Writing a firm profile can be an involved process, and for this year's Design Vanguard, I was steeped in the work of Brussels-based Office Kersten Geers David Van Severen for weeks. During that time, I realized that the firm's work deals with a variety issues that require more space than a short magazine feature allows. Rarely discussed issues of type, criticality, and the limits of architectural form, stemming from 1970s-era explorations by Aldo Rossi and OM Ungers (among others) are present in each the firm's projects. For those who are interested in such questions, I hope the following interview provides a useful supplement to the article.
Aleksandr Bierig – Let’s start with your first built project, the Notary’s Office. The commission was for a lobby?
Notary's Office, Antwerp, Belgium, 2003
Kersten Geers – Well, the commission was the first project we did together, and at the time we made it we were both still working for other offices—I was working for Neutlings Riedijk and David was working for Xaveer de Geyter (XDGA)—so it was a sort of hobby project that became more serious after awhile. Originally, it a design for a desk for a secretary. After going there and seeing the terrible space with no windows, we convinced the client to make a glass house in the middle of this building. So the desk turned into a glass pavilion that had no view.
AB – What materials are used in that space? Is it mirrored glass?
KG – It’s a combination of mirrored glass and darkly tinted glass, laminated with a cloudy foil. The inner perimeter of the space is glass, with the mirror foil laminated behind, and then behind that are all the lamps. All of the panels can swing open and behind, sometimes it’s a cupboard and sometimes it’s an entry.
It was a strange commission and for us it became a bit of a manifesto. The clients allowed us to do whatever we wanted, so it became an investigation of what architecture could be about for us. It defined a particular perimeter between an inside and an outside, a theme that would become very important for us. It also, in a sense, it put the focus on the interior. The interior skin is very precise, and the outer facades—the entrance door to the room—is a result of the interior.
There are no lamps in the space, the lamps are only behind the glass, and because of the cloudy foil the lamps are slightly cloudy. You see the volume of the light, rather than just the back of the space. You yourself are not so much reflected as much as the lamps are reflected.
At the time we were very fascinated with the idea of a glass house—like the Philip Johnson Glass House—or any late modernist ideal of a building made out of simple glass and almost no profile. And somehow we thought it would be possible there—because with insulation and other concerns, it’s impossible to build something like that now—to build an almost utopian version of it as an interior.
AB – In the picture, because of the glass being semi-transparent, the image sort of fades away as it goes deeper. Did you expect that or was it a surprise?
KG – It was partly expected. At the moment, it only works when all the lights are on. I think we expected it to work with only half the lights on, for example, and it doesn’t . . . (laughter) It is somehow very experimental. I think it took about half a year to build it, even though it is very small. We really experimented with the lamps, with the steel, with the glass.
AB – At the time, you were still working at Neutlings Riedijk. How did that experience inform this project or your later work? What sort of things did you learn in a larger firm?
KG – When I was working there and David was working at XDGA, it was the luck of that assignment that it allowed us to figure out what we wanted for ourselves. In some areas, the difference could not be bigger between myself and Neutlings Riedijk. But, in terms of a love for the history of architecture, or even classicism, Neutlings Riedijk is surprisingly close to what inspires us. What I didn’t really know when I started working for them is that in a way they are very classicist, and our office is very classicist also. And that certainly had an influence. I think we shared, for example, a love for early Ungers. That, too, though, it’s always a love / hate relationship.
In terms of experience, working in a certain size of office or on a certain size of project, I think it’s something that only reappears now. You work for years on big-scale projects for somebody else, and you’re on a team, and then when you start your own office you install the lamps yourself. It takes awhile before you come back to a situation where there’s a team to be managed. It’s only the last one-and-one-half years where we’re dealing with issues of size and scale again.
AB – A last question on the Notary’s Office. In a way the space in the pictures is incredible architecturally, but it is it inhabitable? It is a space that people can appreciate in a practical sense as opposed to a sort of detached aesthetic sense?
