Past Present Future

PAST, PRESENT, FUTURE

about being an architect yesterday, today and beyond

The 2nd episode of ‘Past, Present, Future’ involves 13 internationally-renowned architects from Spain, Portugal, France, and Belgium. The project was curated by Gianpiero Venturini, founder of Itinerant Office, within the cultural agenda of New Generations. The second episode of the project has been kindly supported by Funder35.



EPISODE II

This video-interview series was designed with a double objective: firstly, to analyse the selected practices and understand their working methodologies, themes, and approaches, in order to learn by comparison what it means to be an architect in the 21st century. Secondly, as a source of inspiration for the younger generations of architects and architecture students, who are currently confronting the job market, or who have recently started their working career.

Through the 13 interviews, we unveil intimate details about the journeys taken by the architects to get to their current positions, revealing funny anecdotes about their student days, key moments of inspiration, and the reality of setting up a business. The architects discuss the ins and outs of their current practices and the foundations upon which they were built, going on to speculate about the future of the profession and our urban environments, discussing themes such as smart cities, sustainable approaches, and digital infrastructure.

In the following months, we will be rolling out the series of interviews on this page, publishing one interview every two weeks. Stay tuned to find out more!

    Date of office foundation:

    1974

    Location:

    Paris

    Number of employees:

    approx. 20

Odile Decq

Founder of Studio Odile Decq

PAST


GV: What was your first approach to the profession of architecture like? What were the steps that lead to the establishment of your own practice?

OD: I decided to establish myself as an architect immediately after graduating and since then, I have never worked for another architect. In the beginning, I was kind of frightened about what the profession would really be like and unsure about whether I would actually be able to make it as an architect. I was studying in the late seventies and it was an era where everything had broken down in architectural education. My first two years were in Brittany where we were not even taught architecture. Instead, we were learning art, video, photography, and corporal expression. Later, I moved to Paris for the last three to four years of my degree, but we were on strike all the time. That’s why I would always say that I was an autodidact, or that I didn’t actually have an education in architecture. Eventually, I started to do interior design projects by myself in order to learn and understand what the profession was really about. When I graduated, there were not many jobs because of the effects of the oil crisis, so I immediately opened my own office.

Odile Decq © Nicolas Guilbert
Odile Decq in her early days. Image credit: © Nicolas Guilbert

GV: Upon opening your office, how do you recall the ambience as a young architect? How did you obtain your first projects?

OD: Presenting yourself as a young woman architect at the end of the seventies and beginning of the eighties, in most European countries, was quite unusual for the client, for the institutions, and even for other architects who would meet us. Most of my memories and anecdotes that I have from that time are just the sheer surprise of other people wondering why I wasn’t working for another male architect or why I wasn’t training in another studio before starting my own practice. It seemed impossible to them that I could establish myself as an independent architect. After finishing my studies in architecture, I did urban planning in a political science school in Paris. Around that time, I started to find some urban planning commissions in a small village in a rural part of France. However, I continued doing small-scale interior design projects, however, it was thanks to this urban planning project that I could really sustain my own practice.

GV: Other than the interior and urban design projects, were there other interests that marked the beginning of your career? What was your main preoccupation?

OD: My main interest was simply to prove that I could become an architect; that I could express myself in a precise way, as well as follow the execution of my own work. When I was starting to consider studying architecture, my father would warn me that it was not a profession for women. One day for lunch, he invited a friend over to our home. This man, who was an architect, asked me why I was interested in architecture. Without thinking too much, I said that I wanted to build a library or perhaps a museum. He was quite surprised, but he remarked to my parents, ‘It is convenient that young women now want to study architecture. They are more pragmatic than us men. They can very efficiently work for us in our offices, designing the cupboards and the kitchens.’ His comment didn’t put me down. Instead, I was actually very happy to be recognised to be pragmatic. I wanted to put that to practice and prove that I could be very good at building on my own.

GV: Where did that initial determination lead you? How did you begin to experiment with your style in that period in the 80s?

OD: I had more opportunities in those years, when the French Government started researching and developing competitions, some of which were dedicated only to young architects. What was great about this period in France was that there were no differences between men and women, and we were all starting to compete with one another. Most professionals who started their office in the 80s worked by doing competitions as an opportunity to build immediately. However, when you start your own office, you have to really experiment in order to find out what you want to do. I was not very decided about what kind of architecture I wanted. The 80s was a time where deconstructivism was very popular but there was also the invasion of postmodernism which had started in the mid-seventies and eventually came to be everywhere. Accordingly, in the beginning, my projects were a mixture between some variety of modernity, some flavour of postmodernism and some flavour of deconstruction.

GV: Do any projects come to mind when you think of that period of time?

OD: The competition that I won in ‘88 for the Banque populaire de l’Ouest (BPO) in Renne was when I realised that I wanted to build with steel structures. This project came at a time where I was already doing small projects with steel structures and experimenting with the precision of steel. At the same time, in the 80s, I would go to London frequently. Although I went for the music, I discovered its architecture; the construction of the Isle of Dogs. I would go to the construction site and observe the new buildings being built by hundreds of architects. I built my knowledge in steel construction by visiting buildings of architects like Rogers, Foster, and Aelsop. Perhaps that’s why when the Banque Populaire was built, everybody in France was shocked. At the time, nobody was doing anything of the sort. To me on the other hand, it was normal.


