Within a short space of time, Architecten De Vylder Vinck Taillieu (ADVVT), OFFICE KGDVS and Julien De Smedt have become excellent export products for Belgian architecture. Herzog & de Meuron invited ADVVT to join the ORDOS 100 project, and Kazuyo Sejima selected them for the last architecture biennale in Venice. Over the course of a decade spent working in the shadows as assistant to Stéphane Beel, the office formed itself around the figure of Jan De Vylder. Various changes in personnel took place before the current line-up had assembled itself. This early retrospective therefore feels like a declaration of principles. As though the office wants to make the move from exploration to architectural statement by means of an extensive grab in the archive. In seven compartments the exhibition 'About' presents a meticulously orchestrated architectural language and marks ADVVT as a practice that wants to put forgotten beacons back on the map.

A remarkable observation: you don’t simply walk into the exhibition gallery; you encounter the smell of construction material. That is the effect of the laminated timber-frame walls that smell like a forest and divide the exhibition space into measured triangles. No predefined route points the way; the two existing entrances appear more like holes in a show-box than the start of a visitor circuit. Moreover, the plan of the exhibition — a flattened Möbius ring that is cut through symmetrically — suggests more of a non-linear overview than a logical path. The mirrored walls and through views that present themselves occasionally, coupled with the mysterious captions on each of the seven ‘theme rooms’ that divide the gallery, give the impression that the intention is for visitors to lose their way. Not so much in the tangle of possible paths along the sturdy timber structures but essentially in the many perspectives that the presented work offer visitors.

There’s a lot one can say about that body of work. Easy descriptions could be ‘Lucien Kroll visits the 21st century’, or ‘aesthetics of the ordinary’. Take a closer look at the vast amount of material, however, and you will notice that ADVVT operates like a traditional architecture laboratory: fascinated by the minuscule on account of its tangible influence on the macroscopic. Pasted on a wall somewhere are the letters ‘C.B.’, in reference to the Romanian artist Constantin Brancusi, and thus to one of the prime motivations for the office. ‘Material fetishism’ sounds totally wrong of course, but applied here to the fascination exuded by every sketch, collage, model and photo, one can only conclude that the buildings by ADVVT stem from a scrupulous interaction between structures and materials. Just as Brancusi erected spatial totems out of the weightless encounter between timber and stone, De Vylder and friends succeed in deploying the confrontations between dissimilar textures, rhythms and patinas, generally plastered over, as the mainstays of their buildings. This exhibition therefore impresses because it reveals the urge to explore and the sensitivity that shape the inspiring structures by ADVVT.

That fanatic unravelling resonates as a visual sample through the exhibition. Sketches display a childlike pleasure, the more elaborate collages compositional mastery, the detailed models (such as the abstract red-blue reflective ORDOS scale model) an almost tangible evocation of how the architects imagine life will be like in their dwellings. Even the least glamorous of building components — a strip of glazing, a lintel, a roof slade — acquires a refreshing significance, while the architects try out intriguing balancing exercises at the scale of whole buildings: mirrors adorn dormer windows, windows are playfully divided into planes à la Mondrian, a house with a tree growing through it boasts a bearing structure in the form of a concrete trunk with branches. Everything rotates around the steady centre of sober experiment in the service of appealing spaciousness, with a power that also determines the overall impression of the exhibition. Adorning the walls, for example, are full-height tableaux featuring an explosion of images that impertinently capture your attention.  

It is precisely that impertinence that provokes reactions, both explicit and contradictory. Whether this architecture of elegant simplicity can bring forth a school now that building technology and an urge to calculate everything (inspired by ecological motives) form the new guiding principles? Or how to classify regular building alongside the almost antiquarian search for form and space. But then again, an equally contrary idea presents itself: where does building end and installation art begin? For no matter how exemplary it may be, the work of ADVVT toys with this border, where witticisms help find a path to reality. But can that theatricality, no matter how intriguing for designers, ultimately generate architectural heritage? And without the signature becoming shrewd recidivism rather than a style?

'About' is nonetheless very clear: over the past decade ADVVT emerged with a body of work of excellent quality and an undeniable vision of building. What is more, a strategically placed photograph — crucial for the office — illustrates a fundamental dilemma. It depicts an anonymous wall with a painting by Sol LeWitt, awkwardly crossed by an electrical chord and an oversized conduit box. The love of the designers for this ambiguous image almost certainly stems from their liking for chance, but at the same time it symbolises a hesitant position: between that of master builders and that of funny jugglers.