The Permanence of Form. A conversation with Kersten Geers, OFFICE Kersten Geers David Van Severen

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The Persistence of Questioning

Kritische reflecties voor de toekomst, over architectuur en meer.

As part of ‘The Persistence of Questioning’, Archined asked various experts how they think architecture should now develop. Véronique Patteeuw ( senior lecturer at the École Nationale Supérieure d’Architecture et du Paysage Lille and guest professor at KU Leuven University and the EPFL Lausanne) and Kersten Geers (OFFICE Kersten Geers David Van Severen) discuss the persuasiveness of architecture as form and gesture.

Kantoorgebouw Office Building / OFFICE Kersten Geers David Van Severen

Office building / OFFICE Kersten Geers David Van Severen / photo © Bas Princen

The Anthropocene poses a number of challenges for architectural practice. Growing attention for processes, participation and commons increasingly pushes every classical notion of architecture into the margins. Does the current transition of society necessitate another form of architectural practice? Conventional design instruments seem less and less appropriate, and the traditional role of the architect between client and contractor is no longer tenable. Manifestations such as ‘practices of change’, ‘shifting positions’, ‘the architecture of degrowth’, or ‘how will we live together’, suggest that a reconsideration of the classical understanding of architecture is the only route forward. OFFICE Kersten Geers David Van Severen posits a different view. Since 2005 the Brussels design outfit has been amassing a body of work that is committed to architecture. Founded in the slipstream of the post-OMA generation, OFFICE believes in the power of typology and claims that architectural form offers a valuable alternative in these times of transition.

Architecture as form

Véronique Patteeuw: Your office will be twenty years old next year. You’ve been incredibly active over the past two decades – developing over 200 projects, writing numerous texts (some of which have been compiled into the recent publication Without Content), and teaching at numerous schools of architecture across Europe and the United States. A year ago you confided to me that architectural education is vital to you because it ‘enables you to conduct research alongside your office’. For seven years you taught at the EPFL in Lausanne, in a unit with the explicit name ‘Laboratory for Architecture as Form’. Why the emphasis on form?

Kersten Geers: Our office designs architecture and constructs buildings, but it also manifests itself in thinking about architecture and construction. Teaching is an important component in that process. The ‘Form’ research laboratory at EPFL was a way of uniting two of our fascinations: on the one hand form, and on the other ‘architecture without content’, a way of reflecting on architecture without programme. Both themes embrace a belief in the cultural heritage within which we as architects – in our opinion – must operate. Architecture can offer answers to many questions, but architecture must be aware of its own history and determine its position within it. Context is therefore primordial. After all, it determines not only the place of the individual within society but also the framework within which the architect moves. To us, architecture does not start from nothing; it is a continuation of a larger project on the basis of a shared background. ‘Form’ for us means embracing that background and its tools of expression. However, we understand that we cannot solve everything with those tools. As an architect you have to carry out numerous tasks, such as translating a programme into space, responding to a context, meeting climate norms. We tackle those with varying degrees of success, but firmly believe that we also play a key role as cultural actors in the survival of culture, even if that basis is debatable.

VP: Many of your references date from the 1960s and 1970s, a period in which the modernist project faith in progress was questioned. At the time, various figures took an anti-modernist stance. Jean-François Lyotard, for example, foresaw the end of the modernist project because, according to him, society was no longer capable of sharing big stories, was no longer capable of believing in a shared project for society. Jurgen Habermas believed the very opposite and argued in favour of the unfinished modernist project. He believed that faith in progress had not run its course, and that we could achieve a better world through emancipation and technical development. Haven’t we arrived at a similar pivotal point again?

KG: David (van Severen) and I used to say to each other that ‘we’re not that modern’. Now I’m no longer certain if that’s the case, to be honest. Perhaps modernity is an intrinsic aspect of our work and our thinking. So in a sense I support the unfinished modernist project. If anything should be saved, then it is perhaps the modernist project: social emancipation and a hypothetical shared value system; the project of searching for the shared, the civic, in an effort to live together. Perhaps we should make that more explicit in the future. Incidentally, the next incarnation of our teaching work will deal with modernity. But we will study it with a certain naiveness, just as we did that twenty years ago with the theme of history.

