Double or Nothing

publisher: AA publications/ Bozar books

available here

Hidden Programme (book extract)

Among the new talents who have recently appeared on the European architectural scene, the Brussels practice 51N4E holds a singular, even paradoxical, position. In little more than a decade, they have built up a significant body of work spanning the whole discipline. And yet their identity remains fluid. It’s true that their buildings are hard to decipher, displaying none of the classic external markers of contemporary architecture – those games of form and material, those spatial manipulations or technological feats – that have enabled other young practices to construct an easily identifiable image in the space of a few years. Indeed, for 51N4E, the opposite seems to apply: apart from a few rare exceptions, their preference is for a measured architectural expression, sometimes at the limits of neutrality. More problematically, within the list of projects it is difficult to find the coherence – the obvious common thread – that characterises an ‘oeuvre’. Quite the reverse, apparently: the sheer diversity of the proposals seems to suggest fluctuating architectural positions. But let’s be clear: this coherence does exist, even if it is not expressed as an easily recognisable style. One cannot hope to understand the relevance of the work of 51N4E – to discover what makes them an exception in the current architectural climate – solely by considering their projects from the outside. In order to uncover the value of each proposal, to find the common denominator in their apparently heterogeneous output, one has to delve deep into their approach – which is fairly complex, as we shall see. The first step is to make explicit the basis of their conception of architecture, which is rarely shared today. To put it bluntly: faced with the limitations, and sometimes the arrogance, of a self-referential architecture, 51N4E are proposing to put urban and social issues back at the heart of the architectural intervention.


Changing the Paradigm

When Johan Anrys, Freek Persyn and Peter Swinnen set up 51N4E in 1998 they were concerned to challenge the marginalisation of the architect as ‘a designer’. Rather than the architectural object, they have taken contemporary social and urban reality as their focus. The point, for them, is not to embellish this reality with beautiful artefacts, but to find ways of affecting its performance, triggering new social relations. What 51N4E are proposing is a change in the paradigm of the architectural project. Against the dominant trend of the past 20 years – which has been to overexpress the materiality of architecture – they are proposing a return to a narrative approach founded on a response to the major social issues of today: the shrinking of the public domain, the growth of individualism, isolation, communitarianism. Rather than producing glittering artefacts, they prefer to elaborate strategies and scenarios that will extend the relations between the public and the private spheres, encourage meetings and events, modify patterns of behaviour. This comes down to devising spatial organisations that are also (perhaps primarily?) vectors of change in daily life. To develop this approach they have chosen a territory and a method. The territory is contemporary urban reality: from the high stakes of the metropolis to the banality of its outskirts, even to the triviality of a single house. The scale is of little importance: any situation is an opportunity for intervention, for transformation. Their method: experimentation. ‘We as urbanists will [have to] make a statement about some of these realities. Those realities (buildings, infrastructure, cityscape, landscape, etc) are like so many givens that cannot be evaded and should no longer be taken for granted … but forced open and subjected to an unrelenting experiment.’ What results is a multiplicity of experiments, propositions, each one different as it responds to specific givens: not only programme and site, but also social or even political situations. This explains the impression of incoherence given by the practice’s work. Its underlying coherence, however, can be found by digging deep into each project, reconstituting its journey from initial brief to the intervention– a complex process involving the posing of questions, formulation of objectives and elaboration of strategies.



