How Brussels-based OFFICE uses essential architectural elements to create its unique designs

Everything Architecture

How Brussels-based OFFICE uses essential architectural elements to create its unique designs

OFFICE, founded by partners Kersten Geers and David Van Severan in 2002, is aptly located in the multifarious Belgian city of Brussels. Brussels has many guises; it is the de facto capital of the European Union, an official bilingual city, the location of the NATO headquarters, and a magnet for Muslim immigration. Much like the city it resides in, the architectural work of OFFICE requires a close reading from varying vantage points to uncover its multiple appearances. As Geers put it, “…very often things look somehow alike and then you look a bit more carefully and you realize there is something else entirely.”

The firm currently has a major retrospective exhibition titled Everything Architecture on display at the Arc-en-Rêve Centre d’Architecture in Bordeaux, France until February 12th, 2017. The show features more than 50 projects and 25 collected art pieces that are related to the spirit and language of OFFICE. Additionally the firm’s multi-faceted approach has won them international recognition with the 2010 Venice Biennale Silver Lion. Geers currently teaches at the EFPL in Lausanne, Switzerland and is also a founding member of the architecture magazine San Rocco. Van Severan is currently a guest tutor at the Architecture School of Versailles. As Geers explained, the academic studio is a place of reflection where you can “…put a flag a little bit further and you can see if your train of thoughts that you had developed till now still holds or whether you have to adjust it.”

OFFICE’s success has hinged upon its ability to manipulate essential architectural elements that have existed for centuries. The firm’s designs clearly establish what they call “territories” by creating legible perimeters that directly engage the fundamental inside versus outside dilemma. The reduction of architecture to its perimeter allows for an intensive investigation of the line between, as Geers explained, “Sometimes it’s a window, sometimes it’s everything, sometimes it’s a thick wall, sometimes it’s wire mesh thin…it’s always somehow there.” OFFICE’s consistent and precise application of these primary elements over a series of built projects is rare to find in contemporary practice. “If architecture is about obstructions, if architecture is about organizing spaces, if architecture is more standing in the way then solving things, we should reduce it to relatively simple forms so we can manipulate it,” said Geers.

OFFICE’s pervasive collage style perspectives were born out of pragmatic necessity. When the firm was founded the partners “did not have a clue how to use 3D programs and these programs were also very expensive,” explained Geers. The resulting Photoshop collages are constructed with a minimal geometric toolbox producing a sparse aesthetic that helps the viewer focus on what’s important. The collages are produced by appropriating and redrawing concepts from artists. The influence of Ed Ruscha’s flat distorted large sky perspectives is evident in the collage compositions (see project (117) Drying Hall). David Hockney’s Los Angeles pool paintings with their flat planes, vibrant colors and multiplicity of readings are also a critical reference for OFFICE’s work. “In these paintings of Hockney, they are extremely beautiful, they are extremely… I would say joyful up to a point but there is also something very bizarre about them,” said Geers.

OFFICE has consciously resisted the contemporary architecture fashions of formal excess, parametrically derived curves and hyper-realistic renderings. The firm’s strict adherence to the revision of elemental forms and the creation of a distinct collage illustration technique has allowed them to create a space for themselves within the field. As Geers noted, there are caveats to resistance: “Of course resistance is relative because you see now in the last few years that, quite frankly many practices have moved closer towards us. So at a certain point resistance becomes a bit idiotic because everybody has to change. If it is a resistance without inner content then it quickly becomes irrelevant.”

OFFICE’s approach reminds us that a limited architecture vocabulary can create spatial complexity and a layered enigmatic body of work. OFFICE’s fundamental inquiries will continue to propel the practice and the field of architecture forward. “I think for us there’s the sense of architecture trying to figure out what architecture can do and how it can perform and what are its tools?” said Geers.

(56) Weekend House
Merchtem, Belgium – 2012

The project’s concept was to “effectively create a weekend house cut away from any sense of context and reality: a mirage.” The existing building at the front of the lot was renovated to a guest house with the long backyard becoming the weekend house extension. To resolve the long narrow lot and to create a clear internalized territory the house became a sequence of four identically sized square rooms enclosed by a 2.63m high wall. From the existing guest house the rooms are aligned as a courtyard, pool house, living quarters and a garden. The project is organized as an enfilade and is viewed as a cinematic, frame by frame experience of distinct spaces. A sliding glass roof can be modified to cover either the paved courtyard or the tropical pool house dependent on seasonal and user preferences.

(117) Drying Hall
Herselt, Belgium – 2013

The Drying Hall is the epitome of a building without content, where the architecture is reduced to a building envelope; merely a big box. This building’s main purpose is a space to dry potted plants within a larger tree plantation. This programmatic circumstance requires currents of air to enter but at the same time the plants must be protected from rain; therefore the building required a perforated perimeter and a closed roof. This pragmatic solution resulted in the use of perforated steel deck plates in order to create a thin, porous and economical perimeter enclosure. The building’s continuously slanted roof “gives the building multiple appearances from different vantage points,” explains Kersten.

(126) Dars, Centers for Traditional Music
Muharraq, Bahrain – 2016

The Dar Al Jinaa and Dar Al Riffa are part of an urban renewal project. Each project consists of both a renovation of an existing Dar (‘house’) and a new, added Majlis (‘collective room’). The project’s “ambition is to give a public face to the ancient community of pearl fishers, and their musical and cultural traditions,” said Geers. The Majlis are used as communal spaces for traditional performances. The resulting design solution utilizes a simple structure of round columns and platforms with allusions to Le Corbusier’s Maison Dom-Ino. The project adds another layer of complexity by “veiling” the buildings in a thin seamless steel mesh which creates an obscure volume with multiple layers of transparency. The mesh veil also reacts to the region’s hard desert sun by providing cover. In accordance with use the veil can be lifted to allow glimpses of the performances inside. The interstitial space between the mesh and glass façade is cleverly used to locate stairs, sanitary boxes and technical installations.

(176) Campus RTS
Lausanne, Switzerland – 2014

This building is positioned in the heart of the double campus of EPFL and UNIL, and adjacent to the undulating EPFL Rolex Learning Center designed by SANAA. OFFICE won an international competition for this project and it’s currently in the development phases. Its parti consists of four big boxes that support a disc-like volume that is suspended over the ground. “So in a way it’s one big interior carried by four boxes. Looking at it that way allowed us to endlessly redesign the building without really redesigning it,” said Geers. The suspended disc acts as a continuous interior field which has been designed with the intent of providing maximum adaptability. At the ground floor a glass volume connects the four big boxes and creates a central public foyer where users circulate to the different entrances.