Freed from exaggerated dreams of a healing environment, architectures of care can repair the old logic of separation of mentally and physically handicapped people, which often resulted in segregation. The reintegration of the disabled person into society is part of the challenge of inclusion. Aligning spatial settings and housing patterns with their special and changing needs is another, as is the reverse: asking how architecture can help citizens take on ordinary caregiving tasks for their disabled neighbours. The experimental architecture of Monnikenheide, a residential care complex for people with disabilities in Zoersel, Belgium, has approached inclusion as a dynamic design challenge since its inception in 1972.
The history of Monnikenheide begins with its founders, Wivina and Paul Demeester. As a member of the Flemish Christian Democratic Party, Wivina Demeester was State Secretary in several federal and regional governments from 1985 to 1999, during which time she held positions in the fields of health, social assistance and public administration. She was also a decisive figure in the landscape of architecture in Flanders, playing a fundamental role in the development of the position of the architect of the Flemish government and the Flemish Institute of Architecture. His interests in politics, healthcare and architecture culminated in finding a suitable living solution for the couple’s son, Steven, who has Down syndrome.
In the 1970s, people with disabilities still often lived either in or on the fringes of psychiatric institutions. According to Wivina Demeester, they reached a breaking point when looking for accommodation for their son, especially during a visit to the famous Stropstraat in Ghent, the main campus of the Brothers of Charity, which provides services care for all kinds of patients. , mentally ill and disabled. After the visit, the Demeesters began their effort to provide alternative housing that radically includes people with disabilities in society and recognizes their specific territorial needs and desires. In Monnikenheide, the traditional logic of asylums with large “bedhouses” has been replaced by an open framework of small-scale facilities that function as surrogate families.
Monnikenheide is made up of a series of residential facilities built as part of a suburban housing estate, a typical settlement pattern, in the Kempen area. Its facilities are spread over a wooded lot at the back of the Demeester family villa, located on the edge of a nature reserve. The projects built differ from each other, but what is more important than their aesthetic differences is the design intelligence that has been achieved by experimenting with architectural typologies and spatial parameters. A walk through Monnikenheide today presents an evolution of care, following a progressive insight into how architecture can support the inclusion of people with disabilities.
Family Replacement Units
Monnikenheide’s architecture is defined by an evolving typology of the surrogate family unit, which allows small groups of residents to function almost independently. The first lodging house, designed by Bruno Boulanger in 1970 and which today serves as a central service building, originally consisted of three identical pavilions. Constructed using the Danilith pre-engineered system, a single hallway connected the common services pavilion in the middle to the boys’ and girls’ pavilions on both sides. With a large capacity in its collective bedrooms, the repetition of the pavilions contrasts sharply with the classic typology of dormitories used in hospitals. This emphasis on small units is recognizable in all the other buildings on the site.
When renovated in 2003 by Jo Peeters, the building’s capacity was reduced to one group of residents per pavilion, with living rooms placed on one side of the hallway and individual bedrooms on the other. The central corridor has also been extended, and a fourth pavilion has been added in the enfilade. The spine that connects all the pavilions together has been transformed with huge glass windows to ensure it doesn’t look like a hospital hallway. A launderette and a therapy pool have been constructed facing the new entrance to the building, which, as separate facilities, are intended to stimulate the use of the outdoors and improve the dynamics of entry and exit. The recent building of From Eiken (2017), designed by UR architects, added an additional fifth pavilion to the spine, with a facade that suggests it’s the end of the line.
The next building in Monnikenheide, the Monnikenbos (1980), was designed as group housing for permanent residence by Luc Van den Broeck. Like a scout bivouac, the complex brings together in a common entrance hall three houses of eight people each in a slightly anthroposophical style of bricks and sloping roofs. In 2020, the Monnikenbos complex was dismantled and used as the base for a new, expanded residential facility by UR architects. The renovation removed the central entrance pavilion which served as access to the three pavilions, thus upsetting the logic of circulation. Today, the three pavilions are even more linked to each other; since the space between them is no longer hidden behind doors, it functions as a shared open courtyard for the different groups of residents.
