In 1979, in a formal ceremonial gesture, the architect and theorist Luc Deleu laid ‘the final stone of Belgium’ in the courtyard of the International Cultureel Centrum in Antwerp. His point was that Belgium was complete: the country was full, totally built up, and that there was no more room for architecture. This might seem like an inauspicious context for an architect to be working in today, but Xaveer De Geyter is no pessimist. He regards this hybrid, artificial landscape as a field of opportunity: where others might see a country of fragmented urban sprawl, he sees the possibility for a new, synthetic urban condition.
The office of Xaveer de Geyter Architecten (XDGA) is located in an unglamorous area of Brussels, near the main northern railway station. Such a choice of locale seems significant – it is an area that is neither beautiful nor fashionable, indicating a certain indifference to appearances. But the site is also a perfect expression of a major characteristic of this city, capital of Belgium and the European Union: in places Brussels is as gritty as it is grotty, but it has an energy and industriousness that is almost palpable. Underfoot is the rumbling vibration of trains, and the subterranean river of cars that endlessly flows under the city. Above ground, black Mercedes Benz taxis speed past, accompanied by trams, buses, innumerable bicycles, and planes on approach to the nearby airport; it is restless, dynamic, and very noisy. Inside the office things are calmer and quieter, but the industriousness is the same. The meeting room was obviously, until several moments ago, doubling as a model-making room. An apologetic but laughing assistant hurriedly wipes down the table and insists on also checking my chair (“so we don’t stick you down”). Amid this flurry, De Geyter quietly enters the room, a reserved but charismatic presence, introducing himself in impeccable and lightly accented English.
De Geyter was born in Doornik, Belgium, in 1957. He studied architecture in Ghent, but left school in the final year (“because I was bored; totally bored”) to travel through Africa. Shortly after returning and finishing his studies, he moved to Rotterdam to work at the Office for Metropolitan Architecture with Rem Koolhaas, where he stayed for ten years, working on projects such as the Villa dall’Ava in Paris and the Zeebrugge Sea Terminal, before founding his own office in the early nineties. Given the international mega-star status of Koolhaas, the association with OMA clearly pursues De Geyter to this day, even after more than ten years of success and growing reputation in his own firm. With a philosophical shrug he points out that “OMA is something like an open system; I don’t think I would have stayed there for ten years if I couldn’t bring something of my own.”
He left on good terms, and started his own office with the commission for two villas in Belgium. One of these, the House Brasschaat, was to receive international attention in the exhibition ‘The Un-Private House’ at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1999. This is an intriguing house; with the front façade entirely embedded within an existing sand dune, it is self-effacing and yet strangely provocative, with its surreal exaggeration of two key obsessions within suburban life, namely privacy, and the car. “These kinds of houses are not possible without having extensive accessibility by car, they can not be organised just with public transport, they need the sprawl. So that was an element that we explicitly used: if the car is one of the central issues in this kind of living, then you shouldn’t hide it, it’s one of the key elements of the house. In fact in this house, from the street, that’s the main thing you see – on top of the house is the car.” It is true that Belgium has some of the most dense infrastructure in the world, with an extraordinarily well developed rail network, and the whole country crisscrossed by motorways which have led to some rather unkind jokes about its being a ‘drive-thru country’. Marcel Smets has observed that the tendency towards decentralisation is so strong in Belgium that the country “is on the way to degenerating into one large periphery, in which the historic centres function as tourist attractions and the residents are endlessly moving along crowded motorways from nowhere to nowhere.”
But while architects have a long tradition of being both intellectually and aesthetically snobbish about suburbia, De Geyter takes a middle ground. His position is distinguished by a simultaneous pragmatism and hopefulness; the answer, he argues, is not to reject the suburban sprawl outright, or to endlessly complain about it. “It’s not like we think the car should be the centre of our lives. There are many voices today against the car, but in some sense we are against this, because it’s a false discussion so long as two thirds of the Belgian population actually wants to live this way. Our work is a reaction against this dichotomy, it is dealing with the actual existing situation.” The answer is to embrace sprawl as a reality, to see its positive potential, and to admire its vitality. In this way, this diffuse condition can be seen as a rich and productive field, indeterminate and therefore full of possibilities.
