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From skateboards to skyscrapers

Text Gwaldys Fouche
Images JDS Architects, Nikolaj Møller

Belgian architect Julien De Smedt first found his place in the urban environment as a skateboarder – now he’s transforming how we live in it

Julien De Smedt is a prodigy. Aged just 32, this Brussels native is already an acclaimed architect, with a Golden Lion from the Venice Biennale under his belt. He also manages his own firm – his second – which employs 35 people. In contrast, most of his colleagues have to wait until they’re middle aged to get a modicum of recognition or the chance to become independent.

“It’s true that in this business you’re a young architect when you’re 50,” smiles De Smedt as he welcomes us into his office on a snowy Sunday in Copenhagen. Situated in the Nørrebro district, at the back of a quiet residential courtyard, JDS Architects looks more like a trendy design collective than a successful architectural firm. Huge paintings by the Belgian graffiti artist Pablo Gonzalez adorn the walls, De Smedt’s desk is separated from the others by a bright yellow plastic curtain, and hip young things in funky T-shirts are hard at work. De Smedt, who is Belgian on his mother’s side and French on his father’s, is wearing a black hat and skinny jeans.

The young architect has built his reputation on several projects, among them the VM housing blocks, completed in Copenhagen in 2005. One of the buildings is V-shaped and features fun triangular balconies, while the other is M-shaped and has smooth façades. “They were shaped that way as they afforded the best views and light, given the environment,” explains De Smedt. They also look fun and playful. “I think of them as a three-dimensional game of Tetris,” he says.

He designed the buildings together with the Danish architect Bjarke Ingels. The two met while working for the renowned Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas in the late 90s. They left, originally to direct a movie together. “We got some funding from [Danish director] Lars Von Trier’s production company, which is why we came to Copenhagen,” explains De Smedt. “But the project fell through and we went back to what we knew.”

They founded their firm, called Plot, in 2001 and parted ways in 2006 to concentrate on their own projects – but not before they had designed acclaimed schemes such as the Copenhagen Harbour Baths, which allow local residents to swim in the super-clean waters of the Danish capital. The Maritime Youth House, also in Copenhagen, is a space shared by a sailing club and a youth club, where the soft-curved wooden deck serves both as an outdoor playing area and a storage space for boats. It’s also reflective of one of De Smedt’s inspirations: skateboarding.

“I think skateboarding is the reason why I became an architect,” he reckons. “I spent seven years as a teenager in the streets of Shaerbeek, a colourful district of Brussels, as part of this culture of hip hop singers and graffiti artists.

As a skateboarder, you do slides and grinds on surfaces like concrete, metal or wood. You’re constantly learning about the environment around you and you make real use of it. You learn how to deconstruct while, as an architect, you learn how to recreate.”

Skateboarding also made him aware of the need to create buildings that are inclusive. For instance, the design of a concert hall in the Norwegian city of Stavanger, which won him and Ingels the Golden Lion for best concert hall in 2004, allows for activities such as film screenings and shows to be held outside the venue. “I always try to bring an added value to a project, so that everyone can enjoy the new building, not just the people using it,” he explains.

These are some of the projects that have brought De Smedt acclaim in the world of architecture. Days before we meet, De Smedt was in Barcelona giving a lecture and was supposed to fly to China the day after for another round of public speaking. “Unfortunately, my neck is killing me and I have to stay here,” he says. But he won’t be idle, as he has many projects on his plate.

Among them is the development of a 1,000-flat housing scheme in Toronto, Canada, that will surround a huge silo with shard-like blocks of flats and three-dimensional green spaces in front. Another is a floating island with soft, rolling lines, akin to a rollercoaster. It’s being developed as a spa resort, but you can imagine other uses for it. “My projects all have a subject, they’re not aesthetic achievements or genius coups with no grounding in reality,” explains De Smedt. “They are studies that can be adapted to different environments and conditions, so they can be easily exported.”

Perhaps his most important project is that of the ‘vertical city’, a glass tower mixing housing and indoor public parks. “Housing promoters offer terraces on condominium projects as a luxurious option, but they’re usually too small and if they’re 30m off the ground, they become unusable because of the wind,” he explains. “Instead, I want to create common indoor parks that can be used year round. You could have a barbecue in December, for instance. They would also be naturally ventilated and you could have turbines that provide free energy.”

The environment is an important concern, too. “Green building is the current buzzword in architecture, with every project having to respect guidelines such as good insulation. But you can imagine that these buildings, in addition to being sustainable in a passive way, could be actively sustainable by creating their own energy. For instance, you could have buildings with windmills. That’s one of the things we’re working on.”

One project De Smedt is particularly excited about is the opening of an office in Brussels this past New Year’s Eve. “The thing that drew me away from Brussels, a sense of stagnation in the city, seems to be disappearing. There are signs of renewed energy, with young architects opening offices and fashion designers moving in from Antwerp… things are happening in Brussels.”

