Freek Persyn in conversation with Tibor Bielicky, 2017


A conversation with Freek Persyn of the Brussels-based office 51N4E on influences, the office’s work, the many projects in Albania and their publication How Things Meet. The conversation took place at the banks of the Rhine in Kleinbasel,Basel, March 28th, 2017. Originally published in Planphase, Learning From, Issue number 7 (Summer 2018). Order the full issue here.

T: Thank you very much for taking me here. Normally we do interviews in cafés or offices. What a great idea to meet here.

F: That is a real generosity of European cities. Public spaces are a real structural value.

T: I would like to start off with the past. You studied at Sint-Lukas in Brussels. How did the school and its professors influence your work and also you as a teacher?

F: Well, the school of Sint-Lukas – in other countries often called an Arts and Crafts school – is very close to the arts, very close to the humanities, not as a science, but more as a principle. When I was studying there, a lot of the teachers were coming out of the ’68 movement. But you had also teachers like Xaveer De Geyter who was linked to OMA. So you had a very interesting mix of people and an environment that triggered you to experiment and to try out things. A kind of trial and error-school. This kind of principles were enhanced by the fact that the school moved to a new building which wasn’t fitted out at the time that I was there. It was a bit like the school of Lacaton & Vassal in Nantes, just platforms. That really generated a very good atmosphere in the group that I was in. Then, you had teachers like Luc Deleu who was combining a vision on society, with the idea of producing something, making something which embodies that vision. The combination of these three things made it a very interesting environment. I also studied abroad and profited from the Erasmus program, just like many others. I think it is a really good program and I’ve heard that they will open it up for professionals or let’s say education outside of university, which would be a great thing to do. For example carpenters will start to move around Europe - that could really make a difference.

T: What do you think about being labeled a Flemish architect or generally speaking what do you think about labels like Flemish or SuperDutch, evoking some kind of fashion in architecture?

F: I think the labelling has a lot to do with a political process that is behind it. For instance the labelling of the SuperDutch, I think was clearly a political branding campaign, kind of a strategy to conquer foreign markets. In Flanders it was more of a strategy to build Flanders as an entity, to put the culture and identity on the map. I think it was more inward-looking than the SuperDutch, more an idea of constructing something.
So this whole Flemish scene is very much part of the dismantling of the Belgian state and the empowering of the regions, therefore these regions could also suddenly have their own cultural program and a few people reacted to that: People like Bob Van Reeth who inspired politicians. They where also ready to be inspired because they saw that they could legitimize their projects through arts, through architecture and by building new cultural centers and new public spaces. So the Flemish scene is very much linked to that although a lot of the projects are not directly initiated by the government. It has a lot to do with a kind of renaissance of the city centers. They were again being recognized as quality spaces and I think a lot of the Flemish projects were built in that momentum.

T: The Flemish architects are using generic material and elements of the everyday as a form of trademark. I don’t want to go too far but architects like Robert Venturi were also using generic references and so did Frank Gehry. Although this was not attractive to everyone, for example Gehrys neighbors were really disturbed when he built his own house. Maybe referring to the title of this issue, Learning from, this could be related to the generic in general, like learning from what surrounds you everyday. In your work I see that the generic might have an influence and I was wondering what you think about this statement?

F: I think that is very true. There are different ways to touch people. In our work, I guess intuitively, there is a big interest in creating situations that people can relate to so that they can also relate to the manipulation that you do, as an architect. They somehow experience that something is happening and they are addressed as a user and as a citizen. That is something that I like about architecture and what I also like about performances or dancing - that it is very physical. It’s about rhythm and about proximity and architecture,it is something that allows people to go through an experience and that is a very powerful thing. In the C-Mine project we used this red and white tile, actually a kitchen tile, but we used it because it is a very tough material and by extending the kitchen tile, it combines both: the domestic and the monumental. It is clear that this domestic aspect is recognizable for everyone and that is something you understand without having studied architecture. So it relates to you and to the fact that everyone has a kitchen. It’s more a sublime reference. The ones that Gehry and especially Venturi started to use at a certain point, were often very literal. They were focussing more on the iconographic rather than the experience. I think what we try to do in our work is to take something which is recognizable, something you can relate to, but something that also changes its behavior and that’s a thing that generates an experience. It is this experience that the people relate to emotionally. You can do that very well by using things that are very recognizable.