In 2002, the office produced an edited book that explores the potential of this condition, entitled ‘After-Sprawl: Research for the Contemporary City’. The book followed a major exhibition of the same name, and in light of this, it is tempting to place De Geyter’s work within the tradition of the early twentieth-century avant garde, those fiesty revolutionary architects who were interested in utopian ideas as much as buildings, and produced ‘paper architecture’ that was just as influential for being unbuilt. For De Geyter, too, conceptual schemes seem to carry the same weight as designs that were actually realised. Perhaps this emphasis on ideas and abstractions is not surprising from a man who seriously considered pursuing philosophy instead of architecture, and for a time studied both simultaneously. But De Geyter differs from the modernist avant garde in that his visions are fundamentally pragmatic, they fit within existing conditions in the world, rather than setting out in an idealistic but hopeless bid to change them. “Architects don’t control the building industry,” he says, “it’s developers and governments who have that power.” But nevertheless he maintains that architects do still have a role in working around the edges, in critically questioning and challenging the status quo.
This attitude can also been seen in many of the larger works the office has undertaken. This includes the Chassé Park apartments in Breda, the Netherlands, which was short-listed for the Mies van der Rohe Award for European Architecture in 2003. Remarkable for its sensitive siting, this complex of five residential towers produces a new relationship with its site and city. This kind of urban intervention will also characterise the huge office complex of the European Patent Office, which de Geyter’s office recently won in a major international competition. Such competitions take a key role in the firm’s work, including those which they don’t win, and especially those which they deliberately set out not to win, by submitting a so-called ‘counter project’. This strategy may seem strange, but as de Geyter explains, “sometimes we decide that we should not necessarily win this competition, it is more important to challenge thinking in this area.” This was the case in 2000 in the competition for a new Historical Museum in Antwerp, where de Geyter explicitly set out to challenge the brief’s requirement for an iconic, landmark building. His scheme was radical on every level, not only rethinking museum architecture, but also the display, storage, and curation of artefacts, and the way such an institution operates with a city. A similarly re-conceptualisation, on a much larger scale, can also be seen in the competition scheme for the Quartier des Halles in Paris in 2003/04. More recently, it occurs in two institutional commissions currently under or about to begin construction, namely the St Lucas Fine Arts School in Ghent, and the Brussels Hotel and Catering School.
During our discussion De Geyter gets up to fetch books, to point things out on the models and images scattered around the room, to sit on a nearby table, leaning forward with his legs over the back of the chair. This might seem like edginess in someone who was less calmly urbane, but in De Geyter it is simply precision, the desire to find the telling example, the best illustration of his point. He is patient, cool to the point of tranquility, the professional friendliness of his manner broken very occasionally by a moment of steeliness. In answer to a question about his architectural influences, for instance, he answers that “I don’t believe in these nineteenth-century ideas. I prefer to think of the city as a mass of inspirations, a mass of influences. Also I am not always interested in architects, I am just as likely to be influenced by a good engineer, or a building that wasn’t designed by an architect.” Still, he adds with a smile, “I did have a champagne breakfast in [Mies van der Rohe’s] Tughendhat House once, which was amazing.”
In the fickle world of international architectural fashion, the hippest location changes ever few years. For a long time it was the Netherlands, with its particular mode of radical pragmatism, although this crown may have slipped in recent years towards the slick hyper-minimalism of the Swiss. But having lived and worked in Holland for a decade, and in one of its most celebrated firms, De Geyter believes that it is now possible to do more daring and experimental work in his native Flanders. “For a long time there was a real hunger for change and experimentation in the Netherlands, and that has only recently started in Belgium. Also I think there has been a kind of backlash in the Netherlands [against radical architecture], and now it is really possible to achieve more here.” Dutch architectural development has been so closely controlled by the state for so long – necessarily so, to prevent the whole country disappearing under water – that it is completely institutionalised. It is possible that neighbouring Belgium, relatively free of invasive government regulation, may be the dark horse in the field of world architecture. If that happens, then Xaveer De Geyter will be at the front of the pack. Not that he will care, of course. He will be too busy considering, researching, and producing the kind of thoughtful architecture that has already brought his work to world attention.