KG – I want to say yes and no. In a sense, the issue of inhabitability or practicality or the idea of “solving problems” is something we have a very ambivalent approach toward. I do not think when you make architecture that it should only be aesthetic or it should be not inhabitable or things like that. It all depends on the context in which you place that argument. But at the same time I believe that in a sense architecture, as an abstraction, is rather something that does not allow you certain things and that allows you certain things. For us that is very important. When something is particularly complicated or bad, I’m not sure architecture can solve that.
In the Notary’s Office, there are no windows in the space and no wall close to the outside—you will never solve that problem. But you can turn it upside down, so that perhaps that issue is forgotten. When you enter the space, you don’t think, “Ah! There are no windows here.” It results in a space that’s more comfortable, but also one that is a little bit awkward. I think specifically in that project, that awkwardness is a part of it. In our defense, the secretary is apparently very happy (laughter). I guess that is also a personal judgment. I must be honest, I would never be able to stay there very long.
AB – In contrast there’s also the Summer House project, which to me is a similar surface idea, but the execution is a bit more human, perhaps.
Summer House, Ghent, Belgium, 2006
KG – Well, yes, I think so. So when I say that in our architecture we don’t seek to solve certain things or we don’t seek to make things easily inhabitable, in the end we want to make pleasant spaces. Of course, the Notary’s Office space is very particular, and for that reason we often call it “the manifesto,” because if you take away a lot of the real practical issues, you come to that. In the Summer House, we have a very beautiful place in the summer, spring, even autumn. There you had an extension [to a 19th century house] from the 1950s with rather high spaces. We took that away, which created the walled garden. We cleaned up that space and we rebuilt the court, so in a sense, we’re just bringing out what is already there.
By rearranging the existing house, we were able to move the kitchen out of the extension so that the Winter House functions completely on its own. We had the court left, we had no real function left to put into the court, so we could make an extra house, a house for the warmer seasons, which did not have to fulfill insulation criteria. As soon as you enter it, you disconnect from the existing Winter House. It was important for us to make this fictional, separate space next to the house, but it’s also practical. The roof of the Summer House is lower than the existing house, but that was so we could put the chimney on top of the Summer House. The whole puzzle has to fit. At the same time it’s an argument, a story about the modernist Summer House one could not build. We also make a Summer House where the green is not on the floor, but on the walls. The windows that are on the perimeter of the vineyard are mirrored, so as soon as you enter this in-between space, you’re already in another universe.
AB – I think that’s a good segue into discussing your project for the Venice Biennale. If you could talk a little about how this moves into a larger scale. The first question is: How did you determine the angle at which the temporary wall comes out from the pavilion?
After the Party, Venice Biennale 2008
KG – Well, in a way it was very pragmatic. It had to feel extremely logical, and the most logical angle was that which aligned the new pavilion with the Spanish pavilion and the Dutch pavilion and the street. The Belgian pavilion has this weird angle that the other two pavilions don’t have. Another factor was that the wall had to be perfectly made out of complete units. You might have noticed in our other work, we almost have a freakish fixation on sizes and measurements. In this case, it was important for us that the new pavilion had an equal amount of panels so we didn’t have to cut them on site. And that had to happen in a way that accommodated the trees on the site. In the end, we had to kind of half-cut a tree, but that was about it.
AB – And with the interior—the confetti and chairs—what was the idea? Was the name, "After the Party," given to you, or did you come up with it yourselves?
KG – We invented the name. There was a competition for the pavilion in 2008, we were invited and there was a brief that asked you to do an intervention in the pavilion. We thought, yeah, this will be another stupid installation project. So we took a risk and tried to build a pavilion around the pavilion.
What were we after? It’s interesting when you think of making a project for a Biennale, it’s always a combination of many factors. It’s of course important to make an argument about “what is architecture?” So we thought, today, after ten years of relentless bombarding with nonsensical diagrams and showcases of half-interested journalistic surveys of countries, it was good to show architecture in the most simple, visible, and radical way. How better than to show an enormous intervention with a very precise rhythm, a very precise architecture.
