Light Sculpting

Using a series of ingenious curtains, Petra Blaisse remakes a Belgian house, creating interiors of dramatic complexity.

Inside a redbrick house outside Brussels whole constellations are in motion. As sunlight filters through a set of velvety curtains during the day, stars fill a bedroom wall and seem to spill out onto the dark hardwood floors like diamonds. At night the curtains are removed, and there is nothing but the darkness of the countryside and the glittering of real stars outside. The drapes encircling this room were designed by Petra Blaisse and her firm, Inside Outside, which also created five other curtains for the common areas of the house, transforming an open-plan interior into a light box of thrilling complexity.

The house, completed recently by Belgian architects Macken & Macken, is a concrete-and-stucco building with dramatic floor-to-ceiling windows on the ground floor. Located in a village of small pitched-roof homes, the spare modern structure was designed to fit into its modest rural surroundings. “The exterior of the house is straightforward—you may even say quite solid and rigid—but inside there’s an abundance of fluid space,” architect Bart Macken says.

By the time the architects invited Blaisse to design the window treatments, they had completed most of the project, including circular patches of landscaping. “When they came to us, they had already organized the forms they wanted the curtains to take,” she says. But Blaisse and fellow designers Marieke van den Heuvel and Peter Niessen began rethinking the interior almost as a blank slate. “The program was privacy, light, regulation, intimacy, and acoustics,” Blaisse says. So instead of just hanging curtains in front of windows and doors, they extended them strategically into corridors and other open areas to animate otherwise dead space. In the process some doors and walls originally planned for privacy were made redundant. “Curtains can play different roles in defining a room,” Blaisse says. “You can take the curtain away and put it in a bundle in the corner, but as soon as you pull it out, it changes the atmosphere—and the volume—of the room.”

In the upstairs bedrooms, each curtain treatment involves two sets of drapes hung on parallel tracks. By overlaying one set with the other under varying light conditions, a nearly infinite amount of visual effects can be achieved. In one bedroom, dark brown Markilux fabric is punctuated with tiny holes, and a translucent pink curtain has circular cutouts that echo Macken & Macken’s work on the land surrounding the house. “Their landscaping is so recognizable it could almost have been done by us,” says Blaisse, who designed the landscaping for the Seattle Public Library last year.

For the living room, Blaisse and Van den Heuvel designed a pink silk curtain with a series of gaps incorporated into the fabric to modify its intensity, and a clear, gauzy aluminized exterior drape. When the curtain is extended across the window, the openings reveal various intensities of illumination. During the course of the day, the movement of light across the concrete floor becomes almost cinematic. “With one curtain, you have numerous effects,” Blaisse says. “The owner tells me he discovers new things every day.”

Blaisse sees similarities between this project and her 1991 design for Rem Koolhaas’s Villa Dall’Ava in Paris. There, yellow silk curtains created for a set of floor-to-ceiling glass doors were inspired by Mies van der Rohe. However, she notes, “The silk treatment in the Belgian house can envelop and change your world in just one movement—it’s much more complex than the one in Paris. It’s also interesting to see your work becoming more and more rich.” But Blaisse is always striving to find clarity in her work: “When you reach that point of complexity, you should just simplify again.”

Although the house’s expansive glass provides an open and inviting presence to the half dozen neighboring homes, the solid curtains on the glass doors can easily be closed for privacy. “We consciously kept the colors of the architecture neutral,” Macken says. “The curtains intensify the interior and organize the usage of this fluid space. And because of the curtains’ tactility, the house is now more livable.”

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