Would that be a general approach in your work – to question typologies and to open them up?
Johan: To integrate multiple perspectives is part of the dna of an office where you have a collaborative environment and not the handwriting of one person. So, yes, we are a bit intrigued by how projects get multiple lives. This is a social point of view, but it is also an ecological one. If we talk about sustainability, what we as architects can master best, apart from all the engineering, is creating permeability or multiplicity. In that sense, ZIN is a test case which, with an owner with a long term perspective, had the conditions for us to think about a building that is adaptable in time. It may absorb an evolution towards further diversity, in an area where there is no masterplan, no predicted future.
Freek: We rather use the term “multiple lives” and not “multiple functions” because functions are quite determined. And life is very undetermined. You imagine a building for multiple lives quite different than for multiple functions. Ideally, what will happen will be quite ambiguous.
A while ago you also completed two projects next to each other in Tirana, Albania: the very central Skanderbeg Square and a tower next to it. Is it possible to transport a certain urban vision to a country which has a very different history and a very transformational present?
Freek: When we worked on the square we already had been busy for some time in Albania and had met a lot of people. And we were still rather young architects. In that sense we didn’t have a lot of experience to bring and more experience to gain. We were willing to propose things, but also to listen and to adapt. It was really like a journey.
Johan: You asked for our approach. Yesterday I talked to a client who said: you know why we want to work with you? Because you don’t come with architecture as a solution, you come with a process as a solution, and this will help us. That is actually what we try to do: to see architecture as a transformational process which helps people to explain their wishes and ideas, and to strive to come up with a solution that brings them closer to what they desire. It allows people to step into a process together, to make compromises. Compromise is not always less than what you dream of, it can be more than what you were ever able to dream. Skanderbeg Square, too, was a process, initiated by a mayor who wanted to give his city a symbol, a common square to share. When, after a period of severe communism, people were suddenly allowed to own things, what you could see were huge cars and beautiful houses – but completely careless environments. The biggest transformation in Tirana now is that people start to think about the quality of what they as a society share. The square is a symbol for that. It is important that people can enter a comfortable environment with green, silence, water, wind. But the fact that public authorities were able to realize such a public project, without corruption, and that the society was able to build it – that is the most important element. People begin to ask: why can’t we do something like that on another spot, too? This is how a mentality starts to change.
Freek Persyn and Johan Anrys are founding partners of architecture office 51N4E in Brussels. Their work ranges from internationally recognized projects in Belgium and abroad to open structures, architectural landscapes and projects that focus on processes and civic involvements rather than necessarily on the design of predefined buildings. The office itself has been partially nomadic, relying on temporary use of an architecture in transformation.