«I built my knowledge in steel construction by visiting the buildings of architects like Rogers, Foster, and Aelsop. Perhaps that’s why when the Banque Populaire was built, everybody in France was shocked. At the time, nobody was doing anything of the sort. To me on the other hand, it was normal.»


GV: Was there ever any particular person, artist or musician that may have inspired you through those years?

OD: I was meeting a lot of people, especially in music and in architecture in the beginning of the 90s. Towards the end of the eighties, we started to make certain peculiar models. They were a sort of three-dimensional paintings that were hanging on the walls of the office where we worked before. Slowly, we started to exhibit them and eventually made a little catalogue which I then brought to Papadakis in London. He was very impressed, and he immediately invited me to attend a symposium he was organising there. It was through these symposiums in the early 90s that I met Rogers and other architects whose projects I had been studying. There, we debated in a closed chamber on certain topics like new modernism, pop architecture, and so on. The symposiums were every six months, and I was always invited. I would go there, and I was nearly the only woman. Even Zaha didn’t come at the time. She started to come maybe the second or third time that I was there. That way, I started to better understand my approach to architecture in France. The BPO was, at the same time, was being published and awarded widely so at the same time, I started to become more internationally-known.

GV: Apart from Papadakis was there anyone else who inspired you at the time?

OD: There is somebody else, Claude Parent, whom I met in ‘84. He was a French architect who was an avant-garde in France in the 60s. At the time, he was meeting the people of Archigram and working with Paul Virilio with whom he did the Oblique Function project. When I started my studies in Rennes in the mid-seventies, they were doing exhibitions all over France. It was always a dream of mine to meet Claude Parent so when I learnt that they were doing an exhibition in Rennes, I went immediately, and I was absolutely fascinated. When I had the chance to finally meet him in the mid-80s, we started to discuss things and eventually became friends. That is, until he died in 2016. He was very important to me, as was Paul Virilio. In the early nineties when I was in Paris, Paul Virilio asked me to conduct a lecture at the École Spéciale in Paris. It was thanks to him that I eventually started to teach there. These were the two main people in France that influenced me at the time.

Odile Decq

Founder of Studio Odile Decq

PRESENT


GV: What are some of the areas of interest that drive you today?

OD: Architecture to me has always been an adventure. I don’t always know where I will go precisely. I may have an idea but sometimes, it’s totally imprecise and it might come to me on the way. Architecture to me is much more than ideas. It has to be a place where people can move and live in good conditions.; a place where they can forget the hardships of life. Therefore, it must have a sort of humanistic approach, whatever the project may be, it must have something in addition to the functional programme to always provide people with something more comfortable than the minimum.

Odile Decq © Piero Martinello
Current day wrokspace of Studio Odile Decq. Image credit: © Piero Martinello

GV: Does that influence your office structure? What is your internal organisation like?

OD: My office is a workshop where we work as a team. However, it is constantly evolving all the time. I try to have an organisation but not one that is very strict. I like to find people who enjoy doing a bit of everything, even if it might be something very trivial like doing the photocopies or changing the toilet paper, but at the same time, be able to conceive a project, be interested in the execution of a project or even to go on site. I like when people are able to take that up, and if in the beginning they are unable to, my idea is always to help them to get there. When they don’t want to, they don’t stay much longer. Sometimes I’m travelling and at other times, I’m in Lyon teaching at my school of architecture. Sometimes I work on a project in the office or review them and at other times, I have an art project commissioned by a gallery. There are no days that are the same and that’s what makes it interesting. When there is too much repetition, I discover that I start to be bored.


«Discomfort is good for creation. To be destabilised, to be able to change your space and change your conditions of working, helps you to be more creative. If you disagree with that, you can’t be a creative person.»


GV: What type of projects do you develop? Do you find the time to experiment and research?

OD: Although we do both private and public projects, these days we tend to take up more private ones. We don’t really have the time for unsolicited projects. We would obviously like to be more like a research laboratory because we are always re-inventing what it means to be an office. I want people to propose new ideas and new ways of working. I’m opportunistic enough to think that it might benefit the office. At the same time, it’s fun for me, for the clients, and for everybody in the office too. I think that every five, six or even ten years, you have to reinvent yourself. I like to reorganise the space and the hierarchies within the office because I don’t like when people are anchored in their table and start to repeat themselves. Discomfort is good for creation. To be destabilised, to be able to change your space and change your conditions of working, helps you to be more creative. If you disagree with that, you can’t be a creative person.

Odile Decq

Founder of Studio Odile Decq

FUTURE


GV: What aspects, in your opinion, need reformulation for the future of architectural practice?

OD: Education. We need to change education even in schools, so children can understand what architecture is when they are young. Not just by looking at what the architects are doing as a profession but to see what good architecture is. To me, architecture is not just drawing plans. It is much larger than that. It’s a question of culture, of discipline, and it is a way to think about the world and to reorganise the situations we face in order to help people live better. This is what I think the role of an architect is. In the future this may change which is why I always tell my students that you can never become an architect in the same way that I am. I am not an architect in the way that my teachers were.


Rendered image of the project “Twist”. Image credit: © Studio Odile Decq

The profession is evolving so fast. I would love if students today practiced in a different way because we are not in the same era, we are in a more digital and more technical era. In some way, we are more innovative. However, education in schools of architecture today is done in the same way as it was two centuries ago. Young people don’t memorise or concentrate in the same way we did. Neither can they behave the same way. We have to readapt education to them and work with architecture in a new way. We don’t need architects to draw plans because the machines can do that better than us. What will remain will be to rethink the organisation of the world, our lives and our societies. I always tell my students that they have the opportunity to dream a century, to dream the time of their lives. I have no other advice but to tell them to dream and do.