That research into history stems from a discomfort that I share with a number of contemporaries, among them Pier Paolo Tamburelli and Pier Vittorio Aureli who, like me, were in Rotterdam between 2000 and 2005. We belonged to a generation for whom architectural discourse had been stifled by a sort of journalistic version of the diagram. The immediate response to every possible phenomenon was a diagrammatic drawing, which was then translated into architecture. We had a lot of difficulty with the incredible superficiality of what architectural culture exactly was at the time. I grew up in Belgium in a context where Rem Koolhaas was initially embraced as a cultural architect. That was down to architecture critic Geert Bekaert. He wrote about Aldo Rossi, then about Koolhaas, and saw no contradiction in that. By the way, I was a visitor to the Netherlands of the diagram for a very short period. The neoliberal building culture in which building involved as much serial construction as possible, with tunnel formwork and protruding balconies, based nonetheless on a somewhat legitimate social engagement, had become totally uninteresting because of rapid privatization. What was lacking was the big story, the deep cultural knowledge that Koolhaas imparted. Everything he said was open to at least four interpretations. As a young generation, we were searching for meaning. You could say that our half-hearted embrace of history was primarily an embrace of the history of the generation that preceded us. As soon as we had a partial grasp of that history, we could start making things with more solid ground beneath our feet. The idea of architecture as form (and history) stems in part from that. We examined whether it was possible to extract history from postmodernism. If you take that as the starting point, the emphasis will be different.

Crematorium, Oostende (2020) / OFFICE Kersten Geers David Van Severen / photo © Bas Princen

Architecture as gesture

VP: Your recent book Without Content includes texts by Hans Hollein, Reyner Banham, Aldo Rossi, Robert Venturi and James Stirling, among others. Taken together, they amount to a plea for history, architecture and the power of design. It reminded me of how philosopher Bart Verschaffel attempted to grasp architecture as ‘gesture’. Verschaffel was interested not so much in the authenticity of that gesture but in its credibility just as an actor can never be ‘real’ but only good and convincing, according to Lieven de Cauter in Dat is Architectuur. Today the gesture seems to have become separated from architectural form: either it is reduced to a powerful image, or every effort to create form is avoided by an emphasis on processes, participation, circularity. Do you feel called to account by Verschaffel’s plea for the persuasiveness of the gesture?

KG: I’m fond of that idea from Verschaffel – architecture as gesture – but I don’t see that translated into an embrace of process. Quite the contrary actually. Architecture as gesture stresses the importance of the figure itself, and searches in its credibility for the coherence of the ‘gesture’. The reasoning you mention sometimes results in good things, but it’s less relevant to us. Naturally, you can or must address major themes, but a building – to us – should primarily possess an internal coherence. Coherent architecture is not to say that it is honest. Architecture is never honest – that’s an important insight. Just think of Roman architecture where marble is painted, or modern architecture where concrete is imitated. There’s a big tradition in architecture where the project shows what it wants to be, not what it actually is. In that sense, our architecture is no different. On the other hand, our architecture reveals a sort of economy of means. Even if that notion has become rather hollow, it seems to be interesting in the context of our conversation. In Belgium we’ve never really be able to work with lots of resources. That has resulted in an architecture that is perhaps relevant today, precisely because it’s not exuberant. It’s never been exuberant, for that matter. On the contrary, this architecture believes very strongly in being implicit. We do not believe you have to offer a specific answer to a specific question. Rather, we believe in the opening offered by implicit architecture. Our view is that the form of architecture is somewhat distinct from what happens inside it. A building can accommodate many different things over time. Its creation anticipates a certain scenario; it is the implicit answer to that, though not the definitive answer. Buildings can eventually become anything. Even so, the building in its first incarnation is obliged to communicate its position, its contents and its intentions, as a gesture so to speak.

That’s why the Crematorium in Oostende is a key project for us. On the one hand it’s part of a study of ‘big boxes’, buildings that are remarkably functional yet anything but attractive as machinery. On the other hand, a crematorium is one of the few buildings in which you can represent the public. In such a building people experience a momentous occasion. So this building is highly practical and functional, while at the same time it has to represent the ‘unrepresentable’. In collaboration with artist Richard Venlet, we designed a big box in the form of a sloping table on which are placed a number of elements, like a still life. They become the unspeakable. But the sloping roof also creates a building that functions very practically, since the low spaces for intimacy conceal the taller spaces for the machines. Critic Enrique Walker speaks in this regard of the MacGuffin – the figure that turns up so frequently in Hitchcock films and always put you on the wrong foot; it renders certain things visible so that other things disappear. A building like this ‘acts’. The building pretends to be something that it is not and vice versa.

