Space – Espace – Ruimte
About a painter who could also be an architect

Etienne Van den Bergh

“Space has always reduced me to silence.” 1

“I want to show you a building which hasn’t existed for long, not far from here. Let’s go there immediately and take a look. It will be quiet there now and it is a splendid example of what architectural space can mean,” said my friend, the painter Luc Coeckelberghs, at the end of a night filled with conversations that were almost entirely about architecture… which is perhaps curious for a pictorial artist. It was probably no coincidence that the conversation took place, by the way, in an historical building, respectfully renovated by noAarchitecten to serve as a brasserie and hotel, and with beautiful views overlooking a meander in the River Demer on the outskirts of Aarschot. That landscape between Aarschot and Tienen, with its soft slopes and broad horizons, is his biotope.

It is after dusk when we take a winding side road, which suddenly opens onto a large esplanade of concrete, interrupted by lines of trees. He points me towards the long volume of a building that appears in the faint light as a mysterious black beam and forms a sharp horizon behind the high trees. As we draw closer, a colossal structure emerges: 150 m long, 19 m wide, 8.5 m high… and not a single window. And yet, despite the impressive dimensions, the structure doesn’t come across as heavy. The smooth skin of concrete is covered with a dense curtain of Corten Steel strips, which make a slight waving motion, as if being touched by a breeze.

In the darkness, the building is reduced to its essence. A gallery surrounds it, which allows us to walk around it. At this late hour it seems that the place is completely abandoned; we are the only living creatures, the building is ours. On its four sides it is surrounded by several hectares of water; it seems anchored in a lake, like a boat waiting to cross the Styx, to sail to the other side. Luc breaks the silence and reveals the mystery: “This is the new crematorium serving the whole of the region. An architectural gem, albeit with a banal name: Hofheide.”

It dawns on me why this building is so appealing to him. He feels at one with it, already. “Here, and only here, is where I want to disintegrate into ashes,” he says. The essence of this building is, after all, the essence of his art. Since the beginning of his artistic career, with every work, he departs from a mental space, a sort of emptiness and silence that he seeks out and prepares for a new sensitivity and expression. For that mental space, he creates an appropriate shell: the layers of paint that he simply merges into a painting, the paintings that he soberly and in an elementary manner brings into relation with each other to form an installation, the mutation of the material into a sculpture, the fusion of the installation or the sculpture with its surroundings…

It is in fact what the architects of Hofheide have also done: a mental space—in this case, where people come together to remember the dead—they have translated into matter, in simple, but precisely fitted, connecting layers of trees, earth, cement, to which they have given an earth color, Corten Steel, water, greenery, sky, and light. Though the building itself is an enclosed block, it connects itself with the outside world in a variety of ways, not intrusively, but modestly and subtly, through the visual language, the choice of materials, the tonality, and certainly by the light, which, during the day, deliberately and indirectly seeps through the roof. The interior and exterior form a unity. That is what Luc patiently and consistently pursues in all of his works, whether they are created in his studio or on site.

He is a careful person, someone who saves things. For example, he keeps all of his small, spontaneous, casually made sketches, often a pencil sketch — or ballpoint lines and hatches, finger exercises, from which maybe someday, who knows, a kind of painting technique will arise, a manner of processing paint or another material. He also saves what he reads, not only impressions and ideas, but also quotations. He now has a folder full and adds to it regularly. It is not surprising that many of the accumulated quotations come from the writings of architects. And if they are not from architects, then they are mostly from people who had a connection with architecture: Constructivists from the early twentieth century, artists of the Bauhaus and De Stijl movements, and modern artists too.

Why does he take passages from them? Often it is because of a few key phrases, or words that touch him or immerse him deeper into his own investigation of the concept of “space” and in particular, the possible interaction between mental and physical space.

In Georges Vantongerloo he found a kindred spirit who created a relationship between painting, sculpture, and architecture. They “belong” to space, writes Vantongerloo in 1918, and should focus on unity, balance and harmony. According to him, unity arises when the invisible (the mental space) and the visible (the physical space) blend into one another. My friend, the painter, is wholeheartedly in agreement, and the architects of Hofheide — the Ghent team of Coussée & Goris Architects, working with a Spanish architectural firm — also had a good understanding of how balance in a design is a combination of emptiness and volume.

