A.J. Lode Janssens – 1,47 mbar

For a Gentle Pressure

It’s extremely difficult to get a hold of A.J. Lode Janssens, both literally and figuratively. For the past two decades the Belgian architect and educator has been living in voluntary exile, resisting all forms of public life. There are many reasons why to not publish on Janssens and his spatial work, the foremost reason being that he himself has always actively resisted any form of “publicity” – a trait that can be traced back to his heartfelt love-hate relationship with the architecture discipline. Janssens has always been enthralled by architecture’s experimental possibilities while being equally appalled by its presumptuous and often superficial nature. It’s as if he’s constantly on the lookout to settle an account in and with architecture. So why not grant Janssens the anonymity and serenity he so aspires to have?

Sometimes architecture is so authentic and brutally honest that it simply cannot remain concealed. During the thirty years of his architectural practice, Janssens produced over a hundred projects and many critical research trajectories, with a portfolio ranging from private dwellings to public-school complexes. This broad yet consistent oeuvre is however not the subject of this volume. There is one project – a highly personal and experimental one – that stands out above all the others: the temporary dome dwelling he built for his family. The headstrong, syncretic project enabled Janssens to transcend all conventions of and normative claims on architecture’s technical performance and juridical statute, imposed by technical and administrative authorities. Architecture hors catégorie.

For his unsolicited experiment Janssens decided to become the client himself – or, more accurately, the lab rat. His client-driven projects made him feel uncomfortable when it came to maximizing the experimental potential of his proposals. Hence, between 1973 and 1982, the architect embarked on an obsessive architectural trip, living in and with nature, using but an ultrathin PVC foil and some tent fragments. To minimize the difference between inside and outside, the air-supported dome employed an extremely light top pressure, of but 1.47 mbar on average. Just enough to keep the structure raised.

The temporary dome exercise is clearly a child of its time, architecturally and sociopolitically. Though Janssens has always insisted that it could not be reduced to an ecological, technological, or formal exercise: it was foremost about phenomenologically testing life itself.

Clearly, its de-architecturalized structure, with its polyurethane-coated satellites, can be linked to other inflatable devotees like Archigram, Ant Farm, François Dallegret, Coop Himmelb(l)au, and Haus-Rucker-Co, among others. Through a central difference set Janssens’ dome apart: it was not an exhibit, but a 1:1 model meant for actual living – live tested over a ten-year period. In total, Janssens and his family would experience 4,000 of earths revolutions under their skin-like ceiling, equaling 146 lunar months, or better still: ten solar orbits. A more than intimate cohabitation with nature and the cosmos.

The present volume is the first post-factum commons on the project, which Janssens himself had in mind when starting his self-built experiment. His original goal was to share the insights of his research-by-design only after the experiment had ended. This, however, never happened. Janssens considers himself, above all, an architectural educator, conducting pedagogy through trial and error and unique live experiments. The Balloon (including its final collapse in 1982) allowed him to educate in a hands-on manner – himself and his family being the primary students. Later, as head of the architecture department of the Sint-Lucas School of Architecture (in Brussels and Ghent) and his engagements within the ILAUD network, alongside Giancarlo De Carlo and Peter Smithson, his undeterred attitude would manifest further. And that is perhaps the most generous and upright “lesson” A.J. Lode Janssens brought to the architectural table: experiment more!

Briefly awakening this gentle giant seems more than urgent. His unsolicited and sensual thinking can serve a future society in unforeseen ways. Beyond the dichotomic fallacy of success and failure, it is a unique story about a socially engaged architect capable of walking between raindrops, whatever the odds. An intriguing rarity.

Editors: Peter Swinnen & Nikolaus Hirsch

Date: 2022

Contributors: Elke Couchez, Bart Decross, Filip Dujardin, Marc Godts, Nikolaus Hirsch, A.J. Lode Janssens, Guy Mouton, Herman Selleslags, Peter Swinnen, Pieter Uyttenhove

Design: Kim Beirnaert

Publisher: CIVA & Spector Books

ISBN: 978 3 95905 602 1

Edition: 1000 copies