Spaces of inclusion
Monnikenheide’s architecture also uses its spatial environment for the inclusion of people with mental and physical disabilities. The idea was to free people with disabilities from the logic of asylums by situating them in the normal urban and social fabric, more precisely the typical Flemish suburbs. The center is built as an open estate in the woods. Lodges are scattered around the Demeester estate, and residents are encouraged not only to use the smaller units tailored to their specific care needs, but also to wander through the woods, the neighborhood and even the center of the village, all without, if possible, being accompanied by staff.
In its attempt to meet the specific care needs of its residents, Monnikenheide has pioneered the architectural typology of sheltered housing, which offers people with disabilities the opportunity to live independently. Although the Monnikenheide location is considered inclusive, the setting ultimately limits the possibilities for some guests, especially in terms of self-sufficiency. The House at the Voorne (2002), designed by Dirk Somers (then part of Huiswerk, now Bovenbouw) was therefore not located on the Monnikenheide campus, but along the main street just outside the village center of Zoersel. The house has capacity for eight residents, who are expected to organize their work and live independently. Nursing staff are only available to help with breakfast and evenings.
The location of the reception center offers residents direct proximity to social services (bakeries, grocery stores, bus stops, etc.) and thus promotes their participation in the village community. Society can act as a support network for people with disabilities. Not only its facilities, however, but also its people. For this reason, the house at church (2005), designed by Johan De Coster (then part of RAUM, now VDC architects) is located in the heart of the village, just opposite the main church. The central location allows residents to establish a relational network and, in turn, allows villagers to unwittingly care for people with disabilities, for example by helping them cross the street, giving them change at the checkout at the grocery store, etc.
Interlaced lines of operation
Sheltered housing is not just about its spatial setting; it also shows variations in the typology of a retirement home, and more particularly in the arrangement of studio-type rooms compared to common rooms. In the Maison à la Voorne, the common space remains quite restricted and uncluttered, the living room being both dining room, kitchen and atrium, the individual rooms being designed as studios equipped with a kitchenette. The internal logic of the house in the church, however, is designed more similarly to a classic house by emphasizing the living room and the kitchen, which function as comfortable and familiar common areas, and an open staircase which leads to single bedrooms upstairs.
The typological innovations of the sheltered housing projects were reflected in the new buildings of the main campus in Monnikenheide. Huis aan ‘t Laar (2012), designed by Peter Swinnen (then part of 51N4E, now CRIT. architects), transposes the typology of the sheltered house into a free-standing house in the woods. Huis aan ‘t Laar is used for people with greater care needs but who are still able to live independently. The house brings together two groups of eight people around a spiral staircase around which the groups are constantly in contact but never touch. The rooms are conceptualized as small L-shaped studios with two windows, so each room has corners with different perspectives.
The same logic appears in the construction of Villa Kameleon (2021), designed by FELT, a sheltered house located a stone’s throw from the Demeester estate. The house presents itself as a free-standing villa, blending into the suburban plan, but brings together eight L-shaped rooms in a hexagon-shaped floor plan. The central hall is a rather bare circulation space that allows residents to access their private rooms without having to pass through the common living rooms or dining rooms, thus enjoying privacy and independence in their daily comings and goings.
The short history of architectural production in Monnikenheide testifies to the dynamic logic of inclusion of people with mental and physical disabilities. While the Monnikenheide settlement negated the old logic of separation underlying the asylum and its stigmatizing habitat patterns by offering residents the right to a territory of their own, its subsequent developments opened a negation permanent negation that stretches and rethinks the territorial scope of the inhabitants. Beyond good and bad, it diversifies options for adapting to changing needs, not only between different people, but also across a lifetime.