You have planned and realized many urban projects in different countries in recent years. What are from your point of view the essentials for successful urban infill housing?
Like with any other project, the architectural idea itself is a crucial element, after that there comes the issue of architectural articulation. It is not only colours and textures; those are the final design elements of architecture and, in my mind, it would be wrong to resort to those visual/ tactile issues straight away. With urban infill the main question is how does the new building react to its immediate surroundings, how does it use (or abuse) the existing conditions for its own articulation, what interior spatial concept can be established and how does it establish a dialogue with the surrounding city structure. Urban infill projects are always an opportunity to research and redefine the relations between the user, the building and the city. This redefinition is necessary – if for nothing else than simply because the new programmes are certainly different from the ones in the past, and our times are different than those before, with all implications – from programmatic to technical and philosophical.
And the challenges?
All the so-called challenges – or problems, if you want – are simultaneously potentials and inspiration. Limitations and conditions are in reality a framework for the work of the architect. If we are honest, maybe it is most difficult to imagine a building on an open plot of land, without constraints – financial or other – and with ‘carte blanche’ from the client. I think the architect (or architecture) benefits from complexities and limitations – if you don’t run away from them, but embrace and challenge them.
How can renovation/refurbishment contribute to infill developments? Do town planners and architects nowadays consider the “old” housing stock?
Old housing stock is in a much better position today than it was before – we don’t demolish as much as we used to. It turned out that projects that ‘embrace’ the existing are much more easily accepted. That’s maybe because we like to have a link to the past, or because the projects somehow gain more internal complexity, which is a prerequisite for a successful development of urban life.
Old buildings are often brick buildings. Is the quality of the building structure and the building material an important factor?
Of course it is an important factor, the architectural qualities stemming from the material ‘definition’ of a building are important – for sentimental as well as fundamental, structural reasons. Old buildings are often built with equally useful and beautiful structural solutions. A lot of the old buildings have been built for different uses – as warehouses, workshops, factories – and it is this relative ‘openness’ that lets us use them for new programmes today, and brick is a key element allowing for this.
What are your current urban infill projects?
We are currently working (together with B-architecten) on an urban infill project for the Erasmus University in Brussels, located right in the city centre in a former industrial area. In this refurbishment and extension project, we’re looking for an interaction between the new and old buildings, between the old and new programmes and between the new complex and the city structure. The building is an opportunity to reconstruct and revive a piece of the city, by intensifying the contact between the building and the city structure around it. We’re executing the project in brick, but in a different colour and appearance as against the existing fabric – we’re aiming at a strong ‘presence’ and contrast, rather than ‘blending’ in with the existing.