“Poetry and music belong to time. Architecture, sculpture, and painting belong to space. Both listen to the same laws: unity, balance, harmony.
The volume and the void are equal to space. Therefore the volume + the void make space, that is to say, the outer contours of a volume, where the void starts, must be in balance with the void and the volume, and vice versa. It all has to add up, like accounting. If I have 100 francs. and I spend 75 francs, I still have 25 francs, so 75 fr. + 25 fr. = 100 francs. So if the space is equal to 100 and the volume occupies 75, the vacuum will be 25. Everything has its place, is balanced, is in harmony. That sharing, pure division in space, forming the unit. This is not a convention, it’s a reality.
In this unity, there is the visible and the invisible. The invisible is a perpetual vibration or motion and can become visible to our mind by a point, a line, a plane, a volume, which are the image or the vestige of infinity.” 2

Georges Vantongerloo

The brothers Naum Gabo and Anton Pevsner, of Russian descent, walked in the footsteps of the Constructivist Vladimir Tatlin. They too had mixed artistic careers as painters, sculptors, designers, and architects. From the architectural they took the step to the sculptural, in the sense that an image was no longer the result of modeling, casting, or carving, as had until then been the case, but a construction of elements, whereby they used techniques such as welding and composition. The resulting shapes blend into the space they regard as a “continuous depth.”

From painting, Luc has repeatedly made the transition to sculpture. He laid painted panels on top of each other, or against each other, as sculptures on the wall. He stapled strips of asphalt paper together and used them to make temporary structures in open spaces — works that were actually meant to be built to last in Corten Steel. He nested his installations into the landscape by means of simple materials like cotton threads and metal rods, so they were an organic part of the spatial continuity. It’s very similar to what Coussée & Goris Architects have done in Hofheide; they did not just put down a building, but created an entire environment in such a way that it forms a segment of the course and the depth (continuous depth) of the landscape.

We renounce volume as a pictorial and plastic form of space; one cannot measure space in volume as one cannot measure liquid in yards: look at our space … what is it if not one continuous depth? We affirm depth as the only pictorial and plastic form of space.” 3

Naum Gabo & Anton Pevsner

Wladyslaw Strzeminski and his wife Katarzyna Kobro were pioneers of Constructivism in the Poland of the twenties and thirties—he mainly as a theoretician, and she as a sculptor or creator of compositions in elementary shapes and materials such as glass and metal. Both went bravely against the then prevailing conceptions of art, with the result that they were often misunderstood. Luc clearly feels related to their consistent way of thinking and working. They also leaned towards architecture and were always looking to gain insight into the spatial situation of man, in other words, to adequately grasp the relation between man and space in images and words. In a joint text, they talk about a “unity of man and space,” a harmony existing of three components: the verticality of the artist and of the object; the horizontality of the environment; and the depth through motion, la profondeur, by which they actually mean the same thing as continuous depth.

The union of man and space is the activity of man in this space. We get to know the area by our actions. The directions traced by human activity in space are: the vertical of the human position and any object, the horizontality of the environment he/it encounters on each of his/its two sides, and the depth, ahead of him, the movement forward. Every action of man in space can be reduced to these three directions, and the use of the tri-axial system in mathematics can persuade us. This system is also the most advanced plastic condensation by which we can translate space.” 4

Wladyslaw Strzeminski & Katarzyna Kobro

Walter Gropius is an architect and thinker about space who was particularly prominent in the same period of the interwar years and in whom Luc has immersed himself with great pleasure and satisfaction. Gropius assumes that any creative effort, not only in architecture but also in the visual arts, aims to give shape to space. Crucial questions arise: What is space and how can you give it shape? According to him, we are able to develop an awareness of infinity (the infinite, or what others have called continuous depth, or profondeur). The condition is that we focus on it with all that we have within us, with our entire ego, soul, mind, and body. Such clenched efforts enable us to give form to the infinite, but given our limitations, this can not be done except with finite resources (finite means). In our consciousness, our intangible inner space (the immaterial space or inward vision), a sense of space can be developed that can be converted into matter by our brains and hands.

Here, the architect Gropius articulates a universal command that is surely still valid today, and which Luc, the painter, has — half a century later — tackled with conviction.

