The DM House in Belgium, nick-named the ‘Rabbit Hole’, is a brick bridge between the past and the future – it re-imagines an old farm area to create a home-cum-veterinary unit that is functional, modern, spacious, but modest.
When architect Bart Lens was handed the project to create a residential project out of a few derelict buildings at the Pajottenland plains in Belgium (where the Gaasbeek Castle is also located), he well understood that he will have to walk a tight rope between keeping up to the agrarian austerity of the landscape, and at the same time need to infuse modern architectural elements in it. The result of this play between generations of design ethics is the DM House, cleverly nicknamed the Rabbit Hole.
Lens eschewed any dramatic disturbance in the simple set up of the location by retaining the age-old romance with brick structures. The Rabbit Hole is essentially a link that connects a bunch of individual structures into a monolithic residential cum veterinary unit. Through a smart series of adjustments and re-design, he has managed to bring harmony to an earlier disparate set of partially-collapsed farm buildings.
The Rabbit Hole is best understood as the sum of its many, imposing walls, and the unconventional spaces they build between them. What originally stood at the spot were five different farm houses. So, the demands of the project had to be met at two levels – first was to scramble the jigsaw puzzle of the structures and re-arrange them to look like a private home. The second task was to find a comfortable synapse to connect all the nerve centres of the home and make it look whole.
The first point in this tricky transplant was sealing the original doorways; the front entrance was cut off diagonally and relocated.
Bart Lens’ style weapons of choice were the red paving bricks manufactured by the Vienna-based brick behemoth, Wienerberger, which amply helped the cause of reclaiming the quasi-medieval look that best suits the spot, and at the same time making re-adjustments eminently possible.
The erstwhile cow stables on the ground floor were transformed into veterinary and garage spaces. The floor above became the children’s room and a good space for guests to stay in when required. The moniker Rabbit Hole is not misplaced. While working on the question of linking the brick pieces, Bart Lens thought up a funnel-shaped annex. This addition ultimately became a meandering connecting point of all the five re-designed spaces. But what it also brought about was the defining feature of this project – a maze-like symmetry that flirts with sunlight and shade, just like a glorified rabbit hole.
The almost complete absence of colour on the facade extends throughout the outer look of the project. The red paving bricks join together in brooding unison, more keen on blending into the scenery instead of standing out. They become the carpet and the wallpaper, extending across the outer seating area as well. “Brick is not solely used as a building material, but also as a concept reinforcing the existing structure – brick as a “linking” element between the past and the present,” says the architect. The gable, however, has been given a grey cement covering, just for that dash of newness.
But if the exterior has embraced chastity, the interiors are in the midst of adolescent rebellion. There is spectacular spatial grandeur here, mostly thanks to the high-vaulted ceilings, à la the Gaasbeek Castle. The charm here is not so much from chandelier bling as it is from the angular, new-age props that are peppered around.
The most forward thinking of this break from the plain-jane type of facade is the central table. The haystack, the largest room area available, naturally became the fulcrum of the home. Two gates at its ends were retained by Lens, and glazed all over to become two huge windows looking out to the fabulous greenery around. Dominating this living room is a long, high concrete table that one may mistake to be an exhibition piece rather than a furniture unit. The architect envisions that household chores, from possibly cooking to dining to reading, will revolve around this extended table.
In a break from the rougher feel of the outer walls, the inside passages are polished slick, in both wood and tile. The minimalism is still kept up, but with quirky twists. It is interesting to note how the vision here attempts to rethink not just the whole space, but also the individual parts of its design.
Furniture here is not an add-on but a character builder – it doesn’t merely occupy space, it dominates, divides, adds a certain mystique, multiplies utilitarian advantages, and minimises clutter.
Bench-like wooden seats share duties with more conventional chairs. A squeaky clean, white dome-shaped lamp hangs in brilliant contrast to the heavy texture of stout wooden beams in the living room. Windows refuse to follow any particular geometric pattern, and one outer wall sports four differently-sized glazed depressions.
Because the idea was to retain the original character of the place, there are many curvaceous corners here; many sloping walls lean into bathrooms; high beams supporting the tall ceiling give it a sturdy demeanour; the staircases are all made of widely-spaced planks; and the wooden doors, composed of rectangular planks, all sport a cross design.
The children’s room, earlier ironically a pigsty, gets a reprieve in the form of a blood red wall, and the uneven beams criss-crossing it will delight any kid who has fantasised about living in an attic. What used to be the barn has become the store-room, with a spacious bedroom resting on its head. A small bread-baking oven occupies another store-room.
What the DM House proves is that it is possible to mix the wisdom of design ideas from an earlier era with the cutting edge good looks of the modern age, without scuttling the charm of either.
Text By Shruti Nambiar
Photographs Courtesy Philippe van Gelooven and Bieke Claessens