 

Architecture as Ümbau

VP: In 1989 the Austrian architect Hermann Czech argued in a short but powerful text for architecture to be approached as ‘Ümbau’. Whether it concerns renovation, an extension or new development, architecture is always – according to Czech – a continuation of a spatial continuum. Indebted to his Viennese forefathers Josef Frank and Adolf Loos, Czech collected fragments in new compositions. Within your work, transformation is not absent. Indeed, right from the very first project, the entrance hall for the notary office in Antwerp (2002-2005), to the extensions to the houses in Merchtem (Weekend House, 2009-2012) and Brussels (City Villa, 2008-2021), the office building in Kortrijk that you recently completed (2014-2021) and the school in Antwerp that you are currently designing, you have been dealing with this issue. How do you work with existing structures and what form do you give new programmes? Do you focus on structure or on materials and their circulation? And how visible or invisible is your intervention?

KG: That’s a really interesting question. As architects we perhaps find ourselves in an evolution. One the one hand we could speak of a renewed awareness of the ecological impact of society, and on the other hand you might ask whether current issues are all that different from those of, say, fifty years ago. The school we’re now working on in Antwerp involves transforming an abattoir. The provincial office building in Kortrijk is a transformation of an existing office building. Would we have transformed it in another way at another moment in time? Possibly, though it’s difficult to say. Design choices are often down to an endless and complex dance with energy standards that constantly change and vary. And besides, we don’t know for sure whether our reasoning regarding it is correct. Is it correct to insert more insulation into a building to reduce energy consumption? Or should we instead wear something warmer? I remember that the winter garden in the summer house in Ghent provoked such questions. The work of Lacaton and Vassal, which had an important influence on us, proposes a doubling of the skin by deploying spaces as insulation. That’s a totally different vector to wrapping up a building.

In Kortrijk the line between the old and the new is deliberately left vague. On the one hand you want to make a building with a certain coherency, while on the other hand various generations of architecture have succeeded in layering themselves in such a building over the years. Renaissance architecture, for example, was not built in one go. The most obvious examples are the famous villas by Palladio, which are almost all works of rebuilding. Czech’s idea of Ümbau is correct in that sense. In Kortrijk we thought it had to be possible to retain the existing light structure and to add a new structure, which is incidentally just technical in nature, around the existing and, moreover, to make them appear heavier. That leads to a remarkably new reading of the building: the supporting columns appear more slender than the columns that serve for ventilation. They are unnaturally heavy, serve no other purpose than to comply with current norms, but at the same time they make a composition of the building. You could argue that the idea of ‘architecture without content’ in Kortrijk is pushed to an absolute extreme. The architecture supports nothing, organizes nothing, does nothing. It’s literally pure, independent form. But, strangely enough, that form is here the form of the installation, the form of the process, the form of the ecology, the form of the energy. In that sense the antagonism between economy, energy and form is completely ridiculous, because form here is the exact expression of those processes.

The conversion of an abattoir into a school in Antwerp is based on a similar search for ambiguity. The main hall of the abattoir is retained, but its double-height space is divided into two levels by a concrete slab. The new architecture aligns with the existing. The table, for example, has columns just like the hall, resulting in a strange sort of dance between the existing and new columns. We decided, for that matter, not to pull apart the existing structure and the intervention. Richard Venlet has drawn our attention to that. The museum projects by Carlo Scarpa might belong to another era, but they have nonetheless influenced us. They are explicit in what they add in a totally ambiguous manner, but they make it almost impossible to disconnect the new and the existing.

RTS model / OFFICE Kersten Geers David van Severen / photo © OFFICE kersten geers david van severen

Architecture as resilience

VP: In your projects you do not aspire to a circular economy, or reuse local materials, or highlight craftsmanship. How do you view the importance of your architecture in the long term? Do your structures offer some sort of resilience? And is that resilience another way of looking at sustainability?

