Bart Lodewijks & Jan Kempenaers Kerselare Drawings and Photographs (Part 2)
Bart Lodewijks & Jan Kempenaers Kerselare Drawings and Photographs (Part 2) In memoriam Juliaan Lampens (1926-2019)
I must switch off yesterday and tomorrow for today. I must switch on today for yesterday and tomorrow. 12-12-1976. Juliaan Lampens, handwritten aphorism
Searching for words Jan and I have both been affected by Lampens’ passing. Yesterday I drove to the Nazareth town hall to inscribe our names in the condolence book, arriving just in the last hour that it could be signed. ‘We are bringing up the rear,’ I text Jan, before picking up the pen lying next to the remembrance book. I’ve landed at the end point of a lifeline, one that left a deep mark on Flemish architecture. I hold the pen over the book, making lines in the air, but instead of drawing, I’m searching for words. The chapel is totally silent, except for the soft murmur of the heating system, the building’s breath. The mourning card bears a handwritten aphorism of Lampens: I must switch off yesterday and tomorrow for today. I must switch on today for yesterday and tomorrow. 12-12-1976. I recall another saying of his: ‘Meeting someone new means renouncing oneself.’ I find the right words and start writing: ‘The chapel and the chalk lines brought us together. I will always remember your saying about meeting someone, as well as your aphorism about the here and now on the mourning card. Thank you, Juliaan. Rest in peace.’ On the way home, I remember that the saying about renouncing things was originally based on the notion of joining together glass and concrete. ‘I brought glass and concrete together,’ he had told me over a year ago in the nursing home in Eke, hoisting himself proudly up in bed. I understood immediately that he was talking about the front of the chapel. ‘Up until the mid-sixties,’ he explained, ‘such large expanses of glass couldn’t be reconciled with concrete. As soon as a large glass pane was framed in concrete – without the intervention of some softer material – the glass would break at the slightest strain. Bringing the materials into dialogue requires a minimal separation. I left a small space open in the concrete groove, creating a sort of in-between world so that the glass and the concrete had some breathing room and 9
could expand and contract, could give of themselves fully without breaking one another.â&#x20AC;&#x2122;
Expressway Concrete roads are Flanders’ greatest artwork. The only signs of life at the pilgrimage site are the rustling trees and the traffic shuttling back and forth between Oudenaarde and Geraardsbergen on the concrete road. In the thirties Flanders was paved over with concrete roads, whose grey panels barely absorb the friction from the passing cars’ tyres; their rock-hard surface is immune to everything that lives and breathes. The panels litter the landscape like headstones lined up one after the other. And the points where they meet – or not quite – are sealed over with tar. A minimal in-between world is needed to allow the two parties to live in harmony without breaking one another. In rural areas, that black, liquorice-like substance has long been worn away by weather and wind or simply eroded by tractors. Whenever a vehicle drives over it, the air gets squished out for a millisecond, angry fists balling together, thumpity thump, thumpity thump, and a Gregorian chant emanates from that in-between world, short and powerful, like a whip cracking. It is a nameless sound, ringing out anonymously across the land to its farthest reaches. The road network was designed to withstand the variable climate, no maintenance required. Lay a concrete panel in a field and it’ll be in exactly the same place a thousand years from now. These concrete roads, popularly called macadams, zigzag eternally through housing developments and industrial estates and past farmland, following the courses of old streambeds. Throngs of daily commuters race across this cement superconductor. Indeed, no other region in the world has as much traffic in such a small geographical area as Flanders, nor does any other country provide such consistent lighting of its road network. It is heartening to have hundreds of thousands of street lights illuminating the roadways after dark. In the orange lamplight, the road surface becomes velvety soft, as if its hardness has been driven from the face of the earth. The concrete roads are Flanders’ greatest artwork. 17
