Article by Federico De Matteis
The exhibition “XDGA_160_EXPO”, which was staged at the Casa dell’Architettura in Rome from February 18th to March 17th, 2015, is the third installment of the exhibition organized by XDGA and CIVA, previously hosted in Brussels and Tallinn. It is a show proposing a rather peculiar – albeit not radical – understanding of what making architecture can mean today. Starting by looking at some figures (which give us a precise, although limited, view of things, helping clear the fog), the Roman exhibition hosted 22 models: of these, three were of completed buildings, three of ongoing projects, two were research-based, theoretic projects, while the remaining 14 were competition entries, either not winning or winning entries which for some reason or another had been discontinued. The chronological extent covers from 2000 to 2013. Each project, as the exhibition itself and the book which serves as a catalog, is titled, to begin with, by a three-digit number, referring to the file folder on XDGA’s servers. To bring this number to the front means, in my opinion, to highlight the collective nature of architectural work, which does set out from the initials of Xaveer De Geyter’s name, but along the way turns to the plural, accepting the final “A” for Architects. This leads us back to the presence, contribution, and work of the around 50 staff members of the office, who come from 15 different countries. A diversified team, both culturally and professionally, capable of covering, with their expertise, the whole gamut of architectural practice: from the conceptual stage of design competitions – that which De Geyter calls “paper architecture” – to the building site. Along with these there are research-based works, such as the “extension” of Monaco, or the urban scenarios evoked by an older book such as After Sprawl, still today on the reading list of many young scholars of urban theory.
Other relevant data: XDGA was founded in 1988, first in Antwerp, later in Brussels, from where it operates still today. Most of its realizations are in Belgium, with a significant number in other European countries. XDGA has won dozens of design competitions, a good number of architecture prizes, and has collected a relevant amount of publications on its work, such as a 2005 El Croquis or the “catalog” to the exhibition, XDGA_161_BOOK.
What could we describe as being the salient characters of XDGA’s work? It is perhaps easier to begin by listing what we do not have to look for: for example, a specific style, something Xaveer clearly rejects in the interview below. Architecture has very little to do with language, or with a branding related to the architect’s identity. This “no-brand” philosophy also witnesses the horizontal organization of the office, where the design process is based on the fact that the best solutions are chosen, independently from the seniority of who is proposing them. Experience and innovative creativity thus balance each other out.
Secondly, we must not seek architectures which are merely “bent” towards the “resolution of problems” only: this kind of “negative” approach is also rejected by De Geyter. Although the contemporary urban condition is full of problems, in the diabolically positivist rectangle of SWOT analysis, XDGA’s project clearly privilege the search for the “hidden potential”, the strengths and opportunities of each given situation. It is therefore not so much a kind of “advocacy planning”, rather the desire to bring this potential to the front: this is the task which the office tries to address at every given occasion.
We must not look for contextualism. Or do we? If for contextualism we intend that of forms and images, of materials and textures, of the emulation of historic processes, of the “new on the ancient”, we will find none of it. XDGA works in-depth with context, investigating history in a lay way, highlighting tactile values rather than some form of language, the dimension of use and of behavior well before that of “aligned” and comforting images. The projects frequently pull us out of our “comfort zone”, thereby awakening us to the experience of space.
Some may find in XDGA’s projects a certain degree of conflict. Provided that this is not necessarily bad in the urban scenario, we can certainly observe a subjective margin to the understanding of conflict. What is truly conflictual? Again: if we sideline the purely formal, morphologic and linguistic values of architecture, then the “space of conflict” is shifted elsewhere; and it could be that the new “layer” of architecture De Geyter adds upon the existing situation contributes to the resolution of conflicts rather than to their increment.
There is a lot of architecture inside XDGA’s work; also a good deal of common sense. Very little branding, very little ideology, no prejudices: this emerges clearly from the models in the exhibition. All this reminds us that (incredibly) making architecture can actually be a business like many others. And despite (or perhaps thanks to) this normality, the projects end up being honest, transparent, and are what they say they are, without hiding behind rhetoric veils of linguistic sophisms: authentic architectures. Architectures possessing those values which, once found in a person, make us truly happy.
Federico De Matteis: Making architecture has never been an easy undertaking, given the need to overcome technical difficulties, scarcity of resources, etc. Which do you think is the greatest difficulty for a contemporary architect, given XDGA’s own experience?