«We don’t need architects to draw plans because the machines can do that better than us. What will remain will be to rethink the organisation of the world, our lives and our societies. I always tell my students that they have the opportunity to dream a century, to dream the time of their lives.»


GV: In spite of this rapid evolution of the profession, do you think there are some concepts that define the future of our practice?

OD: Every keyword or concept that you define today will disappear in the next ten years, so there is no reason to define one. These waves are coming extremely fast. If I go back ten years, everybody was talking about parametric architecture. Now, nobody wants to speak about it, and we are coming back to the ‘white cube’. The white cube is absolutely boring and the parametric was as well. I expect the new generation will reinvent something else, mixed between parametric and white cube. This is why I can’t tell you what the future will be. However, I always find that every project is an opportunity for research. Every project is searching for something new that we didn’t do before. If I am given a project where the programme is the same as an old one, I don’t want to do it. I am always trying to find something new.

    Date of office foundation:

    1984

    Locations:

    Madrid

    Number of employees:

    approx. 20

Juan Herreros

Founder Partner of estudio Herreros

PAST


GV: How would you describe your first contact with the world of architecture?

JH: When I started studying architecture in Madrid in ‘75, I had a completely wrong idea of what it was. It was with that realisation that I decided to continue studying. In my first two months of school, the fascist period in Spain came to an end. My entire undergraduate education took place during the first years of Spanish democracy. There was a kind of optimism in the air, especially in Madrid. It was a very important time and everyone was celebrating the reconstruction of a new society. The School of Architecture was an extremely active place at that time. By the time I graduated, democracy was consolidated and the first projects, commissions and competitions that would go on to reconstruct the whole country were just materialising. We found a variety of opportunities and options to get jobs and commissions, it was quite a privileged situation.


«My entire undergraduate education took place during the first years of Spanish democracy. There was a kind of optimism in the air, especially in Madrid. It was a very important time and everyone was celebrating the reconstruction of a new society.»


GV: What was it like in the university during those years? How did you move on to starting your own practice from there?

JH: As a consequence of the oil crisis in ‘73, at a time that not many projects were being undertaken, there was a generic absence of work in the professional area, so most architects from the previous generations either went into administration or academia. There was a strong and close relationship between the professors from different generations: the big stars of the older generations, but also these younger professors. The environment that they built together was very interesting and optimistic. For a long time, we felt that we had been isolated from the rest of Europe and the rest of the world, so naturally, we wanted to discover new people and ideas, so we were reading many architecture magazines and travelling madly. After working in a few offices, I founded Ábalos & Herreros with Iñaki Ábalos, an office that would work for the next twenty years, the same twenty years that it took for the reconstruction of this country.

GV: Who were some of your key influences at the time? Perhaps mention someone who influenced your characteristic style of design.

JH: When I started my professional career, Alejandro de la Sota was perhaps the most influential person in Spain. From him I learnt the importance of simplicity. Not just in design, but simplicity as a concept of permanently renouncing the superfluous aspects of life. I also learnt how to maintain a quiet attitude and be patient. This was because of a piece of advice he gave me very directly: one day, looking at my work, he said. ‘I think you have to be less anxious.’ From that day on, I decided to take that path. A few years later, when I was teaching at the AA, I met Cedric Price. He was really a surprise to me in that he was completely different from the myths that surrounded him instigated by his fans; the idea was that Cedric Price was a ‘non-architect’ or someone who went against the discipline. On the contrary, what I saw was a person who was deeply and incredibly engaged with architecture and the practice. From him I learned the necessity of having a critical approach to everything we do. A few years later, I taught at Columbia University where I met Mark Wigley. From him, I discovered a new way of reading history and looking at unorthodox architects and figures.

2001_Barcelona_Juan Herreros con Cedric Price
Juan Herreros with Cedric Price. Image courtesy of estudio Herreros.

GV: It’s interesting that you mention someone you met in Spain, someone you met in Europe, and someone you met overseas.

JH: I discovered that my way of working was informed heavily in the initial years by the heterodox architects of the U.S. panorama instead of looking only at Europe. Mark really showed me how to use history as an instrument of design, so we had intense conversations about Buckminster Fuller, Cedric Price, Jean Prouvé, and many others, always escaping the topical approach to this singularity, instead very specifically looking for the integration they had in the discipline. I think these three people and topics have been very influential in my way of working today. My whole life today is defined by the overlapping of academic and professional fields. They are never separated or independent. That perhaps came from my school where I discovered that the university itself is a laboratory for discovering the world, especially in Madrid, having always had a direct contact with important political, social, and cultural movements.

GV: Could you mention some of the themes that you were particularly interested in those years?

JH: One was infrastructure, which perhaps defines my position towards the intellectual panorama of architecture at that time during the crisis of postmodernism. The second was completely on the other end of the spectrum: the domestic domain. I was investigating why housing had disappeared from the architectural discussion in the first half of the 20th century. I was interested in how many houses had converted themselves into laboratories of experimentation. Most of the new ideas in architecture are completely off. My question was: why and how could architecture recuperate this? The third idea was about ‘orthodox figures’, perhaps because I saw myself as an orthodox architect, interested in very peripheral fields and looking for references that could really guide my career.