KG: The life span of a building is very important to us. It is perhaps also implicit in Czech’s reasoning about layered architecture. Many programmes are no longer fixed permanently; they shift and fluctuate, and buildings have to respond accordingly. In our view, the potential of a long life span lies largely in the power of spatial typologies, in types that admit interpretation. If mutations or changes occur in the programme, the type must be able to overcome such changes. The architecture should therefore provide adequate guidance. That’s something we learned in our media projects: the building for the Swiss radio and television broadcaster (RTS) in Lausanne and the building for the Flemish Radio and Television (VRT) in Brussels. Both buildings called for a series of recording studios and editorial offices – a number of open and closed workspaces that had to be interchangeable over time. In Lausanne we therefore made one big open space with open workspaces and a number of closed volumes, or émergences, positioned above that space. Over the past six years we’re been able to assess what happens in the open and closed spaces and how they evolve and mutate within the building. That has been allowed to happen because the building facilitates it.

VP: ‘Providing guidance to enable change over time’ sounds like a good architectural idea. How does that translate into architecture? Do you think more of a functional machine like the Centre Pompidou in Paris or of the Basilica in Vicenza that Aldo Rossi praised as an ‘urban artefact’. A building that, to Rossi, provides so much guidance that it can absorb mutating programmes.

KG: I’m 100% with the Basilica in Vicenza! That’s my architectural world. But isn’t the Basilica also something of a machine? The Centre Pompidou, by the way, is less of a machine than we like to think and more an architectural object. That’s perhaps its lasting success. In essence, the primary quality of the Pompidou is that it represents a machine but isn’t actually one. The big coloured tubes are architectural elements that supply pipes inside. The basilica, on the other hand, is more of a machine than you might suspect. That idea has always fascinated us. Machines are important in our contemporary dealings with the world, even if you want as few of them as possible in your building. We played with that idea in Bahrein. We investigated how the building could work passively in the winter, but air conditioning is needed in the summer. Instead of literally displaying the air conditioning, we hide it inside a box; that principle is indebted to the Centre Pompidou. In that sense, our designs for the RTS in Lausanne and for the VRT in Brussels are similar. They are much less of a machine than you might think. But if they are a machine, they are largely the form of the machine. In other words, the machine is a figure that, despite its contents, will always endure. Technology for us is too temporary. We’re too interested in making a building that can endure, and that prevents us from falling into the trap of pure machinery.

VP: So what does a building need in order to survive?

KG: Form! (Laughs). Our media buildings are good examples of that. The RTS building brings together two spatial typologies: a horizontal field with sawtooth roofs and a number of supporting volumes. The size of the volumes, or émergences, changes and therefore makes things in the middle or at the edge of the horizontal field possible. Those émergences have the same windows and can therefore house varied programmes. RTS was designed as a media building, but it could also become a university building on the EPFL campus in 2060. In fact, RTS explicitly considers the campus-like context by inserting an urban artefact into the set of existing buildings — a building, as Aldo Rossi described in The Architecture of the City, that possesses an enduring form, so that it can survive the passing of time. It is perhaps our contemporary response to bigness; not through the architecture of the big box that offers no clue as to what happens inside, but through a staging, mise en scène, of urbanity. Our design for the VRT in Brussels can be more easily compared to the Villa Farnèse in Caprarola, an object that seeks to stand alone, an anchoring point that not only negotiates with the city through its facade but also wants to create sufficient interior space.

VP: Finally, in what way can you adopt a position, based on your architecture, in debates surrounding urgent contemporary issues? Does architecture require an autonomous role or a more serving role?

KG: The answer is simple. The buildings that we make are, in our view, very explicit answers to questions posed. Yet we should remember one thing: architecture is slow. It takes four to eight years to realize a building, sometimes even longer. We have to ensure that no confusion ensues. There’s a lot of misunderstanding about what the process in architecture can be. A building should be capable of communicating its entire cultural heritage and its times. Kortrijk is a passive building, a responsible answer to the question posed and, at the same time, an expression of architecture. There’s certainly nothing wrong with developing the know-how needed to use raw materials in a responsible way, but it’s very difficult to make a distinction between the fashion of the day and genuinely sustainable solutions. In my opinion, sustainable solutions are largely typological, spatially typological. I think we should not underestimate that. Sustainable solutions also lie in making buildings that last longer than one programme. You also have insight into the carbon footprints of various materials, and we should treat that insight very carefully. I would argue that our architecture has always been sufficiently conceptual to not be materially dependent.

VP: In that sense, your architecture perhaps appears most similar to the protagonist in Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, a book in which he portrays a man in a changing society. An architecture without material properties, without visual properties, typologically open and implicit yet offering sufficient footing to survive future evolution.

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