Xaveer De Geyter: I don’t like to think in terms of difficulties. Of course there are all kinds of problems in different fields, but for us practicing architecture is much more a matter of finding potential in the program, the place, the context. Maybe the most difficult part of practice is to convince others of the potential of all this. A lot of our work is generated by competitions: we participate in many because we believe that the most interesting commissions today are in the public field, in building public spaces. In competitions a major difficulty lies in the fact that one needs to behave differently than in the case of a direct commission: you need to “distinguish” yourself, while sometimes, in a given context, it might not be necessary to propose a spectacular architecture. However I don’t want to criticize the culture of competitions, since I believe that it represents a major change of the last two decades. Competitions are our main source of work, and in general it is a very good system, but the problem is the behavior that comes from the competition between architects.
FDM: When you say “distinguishing yourself”, does it mean that the project itself must be exceptional, that you have to provide some form of performance, or that you have to distinguish yourself as a certain “specific” architect?
XDG: A lot depends of course of the quality of the jury. What I mean is that projects often are more spectacular than necessary for the real situation, because they first need to be winning. For ourselves, we try not to work with this thing we may call “style”, we don’t find it very interesting. What we are interested in is to be able to find potential in a given circumstance. That only works to a certain level: of course we have our preference in terms of materials, colors etc. But I think in general it is uninteresting. Architecture is not about leaving your mark: it is rather about looking at a situation and providing an answer, adding a new layer to the existing situation.
FDM: When you start working on a project do you feel more challenged if there are many limits or constraints?
XDG: It’s difficult to talk in general terms about that, but I think that for an architect to have constraints is not a limitation, rather the opposite. I consider ourselves as being architects who work a lot with context; whereas you seem to suggest that we don’t work in a frame of contextual architecture. I don’t really agree with that, because in our designs we look profoundly at a given context: at the potential and program, at history, and we try to distinguish the different layers in a context in connection with the history of a place. Many times our answer or proposal is something that has a lot to do with this research. This does not mean that the project adapts itself in formal terms, or in terms of materials or colors. For us context is something very large, a collection of different things, and in that sense we are somehow contextual architects.
FDM: When you see a new context you have to design in, what is it that you look for at the beginning, what do you try to understand?
XDG: It strongly depends on the context itself. When we consider one of the works we are engaged in now, such as Place Rogier in Bruxelles, the most striking thing was that the area had not been functioning as a public space for half a century ! Why ? Before that it was the square in front of the North station, a traditional public space with all fluxes coming out of one of its facades. Then the station had to be moved to the North because an underground railway tunnel had been built under the city center before the 1950’s. The station was demolished, and what was left was a kind of space which no longer had a function. Soon after that three different Metro lines were installed, crossing each other at Place Rogier, and in combination with a lot of bus lines the square became again an important public transport hub. The fluxes which once were horizontal between the station and the square remained, but became vertical and came out of the ground: the whole organization of our plan comes from this simple change in history. We only needed to adapt the square to this change of direction. More in general, what we try to do is to match elements in the program with elements in the formal or geographic circumstances, and we simply try to bring a clear link between these different things. For us the form of a project at the beginning is not very important, it’s more about a program finding its place.
FDM: Does it ever happen to you that when you come upon some place that you find particularly striking, you think “I would really like to design something for this context”?
XDG: In general we are more interested in complex situations. It’s less interesting to conceive architecture in virgin places that have no complexity. And one of the attractive things of our profession is that we come upon the most unexpected places!
FDM: Speaking of the International Olympic Committee competition: I find it’s a very interesting project from many viewpoints, but especially in the way you have enclosed the old villa. It says something about an attitude towards existing buildings which, to me, seems somehow conflictual. Do you agree with this?
XDG: Yes and no. I would not call these relations conflictual, the design is more about using existing buildings and elements as ingredients for a new composition. One can compare the IOC proposal to our design for the New Port House in Antwerp, where the client was looking for a new building on the site that forms together with the existing building a compact and well-functioning duo. What might appear as conflictual to some people is for us rather a matter of creating a new situation from what already exists.
FDM: Would you say that conflict in general is good for contemporary architecture?
XDG: Not only for contemporary architecture. Many urban situations, where buildings from different periods stand together, that are considered today as being ‘harmonious’ just because they are old, were considered a clash when they were built. In the International Olympic Committee case some of city’s authorities involved in monuments’ conservation were shocked by the proposal, but on the other hand conservation is not the only issue at stake. In a way our proposal can also be considered rather respectful. After all the whole matter is how you position next to this monument a new building which is at least three times bigger than anything already existing on the site. We made a lot of different trials: but at such a short distance from the castle any “huge” building did not work, and the proof is that all other objects which are already there do not fit together with the villa. This eventually led us to the “reversal” of the project: not the juxtaposition of old and new, but the integration.
FDM: It is a very interesting solution, also because the old building is enclosed, almost enshrined.
XDG: Almost like a piece of furniture! It’s also a practical solution.
FDM: You say that when working in context you make use of the place’s history. What about the use of architectural history, relating to other authors, masters, etc.?