At the same time, it should be something about the Belgian pavilion itself, which, we were told in the brief, was built in1907. Like many of the pavilions, it was transformed after 20 years, after 40 years, after 70 years, so it was gradually turned into the white box it is today. All of the particular features that made it special architecture are gone. It has the strange façade added in 1948 and sky lights which are quite nice, but for the rest it is hard to notice the building at all. We thought it was also important to show the architecture of the pavilion that nobody ever watches, because you watch the content.
We also thought that it would be important to make a statement or an argument about this sort of circus of information that architecture and the architecture biennale has become. So we called it “After the Party” for two reasons. One was for the 100th anniversary of the Belgian Pavilion. Second, it was making a construction within the biennale that has a darker presence while the party outside is going on. So, in that sense, it’s an explicit critique of the circus of the biennale.
The confetti is of course what is on the ground after the party is over, literally, and we very much liked the colorful quality of it. At the same time it was a very practical solution because it was an attempt to make a new pavilion out of the old one. We took out the vellum covering the skylights in the pavilion so you had the same sort of direct, harsh light as you had on the outside. But we also wanted to equalize the floor on the inside and the outside, and the confetti was a great solution, it made that transition basically seamless.
AB – I'd like to move in another direction and discuss one of your cited influences, OM Ungers. In a recently translated interview in Log, he describes one of his later house designs this way: “I wanted to see to what extent architecture would be capable of being abstract. The problem with art is that abstraction in art is possible up to monochromy, where the picture is, in a way, the background for reality but no longer depicts it . . . Obviously this is a very dangerous matter, since you are suddenly working on something that no longer represents anything … the house without qualities. The house no longer has any properties: it has not top, it has no bottom, it has no base, and it has no cornice. It has nothing. All that one could associate with ‘house’ was removed.” That sort of reminds me of the way you’re describing the biennale project. He also speaks about the limits of the architectural solution in terms of content. What do you consider an architectural problem? And why does abstraction help you make the argument for architecture?
KG – Of course, the easiest answer to this is also a tricky one. Architecture, in our opinion, is only about architecture, the vocabulary of architecture, in a certain sense, so that means that it’s about trying to find out and master these elements you are dealing with. Whether it’s the drawing in the paper version of architecture, which is also very important for us. Whether it is the wall and the opening, in the built version of it. That doesn’t mean that architecture does not deal with all the other problems in the world—I think it does, by definition. The essence to the argument is that architecture is using its own toolbox, while trying to investigate what that toolbox is, because it doesn’t know. There is no defined set of things an architect can do.
I have always been very intrigued by Adolf Loos’s attempt to deal with architecture. It’s an endless attempt to redefine through every project what architecture is. It’s not reducible to three simple lines—that’s a problem with the later work of Ungers—it is quite abstract, it’s a set of principles, one could say. If you had asked Ungers, “tell me the principles,” he could not do it. In that sense, it’s a strange comparison, but it’s one I like to make, if you take Ed Ruscha. I have always been fascinated by his work, if you read his book of interviews and how he deals with questions about his work. It’s often an attempt to deny explicit answers. Someone might ask him, “well, you’ve painted this gas station, you probably want to say something about gas stations in Los Angeles.” And he’ll say, “well, the one you refer to is actually one in Oklahoma.” He’s an amazing artist who is endlessly developing and redeveloping his vocabulary. Even recently, I’ve seen work and was surprised. At first the work seems extremely apolitical, even pop or celebrative. At the same time, it deals implicitly with many, many issues. And I think that’s what we try to do. It’s a goal one can have as a cultural producer, and therefore also as an architect.
AB – Why does that line of questioning lead to abstraction for you?
KG – Of course there’s an abstraction in our work, it’s hard to deny that, although I sometimes try. But I think we are very interested in materials, even the harshest and most visible materials. We always use glass as a complete material—it’s impossible to make it invisible. In a way, the repetition of the lamp [in the Notary’s Office] is only there to see the border of the space, but then the border disappears. That goes the same way with the pavilion in Venice, the metal is of course very particular, slightly shiny, but it also shows how it comes together—it’s very much there. For us, abstraction is more a matter of being precise. I think when you get too many things going, you can become very imprecise. The reason why our work is relatively abstract is that we want to remain quite precise.