T: Let’s talk about the book you just published, titled HOW THINGS MEET. The book is divided into two parts: photographs of Stefano Graziani combined with short stories of Falma Fshazi and in the second part you feature a chronic of your Tirana projects. How did the collaboration between the three of you start?

F: The book grew very organically. We teamed up with Stefano and Falma to produce another perspective on the city of Tirana. It started with the idea of making a hotel book – it exists in two versions. We had in mind that you would sit in your hotel room, in a very luxurious hotel, in this city that is constantly trying to redefine itself and looking for an identity. And you take a look at the book and allow yourself to indulge in this peculiar transformation of Tirana. With Stefano, that link was very quickly made because he is someone who can look at architecture but is actually more interested in the stories behind the actual objects. He is someone who looks at relations and not at objects. We met Falma shortly before making that book. She is Albanian, studied in Turkey and lived part of her life in Paris. So she understood this inside-outside movement that is so present in Albania and she used to write speeches for Edi Rama, now the Prime Minister of Albania. In that sense she understood very well the complexity of the context, how things got together, the hopes and dreams and circumstances and so she took up the challenge to write these texts. Together with her, we pitched the proposal to a developer and he decided to co-invest in our book. The book is also an investment to us and the idea was to produce a kind of architectural leaflet to give background information for the pictures that you see. This leaflet grew to become a part that was equal in importance. A problem that we had was actually that we didn’t know which versions of the projects to put in, for instance if you look at the TID tower. When we were looking through our archive, there was no single document that represented the project in it’s current state because the project had developed so much that there was no set of plans that could have been used. All the plans existed in 3D but there was no physical set of plans. The idea to show the transformation of that project and to use this as a guideline came up as a result of this conflict. To be honest we’re often confronted with that problem particularly if a magazine asks us to provide plans of the tower.

T: In the book you show an image of a perfume flacon and right next to it is a conceptual sketch for the TID tower. This directness and honesty is quite unusual. Probably nobody would admit looking at a banal image in a magazine on the plane and say, „there it was, our inspiration“. Of course there is a lot more behind a concept, but you are definitely not afraid or shy to show how you work.

F: Yes, and what is especially interesting about this image is: going to Tirana, you feel that this world of luxury is something the people long for, something that they didn’t have for a long time - and it works on this level. You recognize the shape of a building with its visual analogy because a perfume bottle happens to have the same proportions like the shape you saw when working on the building regulation sections. You allow yourself to be very superficial about the use of an image. Then it is interesting to see what happened with this specific image when it has been misread. You can not read it in only one way, so out of this misreading comes a crystallizing of what you then start to do. It is a very playful approach.

T: Sort of letting people in the dark?

F: Letting yourself in the dark. Allowing yourself not to know everything from the very beginning, but to find out slowly.

T: The chronograph in the middle of the book is quite helpful to understand what you actually did in Albania and you can see how fast the years have passed. What did your office and you personally learn from that period of time and what can we learn from a city like Tirana?

F: First of all, you can learn that you shouldn’t look at architecture as a result. It’s more interesting to look at it as a start. People say: „the building is finished“, but you can also find another word for that: “the building is ready to be used“ or “ready to perform“. A building should allow for a lot of very small, daily inventions and for people to write their program, to have a certain generosity so that people get inspired and triggered. That is one part, but a second important thing that we learned is that the process of making something together as a team is actually an extremely interesting way of how to bring intelligence and sensibilities together. If you don’t claim the process of architecture for yourself and somehow make it available to others, the tangibility of the making allows for a lot of different insights to be fed into a project and this is only possible if you are smart in the kind of situation you set up around the making process.
For instance, the fact that we decided to make a mock-up of the tower, allowed us to integrate the perspective of the builder and his presence even in the discussions between us and the engineer. That is not possible when you do everything only with 3D-modeling because that is something they cannot read, at least not in Albania. On that mock-up site we were giving inputs on rebar, on the finishing and how to do things. So suddenly the circle of the people involved opened up because there was another format chosen, how to develop the details of the tower with the panelling and with the triangles. So this idea of inventing different formats and that these formats allow learning moments, that is something we learned from our experience there. Instead of protecting your design from attacks from outside, you really open it up and engage the people and that builds trust and it allows you to make things much more intelligent.

T: When speaking of teaming up, maybe you could tell me something about the role of Edi Rama in this process.

