NJME: Maarten Gielen / ROTOR

Maarten Gielen is, together with architects Tristan Boniver and Lionel Devlienger, one of the founding members of Rotor collective that operates in Brussels since 2005. In their activities, they combine practical, investigative and curatorial practices producing critical views towards usage and re-usage of material resources in building industry and architecture. In their view, architecture is above all an object of recycling. They approach it in the obverse phase of its process, that is, at the moment when it is to be transformed or demolished.

The collective develops its own economic activity in the “Rotor Deconstruction” company that deals with disassembly and re-selling of the building and architectonic materials that are to be demolished. What makes Rotor in their practice different from other demolition companies is their endeavor to find new strategies that could affect the life cycle of materials and shift them into new projects. That applies to legislature adjustments, approaching another potential subjects like real estate companies, urban developers, production companies, designers or architects, as well as to offering education and consulting services.

Rotor has founded Opalis, an online database, but they themselves design also interiors and this way they show how to re-contextualize second-hand elements and materials and how to endow them with new meaning and aesthetic value.

Rotor’s research activities often lead into exhibition projects done completely by the members of the group, starting with writing texts and catalog up to design and execution of installation. “Usus/usures,” one of the first shows that brought wider attention to the collective took place in Belgian pavilion at the Venice Biennale of Architecture in 2010. It was followed by the successful retrospective “OMA/Progress” and “Behind the Green Door” show as the part of Oslo Architecture Triennale in 2013.

The interview was done on the occasion of Maarten’s lecture in Prague and Brno in autumn of 2015.

Barbora Ševčíková

01 Bits and Pieces - lecture of Maarten Gielen

Maarten Gielen´s lecture - Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design in Prague - November 18, 2015.

02 23 questions and one diagonal answer - Interview with Maarten Gielen

1. When and why did you realize that you do not want to study at the university (for example architecture) and go directly to practice? Do you think it has some advantages that you came into the practice earlier?

 

I never really decided „not to study“, rather I always decided not to go to school next year. I was very lucky to very quickly start working with people that had studied architecture, so in a way Rotor is some kind of school. We learnt from one project to another. It is different approach. Rather than you start from a discipline, you start from a question. And then as you move forward you develop the tools that you need. Some of them are „architectural“ tools, some of them are questions related to legislation, some of them are engineering questions.

2. How was Rotor established?

 

I was working as a technician for diverse cultural projects and in the beginning your salary is often whatever is left over from the production budget. If you can manage to keep the production budget low you can actually earn something for the work you are doing. I was very interested in second hand material and I met Tristan Boniver who was also interested in working the similar way. We realised that it was a matter of having knowhow and sharing contacts and experience was a good way to acquire it. Shortly after we met we decided to establish Rotor as a kind of a shared tool box for our common interest and research. A few months later we met Lionel Devlieger, who was teaching architecture at the Gent University. From that time, we are working together up to now in the collective of 9 people.

3. How did you set up the organization and the structure of Rotor? What were your first activities and projects? Did you start as a small family company or a group of local researchers?

 

At the beginning, it was like a hobby that we were doing besides our jobs. I still was working as a technician. We all tried to find ways to work in Rotor with no need to being paid. We set up a non profit organization, which Rotor is still today, just as a way to manage the finances of the things we did together. At the beginning, when we started working we visited a lot of industrial companies, maybe hundred fifty in the first years. We were looking at the products that they produce, generate and the way they deal with stuff. We did a self-initiative project called RDF181 – which was the first construction project of our collective. This all was a kind of coincidence. I was walking home through the centre of Brussels one night and I saw the concrete structure built on an empty space after a building which was demolished maybe 30 years ago. It works as a temporary support structure for the building which stands next to it. We had a funny idea that we could use this concrete structure as a pedestal to build something on a top of it. We called the owner and he said after one meeting “ok, do it”. We had the permission to do it but we did not have any money. So we called a company that rents out scaffoldings for doing concrete pouring and they offered us to borrow the material for one year.
Everyone supported us – so now we had to do the project. It was our very first project and to our surprise it was published really a lot. It was even included in one of the Taschen book ‘Architecture now!’. We still publish pictures of the building today even if the project was there just for one year. The project became a kind of advertising for us and allowed us to do other projects.

4. Who are yours collaborators?

We are nine partners with very different profiles. Half of us are architects; others are designers, bio engineer and so on. In the beginning, we were following the principal that we took all the decisions on the basis of consensus. We did not vote and kept talking till everyone agreed. With more members we had to change the system. Today we work with cells, for each project there is always one or two members who take the final decision.
We have a few collaborators and also work with freelancers and a few students. After a while some are offered a more stable position. As the company is growing after last years, this structure is working well.

