Somewhere between the expression of our ego and our collective commitment

David Roulin's vision

"So, David, this vision? Is it yours or your practice’s?"
And there we are, right at the heart of the architect’s contradiction, somewhere between the expression of our ego and our collective commitment.

I do strongly believe we are stronger together than alone. Hence my commitment within Art & Build. This is also the reasoning behind the creation of a G30. The act of building in itself is de facto a collective work, isn’t it?

Let’s recap. In the beginning there was ... the Architect. At least that’s what our studies impressed upon us. The Architect: the great organiser of the world. The Humanist. The Master Architect. The Providential Man. “Sky is the limit”, some said. Perfect for the ego, that sort of talk! But the reality of our profession is a little less black and white and deserves to be dosed with a little humility.

We Belgian architects are recognised for our expertise, our spirit of synthesis and our commitment. This comes quite clearly through the G30’s charter of excellence. A lot of common sense and balanced conscience. And let’s face it: such a combination serves us well abroad! But is that enough to build the society of tomorrow?

The disobedience of the architect

Renzo Piano talks about “the disobedience of the architect". This is what we, Art & Build, refer to as prospective approach, duty to innovate, social responsibility.

The role of architects is essential in this domain. They have to be ready to listen to what the world has to say, to absorb like a sponge, to show empathy, to resonate. They must anticipate the development of technologies and welcome multidisciplinary sources of inspiration. Then, in order to create the conditions for a better life that is accessible to more people, architects have to show proof of creativity, expertise, to be capable of transcending the facts, to contextualise, to incite dreams. But they also have to be able to put themselves at risk, to question themselves, to put things into perspective, and to doubt even…

Oh dear, doubt? What’s that I hear you say? Look out! Surely, this is a word banned from the corporate dictionary. And yet in this age of Wikipedia, Twitter and 4G, who amongst us dares to think they know the truth? And even worse, who dares to impose it on others?

The architecture of void

In this sense, I like to talk about the ‘architecture of void’. The architect builds voids using solids and materials. Orchestrating them, he structures the voids to define the interior of building as well as the exterior. Of course, he also creates the quality of the building; organising it, choosing the right materials, structuring the light which lends quality to the spaces. All this requires talent. But it is within this void, once the work has been completed, that life will unfold, social relationships will form, there will be exchanges, and we will find urban organisation. Materials merely provide us with a means. The essential aspects take place elsewhere, beyond the materials, beyond solids. This is a way of thinking with humility.

Hence the notion of raising awareness. Man must be instructed, educated. When we talk about sustainability, for instance, we see it quite clearly: in practical terms it is not so much about standardising and certifying procedures than about changing the behaviour of those who will inhabit our buildings, and those who will exploit them and everyday lives in them. Technique is only a means. What is essential is to raise awareness.

The transmission of knowledge

Jacques Attali once said "The transmission of knowledge is a precondition of progress." That says it all. The need for progress is primal; a civilisation that does not progress goes into decline. There then follows the question of raising awareness through culture, knowledge and sharing.

The question of sharing knowledge leads us to the notion of collectivism. Access to this immaterial resource - knowledge - that is free and inexhaustible, is a development axis that should be the absolute priority of any government, company, or in our case, corporation. Nobody ever suffered from having too great an access to knowledge, and only those who hold power and are afraid to lose it would oppose such access.

The representative role of architects

Then, architects force themselves, in a manner of speaking, to transmit their knowledge and to raise awareness wherever they can. This may be in the context of their practice, while presenting to their clients, with public authorities, via individual initiatives (some of which are more successful than others), but always free of charge, born from pure conviction. That is what Belgian architects are like - a little philanthropic, and yet all the time complaining about an endemic lack of recognition of their profession.

But heavens, what do we expect? This is where we find the real challenge! We must form associations, admittedly, to be respected, fine, but to be seen, definitely. We must be seen everywhere, all the time, from primary schools to public spaces, at fairs. We must exhibit our work, and celebrate it with pride, enthusiasm and without calculating. We must reveal the fruits of our knowledge. For instance the one each of us has spending without counting during inept public procedures because of a lack of a true competitive culture in Belgium. Culture, forever.

Is it difficult, and even impossible, to organise ourselves collectively because architects serve their egos, first and foremost? Well, go and see the representative of the architects of the RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects) at the MIPIM, the next time you go to Cannes, and then let’s talk about this again.

Fraternal greetings,

David Roulin, senior partner Art &Build architect sa

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