XDG: Every architect is influenced by many different things, among them architectural history, to such an extent that sometimes one might take over ideas or concepts that preexist but that one does not really remember precisely. One has a kind of “luggage”, a cultural heritage that one carries, built up from childhood and getting bigger all the time. We work against certain things, and in the line of other things.
FDM: Is there any architect in your cultural luggage that you come across more frequently?
XDG: I would rather say one-hundred of them! I’m an admirer of Mies van der Rohe and of Archizoom, but that does not mean that we are trying to work in their line.
FDM: In fact from the work you have done so far we can tell that there is some form of interest towards Mies,..
XDG: Well the best house of the 20th century could probably be the Tugendhat house, if it is not Farnsworth.
FDM: What about collaborations? There are projects that are done in collaboration with others.
XDG: We did one with OMA, but in general we prefer to have a collaboration with people from other disciplines. We prefer to work with engineers, landscape architects, rather than with other architects. We have a rather large office, 50-55 people, with 15 different nationalities, different ages and most of our projects are done in teams built in an equalitarian way: older people do not have much more weight than someone who is very fresh. Already in our office there are many different educations and heritages, so I don’t see what working with another office could bring, except maybe adopting another working method.
FDM: XDGA’s staff comes from 15 different nationalities. How does that contribute to the making of a project?
XDG: People come from different schools, have worked in other offices before, every competition is done in different teams, and each team develops a different way of approaching the project. This confrontation, which at times becomes a clash, brings us forward in a way which must then be analyzed. Teamwork brings us forward; each meeting brings us one step deeper, until we reach a point where there is some kind of evidence to continue in one direction: this is generally how projects are developed. I don’t say that this always takes place in the same way: in some cases there are forms of intuition, which we then postpone by other tryouts and research. But sometimes at the beginning there is nothing at all, and everything needs to be built up from zero.
FDM: Your practice is in Bruxelles, most of your projects are in Belgium or the surrounding region: how Belgian or Flemish would you consider you architecture, despite the fact that you have a very international staff?
XDG: I would not overestimate the importance of the local when it comes to explaining architecture. For me we do not make Flemish architecture, nor Belgian or Brussels architecture. Bruxelles cannot be called Flanders, although historically it was the case. Bruxelles is a small metropolis with a big concentration of political power, lots of nationalities, all together an urban place. Flanders is quite the opposite : it is anti-urban from many points of view. There are a number of reasons why we are in Bruxelles, first of all practical reasons. Before moving we were in Antwerp, and before that in Rotterdam. But for me Bruxelles is a particularly interesting city, in the sense that it is a collage, a conglomerate of different ingredients. It is built up from 19 different towns, each with a local center; there is an historic city which has been heavily damaged by 1960’s “optimism”. There have been huge infrastructural works which have left scars in the urban fabric. There are neighborhoods which are entirely new and that have grown inside the existing fabric. Altogether there are a lot of differences. There is a basic structure with three rings and extensions of the city, but it’s a form of conglomerate, and there is a kind of “fight” between these different parts, there is friction, and for an architect it’s a good breeding ground for new projects. I always make comparisons to cities which are more or less “finished”, like Paris, or many Italian cities. So it is really much more interesting to work in this kind of context where basically there is not much which needs to be protected for ages; there is this kind of freedom and of layering, to which one can more easily add another layer than in other cities. We could say that Paris is the perfect city, but it is completely frozen in terms of its further development, and therefore not that interesting. Here authorities from the monument protection will tell you that you should not change this or that, but there is actually a lot of freedom.
FDM: Do you take many decisions during the construction?
XDG: In most cases we are obliged to define everything in advance, because of tendering rules. But in the end we also have little power as an architect in complex building processes. So we try to anticipate, and we allow all kinds of difficulties to interfere and influence the building process. In many situations one has to accept imperative decisions on which one has no influence. It is important to do this in advance, in order to be able to maintain the basic qualities as close to what was originally intended. So anticipating means that we design things in such a way that there remains an opening to changes.
FDM: The work of your firm ranges from the conceptual, research-based, such as After-Sprawl or the Extension for Monaco, to work on the construction site. What is the connection between these things? Is there some logic that is overarching? A same form of reasoning, or is it different people working in each field?
XDG: There’s all kinds of people: some want to work on a project from the beginning to the very end, others are more interested in the last half of the project, some are more into “paper” architecture, in competitions, and much less in the construction. The overall ambition is to open up possibilities in a given condition, no matter what the scale is. Therefore, we do not consider urbanism and architecture as two distinct disciplines. They are about the same ambition on different scales.
FDM: Is this the way urbanism works in Belgium or Bruxelles?
