As soon as we reach the fifth floor Kersten Geers takes us back downstairs again.
He needs to discuss a project with two of the employees and they prefer to do this
in a nearby coffee bar. “There is much more going on here than in the office – and
the coffee is much better,” laughs Geers.
David van Severen unfortunately had to cancel the interview at short notice, he is giving a presentation in Paris. But, after two espressos, Kersten Geers more than makes up for his colleague’s absence; he gesticulates, talks, wanders around and pulls out art books, magazines and project brochures in which he has to show us something. Obviously he is used to speaking. He talks extensively and it is almost impossible to interrupt him. But this isn’t necessary anyway. His monologues are as informative as they are entertaining.
We ended up in this building in 2006 if anything by chance. David and I had been working on joint projects and competitions since 2002. We did so like nomads, either at his place in Ghent or at mine in Rotterdam. In 2005 we succeeded in winning the competition in Seoul and began to feel that we ought to put down joint roots. We then started working at the office of David’s deceased father for a while but this was a strange situation. Partly because we both lived in Brussels and always traveled to the office in Ghent together. In 2005, when I was still working in Rotterdam, I was not really prepared to go back to Belgium. But if it was to be Belgium, it had to be Brussels.
The city is neither Flemish nor Walloon, something very important in Belgium! Brussels is an international city in a small, very complicated country without a firm sense of national identity. The different languages, the internal debates. This is why we Belgians love Europe so very much. And why, as Belgians, we tend to be used to dealing with complicated matters cleverly and to making very efficient use of the means at our disposal. We are good at coping with conflicts and contradictions. And perhaps this is what makes certain things interesting in the first place.
Additionally I like Brussels because it is quite a complex city and it has a pretty fucked-up structure. You always feel like a stranger here, even after living here for years. Like just now in the coffee bar. I speak Dutch or English with the staff at the office, I speak English with you and then I turn round to the girl behind the bar and I order my espresso in French. In Brussels, I can live with the feeling that I am not back at home in Belgium.
You designed the Belgian pavilion at the Architecture Biennale in 2008. There you were some kind of representative of the young, Belgian architecture. Can you see anything typically Belgian in your architecture or your way of working?
It is always difficult to describe yourself. I hope that we are more of a European studio than one that is Flemish, Walloon, or Belgian. I think that what is important here is not location but roots – and our roots are in European culture.
By way of example, we are very interested in the Italian Renaissance. I would even go so far as to say that it is completely absurd to want to work as an architect without addressing Renaissance architecture. Donatello Bramante, for instance, was probably the best architect of the past 600 years! (laughs) I think our work always references the past.
Not that we are retro. We don’t celebrate what’s been and gone, but use it. What interests us is a complex approach to realities. In fact, we are also interested in Los Angeles, in the art of David Hockney or Ed Ruscha [he fetches out books, leafs through them, points out pictures].
We are also interested in Aldo Rossi, James Stirling and Reyner Banham. Some of this leads to Los Angeles, which we were just talking about, for example, Hockney or Banham, who have gone there as Europeans, have observed the city closely and studied it in minute detail. They are all melting pots: Los Angeles, Europe, Brussels. And there are a great number of similarities. The way that Hockney plays with perspectives, the way they always look rather clumsy and non-spatial. Rather like the early perspectives in the Renaissance. Pictures that are very spatial in a contradictory way and yet remain two-dimensional.
We are also interested in John Baldessari, in Ungers – well, at least in a few things by Ungers. More in his way of thinking, as an architect he was often rather disappointing. In the early days, Koolhaas was a genius. The sad thing is that his epigones are not in the least exciting. They lack his radical quality and his complexity, they are only interested in the pictures. In fact it is often only a very definite period of artists’ and architects’ work that interests us and the short period when Koolhaas and Kollhoff were working for Ungers is, of course, an absolutely fantastic time!
But we are also interested in early modern Viennese architecture, before it became the label that it was sold as. When, for a short time, people were interested in finding simplified shapes that could produce a large spatial complexity.
OK, so let’s stay with Venice for the moment. You were there again in 2010 and you did up an old abandoned garden shed behind the Arsenale, together with photographer Bas Princen. In a similar way to your work in 2008, you transformed an existing building into an exhibition piece. Should we see this work as representative of Office’s architecture?
I hope that in every single project we attempt to express everything that we stand for as Office. Of course it’s for others to judge whether we actually achieve this. But we always say our projects are like members of a family. They can be very different in the same way that brothers and sisters can be very different but they are all related to one another. And this often surprises us most of all. We start a new project, try out a few things and are suddenly wild about some completely bizarre aspect – only to find at the end of the day that it somehow resembles another of our projects in some strange way. Not because this was what we wanted from the outset, but because it came about through the subjects we are interested in and because the logic of the project demanded it.