F: I think the power of Edi Rama comes from his extremely strong sense of what he thinks and feels should also be done. He trusts in that and at the same time he accepts that he doesn’t know how to do it but this doesn’t stop him at all. He then gives trust to people who help him to find out how things are to be done. We have been one of these people that have taken up his dream and worked with it and even developed his dream a step further because I don’t think that he could have imagined to build towers in Tirana like we did with the TID tower. The power of Edi Rama is this combination of vision and drive, and humility somehow.

T: Why humility?

F: Humility in the sense that he accepts that he doesn’t know everything, but he says that is not a reason not to try something. I think that’s a very humble type of communication. Brutally honest almost. But he enjoys the energy that he generates, so indeed, he accepts his own irrationality and if you look at his own office with his drawings on the walls, it’s also an invitation not to limit yourself, to do the right thing. Of course, the right thing doesn’t exist in Albania and hasn’t been invented yet. In that situation of no one really knowing what the right thing is, he has an amazing force to pitch ideas and to invite people to work with him on them. The developers and architects that he brought together for the TID towers were a very unlikely match but for him they were an only option and so he tried.

T: Did you have more opportunities of just letting things happen, when comparing building in Albania to building in Belgium? I imagine that at some point you have to let go of trying to control everything.

F: In that sense, Albania is an country where you can learn how to let go, but you do it like in improvisation theaters: you always say yes, but you turn it into your advantage. Once you start saying no, the dynamic blocks. If you keep on saying „Yes, but..“, you can really stir something in a certain direction. Albania is an example of how this kind of idea is inherently present. In the context of adaptive reuse it’s a condition with an attitude of active acceptance and this is a very productive way to imagine new values for building.

T: Are you planning to continue building in Albania?

F: This has always been an ongoing discussion. For now we have a strong team in Tirana which is partly Albanian, partly Belgian, plus we have built up a credibility. So, it looks like we will continue our work there and we would very much like to do that. I think the quality of some of the things we do there, is very high and for example the Skanderbeg Square will truly be amazing.

T: I think you did a very fantastic book, especially representing a country in change without glorifying the situation like it is done in other architecture publications. This documentary style is a kind of representation I really feel comfortable with. And what I also really like is that it is a readable book, it can be read like a graphic novel.

F: Indeed, this graphic novel quality is there. The narrative aspect is strong in presence. This is maybe the Belgian heritage. (Laughing)

T: My last question is a bit out of context: In your contribution to the San Rocco Book of Copies, your chapter was about elderly homes. You picked a picture of Lina Bo Bardi’s Casa de Vidro. I was wondering why you selected this image?

F: If I remember well – I’m not sure which selection survived – there was one picture of the glass house when it was build and one picture of the glass house when she was old. In the first image you have the open space, a lot of glass, you see the horizon. Then, in the last image, the trees have fully grown, they have become like a wallpaper and the house is full of objects and full of stuff. I just found it intriguing to see how that same space, inhabited by the same person, could change so dramatically. All the meanings somehow invert.

When I did the selection of elderly homes, I tried to look for the beauty of age. There is also a picture of Dominique Boudet, the owner of Villa Dall’Ava in Paris build by Rem Koolhaas, opening a side door. I think this house keeps Boudet mentally young. That’s something very important to remember, that when you talk about elderly homes, you shouldn’t only see it as a typology. It is not only about caring for people. I think, it’s also about enjoyment and about meeting other people. In general in an elderly home the perspective is completely absorbed by its manager, leaving actually very little space for the imagination of it’s inhabitants and their evolution. Even if the evolution is maybe considered an evolution backwards or even stagnant, I find it painful that these aspects are not considered and with my selection of images I tried to look for that beauty of the old.

There is also one image that I myself like the most. It is the picture of Albert Frey who built this house with a rock in the desert, somewhere in the States, Colorado Springs maybe. There is a house with an oxidized steel roof and then there is a huge rock and a glass box around it. It’s a very interesting house and you see the guy in his old age and he is wearing these pants that go up very high (laughing). He is such a beautiful person. I found it in a small book that is about him still living in that house, probably at the age of 90. Very beautiful.

T: Freek, thank you so much for this wonderful conversation.

F: I really enjoyed the topic of Learning from. To my understanding, learning is really the way how to add value to society, to incrementally learn. It’s my belief that architects should become less purely operational and more focused on the learning potential of projects, especially if we want to stop just adding building after building after building, but to reinvent in what already exists. I think, this will become one of the most important topics in the future.