(Out of) The Box. The beginning of architecture according to Jeroen van Bergen
Bart Verschaffel

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One of the best ways to understand something is to tell the story of its genesis: how it began, how it came to be. Through his work, Jeroen van Bergen tells the story of the birth of architecture. In his creation myth, the principle – the origin and the foundation – of architecture is the smallest room. He derives the dimensions and shape of this, the smallest habitable unit, the building block of the city and the world, from the building standards for WCs in the Netherlands. This module forms the basis for his artistic investigations.
The WC provides the dimensions for the module, but at the same time functions in Van Bergen’s approach to architecture as the primitive ‘unit of experience’. In a semantic sense, it is also the origin and foundation of architecture. The ‘smallest room’ refers not to the physical experience that accompanies the kind of activities we associate with the WC. Van Bergen never refers to the fittings or furnishings of the smallest room. Rather, his focus is on the identity and dimensions of the smallest possible elementary ‘living space’. The smallest room is not a shell or a capsule. It is not an entirely adapted, furnished and protected environment that is conducive to inattentiveness and lethargy. Instead, it is a room where one person can be completely alone with himself. Like a shower or a bath, a cell or a grave, it is a room that is full when one life or one ‘presence’ is there; the cubiculum as spatial Existenz-minimum. It is a room for one life, the last retreat, the place where a person takes refuge when even his own familiar home seems too big and threatening. The module that constitutes the starting point of Van Bergen’s investigation represents the space that a person can appropriate entirely for himself. When this volume is constructed, it isolates the resident. The walls place a boundary between the body and everything else, breaking up the nest and separating the members of the family group from one another, transforming it from a Gemeinschaft into a Gesellschaft. The ‘smallest room’ represents a principle of modernity: it individualises.
Van Bergen builds models. A model, wrote Claude Lévi-Strauss, “constitue une véritable experience sur l’objet”: in other words the scale model is an instrument of knowledge. In the first chapter of La pensée sauvage, on methodology, Levi-Strauss refers to the essentially reductive nature of the model. A model interprets what it represents through quantitative and/or qualitative simplification, by making the object small and surveyable as a whole, and by selecting and representing only a few, relevant characteristics. Lévi-Strauss finds this way of understanding an object particularly interesting because it reverses the normal direction of knowledge. Ordinarily, a person comes to understand an object by dismantling or analysing it and getting to know its constituent parts. “The resistance that the concrete object puts up is conquered by breaking it down.” But the scale model is the antithesis of the divide-and-conquer strategy: it focuses on the whole. It works by analogy: the object as a whole is – at least in a certain sense – like the model. “Et meme si c’est la une illusion, la raison du procédé est de créer ou d’entretenir cette illusion qui gratifie l’intelligence et la sensibilité d’un plaisir qui, sur cette seule base, peut déjà être appelé esthétique.” ‘Wild thinking’ is also a form of thinking: it does what thinking should do. The pleasure obtained from understanding reality can also be gained from illusory understanding. Lévi-Strauss suggests that art acquires authentic knowledge in a similarly unscientific way. “Art should be situated halfway between scientific knowledge and mythical or magical thinking; because everyone knows that the artist is part scientist and part handyman, or bricoleur”: “avec des moyens artisanaux, il confectionne un objet matériel qui est en même temps objet de connaissance.” The model is the primary means of understanding reality artistically and playfully – in the ‘as-it-were’ way.
Van Bergen makes the boxes and crates he needs to store and transport his architectural models and constructions. They protect his work in the same way his basic module protects and shields a body and a life. Crucially, Van Bergen always exhibits the boxes and crates along with the models and does so in a way that shows their relationship to the models. In his exhibitions, he often uses the boxes to fashion a pedestal for the models. Sometimes he fastens the crates to the wall and uses them as shelving or stacks them up in between or adjacent to the models. In other instances, the boxes and crates are dynamic and equal constituents of the work. Some installations include closed crates or stacks of sealed boxes as well as the models. Van Bergen will often leave the model in the box or crate, but will remove part of the packaging and, for example, break open the crate and set up half of it a meter away. Or he will flatten the boxes and lay the side panels next to the bottom. He might only remove the lid or one side panel and display the model in its box. The subtle interplay of model and packaging defines these works. The box, which fits closely around the model, makes the volume of the object immediately visible. More importantly, the ‘beginning of architecture’ is framed and presented as something that is not ‘made’ or knocked up on site, but rather as a precious and valuable object which, like a gift, is entirely new and finished, something that is unwrapped. It appears suddenly, miraculously, in such a way that no one thinks to ask where it actually came from.
In his early works, Van Bergen built a street, a tunnel passage, a cart, a bathing cubicle and a shower room on the basis of the ‘principle’ of the WC module on a scale of 1:1. These works were also models – simplified replicas showing what the smallest possible architecture does – but they were not scale models. In recent years, Van Bergen has continued to work with the module as a principle, while systematically decreasing the scale, and almost exclusively using scale models. The aim of his explorations is to determine what the mass reproduction and combination of the ‘smallest room’ says about architecture. The different versions are developed at building level (with rich variations ranging from single homes to blocks of houses and high rises) and city level (with streets, rows of buildings, models of cities etc.). At city level, Van Bergen experiments with both horizontal and vertical stacks, producing all kinds of interesting results. The works comprised of low stacks of ‘smallest rooms’ remind the viewer of the expansive, disorganised slums that grow up spontaneously around new megacities, traditional desert cities like those of M’Zab in Algeria or pre-Columbian settlements. In his ‘horizontal’ works, the basic module proliferates until a chaotic whole is formed. The end result is not a planned and realised project but rather an unforeseen result. The chaos is, at most, transected by a grid structure that gives it some semblance of shape. The works in which Van Bergen stacks the modules vertically evoke an entirely different – and much more modern – urban landscape. The first version has a modernist look to it: the city as a collection of skyscrapers, flats or tower blocks. A tower block can never come into being without a plan. It cannot be the outcome of multiple uncoordinated decisions and a slow, lengthy building process: a tower doesn’t grow. In a few of his works, Van Bergen situates the two spatial development logics in a way that reflects how they engender each other and clash with each other in urban reality: slums literally grow up around the towers, image and even atop the flat roofs of the modernist high rises. In contrast, the second version of the vertical stack suggests a more organic form of development. In these installations, Van Bergen groups together towers made of the same small, uniform boxes, but in such a way that they look like stalagmites. From a distance, they appear to have a quasi-natural shape and give the impression of being unreal and otherworldly. These works, like a number of his coloured drawings, are evocative of the Utopian expressionist architecture and futuristic urban visions of Antonio Sant’Elia, Hermann Finsterlin, The Lord of The Rings and the ‘organic’ designs of some contemporary architects.
Jeroen van Bergen’s work is about architecture, but it also clearly goes against architecture. For modern people , it is too late to invent naive new myths. All the creation stories that we can tell have an intended or unintended demythologising side-effect: in the retelling, the story turns against the myth. Retelling a myth erodes and undermines it. Van Bergen is right to spurn architecture: a beginning locks things down and limits the possibilities. Studying the ‘beginning of architecture’ can be a way of indicating where and when architecture went wrong (as the Belgian architect and thinker Wim Cuyvers, who is repeatedly mentioned in Van Bergen’s drawings and notes, does). Jeroen Van Bergen’s creation myth is a variant of the classic myth of the hut, as told by the ancients and canonised by eighteenth-century French architecture theorist Abbé Laugier: the idea that the history of architecture and construction begins with the primitive dwelling and that more complex types of structure evolved from the concept of the primitive hut. Van Bergen’s project – using artistic bricolage to make the principle of minimum habitability visible and show what follows – yields at least one interesting insight, one that contradicts the principles of modernist architecture, which holds that housing is architecture’s purpose and defines the dwelling as a machine à habiter, and as such takes human beings and their elementary needs (“space, light, air …”) as its starting point and modulor. Van Bergen’s artistic research teaches us that when architecture takes the ‘smallest room’ as its point of departure and builds a world with it, however vast and complex that world may be, it can never produce anything but more of the same. See the module, in every possible combination, stacked horizontally and vertically, in orderly or random fashion: it still yields a uniform, homogeneous, neutral universe. And what does that entail? A world without temples and without palaces, and therefore a world without myths or stories. A city without public buildings, where people have to make an effort to distinguish themselves as individuals. A world in which no one can escape from their own tiny identity, because everyone and everything is ‘the same’. Even in the end, at the peak of radical existential unicity, everyone is the same as everyone else: in Van Bergen’s worlds, there are no monuments to the dead, the module of the smallest room is perfectly re-usable as a mausoleum in which bodies are interred upright, until they decay and disintegrate into a heap of dry bones. An architecture that takes the smallest room as its basic concept and takes the human being as its reference measure, and stays true to this ‘beginning’, cannot help but continually reproduce its own origin. But architecture has more than a beginning. It also has a long and complex history. What makes the world rich and complex is not to be found in its origin, but rather in that history, which slowly but surely liberates us from our beginnings.