The objective of all creative effort in the visual arts is to give form to space. … But what is space, how can it be understood and given form?… Although we may achieve an awareness of the infinite we can give form to space only with finite means. We become aware of space through our undivided Ego, through the simultaneous activity of soul, mind and body. A like concentration of all our forces is necessary to give it form. Through his intuition, through his metaphysical powers, man discovers the immaterial space of inward vision and inspiration. This conception of space demands realization in the material world, a realization which is accomplished by the brain and the hands.” 5

Walter Gropius

Questions about the nature and the interpretation of space, which were certainly strongly present in the first half of the last century, have continued to touch the spirits of both artists and thinkers about art. In Luc’s collection of quotes, there are some striking examples of recent vintage, from the Swiss architect Peter Zumthor and his Finnish colleague, Juhani Pallasmaa, and from the French art theorist Alain Alberganti.

Widely praised for his attention to spatial quality and room layouts, Peter Zumthor admits that, for him, space remains a mystery. An architect must be aware that his work only covers a minor element of the infinity that surrounds us (in an echo of continuous depth, profondeur, and the infinite). Whoever consciously deals with space immediately retains a humble attitude. The sense of space, as part of something immense, turns inevitably to modesty.

This applies to an architect, and also for a visual artist who provides serious and conscientious spatial work, as does Luc. Over the years he has explored the possibilities that Zumthor describes. One option, says Zumthor, is that your work turns inward and isolates itself. That is what Luc experienced, especially in his early career, when he separated himself in an inward development, which sometimes brought him to the edge of the visual, almost nothing, a barely visible grayscale on paper, for example. According to Zumthor, the other — more attractive — road is that you allow your work to open up, to a part of space that is connected to an “endless continuum.” It can feel like a relief, especially after a period of isolation.

“In architecture, there are two basic possibilities for spatial composition: the closed architectural body that isolates space within itself, and the open body that embraces an area of space that is connected with the endless continuum. The extension of space can be made visible through bodies such as slabs or poles placed freely or in rows within the spatial expanse of a room.
I do not claim to know what space really is. The longer I think about it, the more mysterious it becomes. About one thing, however, I am sure: When we, as architects, are concerned with space, we are concerned with but a tiny part of the infinity that surrounds the earth, and yet each and every building marks a unique place in infinity.” 6

Peter Zumthor

If the artist opens up to others and to the world, then there is talk of an “immersion in space,” or being “drawn into the spaciousness”; the spatialité immersive, a formulation by the French art theorist Alain Alberganti. There is an inner space, a mental space (intériorité), and an exterior space (extériorité) that by an act, a movement, a creative action of man, can pass into one another. That is the movement that Luc invariably attempts to create, in drawings, paintings, sculptures and installations. That is the point of fusion (point de fusion) that the architects of Hofheide have been able to achieve.

Space is above all an act, a movement of man’s own being. It is neither pure externality, nor pure interiority, it is a pure act of openness to the other and to the world. It is the volume that encompasses two beings on the wall that is exerted to an internal pressure and an external pressure… There is never a point of balance, but always a point of fusion that maintains the structure.” 7

Alain Alberganti

The Finnish architect and author Juhani Pallasmaa describes the mental space in all of us as a meeting place of the material and the spiritual, our experiences, memories and imagination. He added a wider, more comprehensive understanding to it: existential space. By that, he means the intentions and values that consciously or unconsciously exist in an individual or a group.

“The characteristically human mode of existence takes place in worlds of possibilities, molded by our capacities of memory, fantasy, and imagination. We live in mental worlds, in which the material and the spiritual, as well as the experienced, the remembered and the imagined fuse completely into each other.[…] In its diffuse character, the lived world is closer to the oscillating realm of dreams than scientific descriptions. In order to distinguish the lived space from physical and geometrical space, it can appropriately be called ‘existential space.’
Existential space is structured by the meanings, intentions and values reflected upon it by an individual or a group, either consciously or unconsciously; existential space is a unique quality interpreted through human memory and experience.” 8

Juhani Pallasmaa

A painter also has every right to speak about space. After all, is it not the goal of all art to create space? For a painter it is his inner space that motivates him to paint, the space in which the painting comes to life, the space of the layers and materials from which it exists, the shape and dimensions of the canvas, the place where it is displayed. The painter himself could have a breakthrough, an evolution in terms of spaciousness. Frank Stella, for example, evolved from “black paintings” through “shaped canvasses” to work with three-dimensional elements, free standing sculptures, and even architectural designs.