XDG: This is not a local matter for me. But there are for sure particularities. One of these particularities is that Belgium is a densely populated country with a widely spread building pattern. Which means that there are hardly any virgin situations. As an architect we always react on something that happened before. And that might lead eventually to a specific architecture culture and attitude.
FDM: How would you describe the situation of Belgian architecture today?
XDG: Belgian architecture had a very “sad” period until the late 1990’s: a lot has changed since that time. There were very few interesting things happening in the 1980’s. Today the entire architectural culture has changed a lot with the introduction of all kinds of “Bouwmeesters”, a kind of “state” or “city” architect, with a team that organizes all public competitions throughout Flanders. That really made a lot of change in our landscape.
FDM: Would you say that competitions are a positive factor for Belgian architecture?
XDG: When I was a student all public commissions went to “political” architects: there was a clear link between offices and the different political parties. The offices “paid” for the parties expenses and obtained the commissions, with in general very sad results. It is often said that the “bouwmeester” changed a lot in this, but in reality it was the European Commission who really changed things by imposing, since the early nineties, competitions for all public buildings. This was the decisive factor that allowed us to do public commands in Belgium, but also in other European countries, which was very difficult before.
FDM: Are there are public commissions in Belgium?
XDG: Yes, despite the crisis, absolutely.
FDM: The book which was produced for the exhibition, did it also help to provide some self-criticism of XDGA’s work?
XDG: The mere fact of throwing the work in public, commented by an external architecture critic, is always somehow confronting. It is very interesting for us to see how the external world, in the person of one writer, looks at our work. It also makes clear again how important it is to clearly communicate projects and intentions. On the other hand self-criticism is never far away in what we do. We don’t work with too many certainties, we try to constantly reconsider what we do, we are again and again confronted with opinions, through juries, through clients, through city councils. In general architectural critique in previous years used to be much more severe and un-polite: it had a much more important role than today, where one only finds articles expressing empathy with the work of an architect. There is very little good critical content today, and I have been struggling with since a long time. Up until the nineties I would read severe, fierce articles criticizing architecture and architects: a flavor which today is missing…
FDM: What about the issue of monumentality, which is also mentioned in the book…
XDG: In the book the issue of monumentality is associated with the Antwerp Port House project. In some projects monumentality is intentionally present, but again it depends on external matters: a shabby context can be a reason to bring in a monumental element, in order to provide order, or ‘civilitas’ to a certain situation. Or it might be that the project is of such social importance that it becomes necessary to introduce monumentality.
FDM: Would you define the Place Schuman project as a monumental one?
XDG: Yes and no. Place Schuman responds to the unique situation of the institutions of European power, which have no representative external space. There is a very strong pre-existing formal element, the main axis, and all different forms of power have concentrated around it over time. It cuts through the neighborhood, so our project completely responds to this axis by enhancing it, it allows for important political events, such as people reacting against European politics. So there is a ‘formal’ monumentality as its strengthens the axis, and there is a ‘social’ monumentality as it is about unifying and the ‘collective’. Simultaneously it is a very “local” thing, with the surrounding streets cutting through the object. This is probably the most important aspect of the object, as it merges the supra-local with the local. In our description it is the most important square of Europe: but in fact it is just a roundabout, and the problem is how we deal with that. We think that the local inhabitant who has nothing to do with the European institutions should be able to walk from one side of the square tot the other to buy a kilogram of oranges and walk back while there is something very important taking place inside the object. So the confrontation is between the every day things and the more elevated, sublime things, taking place at the same moment in the same place.
FDM: How important is the fact that Bruxelles, the capital of Belgium, is at once the capital of Europe? How do you relate to this strange situation?
XDG: It is not a strange situation in itself, it is the physical way these institutions are installed in the city that is strange. There is an absolute necessity to install the European institutions inside Bruxelles in a better way. At the same time we understand that this can only happen through afterthought, because all the institutions are already there, there’s not much available space, and so we need to think in a “retroactive” way. The current situation, with shabby and undefined external spaces, responds to the nature of the European institutions themselves, which have been developing for at least 50 years, from the six original countries which had an economic union for coal and steel, and eventually developed to what it is today. Everybody, believers and opponents, recognize that the making of the political form is not finished: it is still underway. As the form of the political body was never clear and still is not today, it is difficult to define an appropriate ‘representative’ space. But in general, for Brussels it is a very interesting aspect. It makes Bruxelles as a whole much more interesting… there is really a part of Bruxelles which has a lot of social problems, there is a poor part, and then there are these “rich immigrants” from all European countries, civil servants: a lot of complexity, and I think that it’s a privileged situation, although it’s not exploited at all.
FDM: What would you say should be done?
XDG: I think there should be more exchange between the European institutions and the city: they tend to form their own bastion inside Bruxelles, and somehow isolate themselves. We need to integrate them…