Light touch | Monocle

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Preserved art deco window

Barbara Arts only had to see the front door to know that she wanted to move in. In Lier, a medieval town on the outskirts of Antwerp, the house is hard to miss. Its polished stainless- steel door, which is flanked by pillars clad with golden tiles, distinguishes it from the town’s brick townhouses that line the river Nete. Arts lived around the corner with her husband, Gregory D’Hulst, and two children, and would often walk by. When the house came up for sale, she didn’t hesitate to take the whole family for a viewing. That was when her 11-year-old son, who proved less enthusiastic about the entrance, tried to put a stop to the plan. “Our youngest didn’t go further than the hallway,” says Arts. “He said he would never live here.”

What put him off was exactly what charmed his parents. The vault-like door opens onto a dim hallway with wood-panelled walls, dark-green terrazzo floor and old, scuffed-up furniture. The house was designed in 1932 by Jozef Meulepas, who served as the city architect for much of the first half of the 20th century (who else to have the most eye-catching entrance in town?). Meulepas stuck to a quite conservative, neoclassical style in the buildings he planned around Lier but when it came to his own home, he revealed a taste for the avant garde. The house combines art deco elements – that gilded entryway – with hallmarks of modernism, visible in the streamlined balcony railings above. The house had remained in the family (a recent resident was Meulepas’s octogenarian niece) and was almost fully preserved, down to the stained-glass window, yellow kitchen tiles and even an in-built aquarium in the stairwell. Such features saw the house placed under monument protection in 1995 as an example of early modernist architecture. So, despite their son’s protests, Arts and D’Hulst didn’t budge but negotiated. “We had to promise him a dog,” says Arts, laughing.

Having overcome their first obstacle, Arts and D’Hulst set out to tackle the house itself. The couple were well suited to the task: Arts is an executive architect at Bureau Bouwtechniek, where she focuses on major renovations such as, most recently, Antwerp’s Royal Museum of Fine Arts. D’Hulst grew up near Lier and his brother, David, is an architect with a solo practice, Studio Ambacht, that specialises in residential projects (the couple met through David, who was Arts’s friend at architecture school). The building’s listed status still left room for modernisation: the rear of the structure had been cheaply modified in the 1970s and didn’t fall under heritage protection. “We probably wouldn’t have moved here otherwise,” says Arts. Everybody agreed that the house needed more light.

For David, the commission combined two potentially tricky clients: a sibling and another architect. But the collaboration ran so smoothly that the trio look perplexed when asked whether there were dust-ups. “I’ve always seen it as something positive that we were many architects focused on this project,” says David. “We were all working towards the same goal.”

The renovation’s challenges, instead, were caused by bureaucracy. In Belgium, buying a listed building is incentivised with a tax credit but to qualify for it, the new owners’ previous home has to be sold within a year. “It had to be a lot faster than usual,” says David. In December 2020, three months after purchasing the house, Studio Ambacht filed a planning application for rebuilding the back façade with glass, extending the first-floor bathroom by reducing the number of bedrooms from five to four, and adding a roof terrace. Soon, an inspector from the heritage protection office came on site to catalogue the valuable parts of the building. With a few tweaks – all corners of the kitchen had to stay, for instance – the scheme was given the green light.

D’Hulst brought in a trusted local building firm, Oostkaai. The kitchen was opened up by taking down one wall and putting in a sliding glass door (the yellow wall tiles were saved and tucked into a basement cupboard for any future needs). What had been a storage room behind the kitchen became a light-filled sitting area with a sunken floor, double-height window and a skylight. Next to the kitchen was a small patio, built in the 1970s, where orange floor tiles were replaced with a muted terrazzo, and the space turned into a glass-walled winter garden. The most stressful moment, says David, was when the high glass panes had to be lifted over the building into the garden and fitted, with very little room for error.