Thumpity thump, thumpity thump ‘Listen to the country’s lovely singing.’ So must Lampens have thought as a budding architect. Thumpity thump, thumpity thump: that’s how the day begins in the early morning rush hour; sometimes you also hear this primal call in the middle of the night. ‘Listen to the country’s lovely singing.’ That’s what Lampens must have thought as a budding architect. I imagine it being a day in 1935. Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe were making a name for themselves, but whether much was known about their activities in East Flanders is questionable. In any event, the old rotters beat him to the punch in erecting vertical concrete surfaces. A new world order was being built out of concrete; brutalism ranged far and wide. By the late fifties the concrete mecca of Brasilia had been thrown together at a breakneck speed, and São Paulo had the Edifício Copan, a 37-storey flat building shaped like a wave. The architectural journals were filled with the ideas of Oscar Niemeyer, the Smithsons and Louis Kahn, just to name a few. Meanwhile, Lampens silently regarded the unbridled pretension of his foreign counterparts and stayed home with his family. It must have been the thumpity thump, thumpity thump, the singing of the expressways, that made his heart race, that familiar sound that had him tossing in bed at night and woke him at the crack of dawn. The Flemish commuter traffic drowned out the brutalism of Le Corbusier, Niemeyer and Mies van der Rohe, and the greats were relegated to a background choir; that was the reality Lampens grew up with. Lampens was himself a self-effacing man, who didn’t go out into the world much; he didn’t have the means and it was a very different time then, anyway. Surely it was the concrete panels that propelled his architectural practice to maturity, aided by – it sounds almost perverted – pictures out of magazines.
Realignment The renovated N60 would have cut straight through the newly built home in Eke. Shortly after he had finished building his house in Eke (1960), Lampens received a notice from the province about the realignment of the expressway between Ghent and the French border. The renovated N60 motorway would cut straight through his house. He chuckled as he told me this. ‘Just imagine all the traffic we would have had coming through,’ he said. You would have thought he’d be worried, but not at all: he was seized instead by a tremendous sense of eagerness. He wanted nothing more than for the realignment to proceed, for then all the mistakes he’d made as a young architect would be erased. He would be bought out by eminent domain and could use that money to build a new house somewhere else, a chance he would have naturally jumped at. As far as he was concerned, they could grind up the concrete from the sacrificed house and use it for the road surface. But the province changed its plans and his home was spared. Not that the house was that bad, mind you, but Lampens could do better. Three years later he was offered an opportunity to redeem himself that he could’ve never dreamed of. The commission to design the Chapel of Kerselare came at exactly the right time.
Stony guards Drawing on the seven artificial rock forms of the small circumambulation Every other week, Jan and I head off to the pilgrimage site to draw and take photographs. Sometimes we lose sight of each other and I imagine I’m there all by myself. The chapel does not part with its secrets easily. For instance, the building has both an interior and an exterior roof, separated by a gap measuring about one metre. That hidden world under the top of the building had escaped me until now. What hadn’t escaped my notice was the fact that you can see the entire surface of the roof from the back of the building. I think often of Lampens, who is no longer with us. Out of respect for his passing, I limit myself to drawing on the seven artificial rock forms of the small circumambulation. I leave the concrete legacy of the master alone for the time being. Working here, one might almost believe in resurrection, as if since Lampens died, an invisible bond had formed between the chapel and its maker, and one wouldn’t dare intercede. The circumambulation, meanwhile, has nothing brutalist about it; the seven faux rock reliefs stand in direct contradiction to modernist thinking. Nevertheless, I manage to feel good about drawing on them. The rocks stand up against the glorification of the chapel; they put its canonization to the test – and there’s something to be said for that. It’s not realistic to think that everything Lampens did was automatically great. The same is true the other way around: the chapel makes the faux rocks seem ludicrous. Nothing and no one is perfect: not me, not Jan, not Lampens and not the local residents. We exist by virtue of our differences – fairly great ones, too, judging from the rugged chapel, the surrounding farmhouses and the kitschy rocks, the stony guards of this site.
