivated team, keeps us away from the public contracts for renovation, due to the numerous references required by the project manager. We want to stay craftsman-architects in order to design buildings and control their execution with full attention for detail.
Archi-Europe: What do you think about projects keen to push the architect beyond the bounds?
Prudent De Wispelaere: The desire of mankind to build higher and higher and more and more expensive is an absurdity. Let’s take the Skidmore, Owings and Merrill Burj Khalifa Tower in Dubai, the highest existing tower nowadays, rising to 800 m (a glass and steel obelisk between sea and desert). Normally, the architects should have erected a 560m high tower, but the promoter required an extra 300m to be added for the simple reason that some other projects were proposing higher levels and he wanted to beat them. It is pure technology, obviously exceptional engineering, but it is more a technical than an architectural performance, and mainly to raise the promoters’ and designers’ ego at its peak. For students, such projects can’t serve as examples. Personally, I would say: It is not because a designer is able to resolve the equation ‘budget-land-program’ whilst respecting the planning, that he is a good architect; he is only a good building technician. Architecture means to add an emotional value to a project, which the author will bring along, once he has shown his ability to previously respond to the equation integrating all the components, from budget to sustainability.
Archi-Europe: And what about your office?
Prudent De Wispelaere: We make it clear that we want to work as creators with a sensitivity which can’t retreat in front of the material, economical, administrative or program contingencies of the project manager. That is why an architect is not the same as an artist. The latter works alone in front of the white page, the canvas or the stone he is sculpting. On the other hand, the architect, as well as his project manager, is surrounded by numerous actors, such as the public administration, consulting engineers, the enterprises, and he must do his best to stay master of the project. At the same time, he must protect his sensitivity and make it appear in the building.
Archi-Europe: You spoke of the sacred nature, of the spirituality which you have associated to the monumental character…
Prudent De Wispelaere: To the monumental nature, which is not obviously associated to the size of the building but to the impression given. The Eifel tower or the Atomium, are monuments representing a technological performance. At daily, human and tangible level, when you design a building with spaces which naturally complete each other under the light, which respect the materials truth and flow from a pure composition, then we clear a certain monumental character. One can mention belonging to this category the two houses that we were lucky to design for the painter Léon Wuidar, one in 1975, the second one, very intimately linked to the first, 20 years later.
Archi-Europe: Has the continuation of the office been organized? Someone like you who has always respected his “master” to whom he remained faithful?
Prudent De Wispelaere: The continuation has not been contemplated as Charles Vandenhove works like an “artist” architect with passing colleagues. One can’t succeed to a character who has built his work around a reputation and a name. His legendary passion for art, and his cooperation with artists have enabled him to constitute an extraordinary personal collection, which permits art and architecture to be very close. Indeed, during his long career, Charles Vandenhove (1927) has worked intensively with many artists such as Léon Wuidar, Daniel Buren, Sam Francis, Sol Le Witt, Jeff Wall, Marlène Dumas, Niele Toroni, Jacques Charlier and Patrick Corillon. In his workshop, about one hundred architects and engineer architects have worked during more than six decades. When I integrated the team as a trainee, Charles Vandenhove was already a well-known architect in Europe. I was immediately convinced by his career and never regretted my choice. We have always been united and complementary. As long as we stay associated – our association exists for thirty years – I will continue his work. But further on, I don’t feel legitimate to sign projects under the name “Charles Vandenhove & Associates”. It wouldn’t make sense. If I have to continue, I’d do it differently and under another name, but always inspired by his priceless legacy.
1 Prudent De Wispelaere
2 Physical Education Institute, Sart-Tilman, Liège (Belgium) 1972
3 Torrentius Hotel, Liège (Belgium) 1981
4 CHU, Sart-Tilman, Liège (Belgium) 1987
5 Justice Palace, Den Bosch (The Netherlands) 1996
6 Abbesses Theatre, Paris (France) 1996
7 Saint-Gilles Terraces, Liège (Belgium) 2014
8 Ceramics House, Maastricht (The Netherlands) 2011
Photos © Charles Vandenhove & Associés