The simplest thing is to begin at the beginning with their first projects, modest commissions – for the conversion of a farmhouse, the planning of a housing estate, the reorganisation of a provincial museum – that became a kind of ‘manifesto’ for an alternative approach to architecture. One of their very first proposals, Allotment Athletica, dates from 1998. The brief: to devise a new typology for 35 individual houses and a community building on the outskirts of a Flemish town. Their response: to leave open to the inhabitants their choice of house but to encircle the plot with a surprising collective space: an athletics track on the same loop as an access road, the one separated from the other only by their different surfaces. More than any long speech, this proposal makes explicit the position of the architects: instead of aestheticizing reality (in this instance by designing individual houses), it is necessary to face up to the banality of this reality, the urban periphery. The substitution of a generous mixed public space for the usual meagre service road around the housing development represents an attempt both to transform the relations and behaviour within a small community and to give it a strong identity that raises it above the general banality of the periphery. Achieving such effects calls for bold interventions, unfettered by routine ways of thinking. Of necessity it means being disruptive, even provocative. But, for all this, it does not require sophisticated methods. After all, a double loop, one part surfaced in asphalt, the other a pliable athletics track, is a job for the highways department. As we will see, 51N4E are experts at this dialectic of maximum provocation by minimum means.


Short Stories

Allotment Athletica is emblematic of the way in which 51N4E will address a contemporary social issue and produce a powerful, condensed response which at first sight may seem unsettling or incongruous but which reveals its relevance once it is analysed. The issue here revolves around the relations between individualism (the house) and community (the housing development). This same radicalism resurfaces in many of their projects. In their conversion of a farmhouse, a black pond – serving as a swimming pool and a water feature – was placed like a piece of furniture in the centre of the courtyard (rather than hidden in the back garden), generating a new and ambiguous relation between public and private spheres, as well as creating a central space around which the other rooms are arranged (Outgaarden 1998–2001). More recently, a simple 12mm-thick steel wall, placed around an existing house, its inner surface painted white, was enough to overturn the notion of interior /exterior and to transform the old living room into a hybrid space – half private, half public art gallery (Arteconomy 2003–09). It is not important to give more examples. What’s more relevant here is to note the strong narrative dimension infusing each project. Starting from a given situation, 51N4E will construct open scenarios, elaborate strategies, use fiction to escape the bounds of reality and instigate as many small events as lasting changes. In fact, I have always thought that the way 51N4E develop a project displays similarities or affinities with the short story. The preferred means of expression of several great writers, this is not a minor literary form, even if part of its quality resides in its concision, which reinforces its effect in the reader’s memory. Two essential elements define the short story: its focus on a particular situation, and its surprising outcome. These same two aspects often characterize the work of 51N4E. And they seem to want to put us on this track, suggest this connection, with the evocative titles they give to some of their projects: ‘Dubbelcafedouble’ sums up the surreal character of a brief that asked for a café that was Flemish but also international, traditional but also innovative; ‘La Théorie du Balcon’ describes a digression form the Mayor of Brussels’ proposal for a tower project, ‘Troubleshooter’s Stress’ the transformation of an industrial structure into a cultural centre.


First the Programme, then the Programme-bis

Rereading the body of work reveals a common thread linking these ‘short stories’ and gives an undeniable coherence to this experimental work. Again the parallel with the short story is not without significance. Just as a writer, through scenes of daily life, explores the human characters and passions, so 51N4E in project after project explore different situations of contemporary reality and test strategies for action. To the initial programme formulated by the client, 51N4E add – and in some cases substitute – a programme-bis that relates to this hidden theme of contemporary urban and social reality. In each case, the ambition is to help shape patterns of behaviour, encourage interaction, enrich social relations. In fact, the presence of this ambition can be discerned in nearly of all their projects. Sometimes it imposes itself in a peremptory fashion, as in Allotment Athletica with its radical intervention into public space. Or again in the project for the NoKa Block in Tirana, where the architects turn an urban block inside out like a glove, inverting solid and void. In place of the traditional typology, where the empty heart of the block defines the built perimeter around it, they substitute a dense heart, distributing the voids through the perimeter to form spaces of interaction with the wider neighbourhood. More generally, their constant objective is to create places, spaces provoking situations of encounter, inciting unforeseen events. At Malines, the first floor of a former brewery (LAMOT) is conceived as a multi-purpose facility that is directly linked to the urban space – a public place where the various users of the building – whether they’re passersby or diners in the restaurant – cross paths. In the design for a tower in Tirana, Albania, the creation of a public space was given the same weight as the relationship with the neighbouring buildings and the capture of light. And the architects battled to ensure that the gallery occupying the lobby is not closed to the public but rather fused with the city. In a recent project in the north of France, for a technical school inserted into former industrial hangars, they not only organised the complex like a city, multiplying the meeting points for different users, but transferred certain buildings (gym, student halls of residence) outside the boundary of the school, to set up connections with the local community.


