On account of the fact that no other country on the continent unites such disparate communities in such a small area, the Belgians are purported to be the best Europeans. The common Belgian culture is based on the permanent discussion about culture, language, and political views – like a mini-version of the European confederation of states.
As such, the studio of Kersten Geers and David Van Severen lies right at the heart of Europe, just under ten minutes from the main station in Brussels and only a stone’s throw from “Manneken Pis; on the edge of the historical old town. Since 2006 they have rented a floor in a, shall we say, practical office building with what is possibly the world’s smallest elevator. The building is no work of art; right next to a branch of Subway, it has a narrow porch with brown tinted windows. The storeys, however, protrude to the line of the road somewhat, which pays dividends as far as the view from the fifth floor is concerned. It opens out across the narrow little streets to the complex contradictions of the Brussels skyline, where the spiral steeples, the leaning chimneys and the brownish-red roofs are reflected in the facades of those high-rises that rear up all over the place between them. And on the hills behind them the horizon is cluttered by the massive office monoliths of the giant machine that runs Europe.
“We made a conscious decision to have our studio in Brussels,” Geers says, almost apologetically. David Van Severen was born in 1978 in Ghent, Kersten Geers in 1975. They also both started studying there, though they only met on a study trip to Los Angeles. On their forays in the city they came to realize that in art and architecture they were interested in the same references. Their certainly unusual spectrum of interests ranges from the Renaissance and early Modernism to the present day: Adolf Loos, Aldo Rossi, Rem Koolhaas (“the early Rem Koolhaas”, Geers stresses), Reyner Banham and O.M. Ungers, to the Pop Art, Minimal Art and Conceptual Art of a David Hockney or Ed Ruscha. Much of this is linked to Los Angeles and not exactly typical of two young Belgian architects. “I can remember finding this book by Reyner Banham, “The Architecture of Four Ecologies”, in a secondhand bookstore in Los Angeles,” Geers says. It was the first edition, which still had Hockney’s “A Bigger Splash” on the cover. It’s so sad that the later editions had a different cover, as precisely this picture sums up the entire contents of the book: All the hedonism, the self-confidence, and the seriousness of Los Angeles. I immediately bought two, as I knew that David would want one.”
Over the years the friendship led to a joint studio, though they had no major plans. Having returned from Los Angeles, Geers graduated and went to Rotterdam, where he initially worked for Maxwan and then for four years for Neutelings Riedijk. It was a period in which he now says he developed self-confidence in his own abilities. “As a young architect I was in charge of major projects there. That would not have been possible in Belgium.” Van Severen initially went to Madrid for a year, where he studied under Inaki Abalos and Juan Herreros – a tip Geers had given him in Los Angeles. “I had told David about the year I had spent studying under Abalos and Herreros and must have been so enthusiastic that he went to Madrid as well. Even today Abalos and Herreros are an important point of reference for us both. They have always taught together, in an extremely lively way, there was lots of discussion, lots of references were presented, and they were constantly interrupting each other (laughs). Their teaching and their work as architects were inextricably linked, one took up where the other left off. That way you can be really experimental in your work and not always have to gauge everything by reality. But we also have similar opinions, a very rational approach to structures and constructions, inconspicuous, reduced. But always with a certain amount of emotionality and irrationality. Abalos and Herreros once said that what was more important for architects was intention rather than invention. I think so too. Because in architecture you really don’t have to invent anything. Everything is already there. Things don’t have to be fancy and exciting, buildings can even be extremely boring.”
Office began with a desk
After graduating David Van Severen stayed in Belgium, where he worked for Stéphane Beel, Xaveer de Geyter, and until 2005 in the studio of his father, the famous designer Marten Van Severen. It was there that the idea of a joint studio with Geers came to him, and that began with a desk.
As far as I can remember David landed the contract to design a desk for a lawyers’ practice in 2002 when he was working for his father’s studio. We spoke on the phone and he asked me if I would be interested in designing the desk with him. And I thought, well, why not (laughs). Then, however, we managed to convince the lawyers that it would take more than a desk to turn their hideous office into one that was pleasant.” That was how they came to found their studio with the practical name “OFFICE Kersten Geers David Van Severen”– or “Office” for short and for the budget for a desk deigned a small lawyers’ practice, with mirrors and lights.
Their first joint project already reveled an architectural philosophy that still characterizes Office today: They call it the “economy of means”. This means on the one hand taking the available budget as the absolute basis of the design, and on the other using a reduced vocabulary of shapes and materials anyway. With any Office project it is always fascinating to see how a deep, ambivalent, spatial complexity emerges from this reduced vocabulary. They succeed in producing on the one hand pure Modernist architecture, which, on the other, cannot conceal contradictory influences such as Pop Art and Italian High Renaissance, and not just in what are actually unwieldy collages Office uses to illustrate its concepts instead of the 3D renderings that are so widespread nowadays.
Remarkably, just like their collages and drawings, Office’s buildings are equally radical, minimal, and ambiguous. The shapes and spatial constellations suddenly reveal a wealth of complex cross-references and possible interpretations, which often only become apparent at second, third, or even fourth glance. Perhaps this relaxed, almost matter-of-course approach to highly complex questions is something Belgian.
Perhaps architecture need not put ambivalence and contradictoriness in any ultimate form of order. Perhaps what emerges from the unanswered questions is of far higher quality.
From the outset they were pedestrian in the way they numbered their projects. They are already on number 105. Office is very busy right now. Designing the Belgian pavilion for the 2008 Architecture Biennale in Venice made them well-known in Belgium. In 2010 Kazuyo Sejima invited them to the main exhibition, where they won the “Silver Lion for the most promising young participant” for their “Garden Pavilion” (which they had designed with the Dutch photographer Bas Princen). Despite still being young, with these competition entries, but primarily with their outstanding, calm buildings, styled down to the very last detail, Geers and Van have already earned themselves an excellent reputation.
In the interview Kersten Geers explains why intention is more important than invention, why it is important to know what you are not interested in, and how being Belgian makes reconciling all these contradictions possible: How architecture can be both precise and ambiguous at one and the same time and how you can like the Renaissance and Los Angeles.