Inviting outdoor space
Open-plan living
Kitchen pairing 1930s tiles with shiny Bulthaup counters
Light-flooded living room
Conversation pit by Studio Ambacht
Faux fireplace
Spacious bathroom
Lighting the way

Meulepas kept a meticulous archive and when Arts and D’Hulst bought the house from his heirs (all 11 of them), they handed over a trove of plans, invoices and receipts from the original construction. Despite the heritage protection, Arts and D’Hulst didn’t need persuading that as much as possible needed to be saved: Meulepas hadn’t been stingy with materials and many features would be impossibly expensive to put in today. Additions in most rooms are negligible; in the bathroom, a bathtub of solid yellow terrazzo was simply fitted with a new tap. Even where the finishes needed updating, the interventions were minimal. In the bedrooms, a brown laminate floor was peeled off to reveal wooden planks that only needed to be sanded; the old wallpaper had been covered up but preserved. 

The touch-ups only served to highlight Meulepas’s original design. “He was really inventive,” says David. In the downstairs dining room, part of the ceiling is lowered and painted a mint green with wooden accents. Directly upstairs is a wooden bench running along the side of the wall. The bench was Meulepas’s way of cleverly integrating a large concrete structural beam into the interior. Interestingly, almost every room has what looks like an enclosed stove, even though the house is heated with radiators. The new owners suspect that the faux fireplaces, built with terrazzo and glazed tiles, were designed to have no other function than to create the warming sense of a hearth in the house.

Once the renovations were complete, the furnishings fell into place quickly. Sofas and beds were driven over from Arts and D’Hulst’s old house a few hundred metres away and thanks to all the built-in cabinetry, not much more was necessary. Meulepas’s old dining table still stands in the living room, now flanked by mid-century chairs. Under the bathroom’s new corner window stands a rattan lounger. The trickiest part was to decide on kitchen counters that would neither imitate nor clash with the 1930s interiors. It was Arts’s idea to put in a brushed-aluminium kitchen from German firm Bulthaup, which both echoes the house’s stainless-steel front door and goes surprisingly well with the sunny yellow tiles. “When the morning sun comes in, it all looks golden,” she says.

When MONOCLE rings the doorbell next to the sizeable steel plaque saying “J Meulepas”, there’s no time for handshakes before Luca, an excitable sheepdog, bounds up. He’s no longer a puppy: the family moved in more than a year ago, having just made the tight 12-month deadline for the renovation. Now only the hallway remains dark, while the rest of the rooms are bathed in light. For the most part the house has kept its personality: the stately bureau of the city architect now stands in the upstairs office. “The heirs are happy that an architect is again living in the house,” says Arts. 

And how about the children? Today their son is finding little cause for complaint in the historic house and goes to school in a building also designed by Meulepas. “He’s totally fine, of course,” says Arts. The wonders that one year, and a dog, can do.

City architects’ houses

Jozef Meulepas isn’t the only city architect to have designed a grand house that proved to be the envy of the municipality. Here are three other visionary residences.

Villa De Wikke
Willem Marinus Dudok
A leading figure of Dutch modernism, Dudok became city architect in Hilversum in 1928. Here he designed the structure and furniture of the municipality’s Town Hall, which was completed in 1931. In addition to his civic work, he also completed a number of houses, including his own, Villa De Wikke. The home, whose gabled roof drew parallels with the work of US architect Frank Lloyd Wright, also served as his architectural office.

Dom Hilarego Majewskiego
Hilary Majewski
Majewski served as city architect of Lodz, a compact industrial centre in central Poland, between 1872 and 1892. He is credited with shaping much of the city’s identity, overseeing the construction of its grand central hotel, high-end residences and factory buildings. Many have since been converted into museums and galleries, including his own stately home, which is defined by beautiful stained-glass windows, baroque details and parquet floors.

Gegerfeltska Villan
Victor von Gegerfelt
City architect for Gothenburg in the late 19th century, Von Gegerfelt built his family home near the city centre. An imposing, boxy house in the renaissance revival style, it is now one of the few grand villas remaining inside the city’s historic centre. It received heritage listing in 1967.

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