GV: Were there any projects or research initiatives that could perhaps summarise those interests in infrastructure or domesticity?

JH: A project that summarised these fields of interests and in a way closed that period for me was the garbage recycling plant in Madrid. It was a project I designed and developed with Iñaki Ábalos. It was a big, technical and ecological project with the assistance of many advisory experts and external collaborators. It was also the project that helped us formulate many topics that we would work on in the near future such as monumentality, landscape design, and environmental sustainability. This was one of the very first few times a recycling plant was designed by an architect and it was also transformed into a sort of cultural institution with the idea that students could visit this place and understand the city. For me, this project summarises and highlights all those preoccupations that I had before.

 

Juan Herreros

Founder Partner of estudio Herreros

PRESENT


GV: How have these topics of interests evolved over the years? Are they informed in a different way because of new conditions?

JH: During the latter part of my professional and pedagogical life, I was focused on the blurring of precisely these two fields. It was the first time I realised how the ‘professional’ was related to the post-education of the architect and ‘pedagogy’ was related to the definition of the practice. The necessary conversation between theory and practice starts with my teaching project at Columbia University. I opened a series of discussions about the studio culture, questioning what happens to be the most established pedagogical system of design that we accept and understand. We perhaps don’t reflect very deeply about what we mean when we say ‘experimental’, what we mean when we say ‘political’, ‘social’, ‘cultural’, ‘economic’ or ‘technical’. I have been working deeply with the help of some good professionals like Enrique Walker on the re-identification of these fields to understand our embodiment of the pedagogical culture. This is in parallel with another research project that I have called ‘Emerging Practices’, which is founded in Madrid but also in New York, questioning how to be an architect in the 21st century. It is a pedagogical research project dedicated to a generation that is going to work as architects in a completely different way as we did. The break between the instructor and the student has never before been so big. However, we still have the responsibility and the commitment of using the educational environment as the place that defines the future of the profession. I have organised seminars that try to confront and bring together 15 or 20 practices that have less than 10 years of experience with the intention of investigating how these young architects are utilising the education that they have received. For me, now, this is a beloved project in terms of legacy, if I may, in my close to 40 years in education.


«In my generation, we started our professional practice by imitating a model. Now that is impossible. Young architects have to stop and question themselves on what kind of architecture they want to do and what they’re going to do to get it.»


GV: What did you find out from that research? How would you suggest we change the way we teach today’s students?

JH: I have been blurring of the boundaries of my professional practice and my pedagogical activity. That means I use the school as a laboratory for the topics I want to discuss in my office and I use my office as the place to bring and realise what I have experimentally obtained in my teaching practice. At the same time, the projects developed in my office are developed in a very similar way that the students do in school. So, I meet my teams more or less with the same attitude, the same instruments, at the same time schedule as I meet my students and vice versa. I really find that very interesting. Never before has the establishment of young architecture practices been a project in itself. In my generation, we started our professional practice by imitating a model. Now that is impossible. Young architects have to stop and question themselves on what kind of architecture they want to do and what they’re going to do to get it. The only way to answer those questions is to make the establishment of your practice your very first commission. That defines the difference between the interesting architects and those who are just following a convention and perhaps may have a very short path before themselves.

GV: Is there a certain keyword you would use to define your practice?

JH: I’m not very obsessed about looking for this ‘cool’ word that everybody is fighting for to define their practice. I can say that the work we do is quite pragmatic and collaborative, in the real sense of the word, not the fancy. Apart from that, we are absolutely obsessed with simplification. Our process is usually characterised by taking in a lot of information, working with it, having a lot of conversations, all in order to produce something incredibly simple that can be given back to the world. This means that we have our rituals. Our office has its moments that we identify as part of our office culture. Part of our work is constructing this work culture in the physical organisation of the space, in the way the people are sat, or how we have meetings. We have two groups of people: the directors who can really drive a project, and the people who can join those projects as part of the team.  Even in a big project, the new people have smaller projects or tasks that they control on their own. Thereby, the people have to confront themselves, at all times.

GV: Are there any peculiar dynamics that represent the organisation of your practice?

JH: We are not too occupied by meetings but rather with conversations. There are many conversations that happen at the office simultaneously and that’s what allows me to travel a lot instead of being there all the time or being obsessed with control. Jens Richter and I have certain systems in place in order to achieve that. So, what are we? I don’t exactly know but we have a culture, a system, or perhaps an agenda and we are very well-organised. One of our rituals for instance is that one Friday a month, we will all have lunch and every person in the office tells or shows others what he or she is doing. Another one of our habits is that we always ask our team-members to explain our projects to our clients. It is never us, the partners. We sit on the clients’ side of the table and discuss the solutions for the project as collaborators. We are not on the side of the person trying to convince, we are merely the people trying to follow a conversation.

Herreros_Richter ©Pablo G Tribello
Juan Herreros and Jens Richter. Image credit: © Pablo G Tribello

GV: That reminds me of how it has become exceedingly difficult to explain what architects do to the rest of the 99% that are not architects. How can we close the gap between the two?

JH: To explain or transmit to the people how architecture is useful, or why the architect is interested in being a part of others’ lives is a pending subject. I fight all I can to push and urge our institutions to do just that. All the communication means that architectural associations have, all their equipment, tools and ingredients should be focused towards that goal. This is because the architect’s world is quite closed. We have our own magazines, our own schools and lectures. The audiences of our lectures are mostly architects or young architects. You can live a world of architecture without ever getting out.

