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Belgian folly steps down into the unknown

Words:
Eleanor Young

Fantasy becomes reality in this Belgian film director’s back garden folly

A narrow tunnel is the start of your journey into the folly.
A narrow tunnel is the start of your journey into the folly. Credit: Tim Van de Velde

Not many new buildings are entered through a shed. But Atelier Vens Vanbellev likes to surprise. And that is what the client film director asked for – something outstanding, with a twist. 

So you reach this folly, named Alex, through the living room of an ordinary house, stepping out through the chaos of a garden shed and a tangle of bikes. And then down into the rough concrete of a basement tunnel. Strange and a little disturbing is how architects Maarten Vanbelle and Dries Vens imagined this. The little building takes on unheimlich qualities as the long narrow tunnel (surely too long for the building? Where is it taking you?) turns, with no visible end. And while you are deep in the building there is that seep of cold air as a spiral stair twists you up and up, 7m, to above the folly and into the trees for what? The indulgence, almost debauchery, of a shower in the tree canopy.

  • Light and leaves from above ...
    Light and leaves from above ... Credit: Tim Van de Velde
  • ... lead into a film room.
    ... lead into a film room. Credit: Tim Van de Velde
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With such a unpredictable sequence of spaces it hardly seems right to explore the more mundane aspects of what Vens and Vanbelle call Alex, after the client. But in other hands this might be referred to as a guest and entertainment suite. The elongated 20m tunnel is perhaps a device to ensure you enter in the heart of the building, bet­ween cinema screen and simple bar, buried in concrete with garden earth piled over. Above is prefabricated timber cave, put together in the builder’s workshop from individually drawn pieces of laminated veneer lumber panels and transported to site in four sections, which makes comfortable guest rooms overlooking the garden and River Schelde. The shower tower come watchtower and building are clad in Cor-ten, given depth by the builder making ribs in the flat plates. 

 

  • Sunny, cosy upper levels. The guest rooms become contoured caves made of layers timber.
    Sunny, cosy upper levels. The guest rooms become contoured caves made of layers timber. Credit: Tim Van de Velde
  • The quixotic sunny Alex with its watchtower shower obscures the darker spaces below.
    The quixotic sunny Alex with its watchtower shower obscures the darker spaces below. Credit: Tim Van de Velde
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There are no international film visitors coming to stay at the moment, the client instead takes his book into the trees and sits in the watchtower reading. And it is spill out space for his young daughter. Vens and Vanbelle, are currently doing a lot of babysitting. Since they started in practice 14 years ago as students, they have worked together in a practice of two. Between them they travelled the half hour from Ghent and visited every day while the building was on site. 

Vens and Vanbelle have also stayed here since it was finished. Did they use the treetop shower? ‘Yes.’ And how about visiting the bathroom, back through the tunnel, in the night? ‘It was very creepy.’ 

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