5. How has developed your vision in time? And in what sense has it changed?

Of course you can hope that your projects become more intelligent. Perhaps at the beginning, when we were doing research about industrial waste, we thought that industrial and big companies in general were dealing with it in a bad way and we might bring a completely new great „solution“. But after a while we realised that there is already a lot of intelligence in many systems and there are reasons why things are the way they are. So you get less naive, less fighting wind mills and more trying to understand what is going on. Thematically we evolved from working with industrial waste to being concerned with building and demolition subjects. Every project explores in its own direction but they are always thematically linked with other projects. When we were curating a monographic exhibition about an architecture office (OMA /Progress), it is totally not the same as organizing demolition sites but they start from the same points of interest.

6. How do you see countries with high architecture production – as China where a big amount of new corporate buildings were quickly built? Do you see it as an opportunity? Is this country interesting for your work?

I have not so much to say about it. What we are smart about is Brussels – and maybe four or six hundred kilometres around. We are trying to understand what is going on there and hopefully it is relevant for other people further away to see what we are finding out about it. But we did not work on booming economies. We are mostly concerned with the very static (shrinking) economy of Western Europe.

7. Did your studies bring what you expected?

No, I think we did not anticipate how very simple interests would explode into so many different sub-questions. Also, to see how other people work, continue, react or interpret the things we have been doing – it is quite a nice surprise.

8. Do you think you can affect people’s taste in objects? Is your marketing strategy educative in one way and cultivates the perception of materials?

Yes, I think you definitely can. Our economy is actually based on that idea. If you publish 20 000 posters of a nice girl wearing a blue sock on her head – it is going to have an effect. Not a direct one, but people cannot but take a position after this. You can be the one that adopts the blue sock or you can be the one that ignores it. In architecture the same phenomena are taking place. You can also find a mainstream audience that uses certain aesthetics to affirm certain political values. Or the other way around; certain political values that generate some form of aesthetics. In any case, the result is the same; people associate certain materials with certain environments and ideas. By changing the aesthetics or pushing them around a little bit you can raise questions on a political level.

9. What is the most requested product as a reclaimed material and what do you think it says?

It is very double. There is quite big audience for vintage modernism but the mainstream is still very much in rustique pre- Second World War materials like solid wood, natural stone or teaks. When you see it on an architectural level, the mass still prefers 19th century bourgeois Parisian house than a modernistic apartment in a big building. The mainstream has a hard time digesting the modernistic or postmodernistic projects. Even though there are a lot of collectors who are looking for vintage or early days industrial design.

10. Do you cooperate directly with architects?

Yes – we need to know which buildings are going to be demolished and we are sometimes consultants for architects. We also resell materials to them. Sometimes we are hired to work on a specific design questions related to salvage operations. Most architects are not equipped for planning and conceiving the logistics of reclaiming materials. We provide services that make the entire process easier.

11. Monument protection is the most common strategy for keeping the artistic and historical value of modern architecture, but at the same time the monument protection blocks further development of the building. When you defragment a building, you work with conscious value conservation. Do you think about it in this way? As a different way of keeping the architectural value?

I think that you are right in saying there is a very big lack of nuance in the way you can deal with modernistic architectural heritage. You have three options. You can protect it „entirely“, which means in most cases protecting the facade and some representational interior spaces. Or you can just keep the concrete / steel scelet or have a total building demolition. There are a very few options to negotiate between these three ways. I think material reuse on site or offsite is a good complement to these already existing strategies. But let’s not make a mistake. When a building needs to be preserved because of its significance, demounting it and mounting it again in a different place is always going to be disappointing in several ways. When you move a material from one place to another, you are always going to reinterpret it. Even if you try to do the most exact movement – one room to another room, it is a kind of reinvention of the space. Similarly, freezing a building in time is of course also a reinvention of the architecture.

12. Do you think this is a postmodern way of thinking? To put material into a different context?

It is difficult these days not to be postmodern, regardless of what you do. But more specifically, in the sense that we assign meaning to materials, I guess, that is maybe a postmodern strategy. But what does that mean? We are talking about the practice of reuse as something new and innovative. Whereas it has always existed in architecture. For some bureaucratic, economical and practical reasons there has just been a brief moment of maybe 50-60 years when it was more difficult. It is quite a spontaneous way of dealing with built environment. The current architecture practices have made it more difficult to do it today. But it has always been there. At one time it is classic and new strategy.