AB – The bridge in Ghent seems to be dealing with a few different questions, maybe. It exploits this very simple condition of a slope toward a perceptual end. How did you come to that solution?
Handelsbeurs Bridge, Ghent, Belgium, 2008
KG – There are many themes that we seem to always take with us from one project to another, maybe unconsciously. So what came back here was this fascination with the perimeter. What we found was an interesting challenge was the fact that in the plan for the area around the bridge, the question was trying to make that area a bit more public. They came to us with the project and we thought, okay, if the whole quay is supposed to be accessible, does it make sense to make the bridge also accessible? There is perhaps a bit too much public space.
It also had to do with a pragmatic response. About 200 meters (650 feet) away is a similar bridge that has access to the Opera house. That’s an open bridge with a very fierce expression of its engineering, a lot of weird cables and things like that, and it ends in weird garage door that is always closed. So there’s this absurd situation where there is this extension of public space, but then you go there and it’s awkward—you enter it, but you’re still in the back-of-house. We thought that was a real problem. We didn’t want to make another one of these, but we needed a fence to close off the back of the bridge. This made us think, was it possible to combine the gate of the bridge to the perimeter of the space of the bridge? Through this, we came to the story of making a bridge that was a well-defined space, like a balcony, one that was an expression of its architecture by defining its space, instead of an expression of its structure, which is so typical of bridges. So often bridges have to tell us how they carry the load from A to B and have to be this heroic expression of engineering. And when you think about it, a bridge like that, a lot of these bridges with a small span, 25 meters (80 feet) or something, a set of HEB profiles can get the job done.
Dealing with another fascination, we are always trying to find space for architecture from other fields—journalism, first, and fake engineering, second—also this idea of trying to gain back that space and say that a bridge is a place you can treat as an architect. The moment you think, “ah, this is an engineering problem,” you lose that ground. And then, of course, the height difference was a lucky one, because it led to the fake perspective. We wanted to make a railing that was a fence but could also close the volume so it could become a part of the music hall, rather than a part of the public space. When you stand on the public side of the bridge, somehow you’re always focused on the vanishing point, so you don’t watch the building, which is lucky because the building is a disaster. When you’re standing on the other side, you have this effect that the bridge looks very small.
We also spent a lot of time, ironically enough with an engineer, to develop the details of the wood. It’s one thing to say the steel can do the job, but how can you make a fence around it that is almost invisibly connected to the structure? So we had to make each of the pieces specifically, everything that looks regular is actually unique, and we had to adjust the structure to that problem. In one of the pictures, you can see that conflict.
On one hand, there is the desire of the architect to make the perfect universe—in this case that’s the space of the bridge, but it could be the inside of the summer house or notary’s office or of the Belgian pavilion. On the other hand, there are all of the tricks that you have perform to make that happen and that, in a sense, fail. This conflict between the perfect universe and the reality makes it shift a little. That I think you see very much in the picture of the bridge from underneath, and you really see the beams sticking out. We really wanted them to be seen. You see the structure, you see the wood perimeter, and you see that these things are almost not dealing with each other, as if they are two universes clashing with each other. In the same way, at the Summer House, we only finished everything that was in the perimeter of the Summer House. The roof structure runs over a bit, the structure that masks it does not run through, so all of a sudden you see all of the tricks that make it happen. Or in Antwerp at the Notary’s office, you walk through the backside, into the interior. On the one hand it is an investigation on how you can make a very precise, certain, frame, but at the same time, it is always showing that that kind of extreme version of architecture is a construct. It’s something that is highly unrealistic.
AB – That reminds me of walking through the poché of the Venice Biennale pavilion…
KG – Exactly. There, you see all of the trickery you need to make it work. Of course, we design the trickery, too, but we want it too look like trickery—as if you see the real structure behind things.
