In 2000 I was asked to design and make a special wall unit in the former monastery Huize Steenwijk of the Brothers of Tilburg in Vught. The brothers had left the location for many years due to downsizing of the congregation and the building was empty. They did not want to sell the property because of the cemetery for the brothers which is located there.
After years of planning, the partly neo-Gothic monastery was repurposed and remodeled by Marx and Steketee architects in a particularly beautiful way. It is furnished with specially designed furniture and the walls hang art from the NOG collection. A small new complex for about ten brothers was also built. The former monastery was occupied by ZIN, a new organization that focuses on connecting work, meaning and spirituality. Art was to be an integral part of this concept.
As part of this, the brothers, ZIN and Frank Eerhart (CKB Eindhoven) conceived a guest studio on the eight-hectare estate. For this purpose a garden shed of ± 100m2 on the grounds was designated and included by the architects as part of the major renovation.
All additions were removed and the north facade was rebuilt with about five large windows. It was delivered with rough concrete floor, unfinished walls, and no heating, power or water. I was very happy to be commissioned to make the cabinetry in the convent building and elated to be the first artist to work in this barn for its fabrication. It was one of my first assignments and I loved the opportunity to add something to such a beautiful building. It got even better when, after its completion, I was asked by ZIN and the Brothers to design the intended studio apartment as a follow-up commission. After I had completed the wall of cabinets in the monastery building, it was decided that I could continue to work in the barn to make the design for the studio apartment. That way the place would already be used as a studio and there would not be the danger that the space would be used for other purposes and the idea of a guest studio would fade into the background.
By now I was familiar with the area and went every day to the developing estate which was not then inhabited by the brothers. I had the key to the gate and was often there all alone late at night. It is a beautiful setting with a small forest and a large 19th century garden with many old beech trees, beautiful water features and the large cemetery a few steps from the studio. Around it meadows of other posh estates in Vught. Next to a gas stove, which I brought with me and which was far too small, I put away an old desk, thus giving substance to the idea of the guest studio.
I started in the cold with making the design of the studio house. By already working there myself and taking in the surroundings carefully, I got a good idea of what was needed to make it suitable for artists who would be staying here for several months. I designed a kind of composite rough box of structural plywood that would be placed on the existing anchor beams of the barn and which would hang as a loose element in the space.
After a few months of designing I was able to present this design to the brothers and to ZIN in the spring of 2001. Everyone was very enthusiastic and it seemed that it could be realized quickly. However, due to the drastic renovation of the monastery building and the adaptation of the grounds, which had cost many millions, the money had run out and there was a temporary stop in the funds. That was a major setback and I had to be patient. As compensation, it was proposed that I could continue to work in the guest studio in the making until funds would be available again. That was fantastic of course and I was at the estate every day to work. No one could have imagined that this would ultimately last another three years. The freedom I had there was enormous, I could do whatever I wanted and during that period I designed and made many installations. The barn grew full of materials and machines and in the corner still stood the old desk and the gas heater that did not have nearly enough power to heat the room. I also spent a lot of time at that time making drawings.
In the meantime I became more and more a familiar face and regularly dropped in on ZIN or the brothers. With Brother Ad, who was often outside, I talked about his chickens and ducks and with Brother Wim Verschuren about art, mercy and other deeper matters. Meanwhile ZIN was in full swing and regularly people walked in. Sometimes someone came alone, but often it was groups that came to refresh themselves with 'the artist'. I never managed to bring about an announcement. The joint living and working are so integral to the Brothers that they just didn't do it that it would be over with the ambition to make an integral art studio. The brothers then always agreed.
In those years that I have worked at this special location, almost all the installations that I have made during that time have originated here and have often been made here. For me it has been a very fruitful period where I had the time to develop in all silence, peace and freedom.
In early 2003 there was finally money again to make the studio house. Because I had only designed the wooden structure of the house and had not yet worked out the interior, I designed all the details such as kitchen and shower during construction, as simply as possible, in the tradition of the monastery cell. I also took all the time for that. There was entirely in the idea of monastic life no time pressure and that was very good for the process.
The small hanging house consists of five parts; a small corridor with a staircase leading upstairs, to the left and right of it two box-like rooms containing toilet/shower and kitchen. On the upper floor a sleeping area and a small desk. This upstairs space is the only place where you are also completely out of sight. Through this space you can also enter the space that sticks out through the rear facade. Here is no other program, there is only a chair. A great place to muse and look out over the beautiful canal and cemetery.
With the construction of the studio house I had my first success because I won the Wood Architecture Prize with it. I was also nominated for the AMNAI Prize for young architects and received an honorable mention at the Dutch Building Awards in the category Buildings. It has been widely published both nationally and internationally. The open and curious attitude of the brothers and ZIN played an important role in this. Because of their special commissioning, I also really got the chance to develop myself with a paid assignment.
ZIN is different from other residencies. It is part of a monastic community and an affiliated company ZIN. Although you have a lot of freedom you have to relate to it and that is also expected of you. But because of the open attitude of the brothers and ZIN, this actually happens automatically for everyone who works there.
After the studio house was completed and I finally left after four years in 2004, I did so with pain in my heart. I had become attached to the place and the people who worked there. But the good thing was that now other artists could finally make use of the place. By now there are about twenty-five of them, about two a year who stay there for about three months. The artists I have spoken to have only positive reactions to their stay and work at the estate, their home and of course their special contact with the brothers and ZIN.