GV: Have you experimented with opening up that closed bubble that architects exist in?

JH: In contexts like Northern Europe, Norway, or places where public participation is so active you are forced to really learn to perform in a different way. For example, it is absolutely necessary to do away with the obsession of convincing the other of your ideas and substitute it with listening and dialoguing. Perhaps ‘dialogue architecture’ is one of our slogans. That truly defines the future of our profession for me. This ‘dialogue’ has to be founded in the knowledge that people have because opinions about architects that one tends to discover in our everyday lives outside of the discipline are banal and not very well-founded. The impression we project is that we solve technical problems or very specific questions which is quite a flat idea. It is not so easy to find a client that really asks you to do something new or ambitious. Architecture is very ambitious compared to other fields. One of the experiences that became quite important in the last few years is how some extremely influential and seminal projects, like the Mediatheque in Sendai by Toyo Ito or the Ferry Terminal in Yokohama by FOA and many others are being poorly used. Those responsible for these buildings don’t understand the potential that the building has of producing new experiences. Perhaps this can be a new profession for young architects: to curate good buildings. Today, all our living spaces are being used exactly like they were 40 years ago.  Clearly, the imagination that all these projects bring to the table is not being used.

GV: How has your experience as an architect been affected by the new social, cultural, technical, economic conditions? Has it made you rethink your model and system as an architect?

JH: Yes, I had to reinvent my own practice in 2005, close to 15 years ago. I had to establish a new office, exactly the moment when the economic crisis arose in Spain. At that time, I had the serenity to stop and think about what kind of architect I wanted to be and what I could do to get there. It was a time when getting commissions and occupying a site was very difficult. In that sense, the decisions that I took then really marked my vision for the future of my architecture. I run a small office that never exceeds 20 people. We do a few projects at a time usually winning them through competitions. We are not obsessed with growth but rather with the development of projects. That occupies a significant part of our time. We are obsessed with research, mixed with my pedagogical practice, and we try to condense the numerous ideas and topics through discussion. The problem is that the projects that we do are usually done by very big offices that hold a certain prestige for having done multiple such projects. Recently, we won the competition of the Munch Museum in Oslo and we are currently finishing it. The idea that those kinds of buildings have to be designed by incredibly important, muscular offices goes against the model I propose. At the same time, the model I propose is a transition between the offices of the 80s and the offices from 10 to 15 years after me, i.e., small offices with flexible professionals and teams changing every day. It’s wonderful that you now have a cultural and economic situation to do that. I don’t think the crisis we had to suffer in the last few years was only economic. It was also the crisis of models. The model of the working architect was completely dead. We had been fighting to keep it valid. Now I think we have realised that we have to stop fighting to maintain a totally uninteresting prestige. It is in this reinventing that I identify myself more each day.

Juan Herreros

Founder Partner of estudio Herreros

FUTURE


GV: From what you contemplated earlier about the future of architecture, do you have any keywords or key topics that could represent our shared future?

JH: My conclusions after working and teaching for many years and thinking about the new generation are that we need to establish positive and productive connections with the past without any nostalgia. We have to instigate non-prejudiced perceptions of the present. Our obligation as architects is to engage with the present in a positive way and look at the future as something to be built together. In the future I imagine that most commissions will be atypical. Architects will not be given a plot by a client and asked to build. Younger generations will have to deal with situations that a few years ago not were considered very interesting for architects: collaborating with many people and fighting to defend a project. It will also become important to resist our fascination for complexity which is closely linked to today’s consumption culture. My two words for the future of architecture are: ‘simplicity, against the fascination for complexity’, and ‘engagement’. I think architecture has had too comfortable a relation with its context. Projects could always be re-described in some way to make them more interesting. Now, that is no longer possible. We have to pose questions that architecture can answer and add value to imperfect moments. We have to create this engagement to be useful and also to recuperate a place in our society.


«In the future I imagine that most commissions will be atypical. Architects will not be given a plot by a client and asked to build. Younger generations will have to deal with situations that a few years ago not were considered very interesting for architects.»


GV: How do you see our place in society or the role that we might play as architects in society?

JH: The umbrella-term for all these conversations is design. We are not social agents, political agents, or economic forces. We are designers. We may have parallel engagements or interests but designing is the speciality that sets us apart from others. Two of my projects that clearly transmit this feeling are the Munch Museum in Oslo and on the other hand, the Tacubaya Masterplan. Munch Museum is a building that may appear, at first sight, to be a classical project. However, it is really the invention of a new typology, the museum is no longer a mere cemetery of paintings. Instead, it is a social hub. We are redescribing the programme such that no more than 40% of the area of this building is dedicated to showing art. The rest will be education, research facilities, and so on. The other project is Tacubaya, a neighbourhood in Mexico City inhabited by 25,000 people. We are doing a strategic plan for the entire area for the next 25 years. That means that we have to deal with social leaders, markets, the ambulant commerce and all kinds of other instabilities. It is a historical, physical fabric with a somewhat unstable society living there, along with its many problematic situations and values. Our work is to read, redescribe, open and give some light for the future. In the end, what we do is design. You end up creating these amazing situations where people without a significant education, with the right instruments of representation, understand your design. You learn a lot about the city, about the community, and use it to design again, not to give political advice or social solutions, but to design the city better with each iteration, because that is what architects do.