La machine à douter

At the heart of the process of design, 51N4E have inserted an element of doubt. Everything is subjected to interrogation, to continual questioning, to the point that the office can be seen as a ‘machine à douter’, a questioning machine. This is not a formalized procedure, but rather a general attitude that is an integral part of their personal engagement. It is firstly the programme that is submitted to questioning. Far from being considered as an intangible given, the brief formulated by the client is studied with care, in search of the hidden, often unexpressed implications. In one of their first projects, the conversion of a former brewery (LAMOT 2000–05), they managed to convince the client, the municipality of Malines, to abandon the original idea for a modern art museum (the collection was of minor interest) and to sanction the creation a multipurpose cultural centre for the town. In Brussels, in rue de la Loi, they persuaded a political party not to relocate but rather to renovate their headquarters, a 1960s building, and, while they were at it, to convert the ground floor into a mixed space. In place of the old entrance hall (which was reduced in size and moved to one side) they put in a comfortable café (WET89), open to the public, which also serves as an extension to the meeting rooms situated to the rear. More generally, and more profoundly, what is being questioned is the project in its entirety, with all its implications – programmatic and urban, social and symbolic. They are asking what is at stake or, as they put it, what is the ‘urgency of the project’. I like this formulation, as it reveals all the tension, and not only the attention, that goes into the investigation of a brief or a situation. Two examples. For Allotment Athletica, what was most urgent – the design of a new type of individual house, or the functioning of the plot as an urban collective? For the  reorganisation of Skanderbeg Square in Tirana, was it to provide the capital of Albania with an emblematic, spectacular space, or to return this monumental public space to a human scale? We can see here what is essential about this process of questioning. It does not serve only to reformulate or transform the initial brief; it is not only a guide to defining the response strategy. More than this, it is the tool that enables them to explore ways of making the project a vector that will act on reality, transform it. The doubting is in some way the expression of an intuition – a sense that a true potential to act on reality is somehow concealed both in the brief and in the urban and or social situation. For 51N4E the doubting comes also from a kind of anxiety, a feeling of deficiency: does the strategy or proposal go far enough – are there no other possibilities? As the expression of a lack of satisfaction, doubt is a motor for creativity, a stimulus to push the limits of architecture, to explore new solutions and strategies, to depart from the usual schemes.


Strategies versus Objects

The objectives that are fixed in this way cannot be achieved through the classic process of developing a ‘project’, which generally comes down to analyzing programme and site and then designing an object. Instead, elaborating strategies seems a better way of accommodating the diversity of the pursued goals. If strategy is this military art of manoeuvring armies right up to the point where they enter into contact, our architects see themselves, on the more peaceful terrain of urban space, as strategists putting in place mechanisms that are going to stimulate contact, lead to events, possibly create friction, but participate in the urban and social dynamic in every way. These strategies are at times complex, requiring the deployment of several mechanisms. The renovation of the Groeningemuseum in Bruges is a remarkable illustration of this. On the one hand, an adroit reorganisation of the rooms has set up a double route through the museum, permitting a sort of scenography of flux where the paths of the art lover and the simple visitor cross. This reorganisation acknowledges the dual nature of museums in contemporary society – as both a place of contemplation and a tourist destination. On the other hand, the viewer’s relation to the works of art is destabilised by the varied hanging of the paintings, the installation of seats and furniture, and the creation of a distinct identity for each room (by varying lighting schemes as well as the wall and floor coverings).


