This is a short story. Short stories are short reflections on the projects and the story of NU architectuuratelier. They let you take a look behind the scenes and show the different dimensions of our work through interviews, films, collages…
The research duo ‘Islands in the City’ of Emma Filippides and Benjamin Rea delved into our image archives and distilled several recurring themes and elements from them. One of these themes is scale and relationship. It is the basis for a conversation about our personal and intuitive starting points.
This interview was conducted at the early stages of an exploratory collaboration between NU architectuuratelier and researchers Emma Filippides and Ben Rea. A process defined by its oscillation between research and output, Short Stories invites discussion, written and visual contributions from the office and its collaborators through a series of discussions and workshops.
The objective for each ‘short story’ is to produce a set of physical outcomes which, in turn, become a reflective brief for the next step in the process. This process allows the office and its collaborators an opportunity to reflect on the collective values and intentions of the office, and how they weave through the office’s design processes and built work.
After exploring the NU archive, Emma and Ben led a series of conversations with Armand Eeckels and Halewijn Lievens in August 2020. By constructing a dialogue around archival images, this dialogue traces the development of NU architectuuratelier’s design philosophy, through a broad discussion on process and experience.
On Scale and Relation: excerpt of dialogue with Armand Eeckels and Halewijn Lievens
Emma and Ben One key thing we recognise in the communication of your ideas and the representation of your finished projects is the idea of a ‘scale relation’. Understanding the size and dimension of things, the human scale. We would like to speak more specifically about your process and personal philosophy.
Halewijn I’m reminded of something we clarified in our commission for a masterplan at Gasthuisberg. It’s about attention to an in-between scale: neither furniture or a building. Our work quite consistently deals with a scale that is situated between furniture and architecture.
Armand I think this also has to do with the fact that we like to be in contact with the small scale and the way things are used. This is what we try to translate into buildings, so the city itself becomes like furniture. We are always trying to move between these scales.
E&B What was the first project you ever did this with?
H Halvemaanstraat. The project consists of a T-shaped kitchen island with two benches and a fire pit. When we think of a project, I mostly think of this scale and less about the building as a whole. In order to realise this project we were obliged to do things ourselves. We weren’t making furniture – we were making part of the building.
E&B So that’s the core of the project for you. Like in a traditional Gambian house, for example, you would find small huts or buildings for different generations of the family, with a raised podium in the centre where the living takes place; it’s almost a piece of furniture. It’s not a building, it’s not the landscape; it’s more of a table-top or clearing.
H And it centres around the elementary parts of living.
E&B So for you, function sits at the very heart of what you do?
A Yes, but we try not to make a direct association with the function. For us, a kitchen or a shower shouldn’t look like a kitchen or a shower. It’s more of a strange object that could indeed be used as a kitchen or a shower. We try to steer away from the obvious.
E&B Looking at the way objects relate to one another in your practice, we notice that the building of objects is treated very much as an architecture in itself. We recognise a lot of special care taken over furniture interventions in particular. We presented to you a sketch of loose furniture we found in the archive because it speaks to a relationship between these objects as a family. We kept seeing evidence of this relational idea in subsequent projects.
H Yes, that’s a point. But it’s funny, because thinking about how we approach many of our projects, we tend to isolate individual elements, develop a specific logic and put them back. We aren’t particularly careful about the ‘family-ness’ of all the things together. I think it’s true also in the restaurants we’ve done, but also in the concept of our furniture installation at Concertgebouw Brugge. Within the entrance we have a family of objects which, when looking at them, could have been designed by different designers. The objects have their own internal logic, in their material and in their detail.
A Yes. Very much so. It’s a trick that I sometimes use in order to design and think. It’s a kind of reduction that involves taking a lot away in order to concentrate. The first thing I do is to try to start work on the plan and throw out everything else that distracts me.
E&B What sorts of things would you remove?