Museo Munch_imagen nocturna©AFL
Munch Musuem at night. Image credit © AFL

GV: How can you design something for the next 25 years, in such an unclear and unstable socio-economic and political situation?

JH: We have totally renounced the idea of making regulations or writing long instructions. We want to actually take the city, redraw it, propose something and discuss it with the local citizens. In these situations, you have to accept that you are not going to be the architect. You are designing, but you are creating the situations, guiding transformations, and consequently drawing them. However, you are not going to be the person who designs buildings. You are designing the future but the future will have buildings, infrastructure, facilities built by other colleagues. It is especially interesting for us as a traditional office of architects that usually designs buildings or applies to competitions. I love it because I see it as a way of opening up spaces for young architects to do things. I enjoy creating platforms where many people can find an opportunity to do something innovative. We are designing situations more than the actual elevation of the buildings, but it is still design work as we will produce drawings that serve as the basis for architecture to happen.

GV: What is your message or suggestion to the younger generation, those who are finishing their studies and starting their careers or practices?

JH: My message for the young generation is not ‘You are the future’, it’s ‘You are the present.’ Never before has the difference between the work of the younger architects and the established ones been so great. Simultaneously, never before has the work of young architects informed the work of the established ones so much. We are looking at the work of the young architects, searching for information, using them and their work to understand the conditions of a present that is perhaps inaccessible to us. It cannot be a linear process wherein the senior architects leave the stage for younger architects to replace. Instead, it would be great to work together with the younger generation and mix our experiences with a fresh capacity and all their flexibility and nomadism. That’s what can really build the best future I can imagine.

    Date of office foundation:

    1975

    Location:

    Ghent

    Number of employees:

    approx. 45

Paul Robbrecht and Hilde Daem

Co-founders of Robbrecht en Daem architecten

PAST


GV: How would you describe your first contact with the world of architecture?

PR: It all began even before starting my studies. I discovered architecture at a very specific moment during the World Fair in Brussels in ‘58 that I visited several times with my father. As a young boy of eight, I was amazed by the buildings that they built, not only the Atomium which is very famous and still exists, but also pavilions like the Poème électronique by Le Corbusier and Iannis Xenakis, as well as the Scandinavian pavilions that were perhaps poor in their expression but very rich in their human feeling because of the natural materials they used. Later on, I would doubt pursuing art or architecture, but my father supported me and urged me to visit the buildings of Le Corbusier. While studying in school, Hilde and I met each other.

GV: I am aware of the links between art and architecture in your work. Did this influence come from a young age?

HD: I grew up as the oldest in a family of thirteen children. I have six brothers and six sisters. My father, who was a doctor, would receive a lot of brochures about medications in which there would often be a small section about art, architecture or some texts about historical buildings. He would hand me these brochures and eventually I learnt about the likes of Picasso, Paul Klee and Chagall while reading about the kinds of diseases that existed in Egyptian history. My childhood revolved around helping the family with the children, but I had to be very creative all the time because I would always play with them. That came to become something I wanted to continue throughout my life. In high school, I was good at Latin, Greek, mathematics, history and art. So, when the time came to choose a career, it was very difficult for me. I thought architecture could perhaps somehow connect those topics.


«I insisted that my name also be in the name of office. Thus, it became ‘Robbrecht en Daem’. However, we still got faxes that often said ‘Dear Mr. Robbrecht and Mr Daem.’ They wouldn’t expect that ‘Daem’ was a woman.»


GV: Architecture is indeed a profession that brings together many disciplines. Did it turn out to be as you expected?

HD: It turned out to be much more technical than I expected. Moreover, it was really a man’s world. You would only find two or three girls among one hundred and twenty boys. Although we now have the ‘Me too’ movement, at that time you had been better off with your mouth shut. It was quite a heavy life for women. My father would always say so, emphasising that architecture was not for women. However, I wanted to prove him wrong. As of today, there might be more than fifty percent of women studying in architecture schools, but you never see them starting their own practices. They are always in other architects’ offices. Very rarely do we see an office that is known by the name of a woman. In the beginning when I started my practice with Paul, we were called ‘Architecture and Music’. At the time, we were very interested in music and it seemed to us a beautiful name. There was this colleague from school who asked Paul to start an office with him. He didn’t ask me; instead, he directly assumed that Paul was the owner. I took a stand then that I didn’t want my entire professional life to play out in that manner. I decided that the practice must not merely be called ‘Paul Robbrecht’. I insisted that my name also be in the name of office. Thus, it became ‘Robbrecht en Daem’. However, we still got faxes that often said ‘Dear Mr. Robbrecht and Mr Daem.’ They wouldn’t expect that ‘Daem’ was a woman. Even while working, in spite of the fact that I was capable, the architects and clients would always address the work to Paul.

Robbrecht en Daem portrait ©C.Olsson
Robbrecht en Daem in their early years after founding their studio. Image credit: © C.Olsson

GV: How was your experience of education in architecture university?

PR: We were unsatisfied with the level of education at our school, but we had an interesting group of friends in our class. We distanced ourselves from the school but shared knowledge between ourselves, and eventually became autodidacts. We graduated in the mid-70s, but it was a very difficult period owing to the oil crisis of the time. There was very little work and so we ended up travelling a lot. We didn’t have much money, but we travelled to Italy to see its classical architecture. That year, I won two competitions: The Prix de Rome, which at that time, existed in Belgium but currently doesn’t and another that granted me a monetary prize. With that money, we were able to stay in Italy for a while. We stayed in Rome and in Vicenza, the city of Palladio. From the end of 1978 to 1980, we met some people in the context of the Centro Palladio. They were art historians and we still keep in touch to this day. There were other architects there too, and it was a nice period during our lives. It was around this time that we started to do our first projects and that really marked the beginning for us.