Positive Destabilisation

It is not revealing much to say that some of 51N4E’s proposals are surprising, and can be seen as provocative. To go back to the Groeningemuseum in Brussels: is this not an attempt to desanctify art and the museum, with its floors covered in sanitary ceramics, its precious fifteenth-century painting propped on a table, its huge steps in the middle of a room for people to clamber on as they wish? Or with the conversion of a house in the country (Arteconomy), how could the enclosure of the house behind a steel wall, suppressing its principal and unique charm – the view of a beautiful rural landscape – not be considered as anything other than the gesture of an egotistical architect? If they are sometimes surprised at the reactions their work provokes – ‘What some people find scandalous, I even find sensitive’ – this does not prevent the architects from slipping disruptive elements into their projects. They consciously provoke uncomfortable situations, as for example with the massive concrete facade panels for the tower in Tirana which only let you see the horizon through a narrow horizontal slit. Sometimes the sense of unease is not immediately felt, but emerges only with a growing awareness of the presence of an anomaly. In the conversion of a mining structure into a cultural centre (C-Mine), the upper part of the main theatre contains large openings that establish a connection with the external platform surrounding it. The arrangement sets up interesting relations between these two spaces, with the theatre auditorium being perceived as a covered public space. But this 360˚ opening can also unsettle the spectators. In some respects the architects seem to be following the injunction of Pablo Picasso: ‘You must wake people up. Overturn their way of identifying things.’ But whereas the Catalan artist proposed making ‘unacceptable images’ to force people ‘to understand that they are living in a strange world, a world that is not reassuring, not how they imagine it’, 51N4E are concerned less with denouncing reality than with revealing and exploiting the potential hidden within it. If established patterns of perception and behaviour are upset, it is a temporary measure, giving them time to discover the new situation, the new possible order of things. It forms an obstacle, a ‘cultural barrier’ that it is necessary to cross if the elaborate strategy is to unfold its effects – an approach that finds more ready adherents among private owners (WET89, Arteconomy) than public bodies (Allotment Athletica).


A Minimum of Architecture

If there is destabilisation, it does not arise as a result of untested forms, complex geometries, spectacular instabilities, unusual materials. 51N4E resist this excess of formalism and use simple methods, with a reduced palette of architectural or urban techniques. The devices they use are elementary (even if they sometimes conceal sophisticated technologies), with form being reduced to its minimum. While simple, they are sufficient to effect the maximum transformations, both spatial and behavioural. What could be more common or banal, for example, than an athletics track, a swimming pool, a 12mm-thick sheet of metal, a platform surrounding a theatre, a flattened pyramid? And yet these things have changed the status of a suburban site (Allotment Athletica), tied together dispersed spaces (Outgaarden), turned an ordinary house extension project into a space of extraordinary generosity (Arteconomy), meshed a former mining infrastructure into the fabric of a town (C-Mine), reconciled the rigidity of the monumental with the fragility of daily life in the main square of the capital of Albania (Skanderbeg Square). 51N4E display a sort of resistance towards design. It’s clearly not because they are unskilled at playing with materials – the kitchen at Outgaarden, a cube of marble and Corian, testifies to their subtlety. So is it because they fear being contaminated by those self-referential architectures that have invaded our urban space (and the magazines)? Whatever the case, the form that their projects take refusing all effects, is extremely sober. But let’s not be mistaken: this is not a case of minimal architecture, but of a minimum of architecture – which is one way of respecting the urban reality they have chosen as their field of investigation. The manner in which their project for the tower in Tirana, Albania responds to the local climate – physical as well cultural – shows their extreme sensitivity, their profound sympathetic understanding of the context. They have anticipated the warning that the philosopher Slavoj Žižek gave in a recent lecture: ‘Recall William Butler Yeats’ well-known lines: I have spread my dreams under your feet, tread softly because you tread on my dreams. They refer also to architecture, so my warning to architects is: when you are making your plans, tread softly because you tread on the dreams of the people who will live in and look at your building.’


Dominique Boudet