FR Le skateboard, piste d’envol pour l’architecture

Julien de Smedt est un prodige du monde de l’architecture. A l’âge de 32 ans, cet originaire de Bruxelles s’est déjà fait un nom, couronné par un Lion d’Or à la Biennale de Venise. Il gère également son propre bureau, situé dans le quartier trendy de Nørrebro à Copenhague.

Cet architecte a bâti sa réputation sur différents projets, dont l’immeuble de logements VM, terminé à Copenhague en 2005, conçu en partenariat avec l’architecte danois Bjarke Ingels. Les deux se sont rencontrés lorsqu’ils travaillaient pour l’architecte hollandais de renom Rem Koolhaas, dans les années 90.

Ensemble ils ont dessiné d’autres réalisations fameuses, telles la Piscine du Port à Copenhague tout comme la Maritime Youth House, où les ponts en bois courbés servent à la fois d’aire de jeux et d’espace de stockage pour les bateaux. Cette construction reflète l’une des sources d’inspirations de De Smedt : le skateboard.

“Lorsque j’étais jeune adolescent, j’ai passé sept ans dans les rues de Schaerbeek, à Bruxelles, où je faisais partie de cette culture de chanteurs hip hop et d’artistes taggeurs. Je baignais dans un environnement où l’on apprend constamment du monde qui vous entoure, en en faisant vraiment usage.”

La pratique du skateboard lui a également fait prendre conscience du besoin de créer des bâtiments intégrés. Par exemple, le design d’un hall de concert à Stavanger, Norvège, qui lui a valu ainsi qu’à Ingels le Lion d’Or en 2004, offrait la possibilité d’inclure des activités comme visionner un film en dehors de l’espace de concert.

L’environnement s’inscrit également dans ses préoccupations. “Les bâtiments pourraient être durables non seulement de manière passive mais également active en créant leur propre énergie. On pourrait imaginer dans ce sens des immeubles avec des moulins à vent.”

De Smedt est particulièrement enthousiaste sur un nouveau bureau à Bruxelles, ouvert lors du Réveillon de 2007. “Ce qui me retenait au début, un certain esprit de stagnation dans la ville, semble s’éloigner. Les signes de renouveau se multiplient, avec de jeunes bureaux d’architecture qui ouvrent, des stylistes de mode qui émigrent d’Anvers vers Bruxelles … Les choses bougent.”

NL Van skateboard tot wolkenkrabber

Julien de Smedt is een van de nieuwe genieën in de architectuur. Hoewel nog maar 32, kaapte deze Brusselaar op de Biënnale van Venetië al een Gouden Leeuw weg. Bovendien heeft hij zijn eigen firma in de trendy Kopenhaagse wijk Nørrebro.

Hij maakte naam met verschillende prestigieuze projecten, zoals de VM woonblokken in Kopenhagen, voltooid in 2005, die hij samen met de Deense architect Bjarke Ingels ontwierp. De twee ontmoetten elkaar in de jaren 90 toen ze voor de beroemde Nederlandse architect Rem Koolhaas werkten.

Samen hebben ze nog bekroonde projecten verwezenlijkt, zoals het Copenhagen Harbour Bath en het Maritime Youth House, eveneens in Kopenhagen, waar het golvende houten dek zowel speelruimte als opslagplaats voor boten is. Het verraadt meteen een van De Smedts inspiratiebronnen, namelijk het skateboarden.

“Ik bracht als tiener zo’n zeven jaar door in de straten van Schaarbeek, in Brussel. Ik maakte er deel uit van de lokale hiphop- en graffiticultuur. Daarbij leer je je onmiddellijke omgeving goed kennen en gebruik je die ook echt.”

Door het skateboarden ontdekte hij ook de behoefte aan ‘inclusieve’ gebouwen. Zo bood het ontwerp van een concertgebouw in het Noorse Stavanger, waarmee hij en Ingels in 2004 de Gouden Leeuw wonnen, de mogelijkheid om activiteiten als filmvertoningen buiten de zaal te organiseren.

Ook het leefmilieu vindt hij belangrijk. “Gebouwen zouden niet alleen passief maar ook actief duurzaam kunnen zijn, door bijvoorbeeld hun eigen energie te creëren. Zo denk ik aan gebouwen met eigen windmolens.”

De Smedt is opgetogen over een nieuw kantoorgebouw in Brussel, ingehuldigd op oudejaarsavond 2007. “De stagnatie die me de stad deed ontvluchten, lijkt stilaan te verdwijnen. Er is steeds meer nieuwe energie voelbaar, met jonge architectenbureaus die hun deuren openen en modeontwerpers die van Antwerpen naar Brussel verhuizen. Brussel beweegt weer!”

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