GV: Was there anybody you met at that time that may have influenced you?

PR: I was mostly with my group of three or four people and each of us followed his or her own path, but we were like a school of our own. We were constantly exchanging ideas. There’s Marc Devoir, Christian Kieckens, and Marie Jose van Hee who stayed with us all the time. Today she has her own practice established at the end of the space here. We would always support each other since the very beginning. Apart from this, before he began rose to popularity, I began to familiarise myself with the work of Louis Kahn. Back then, nobody was interested in his work but because of the wonderful mix of classicism and modernity in his work, I developed a keen interest. That was very influential to me. Now I don’t have as many heroes, but he was a real discovery for me as a student and a true hero to me. I was able to see Khan’s building in the United States and I even went to Bangladesh to see his parliament building. Sadly though, I never met him in person because he died in ‘74.

GV: What are some of the themes you were interested in at that point of time? Do certain collaborations perhaps come to mind from that period?

PR: Here at the studio, between Hilde, our son who also works here, and I, there has always been a huge interest in contemporary and classical art. We were very lucky to be close to some important artists of our generation and even to collaborate with them. Later on, when I started teaching in an art school, I began talking with sculptors, painters, and filmmakers. This dialogue of architecture and art has always been an underlying theme in our work. In the year ‘87, we were asked to do an exhibition in Amsterdam called Floor for Sculpture, Wall for a Painting, which we eventually designed in the form of a cradle. We always tried to craft a dialogue between ideas in contemporary or conceptual art and then we would move on to something else. We would constantly collaborate with many artists. We designed a square with Juan Muñoz in Barcelona and another one in Antwerp with Christina Iglesias. We also collaborated with Franz West at the time. We truly believe that architecture is a place for gatherings that allow an open dialogue. It has to shelter the exchange of ideas, culture, music and science. Our dream is to make buildings for that.

Paul Robbrecht and Hilde Daem

Co-founders of Robbrecht en Daem architecten

PRESENT


GV: How did the themes you were interested back then evolve into topics of interest through your projects today?

PR: There were certain big steps that we took, one of them being our concert hall project. Likewise, the pavilions for the Documenta were also significant. Since the mid-90s, we have been dealing with larger projects that entail more square metres. We are more focused on public spaces than on private projects and now almost never do private houses unless it is for friends. We expanded as an office as we grew interested in public buildings and public squares. The Central Library of the University of Ghent is an important project for us because the library was originally a Henry van de Velde masterpiece. It has been eleven years since we started working on the restoration and renovation of the building. However, even though the themes and programmes of the projects may have changed, in the back of our minds, we always maintained what we had learnt from those conversations with the artists we befriended.

043 offices R&D_© Filip Dujardin
Robbrecht en Daem architecten workspace. Image credit: © Filip Dujardin

GV: What would you identify as the current focus of your architectural practice?

HD: At the moment, we do quite large-scale projects. We started forty-five years ago, and we grew slowly with small projects, mostly small residences or offices for specific people. There was always art in what we did then and in what we are doing now. We don’t add art at the end of the project. Now we are working more with developers because there is no more empty land to build private houses. There are a lot more renovation, restoration and integration projects in the city. Perhaps one hundred years ago, the industries were in the city centres. All those industries have now moved out and developers are now looking at these sites to build apartments and big habitat units. Some of them want to bring a good quality of architecture to the city. Additionally, in the city we have people overlooking urban development. There are competitions for architects where might collaborate with developers; a possibility to bring better large-scale architecture. I think this is the current objective of our practice. Apart from housing, industry, offices or culture, we design hospitals and we also always try to work for cultural commissions as it’s much easier to bring art into that kind of projects.

GV: Could you elaborate on a couple of these current projects where you are trying to bring art into?

PR: Our biggest project at the moment is the Flemish Radio & Television Company building in Brussels. We look at it as a cultural building and not an office or a technical place. The primary function of this building is obviously a news studio but it’s interesting to think about what it means to be a space where media is created, or news is broadcasted. For instance, they could organise cultural and sports events as a lot of people would go there to watch football. We wanted this building to touch all aspects of our society, i.e., a building where culture is produced while simultaneously functioning as a reflection of what’s going on in our society. Parallelly, we are busy with other artistic projects. A beautiful project we are currently working on is the house of Rubens, the Flemish painter. We were asked to build two new buildings near his house, the Rubenianum. That includes a research centre library about Rubens and a new hall for exhibitions near his home. Our current work is very mixed-programme. Much of our earlier thoughts are now taking shape in a wider sense in our society.


«What you can feel in your fingers, you give to the mouse and you might be able to draw with it, but the real feeling that you get with the pencil or a pen does not exist anymore.»


GV: What is the office dynamic like within your studio? Perhaps there might be certain dynamics that you could comment on.

