Non-autonomous architecture
An interview with CENTRAL
Brussels, BE

Sat amongst potted, tropical plants in a well-lit space, Radim Louda tells us how architecture is really about how we manage our collective spaces in the city. He claims that architecture can participate in the evolution of today’s urgent social and ecological topics, and that architects need to become an integral part of the political process again. This is part of a series of video-interviews with a selection of emerging European practices. A project by Itinerant Office within the cultural agenda of New Generations and the support of Funder35.

 

Moving the first steps in the working field

We are four partners who met in the first year of studies in La Cambre in Brussels. We have been friends from the beginning. After finishing our studies, we were working for 7 years in different offices where we worked as project leaders, so we did a lot of competitions. At some point, we decided that we had had enough of working for other offices and that it was time to make our own ideas happen. When you are an architect or a project leader you don’t really understand what it is like to run an office or how to make it happen. It was, in a certain way, a naive decision to create something together. Architecture is something that can get quite complicated, but the result is enjoyable. 

We started the office with two projects: one was a small extension project of 20 sqm and the other, a public competition for a masterplan, urban planning. We had these two scales, and since then, that is something that we have always tried to keep. We don’t want to be specialised in something, rather to work on different scales, different projects, without trying to establish a certain style and trying instead to find the right answers to different projects. We want to have a wide spectrum of possibilities. 

 

Architecture and public space. Challenging the briefs

It is not autonomy in architecture that interests us. What we like is to actually work on the relation between spaces, between architecture and public or collective space, and how the city actually influences architecture and how architecture can influence the city. We are trying to work more with relations between the built matter than with style.

The first project we were commissioned to do was a project we won called, Atelier Brussels Productive Metropolis. It was a research project on the productive spaces in the city, understanding how to implement them, how to work with different typologies, and how those productive spaces could work together. We were developing multiple different projects, looking at the city, how the industries work and identifying the various problems. We tried different typologies that were between industries and public space and how they could influence each other. It was a sort of organic work within architecture and the public city, considered on various different levels which translated into different typologies. 

As architects, there are always certain fascinations that we may have, and we try to achieve these spatial or aesthetic ones. However, the aesthetics of architecture should not really be the aim in the end. It should rather be the tool to answer the given brief in a more evolved manner. but basically how you can answer to a brief but make it more evolved. Basically, what interests us is to always make small changes in the brief and try to offer something different than what it is asked for.

 

Partners, collaboration, and working space

We are four partners. When we first started the office, I was working alone every day during the first year. Slowly, the others joined us. When we obtained projects that brought in more money, they were able to join. Now we have two employees and two interns working here, but at the same time, we are working on different projects in association with other offices and developing them here. We have had the possibility to have people over from time to time to help us. They might come for instance for a period of three months to help with a certain project. As a young office, you cannot really pay everyone and guarantee a position for two years. We think that it is interesting for young offices to have help from more established offices but maintain the freedom experiment and have support for the production. Now, we are working in a tower situated in the northern district of Brussels, that will be refurbished in a year, and we will then have the chance to work in this nice space for quite cheap. For us, the space we work in is really important. It allows us to build big models, to have different ambitions, and to have the space to actually think and develop the architecture that we want.

 

Competitions, public clients, and research

We have done a lot of competitions and we have worked with a lot of public clients. However, we also have a few private clients who are rather friends. Private projects are not something that we aim to do all the time. If we happen to find one, we are happy to develop it. Mostly we are doing public competitions and working with public clients. What’s perhaps interesting is that now we are designing two schools: one in Wallonia and the other in Flanders. Although both are for public clients, the schools themselves are very different. One is perhaps less ambitious, and we can really see in the client that they are very interested in making the project better, so they are actually helping us. They understand more and they are easier to talk to because there is a relationship of trust. In the case of the other, the project is just as interesting, but the approach is different. 

At the moment, we have a lot of work. We are developing proejcts but also doing competitions. We are not really doing unsolicited projects but we are doing research. We are currently sharing the space with our friend, Maxime Delvaux, who is a photographer, so we are constantly working on what we like to call, “urban situations”. When he is traveling, he might call and say that he has found something interesting in a certain city, so he takes pictures, brings them back and we try to classify them.  This is an ongoing online research that hasn’t been published yet, but maybe in ten years it gets published, or maybe it even never gets published. We are trying to work on this kind of relationship between photography, urban situations and make our own reference system that then helps us to actually develop the projects and communicate them better and make them more understandable. 

 

Making architecture more horizontal

There are a lot of urgencies, both social and ecological. However, I don’t think that architecture can really answer all of them. Instead, it can participate in the evolution of these questions. I think that the main urgency is to make architecture more horizontal within the political process. For instance, when a country needs to build 2000 schools, they simply launch architectural competitions to bring in architects. However, if they include architects at a more horizontal level and think beforehand with architects and other professionals as well what schools should be like today, then I think it would change quite a lot of things. I think the urgency is to bring back architecture in the decision-making process, more than just being at the end of the process. If that is done, then all the other urgencies can be tackled more easily. 

 

 

CentralOK2 min

IMG 8291 copie min 

Photography Courtesy of CENTRAL