Bart Verschaffel (°1956) is a lecturer at Gent University. He teaches architectural theory and criticism and publishes mainly in the areas of cultural philosophy, theory of art and architecture and aesthetics.

Toilet modular

My work has been based on the measures of the standard toilet which has been laid down in the Dutch construction rule. This measure sheathing is the standard for the smallest livable space in a building. The standard toilet is minimum 110 cm wide, 90 cm long and 260 cm high. These measures form together one module inside my system. This system, the “toilet modular” I apply consequently by repeating and to pile up the modules successively in several construction layers. My installations arise from my own spatial experience of existing bluildings.. Differently than within architecture my installations have no other function then only creating space. Atfer all finally the spaces are not livable. At the realisation of my work it concerns, as it happens, in the first agency making himself 1. Within the restriction which I impose myself by the standard measure sheathing (lining) of my system, I find a maximum freedom in the application of its unlimited possibilities. Beside it I’m working on the question: How can I make the spectator more aware of space? I want put the spectator in contact again with the aspects light and time. The spaces which I make, have been walled with a cavity of 30 cm. In this wall at front you will be vinding front door opening with the fixed dimension of 210 x 90 cm. To the back you will find also an opening of the toilet window with the fixed dimension of 45 x 70 cm. These can several times be repeated if there are several construction layers present. On the they sides are no windows- or door openings. For the small scale models I use of paperboard, wood or home made little bricks on scale. For the models of scale 1:1 I use other material varying from wood to concrete. For the openings (doors, windows and cavity) I use no material, thouse are total empty. This generally also applies for the interieur. The game in the proportion between model and the space is important around the model, between within and outside. I am in search of space as the minimum basis of experience, in search of a timeless end picture (image). Jeroen van Bergen 1 .”in architecture it does not go therefore in the first place which of which we make the house or the house but which we make for making himself.” Dom Hans van der Laan