In that sense, if you talk about Ungers. I think Ungers has no humor. With him, at a certain point, it became all an attempt to achieve what he was describing in your quote without any humor whatsoever. For instance, Bramante, another hero of mine, engages in all sorts of tricks at Santa Maria della Pace. He tried to make all three orders of architecture in a small courtyard, but he realized he only had two floors, and he had to somehow make it into three orders. Then he realized he had to make the corner, and he had to somehow make that detail disappear. But he leaves a little trace of it to show you: here, I had to do a trick, to make it disappear. I think that kind of humor—you try to make a certain architecture with certain principles, but while dealing with these principles, you show that it’s practically impossible to do it.
AB – I’d like to go to one last project. This is the one that still sort of confuses me. The large scale Korea Masterplan, the grammar for the city. While the other projects are, as you’ve pointed out, very precise and very specific, this seems to be the opposite. The way I understood it, is that it’s almost a critique of planning in the first place. Is that about right? What was the idea here?
A Grammar for the City, South Korea (with Dogma), 2005
KG – I agree, but in a way, I’m not sure it’s less precise than the others. Of course it’s a master plan and it has a different scale. In a strange way, it’s a critique on the fact that master planning today has been understood as making color schemes, density plans, at most making a rendering of potential skyline, in manner that takes away a lot of potential of the architect or planner to intervene in the city, and gives it back to the politicians and advocacy groups. It pushes away responsibility. Our competition plan, which was sort of a critique and a radical proposal—we were really surprised that a plan like that could actually win a competition—it was a very precise attempt to make a piece of machinery that turns upside down all of the typical preoccupations of a normal master plan. In that sense, the plan is really precise. It’s a 3.5 by 3.5 kilometer square. It’s made by 180 by 180 meter rooms. These are made by these 30 meter high buildings. These parameters were very precisely debated.
We said, okay, one aspect is to argue that we could make urbanism with architecture. The question is how? Learning from Brasilia, for example, you say, it is possible to make a city with architecture? In that master plan, for instance, the housing for all the people who worked on actually building the city was not included in the master plan, which was a mistake. It must be possible to make an urbanism with architecture, but without falling into the trap of absolute architecture, an architecture which is the only answer.
So we said, well, if we make it 40% of the demanded square meters we can make the framework of the city, and let the leftover 60% can become its content. The typical argument against planning with architecture or modernist planning, that these cities cannot hold city life is thrown out because the leftover 60% will be the city life, that’s no problem. At the same time, you’re able to make the framework in the same way as house, in that the framework doesn’t have to define where the table, the chair, or the bed is supposed to be. In that sense, these projects are extremely similar.
So then we asked what is the correct size for the framework? We felt that 180 meters was a good size, because it would be big enough to accommodate very big sized things like sport fields or very large programs. When you stand at one side, you can see the other side, but just barely. There is a phenomenological criteria about height and size. So we came to the 180 meters with a space of 20 meters for the openings. So we came up with a very precise plan. A plan that is, at the same time, extremely precise in what it offers in terms of urban framework.
Our plan leaves all of the infill open. It would be wrong to argue that the buildings we propose are white and have no windows, of course not. (laughter) They obviously have windows. They are only 10 floors high. In that sense, it is a child of classicist urbanism like you see in Paris with Haussman. It’s even related to Le Corbusier’s Plan Voisin, with the difference that he puts the crosses farther from each other, because he doesn’t care about what’s in between. But if you put them closer, and make them not so high, you might get quite close to the right plan. In that sense, I’m a very big fan of the French architect Fernand Pouillon—he was an architect in the 1950s in France and designed a lot in colonial France, Algiers and so on. He’s a disciple of August Perret. He developed a set of urban tools that are somewhere in between a modernist idiom and classicist idiom. Of course Perret’s plan for Le Havre is good example of that. I think, in that sense, our plan always wanted to be extremely precise.
AB – I guess imprecise was the wrong word, but this project seems to be mirroring your approach to architecture, but it’s a question of whether that approach is appropriate for this scale.
KG – That’s up to you to judge, I don’t know. I’m convinced it is. If you go to Le Havre, you see that it works very, very well. In making a framework and leaving the infill open, you can make an amazing amount of different city districts that can have a certain identity.
AB – Doesn’t the fact alone that they’re all almost identical in size undermine that possibility?
