International projects are a means to further develop and fine-tune your architectural vision

Why ‘go foreign’? 

Being a small country, Belgium has always been strongly oriented towards the outside world. This could also be the case for Belgian architecture. Know-how is the Belgian export product.

Broadening your horizon and adopting an open view on the world is interesting. Working in a radically different culture and context, exploring and understanding local conditions and cultural differences, and turning your philosophy into creations abroad is enriching. International projects are a means to further develop and fine-tune your architectural vision, which can also be an added value for projects in your home country.

Whether it concerns a single project or an extension of your foreign portfolio; whether you respond to direct questions or international competitions: working abroad creates learning opportunities and is important for the growth and positioning of your architecture.

Changing attitude

While previously architectural export was mainly inspired by a commercial logic and related to our metals industry, in times of globalization the cards are played differently.

A changing attitude is noticeable among young architects and, on a more global scale, among young professionals. More than ever, people are continuously in motion and open towards new and other experiences. They are less stay-at-home and they think and act beyond borders and disciplines. Flexibility and internationalization are self-evident for the young generation and will become common property in the near future.

The new communication tools give access to worldwide collaborations and exchanges of thoughts in a very fast way – an evolution, which will only be strengthened in the years to come.

Working abroad

When working abroad, local anchorage is the keyword, both in terms of the project and site analysis and the way of collaboration.

Above all we need to grasp the importance of a profound investigation of the local culture, site and context, of offering an answer to the specific place and the social need.  This investigation also comprises research about the local climate and natural environment as well as construction methods and resources.

Local collaboration is essential to achieve success. Each project is a result of teamwork of different building partners, including clients and end users, who should all respect each other during the entire process.

Architectural export for beginners

In order to gain success abroad, a strong strategy and a profound preparation are essential. Internationalization requires an intense approach. Everyone within the organization should be convinced of the importance of export.

Projects abroad can be granted in different ways: through international publications and competitions, through the demand of a Belgian client with an international project or simply through a concurrence of events.

Attendance to seminaries and colloquia, economic missions abroad, keeping contacts with colleagues … are useful efforts to strengthen your presence in a foreign country.

Despite the European-steered regulation, architecture contracts greatly differ in terms of fees, responsibilities, ...  Hence the intense efforts and investigation of G30 into the uniformity of contracts.

Establishing a stabile presence abroad is also important. Depending on the case and on the projects, this local presence can take on two forms.

In many cases it is interesting in the first phase to set up a temporal partnership with a local architect or study partner, who has the knowledge of local regulations and procedures. The choice of a local foreign partner who shares the same architectural vision is of upmost importance. However, unless the assignment was initiated on demand of the local partner, the search for the ideal match on unknown territory is far from easy.

Governmental organizations like Flanders Investment & Trade, Brussels Export and Wallonie-Bruxelles Architectures offer support in identifying possible partners, in facilitating international contacts and collaboration and in general advice and insight in the way of conducting business in a foreign country.

In a more advanced stage, if the extent of the project allows it, or when several assignments are granted, opening a local office becomes useful. In many cases, this is a logical and even mandatory second phase in the internationalization process. This enables architects to coordinate running projects, to guarantee speed of service and to actively search for new challenges.

External condition: governmental support

Caused by the European publication of adjudications, as well as the craving of our Flemish ‘Bouwmeester’ for international names, foreign architects are granted assignments in large numbers. Although this cross-pollination is often interesting for our country and our architectural ambitions, the brains and creativity of young, Belgian talent is sometimes neglected.

In the Netherlands and France the government and architectural organizations have created structures to put architects in the picture abroad. In Belgium however, the governmental guiding is minimal. In contrast to other export areas there is no global strategy for Belgian architecture abroad. However, a legal framework and organizational support are a must to put Belgian architects on the international map. The government should estimate their knowledge at its true value and grasp the Belgian specificity. The general interest in Belgian architecture has improved during the last decade and should be increased even more.

The lack of an adequate policy is also partly due to the enormous fragmentation of resources. Moreover the financial support that is occasionally granted is usually not in proportion to the efforts to obtain them.

Internal condition: ambition and pride

The intensification of Belgian architectural export also requires that we as architects search our own hearts by bringing ambition and pride to the light. Belgian architects are far too modest.

This is partly due to our very strict regulation, not only on an architectural but also on a deontological level. In Belgium, designs have to be executable in the first place and if something goes wrong, the architect is held responsible together with the executer. This creates our modest, but also practical and durable architecture.

In Belgium, architects have the highest public liability in Europe, together with France. This feeling of liability continues to exist beyond borders. This professional mentality and attitude make Belgian architects sought after abroad.

Another important asset of Belgian architects is that they can deal with limited budgets and are able to realize contextual architecture, taking into account the soul of the place, relying on a very high professional knowledge.

We can export our vision, our approach, experience and know-how rather than a specific ‘object’ style.

Conclusion

The question whether or not it is a necessity for architects to export, will depend upon one’s personal ambitions. However, the fact that Belgian architects work with foreign employees, partners and clients on a regular basis is indisputable.

The different players in the export field (architects and their partners of the construction sector, academic people, real estate developers and representatives of governmental organizations) should throw in a joint effort to put Belgian architecture in the picture abroad. This presumes a preliminary reflection on the specific practice of the discipline abroad and the specificity of Belgian agencies. Convincing clients of the value of Belgian architecture and the know-how that is linked to it, will take time.

On the other hand the Belgian permit policy should offer more room for expression and renewal on specific places, where the rhythm of the urban context allows it, and not only for projects by foreign architects.

Projects abroad require more effort than projects underneath the church tower. But they are certainly worth the challenge, they are enriching and they may become a necessity in the future.

Let’s all join our strengths to make Belgian architecture a love brand!

 

For the story of Conix Architects’ experience in China, please read the book ‘Belgium Beyond Expectations. The Belgian EU Pavilion at World Expo Shanghai 2010’ by Moniek Bucquoye, Christine Conix, Hanne Buelens, Rika Devos, Nathalie Huygens and Lian Verhoeven, ASP Editions, ISBN 9789054877684, 144 p.

 

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