13. How do you perceive the social role of the collective Rotor? By what you contribute to a social discussion, as you think?

The first responsibility is the quality of the image that we produce. As an architect you are moving materials around.  They do not materialise from thin air– they have a physical impact on the world. They are never neutral, they are significant. As an architect you can pretend to ignore this significance but that does not reduce it. I think what we are trying to do is to take architecture seriously as a medium and a communication device. You can never fully control these significances, but rather than ignoring them, you can make use of it to color the projects you are doing. Thinking about materiality is not the only way to come to this result, but it is much underestimated way.

14. You have just received a Maaskantprijs from architectural society. Does this price respond to feedback that you have from the architectural society?

My colleague Tristan Boniver was reminding me something before we were going there. When we did an exhibition at the Venice Biennale, people that saw it said –“Oh, what a really nice exhibition. It reminds me about…” Our reaction was to try and correct them: “No, not at all!“ After a while we started thinking we did a wrong exhibition, since people were not getting it. We realised that a lot of exhibitions and works act as a kind of mirror. People project themselves on your work and they get back some kind of distorted image which is clearly coloured by their own projections. You can play with these mirrors. You can try to direct it. But we cannot fully master the way people see our work. The Maaskantprijs was decided by three people, they wrote a jury report and so on, but we will never know what they saw in our work.

15. What is the difference between the feedback from the architectural society and the answer that you get from the public?

We got a public price from Blueprint magazine. They made a poll asking – Who is the architect of the year? We were among three other very famous architectural offices – Herzog & de Meuron, Zaha Hadid and Renzo Piano. For some reason the audience choose us. I have totally no idea who voted for us or why. I cannot imagine what we were even doing in this list and I think it says more about the other offices and maybe the current crisis in architectural discourse.
Perhaps it is in part due to a misunderstanding. That we are stretching the boundaries of what architecture is. Normally, the idea is, architects are considered with buildings. But this is absolutely myth. Of course there are people in demolition companies who are trained architects as well. Taking a building down takes some form of architectural knowledge.. But when an architect works for a demolition company we stop calling him an architect. That is the problem – that we call only part of the territory that architects are involved in ‘architecture’. An artifical line around a random group of practices. And then when somebody behind this line calls himself also an architect, all of a sudden he/she is stretching the boundary of Architecture. Come on! The whole idea of architecture as a field defined by a very specific group of architects who are members of the local professional association is stupid. At yet at the same time, we do use the word ‘architecture’ also in a different way within the canonical architectural discourse. Slums are being talked about and analysed as pieces of architecture. But we would not talk about a slum inhabitant as an architect. He would be a builder, or a „local“. However, it is just a confusion of words. We – as Rotor – are not stretching boundaries.
Maybe what happened to us with the Blueprint magazine survey is something like Corbyn effect. Jeremy Corbyn was a less probable candidate to become a president of Labour Party and he won just because people wanted none of the other options.

16. Do you think it is because people start to hate „star architects“?

Perhaps there is a certain discourse that suggests you to distrust any office that is bigger than 100 people. The whole notion of star architects is very 90´s. It is a bit passé. A lot of offices that have played with stardom are very disappointed how it turned out.  But when we are talking about big offices like Zaha Hadid or Frank O. Gehry, we keep forgetting that these are still quite small players compared to for example SOM We hardly ever discuss their work.

17. So you are not standing at the doorstep of new architectural discipline?

I do not have the impression. We are trying to be relevant to the construction industry, which architecture is a small part of. From the beginning we took the choice not to lock ourselves into an experimental practice. We were making compromises; we tried not to be a lonely pioneer, but rather to come up with strategies that are relevant for others.
We do have time on our side. In the past decade we have seen a reinvention of many construction habits in western Europe in favour of buildings that consume less energy during usage (in favour of their energy costs – heating, installation, green water collection, water devices, and so on). The most efficient projects of 10 years ago compete with today’s mainstream. But there’s only so much insulation you can put in a house before it becomes ridiculous. I think next concern will be the energy that is embedded in materials – that is the next logical idea. Those materials also take energy to be produced so some of our strategies might be tested on a larger scale. We have a few years before this will be a mainstream idea that gives us a head start and the hope that we can avoid some stupidities that we have seen with the energy efficiency race.

18. At your last exhibition at Carwan Gallery in Beirut you touch on contemporary art discourse, which can be characterised by going towards materiality, objectivity, critical thinking about nature and functioning of different visual product design strategies. Is this discourse more likely random? Do you keep an eye on contemporary art scene? In what kind is it important to link art and science disciplines?