A Anything that distracts from the essence of the plan. I know that some people in the office are able to think of the logic of the plan with all layers on, but I don’t tend to think very clearly about specifics in the plan from that context. This method of reduction relates to the idea that our work provides a platform on which life takes place for different actors. For example, normally Heilig-Hart is a church, which of course is very complex and dominant. If you take the intricacy and heaviness of the architecture of the church away, then you can really start to think about the relationship between these elements without getting distracted.
H Necessary to the idea of isolating something to develop its own logic is to trust the fact that if it’s a good logic, it will work with anything. As I said, we isolate it and then we put it back. This is true for our furniture, but also for some of the buildings we do. Are they very much influenced by their surroundings? Not really. Of course they respond to certain conditions, but for the most part they have their own logic and we trust the coincidence of ‘putting it back’ and seeing what happens.
E&B We were thinking of these arrangements as ‘scenographic’ and are interested in how you see the relationship between these objects when they are placed in a space.
H With the project at Gasthuisberg we are designing pieces of furniture for the entire hospital, both outside and inside. We started by thinking that we should find a general rule for everything and that everything should embody this concept. So at the start, this is what we tried. But very soon we got into the logic of one element and developed it further. We don’t define where we want to or need to end, we keep it open.
A I think it’s also about the willingness to take risks, because if you don’t, you end up making a cliché kitchen, cliché detailing, or a cliché building. That’s not how we like to do things; we prefer to experiment and test new ideas.
H This also reminds me, for instance, when we made a design in collaboration with DOORZON for a 2006 design fair in Kortrijk. This project was very much in line with how we would still think about a project today. It was also a collection of small projects. We’re still very enthusiastic about doing projects like this.
E&B It’s interesting to think about building with an idea of impermanence, or as an assembly of objects with their own internal logic. We’ve been interested to see this in some of your larger projects, where it appears that heavy tectonic elements have been arranged and placed on top of furniture. Suddenly, something that’s usually very temporal becomes the foundation of a building. We particularly enjoyed this idea of the facade of the building sitting on top of a bench at AZ Jan Portaels.
H The bench is another red line in the projects we do. We like to think in terms of ‘bench’.
A It’s nicer here that the bench is part of the internal architecture, meaning that you really do sit on top of the building.
H That’s the way to make physical contact with the building. The bench is an easy device for organising this.
E&B We also recognise a similar approach in your use of the stairs, which is quite interesting. In two or three houses, we noticed the stairs balancing on top of cast pieces of furniture, too.
A We do play a lot with staircases.
H Again, it’s not really furniture, but it is something that mediates between your body and the building. We like to work with this physical relation. It’s more than something decorative.
A Imagine the house in Kessel-Lo. At one point the building used to be a small apartment building and was refurbished into a single house. There is a central staircase and we opened up two floors to have one common living space over two levels. We had to situate the second staircase in the living space and we couldn’t figure out where to put it. It ended up in the window, where you would never expect the staircase to be. Then, it became a challenge to make this staircase as light as possible. It’s a good challenge, pushing the limits of how fragile you can go with the staircase.
E&B Looking at some of these threshold spaces, we are interested in how your ideas about permanent furniture elements are embedded in the way you tackle landscape in your projects.
A It is definitely embedded and sometimes it’s not even understood very well by clients. For one project we made concrete benches alongside cycle paths. Some people only thought as far as the fact that if you pour a massive piece of concrete, it will never go away. Sure, after maybe two centuries it becomes a ruin, but even then it can still be used as a bench.
H It also acts as an anchor around which activity can centralise. A point of intensity. Imagine that you arrive somewhere in the forest and there’s two big rocks and a tree has fallen – you have to start organising space. These three basic elements will naturally guide that organisation. However it is also very nice that you have to think of a way to make it into your own, to translate these things into a use. I always have these ‘anchor’ ideas somewhere in the back of my mind, but it’s important that they aren’t too defined. The process should always be exploring.