The exhibition Double or Nothing in Bozar (Brussels) presents the work of Belgian office 51N4E. In his opening lecture Peter Swinnen offered the architectural public insight into the business ethics of this successful design firm.
The work of 51N4E raises questions. Architectural theoreticians are racking their brains about whether their work is anecdotal or singular.* It would deny all history and refuse to adopt any position. This confusion in the rearguard is undeserved. The opening lecture left no uncertainty whatsoever about the position of 51N4E.
Peter Swinnen put forward a number of clear one-liners that put the projects by 51N4E in the right perspective. His speech was anything but noncommittal. Swinnen, who has also holds the position of Flemish state architect since 2010, called again and again on the architectural public in attendance to consider his statements as the basis for a contemporary design practice.
1) Raise the ambition; suspend disbelief
Each project stems from a sense of urgency and an awareness that architecture makes society. Disbelief and cynicism are attitudes that contribute little. An architect can relate to what presents itself in two ways: clear it away or give it a place. That applies just as much when dealing with nonsense. Swinnen showed a picture of a tree obstructing the way on a footpath. The use of the unfinished shell of a building as a grandstand beside a football pitch somewhere in Albania served as a sublime example. Architecture is about changing customary patterns of expectation and determining the position of the user anew.
2) Doubt is unpleasant; but certainty is ridiculous
Disbelief is not the same as doubt. Permanent doubt is necessary if a project is to succeed. Certainty kills creativity and is noxious when it comes to experience. The design of the Double or Nothing exhibition is premised on this doubt. The exhibition design does away with the customary route through architecture exhibitions in Bozar. It consists of four smaller presentations in rooms that were previously invisible and are unconnected to one another. The presentations enable the visitor to experience the historical museum architecture of Victor Horta and zero in on different visitor flows.
3) Architecture is not a system, but direct action in the city
The many projects in Tirana, the capital of Albania, show how architecture takes advantage of the context and, at the same time, alters it to suit its own way of doing things. The TID Tower is part of a master plan for ten towers and enters into negotiation with the other landmarks in the city, among them the Mosque, Clock Tower and the Skanderberg square. The non-hierarchical arrangement ensures a surrealistic impression in which different historical eras and ideologies come together. The challenge of the tower is to capture the remarkable light in the city. The instrument deployed to achieve this is the endless repetition of an identical façade panel on a tower whose form gradually changes from ellipse to rectangular. The design process transforms in a permanent on-site consultation through the testing of models and, in part, through the absence of urban design regulations. The design for the central Skanderberg square in Tirana creates space amidst the urban chaos. A flat pyramid creates an urban void among the old and new monuments. A belt of greenery surrounds the square, which is periodically flooded. 51N4E seized the request to add a new balustrade to the bridge on the square as an opportunity to widen the bridge and enhance the experience of using it.
4) Five minutes of design intelligence
Qualitative architecture cannot be programmed. It is, instead, a matter of intuition that suddenly presents itself. The challenge in architecture is to remain faithful to this revelation. Its significance is sometimes only understood after a hopeless search for alternatives. Here Swinnen connected the projects in Tirana with the difficult search for public space in Brussels. The Triangle Project harks back to the schemes of King-Urbanist Leopold II, whose gift to Brussels was its metropolitan scale. The plan of Leopold II consisted of a network of parks, boulevards and public amenities that were laid over the old city fabric. The Triangle Project links up to this by completing the unfinished structure, particularly in the densely populated residential districts in the western section of the city. In the process, 51N4E offers a first move in the stalled redevelopment of the Abattoirs in Anderlecht.
5) Architecture is a means of negotiation
Architecture does not put advance a solution but, rather, a question that generates discussion about the request from the client. The hope in architecture is that this question will in turn prompt another question and that, as a consequence, something is born that could not have been envisaged from the outset. The project Arteconomy is a result of this game of question and counter-question between architect and client. The partial renovation of a villa in Sint-Eloois-Winkel does not, at first glance, respond to a particular set of demands. The interventions enter into a strange bout of negotiations with the villa, that is in itself of little significance, and its wooded surroundings. The space thus created can be used by the clients at their discretion and empowers them to develop an eccentric lifestyle of their own.
With all this, 51N4E defines its architecture as taking advantage of and maximising opportunities presented by the commission. These opportunities are not the result of the so-called qualities of the site, but of the often unspoken wishes of the client.