KG – No, no, I would oppose that heavily. If you look at our project for Ordos, or the house we’re doing in Ghent, that’s based on the same idea. I’m very convinced of that. The more you make things the same, if you do it in an intelligent way, the more you invoke variety. Definitely.
25 Rooms, Villa in Ordos, China, 2008–
AB – I guess, to speak frankly, I agree on an architectural scale, but I’m not sure if it works on an urban scale.
KG – Of course the question is a much more tricky one. When people see the plan they talk about totalitarianism or something like that, which I find funny. I think we have our own understanding of how society should be represented. We think that all these idiotic funny icon buildings are the same. When you go to city like Paris, where there are many similar buildings, a certain roof or a similar height, things like that, for hundreds of years, it creates far more interesting buildings. In some of these places it’s a pity that there is no space for exception, but if those two ideas could be combined, that would be amazing. In that sense, you have to read the collages as they were meant.
Also, I should say that the collages were meant as a sort of reference to the work of John Baldessari. He made in the mid-70s a set of collages called “Crowds (with shape of reason missing).” The idea is terrific. The idea is that a couple of pictures with gigantic crowds, probably where the Pope is passing or something, and he cuts out the space taken by the relevant people passing, so you only have the crowds left. Our collages are thought of in the same way. Everything relevant is what’s colorful. Everything that is seen as a catalyst to make that happen is cut out. The collages do not argue for white architecture, the collages are there to argue for a certain architecture with a certain height and width, which makes what you see in the picture happen.
AB – To close, what are you working on now and what do you hope to work on in the future?
KG – At the moment we’re in the last half year of a renovation of the Kortrijk Xpo center, which I find very exciting, many issues of perimeter and scale and measuring and things like that. It’s a project that has to be extremely pragmatic because it’s exposition halls and commercial, but somehow we managed to make a project that deals with the weird scale between a city and a building. We’ve been working on a couple competitions with similar issues, sort of complicated programs and how to reconquer them with architecture. We did another competition for a concrete factory. We’re constructing an office building that is a sort of middle scale, and I’m hoping we can take this rather normal building with the sort of abnormal decisions that we took and see if we can maintain our argument.
If you asked me what we’re really after, it’s hard to answer that. There’s another project that I haven’t mentioned, where we try to turn a piece of infrastructure into a piece of architecture, an almost Aztec type of architecture, half architecture, half landscape. That again deals with the issue of how to reconquer space that is currently considered not architecture. That’s exactly where I hope to have more projects. So far, we have been very lucky. We have had some small clients that allowed us to investigate where we could go with our architecture. I think the biggest challenge is to make bigger projects, to maintain within much harsher criteria in terms of function or commercial validity or how you win a competition, and still maintain that sharp edge.
That’s really the problem today in architecture. There’s no avant-garde anymore. There are the youngsters, who are all the same as what OMA was doing 10 or 15 years ago. There are some offices in England, and here and there, but apart from that it’s a disaster, there’s nothing, there’s really nothing. Just these fancy offices that have nothing to say. That, for us, is the fundamental thing—to remain critical. I hope we have good projects and we remain critical.
AB – Do you ever feel like you’re going at that project alone?
KG – I think there are very few people who actually try to make a practice of it. For me, you have Loos, early Ungers, early Rossi, the Smithsons. At certain points, you had these practices that were utterly critical but also were making things. And I was referring to Ruscha in the beginning. To be able to make a body of work that is hopefully consistent, but also critical, but not in the most explicit way, that does not try to celebrate its “critical-ness,” but it does it because that’s the way it is. I think that’s really difficult, but it’s very important.
AB – That reminds me of another Ungers quote I copied down for this interview. “There is a great misunderstanding among architects. They think they are inventors and always need to be avant-garde. But you cannot permanently exist as an avant-garde. That is impossible. But architecture can be carried forward in a dialectical process, meaning a confrontation with the existing or with that which one wants to provoke at a certain moment.”
KG – Well I think he’s completely right. The point of remaining critical is also realizing that architecture, ultimately, is not about invention. Architecture is only about intentions. Architecture is about a certain culture and a certain tradition. It’s about trying to understand what that is about.