Godelieve shows back up on the scene ‘The chapel was a long time coming, but it was built quickly. Removing the supports could happen just as quickly.’ After months of absence, Godelieve shows back up on the scene; she’s the woman who talked to me my very first day here about the yellow steel uprights purportedly keeping the chapel from collapsing. At the time, I had called the chapel a ‘grand old lady on crutches’, inspired by Godelieve’s story about her mother, who could walk without using crutches when she visited the site. ‘The yellow uprights are really going to be removed; it’s really going to happen, you know,’ she says excitedly. ‘That would surprise me,’ I reply drily. I try to imagine it, but can’t. The uprights are part of the building; I now find them rather beautiful. ‘The chapel was a long time coming, but it was built quickly. Removing the supports could happen just as quickly. They’re just for show anyway; they don’t even touch the ceiling,’ she asserts resolutely. ‘But how’s your chalk project going?’ she asks with a sudden change of subject. ‘There’s so little to see and they don’t ever tell us anything.’ ‘The local residents and churchgoers are kept informed through the church newspaper, Kerk & Leven. Don’t you get that information?’ I ask. She shakes her head. ‘And for anyone who misses that, our comings and goings are reported on the notice board at the entrance to the property,’ I hasten to add. ‘I mean the drawing, not the announcements,’ she interrupts impatiently. ‘I would have expected the entire chapel to be covered in chalk by now.’
Rain, wind and weather as my only opposition The building contains so many lines and planes, it is one giant geometric playing field. The building contains so many lines and planes, it is one giant geometric playing field. You have to really know your stuff to add anything meaningful. Not to mention that I’ve been given carte blanche here onsite, which is different than working in a regular neighbourhood, where one person gives you permission to draw on their property, while another strictly opposes it, and you have to fight for every metre. The fact is, as soon as I meet resistance, it’s easy for me to get a handle on a situation; it makes me more assertive. But here in Kerselare, I’ve landed in a situation in which all the social resistance seems to have been overcome: the church board, the Flemish Heritage Agency, the City of Oudenaarde, the Lampens family… not a one has obstructed me in any way. Godelieve is mostly being impatient; I actually feel encouraged by her, despite her head shaking. So, this has become an artistic project in which the only remaining opposition is the rain, wind and weather.
Square photos Jan’s black-and-white photos give me a very different perspective on the surroundings than when I’m calmly working away on my own. Jan’s black-and-white photos give me a very different perspective on the surroundings than when I’m calmly working away on my own. Photos frame the world and delimit it, but the viewfinder provides a panoramic view. At home, shuffling through the prints, I see places that previously escaped my notice. I had heard that donkey braying in the distance, but I hadn’t gone in search of the lamentation. I had noticed, out of the corner of my eye, the expensive cars driving onto the property, but had remained focused on my drawing as if chained to it. But Jan did search out those things. He unfolds the surroundings in his square viewfinder like smoothing out a wad of paper. I would love to draw on all the photographed places, of course, but decide against it: there are too many. The project has a limited timeline, just like life. Each time Jan comes and stands next to me as I’m drawing on the artificial rocks, he inevitably says, ‘I wouldn’t draw another thing.’ I originally suspect it’s because of the cold; he’s not dressed as warmly as I am. Still, I stop drawing out of solidarity and think to myself, He might be right. What’s wrong with taking a break? In hindsight, though, I must confess that he had the best interests of the drawing at heart every time, was bravely withstanding the cold and wasn’t at all interested in going home. He simply knows how to cut the ties that keep me bound to the drawings, so that I don’t get stuck in one place and our work can spread out across all of Edelareberg.
A slanted roof: why don’t I take my place behind that? The roof reminds me of the chalkboard in Eke to which Lampens committed his initial sketches for the chapel. For the umpteenth time, I walk to the N8 carriageway to view the pilgrimage site from a distance. The cross on the chapel is disarmingly simple, thin and delicate, like two grey pencil lines set off against the sky. The horizontal crossbar is held in balance with a thin steel cable attached to the top of the cross. It’s like the chapel is hanging from a cable, I think to myself, light as a feather. I remember one of the sketches for it in which Lampens had indicated the cross with a pen stroke. That single, nonchalant stroke contained the considerable genius behind this chapel: the artist who was Lampens, or better yet, the poet that he was. The slanted roof, a so-called mono-pitched roof resembling a lectern, is covered with a layer of tar, black as slate. A slanted roof: why don’t I take my place behind that? Suddenly it dawns on me; to escape the heaviness of his legacy, I need to effect a certain lightness. A drawing doesn’t weigh down on the earth like concrete; it’s weightless, or at least has a different sort of weight than the chapel. An invisible hand leads me up to the top. The roof reminds me of the chalkboard in Eke to which Lampens committed his initial sketches for the chapel. But before I climb up onto it to start drawing, something of an entirely different order occurs.