But, after all, the aim of art is to create space—space that is not compromised by decoration or illustration, space in which the subject of painting can live. This is what painting has always been about.” 9

Frank Stella

Mark Rothko regarded space as the key to the meaning of an image. He made immense canvasses, which he covered with intense, shimmering color fields. From them, you can read his emotions of the moment, in fact, his whole sense of reality.

If one understands, or if one has the sensibility to live in, the particular kind of space to which a painting is committed, then he has obtained the most comprehensive statement of the artist’s attitude toward reality. Space, therefore, is the chief plastic manifestation of the artist’s conception of reality. It is the most inclusive category of the artist’s statement and can very well be called the key to the meaning of the picture. It constitutes a statement of faith, an a priori unity, to which all of the plastic elements are in a state of subservience.” 10

Mark Rothko

Space is often associated with light, and vice versa. In Luc’s oeuvre, light is abundantly present. It vibrates through the various transparent layers of paint, and its effect is intensified because the layers are regularly, carefully polished. It pierces through the layers of sugar, from which he has made sculptural installations a number of times. Light is also paramount in the architecture of the Hofheide crematorium, even though it seems at first sight to be a completely enclosed building. But it is the light that makes a mirror of the surrounding water, and colors the steel envelope and the concrete walls. Moreover, the light is crucial because in its concentrated form, only from above, it flows into the halls, and thus creates an intense connection between finite and infinite, earthly and unearthly. Like space, light is also susceptible to interpretation. A physicist speaks soberly about this.

Throughout history, space has been like the emptiness inside Lao-tzu’s clay pot. (‘We shape the clay into a pot, but it is the emptiness that holds whatever we want.’ Lao-tzu.) It’s not the pot, but the emptiness inside that holds whatever we want. Ever since we created the concept, space has held whatever we put into it. We have imagined space to be many things, and the act of imagination has had implications for our image of light. Endow space with divinity and light is godlike; discover its shape and light is geometrical; fill it with matter and light is substantial. From Moses to Einstein, the history of light is also the history of space.” 11

Arthur Zajonc

With light, you can sculpt or paint. The most striking example of this is probably the American artist James Turrell. For example, he projects colored light from an unseen source on a wall, such that the impression of a three-dimensional luminous form appears that seems to float. In other works, the illusion goes in the other direction: three-­dimensional reality is experienced through the ingenious use of light as a two-dimensional, pictorial plane.

Luc also has replaced paint with light several times. His LightHouse is seen from outside as an isolated volume of white fluorescent light, while the inside changes color in a steady rhythm by means of LEDs. Visitors are in some kind of spatialité immersive of light and color. In a similar manner, he also turned an exhibition room into a colored light bath.

The sites I like to use are ones that, in general, have no function, spaces that are really only inhabited by consciousness. This inhabiting of space by consciousness is the entry of self into space through the penetration of vision, which is not limited to just that received by the eyes but also has to do with the entry of self into that which is ‘seen.’” 12

James Turrell

The visual artist and the architect are sometimes close together. Coussée & Goris, the architects of the Hofheide crematorium, have also renovated the additional space of an art gallery, Zeno X Gallery in Borgerhout (Antwerp), a former dairy: a suite of white volumes, sunning in a blend of artificial and outdoor light, “spaces that are inhabited only by consciousness,” so that the artist and the visitor can freely take them up. An oriental simplicity.

Coussée & Goris use references to Japanese architecture in their approach, and particularly to Tadao Ando, the man who — although self-taught — was able to develop a very recognizable and fine signature, for which he enjoys international recognition. Certainly, the crematorium in Hofheide exhibits similarities to aspects of Ando’s work. Hofheide has closed outer walls, like Ando’s Azuma House (1976), which is one large volume of concrete, with only one door opening in the surface. With Ando, natural elements and the bond between building and environment play a large role. In Osaka there is a Church of the Light (1989), where daylight enters via a cross in the wall. The Water Temple (1991) in Hyogo — also in Japan — takes its name from a large water reservoir on the roof. Enclosed concrete stairs run down through it. In a comparable way, the building in Hofheide is surrounded with water and the light comes only through the roof. That is architecture with a spiritual dimension. It is not surprising that Tadao Ando is also one of the favorites in Luc’s book of quotations.