HD: We are now between thirty-five and forty-five young people here in the office. They begin immediately after graduating and although they initially expect to stay between six months to a year, what we find is that they are actually staying longer than planned. They end up staying for three to four years, and some even ten. It creates a very good interplay between what we were always working on; the art or philosophy and the knowledge we have. For us, the past, present and future are all linked. You cannot cut one part off from the other. Since I am not involved anymore with all the large projects, it makes me very proud and happy when younger architects come to me and ask me, ‘Hilde, when can I work with you?’ I enjoy giving them basic knowledge on both architecture and life, on how to act when you have a real client and how to treat the user of the architecture. For instance, our son Johannes is also working with us in the office. I hope we can impart our past and present experience onto him because the future really will be defined by him. In the past, when we had our exams, we had to calculate concrete and statics using a machine. It was not electrical. You had to mechanically move something to make cosines and sines. You couldn’t use a calculator, instead, you had to do it all by hand. Now they even use calculators in primary school. They can’t write or count anymore. This is what I’m afraid of. What you can feel in your fingers, you give to the mouse and you might be able to draw with it, but the real feeling that you get with the pencil or a pen does not exist anymore.

Paul Robbrecht and Hilde Daem

Co-founders of Robbrecht en Daem architecten

FUTURE


GV: What are your thoughts about the ever-evolving role of the architect?

PR: We are living in a society that is rapidly changing. Even in our practice, we can easily find dramatic changes. For instance, ten years ago in Belgium, nobody wanted to build high-rise buildings with people living one above the other. Everybody wanted to marry somebody and build a house in the countryside. The entire country came to be populated by these houses and today we no longer have a countryside. Belgium or rather, Flanders has simply become one large suburb. Now I think it’s time for architects to think about totally new ways of living together and to ask the question, ‘What will become of our communities?’ We need to ask ourselves how we can reinvent and stimulate the idea of community in a fast-changing society in the next ten years? Our most important relations are no longer those that are found in a typical home but rather new kinds of relations between people. We need to rethink these relations not only in housing but also in commercial areas and public squares. I believe that architects will play an extremely important role in the evolution of our society as we try to find solutions.


«We need to ask ourselves how we can reinvent and stimulate the idea of community in a fast-changing society in the next ten years? Our most important relations are no longer those that are found in a typical home but rather new kinds of relations between people.»


GV: What are some of the pressing topics of interest for you today?

HD: I would urge all architects, but also the users and especially the politicians to think long-term and not short-term. I’m very pessimistic about the way things are going now. We need to find sustainable ways to slow down the heating of the Earth. Instead, we are being forced to use materials whose production is much more damaging to the planet than cars. If there’s a central theme for me, it would be to remain humble in what I am thinking and to think in the long-term, not to merely think about the end product. Instead, think of how the materials get there and how they are produced. When I travelled to Africa, I saw entire mountains of cell-phone and television waste. The way we manage our waste and think about production of materials is not sustainable. They ask you to use these sun panels which after ten years, stop working. You have to renew them, but nobody has thought of what will happen to the old ones.


Rendered image of Flemish Radio & Television Company building in Brussels. Image credit: © G2 Architectural Graphics

GV: Does that make you more comfortable to handle smaller-scale projects these days?

HD: Yes, in a small project you are connected to the people and you are connected to life. You are connected to real problems by building in nature for human beings. You can begin with small techniques and then slowly scale up. You always learn because you have to begin by looking towards nature; looking for instance for the most beautiful view in an ugly site. When you focus on this, you can work around the incommodities and you can take advantage of the best. That’s my mission for young architects; how to bring in nature or bring in the city; how to protect the space from noise; how to bring in light or protect against light; how to protect your building from the sun. We must build how our grandparents built their houses. My mission now revolves around these little things. If you stay with both your feet on the earth, you will find that it works.

GV: How do you think the profession must evolve in order to close the gap that it has created between society and itself?

PR: Our society is not as quiet as it may seem. I see a fast-changing society in the way people live together insofar as it is no longer the ‘family’ and the ‘house’. We see a much more complex structure of how people are related to each other. We must try to create possibilities for spaces that are open and adaptable to the complex relationships in our community. What is the future model of the house? What can we share? Can we create spaces where we can share? Can we simultaneously give an interesting image to these buildings while considering its ecology and its extreme importance? Building was one of the most important means of expression in the past. Now, we have to be careful with our world and adapt the cities we have built to our current needs. In Ghent, we are in a very specific situation as we live in a historical city. Most of our projects are in very historical sites, so we are constantly questioning how we can bring these historical cities to something we can use now; not just for tourists but also as a place where we can live.

GV: Through your recent projects have you been exploring this concept of community?

PR: Even in the word ‘community’ there is ‘communication’. These two ideas are now recurring themes in our work. We are really reflecting on how it might be possible to not only produce housing but try to create spaces where the feeling of community is really evident. Even in high-rise buildings, we want to suggest spaces where people don’t merely stay inside watching television but have a chance to meet one another. We are also thinking about specific ideas for spaces for elderly people. As society ages, there will be more older people than middle-aged people and eventually you will have a larger population at the opposite ends of the age spectrum. So, we need to think of what kind of spaces are fair for young people and children? Children can’t play on the dangerous roads anymore. Buildings can perhaps act as a protection for them. We are trying to find solutions where children can find and play with each other. Another idea we are thinking of is adapting housing so that people can stay for a very long time. Instead of living in an old age institute, homes can simply be adapted to the elderly as they age. These are the themes that seem most important to us at the moment.

GV: What words of advice do you have for our younger generation of architects?

PR: Be surprised and be open! Look at things you don’t know about and be open to different expressions in art. You have to absorb many things and look into yourself while trying to synthesise this world of impressions. If you can be very open to that, you will find a path you can follow.