Like with the two projects in Venice?
I have to say that we very nearly didn’t take part in 2010. We were asked very late whether we could imagine doing something with this building that was admittedly part of the Biennale grounds, right at the back, but that had never been used before. There was hardly any time left for a design and we were offered a budget of € 15,000 for the project.
For the whole entry?
Everything included! And it was far too late to find ourselves any sponsors. In 2008 we had had around € 150,000 for the Belgian pavilion! What were we supposed to do? We definitely did not want to do anything even vaguely similar. We didn’t want people to think: ‘Oh, it’s those guys with the empty building and the confetti again. Yes, it was quite droll last time but now all they have done is a bad copy.’ We wanted to do something completely different. We didn’t want to show an empty building, but couldn’t exhibit anything in it. Everything would have been damaged by the heat or the humidity. Any changes to the building would have been too expensive.
And so we thought about maybe exhibiting a few of our own collages and we talked to Bas Princen, the photographer, who is a good friend of ours. We have been discussing all our projects with Bas for years now, he is like a third partner. And this is how we came up with the idea of mixing his photos with our collages. Somehow his work and ours is very similar, we influence each other because we show each other our work so often and discuss it together. So we knew that this was a combination that would work. And we also liked the notion that by combining collages and photographs, reality and fiction would get jumbled up together. And then we hit on the idea of Bas taking a photo of the building and it looks almost like a collage (laughs). This would totally confused some visitors. We are very fond of bizarre moments like this.
But then you didn’t only exhibit inside the building but also changed it outside and made it the central object of your exhibition.
This was a completely logical idea. We had those seven rooms in the building but they were not interconnected. And so people would have gone into one room and thought: ‘Aha, photos’ and would have gone straight onto the next thing. So we needed a link, a joining element, a corridor. And, because of the tight budget, it needed to be the cheapest corridor possible. We came up with an idea for a very light construction of the kind you get at market stalls. Thin white tubes and a textile roof, like advertising space, but in silver and without the advertising. Like a canopy that extends the existing roof in the same shape to form a veranda. We then found out that for this Biennale, Piet Oudolf would be creating a beautiful garden directly next to ‘our’ building and that it was to stop – as if a line had been drawn – right in front of the building. And so we suggested at least extending the garden’s gravel paths to form a floor for the veranda underneath our canopy. Finally, we added a few chairs in the shade and we were done.
And you had a result that was related to the 2008 Belgian pavilion, but did not copy it. It was once again a wonderfully light orchestration of an existing building – and the perfect place for a quiet rest in all the turbulence of the Biennale.
After we assembled the installation ourselves and we thought: damn, it has turned out just like the one two years ago after all. That is the kind of thing that happens to us. I think that it is a good thing. The fact that we are interested in certain topics gives rise to series that recur throughout our work. One project always references another. They all have the same roots. But we don’t repeat ourselves. If we were to repeat ourselves we would soon find ourselves bored.
So what are these topics?
If I had a precise answer to this question then there would be nothing left for me to do or at least it wouldn’t be as much fun. Ask a painter what his work is about. He doesn’t know. He just keeps on and on painting and one day he will be able to say, hey, I’m much better now. And it’s similar for us. At least we have now discovered a number of topics that interest us more than others. This is a good thing, it means that we have more time to devote ourselves to subjects that fascinate us. I guess that at the moment it is important to us to be looking at typologies and types of space. Among other things, from a historical viewpoint, seeing how certain types come into being and then disappear again so that we can use a number of them in our own work.
With regard to your work you have also repeatedly talked about an economy of means.
Of course. Today, in particular, this is especially important in architecture. We need to be conscious of what we’re doing. What are my intentions? What do I want to express and how can I do this effectively? I think that our architecture uses a relatively small vocabulary. Fortunately, we have discovered that this limited vocabulary can produce great spatial complexity.
How important is function to you in this?
As a responsible architect you design houses that work, that can be used by people. But many buildings’ qualities are often those very things that do not directly serve any particular purpose. There is a difference between how things are designed and what they are designed for. And it can be this very discrepancy that makes them fascinating. I think that in our architecture we are looking for exactly this kind of contradiction. We certainly aren’t functionalists. I believe that those diehard modernists have really got us into trouble. It isn’t important to allocate a single function to rooms.
And so is that the secret of how your architecture can seem both precise and, at the same time, ambivalent?
That is not a contradiction because we are not interested in perfection. The idea of designing a perfect building is, in itself, absurd. To do this you would have to ignore the whole context. There are always gaps, transitional spaces, spaces in between. Perfection is doomed to failure. Otherwise, an entire perfect universe would have to be created. And even this would probably be uninteresting.