What I have sought to achieve is a spatiality that stimulates the human spirit, awakens the sensitivity and communicates with the deeper soul.” 13

In a way, I want the surface to disappear and become a space, a space that stimulates thinking. If the surface does not speak too loud, then people will begin to think about themselves. They bring the meaning to the space.” 14

Tadao Ando

“Perhaps I could also have been an architect,” said my friend, the painter.

I am the space where I am. 15


  1. Jules Vallès quoted in Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space (La Poétique de l’Espace) (Boston, Beacon Press, 1994), 183. Jules Vallès (1832–1885), French journalist and writer who took part in the Paris Commune, in 1871.
  2. Georges Vantongerloo (1886–1965), ‘Réflexions’, in De Stijl, Leiden, nr. 9, July 1918, 149–150. Georges Vantongerloo leaned for some years towards the group De Stijl and was later one of the founders of the artistic movement Abstraction-Création. He worked as a painter, sculptor, architect and designer.
  3. Naum Gabo & Anton Pevsner, ‘The Realistic Manifesto’, 1920; quoted in Charles Harrison & Paul Wood, Art in theory 1900–2000: an anthology of changing ideas (Oxford UK & Cambridge USA: Blackwell Publishers, 2003), 300. Naum Gabo (1890–1977) and Anton Pevsner (1884–1962) belonged, like Georges Vantongerloo, to the founders of the artistic movement Abstraction-Création.
  4. ‘L’Espace Uniste, écrits du constructivisme Polonais’ (February 1931 in Lodz, Tombe 2 de la Bibliothèque « a.r.»). See L’Age d’Homme, Lausanne, 1977, 103–104. Wladyslaw Strzeminski (1893–1952); Katarzyna Kobro (1898–1951).
  5. Walter Gropius, ‘The Theory and Organization of the Bauhaus, 1932’; quoted in Charles Harrison & Paul Wood, Art in Theory 1900–2000: an anthology of changing ideas (Oxford, UK & Cambridge, USA: Blackwell Publishing, 2003), 311. Walter Gropius (1883–1969) was an architect and industrial designer, founder of Bauhaus, the academy of architecture and applied arts, which, in the years 1919–1928, he also directed.
  6. Peter Zumthor, Thinking Architecture (Basel: Birkhäuser, 2006), 22. Peter Zumthor (°1943) received the prestigious Pritzker Prize in 2009.
  7. Alain Alberganti, De l’art de l’installation – La spatialité immersive (Paris: l’Harmattan, 2013), 384. This is the publication of his doctorate thesis from the University of Paris.
  8. Juhani Pallasmaa, Mental and existential ecology, 2009,
    cf. ­htpp://…/Pallasmaa.doc (website not dated). Juhani Pallasmaa (°1936), Finnish architect, emeritus professor and author of books about the theory of architecture.
  9. Frank Stella, Working Space (Cambridge USA: Harvard University Press, 1986), 5. Frank Stella (°1936), American painter, sculptor, and graphic artist.
  10. Mark Rothko, ‘from Space’; quoted in M. Auping, Declaring Space (Fort Worth: Modern Art Museum, 2007), 21. Mark Rothko (1903–1970).
  11. Arthur Zajonc, Catching the Light: The entwined history of light and mind (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1995), 97. Arthur Zajonc (°1949), American physicist and author of various works on science and the human mind.
  12. James Turrell, ‘Mapping Spaces’ (New York, 1987); quoted in Kristine Stiles & Peter Selz, Theories and documents of contemporary art: A sourcebook of Artist’s Writings (Univ. of California Press, 1996), p. 575. James Turrell (°1943), American artist who works with light and space.
  13. Tadao Ando, Acceptance Speech: The Pritzker Architecture Prize, 2013. See; Tadao Ando (°1943).
  14. Michael Auping, Seven Interviews with Tadao Ando, (Fort Worth: Modern Art Museum, 2002), 78.
  15. Noël Arnaud, quoted in Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space (Boston: Beacon Press, 1994), 137; Noël Arnaud (1919–2003), French writer, publisher and collector of twentieth-century avant-garde literature.