The chapel finally stands on its own The yellow steel uprights that have been needlessly supporting the roof for eight years are hoisted off. The chapel finally stands on its own. The yellow steel uprights that have been needlessly supporting the roof for eight years have been auctioned off. Two high-tech cherry pickers from a shoring company in Meulebeke, a small town in West Flanders, hoist the obstacles off as if they were toys from some bygone era. ‘Just like meccano,’ murmurs Godelieve. She’s come specially to Kerselare to watch the uprights be taken out. ‘Eight years ago conservative members of the city council caused an uproar for nothing, claiming that the chapel was on the verge of collapsing and had to be demolished. So, the uprights were hastily installed. Fortunately, some clever person had the presence of mind to make sure they didn’t touch the ceiling, so that any caving-in that occurred could be measured. There hasn’t been a single millimetre of collapse in all these eight years. It was all pure deception,’ she mutters. ‘Conservative forces hated the chapel; they would have rather turned it into macadam.’
Holy compulsion Although I knew that cars were blessed in the chapel, I only now realize that its floor is actually a concrete road. This lady has a lot power, starting with her name: Godelieve. Loved by God. She gives me a searching look and continues in a slightly higher voice. ‘That Lampens was a shrewd guy,’ she says. ‘He was crafty, without being mean. You told me the initial sketches for the chapel originated on a chalkboard in his studio, that it was with a chalk drawing that he won the commission over. But I heard it told quite differently. There were two proposals. The proposal approved by the bishopric was a conventional design with bell towers, the kind of thing people like. Once Lampens had won and the contract was all concluded, he produced a second proposal. That was how he envisioned it.’ She points to the chapel, which is slowly being returned to its full glory. ‘Something was arranged back then, under the table, as we say. I don’t know how he pulled it off, but it seems obvious to me that the bishopric was tricked into it.’ One mustn’t speak ill of the dead, but Lampens was of course a special fellow, I think to myself once I’m alone again. He was not known to be a church-goer. Only once in his life did he get caught up in religion, in the name of sacred brutalism, and he reeled in his largest commission as a result. There were two proposals. Could that be true? The mourning card quote said: I must switch off yesterday and tomorrow for today. I must switch on today for yesterday and tomorrow. The notion of compulsion plays as critical a role in that saying as it does in the epigram about ‘renouncing oneself’. Nothing is worth more than holy compulsion, the sacred fire. He devoted all his powers to the here and now, whether past or future, and he absolutely had to build that chapel, come what may. I watch until the last upright has been dragged off. The workmen from Meulebeke share a toast and the lorry driver pipes up to say that, happily, now cars can once more drive under the cantilevered 77
roof of the chapel. I look at him in surprise, and he says, ‘We have car blessings here every year; surely you knew that?’ While I did know that, his comment has made me realize that the chapel’s floor is actually a concrete road. I think about the realignment of the expressway and the house in Eke that didn’t end up getting demolished, and about the mood this brought about in the Lampens household. After that, it was Lampens himself who had something to set right. In Kerselare he saw his opportunity and built a chapel with a concrete road in it; how could it be otherwise...
Bart Lodewijks & Jan Kempenaers Kerselare Drawings and Photographs (Part 2) Drawings and text Bart Lodewijks Photographs Jan Kempenaers Editing Danielle van Zuijlen Translation Dutch-English Nina Woodson Design Roger Willems & Dongyoung Lee Publisher Roma Publications, Amsterdam This project is the initiative of Bart Lodewijks and Jan Kempenaers, with gratitude for the support of the city of Oudenaarde, the O.L.V. Geboortekerk Pamele, and the Lampens family Special thanks to Juliaan Lampens and Dieter Lampens. ROMA 378b ÂŠ Bart Lodewijk, Jan Kempenaers, RomaÂ Publications, 2020
Roma 378b 378a