If you want people to look at a red carpet there are not a thousand ways you can do it. You have to very quickly borrow or find ways and languages that come from the field of art because they are more advanced in doing this in comparison to architecture. But today I think you can choose your position and we position ourselves in a tradition of design and not in a tradition of art. If our work resonates with what goes on in art, it is fine, but we are not trying to lock ourselves into this discipline. That said, of course, we go to art shows and we are inspired by practices beyond the field of design.

19. Do you think that the program of your organization is being more and more acknowledged because it is linked with economical crisis? How and how deep you reflect it in your research?

I think what we are dealing with is not an economical crisis but a crisis. The economic crisis is temporarily unmasking a small part of an underlying crisis that is permanent. There are so many different crisis going on – the bankruptcy of the economy or the relationship of the EU and the rest of the world, more actually with the Middle East, Africa, or Russia, China… It is not a matter of being cutting edge, or wanting to invent a new world. It is something no one can escape.

20. Do you see your activities as a model for some change?

I think the use of models is one of the elements that stand behind the crisis. The idea that you can develop a recipe that works in one specific case and then you can endlessly repeat it. This is a very problematic idea. We are not trying to say what other people should do. We are trying to find out what we want to do in this situation. We are OK with taking positions, but we are not a school or truth organization. Everybody needs to stay responsible for the things he is doing. If someone does something just because we are doing it, he/she is a total idiot. I and my colleagues are trying to share concerns not answers.

21. In what kind of projects do your materials end up?

In stupid projects, in smart projects, in poor and good projects – in all kinds of different circumstances. It is always nice to see the materials end up in a very well thought-through design. But it is also good to see some materials being competitive in a very commercial environment. I think at this point we are not ideological about the destination of the materials.

22. Liam Young in one of his interviews said a discussed sentence: Architect´s skills are completely wasted on making buildings – could this be a claim for Rotor?

I do not know what „architects“ he is referring to. Is he talking about those who are members of the association or is he talking about everybody? I think it is not right to consider architecture as a specialty. Cooking is also not only done by chefs, driving is not done only by professional drivers; architecture is not done by professional architects. It is very difficult to make this kind of statements that would apply in a same way in Dubai, Peru, Belgium, and the Czech Republic. This kind of work differs in different circumstances. It is not something I would feel comfortable signing of. I don’t know the context of the interview. We all agree that architecture is shaping the daily life. When you have a building that is defining a social relationship – for example toilets from the 70’s that imply sexism due to gender differentiation of its spaces for men and women. Do we need to keep this arrangement because it has been done by famous designer? Because it took a lot of energy to be built or because it is beautiful? Or should we just say: „Fuck this sexist building! Get rid of it! Let’s make a new one!“
As a society, you also need to reinvent your building environment regularly. Sometimes it means changing the infrastructure, sometimes that means changing a wall sometimes it can be done by exchanging the placement of the logo of man and female at the toilet. That last proposal is quite minimal, but maybe that is enough. We are not done with thinking about the building environment.

23. What is the role of contemporary architect?

I answered it diagonally. Who is this architect? Where is he? What are his skills? What is his mandate – to translate economical models into a space or to conceive a social project in a living environment? All of these parameters imply different ways of working. In certain context you’re happy if you are able to place a little bit of kindness within a building, in other contexts you can expect to make much more difference. There’s not just one position.

03 ROTOR

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Grindbakken, Gent, 2012; picture by Rotor

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Grindbakken, Gent, 2012; picture by Rotor

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Grindbakken, Gent, 2012; picture by Johnny Umans

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RDF181, Brusels, 2008; picture by Eric Mairiaux

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Rotor Deconstruction; picture by Rotor

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Rotor Deconstruction; picture by Rotor

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Rotor Deconstruction; picture by Rotor

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Rotor Deconstruction; picture by Rotor

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Rotor Deconstruction; picture by Rotor

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Usus Usures, Venice Architecture Biennale 2010, picture by Eric Mairiaux

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Usus Usures, Venice Architecture Biennale 2010, picture by Eric Mairiaux

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Abattoirs de BOMEL, 2014; picture by Jean Francois Flamey

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Untitled, picture by Istvan Virag

04 NJME: Not Just Marginal Entertainments

“Not Just Marginal Entertainments” (NJME) present the situation and standing of various cultural organizations. Beside the big institutions Artyčok deals with intensively and critically, the attention shifts to places that difference in their functioning, activities and financing in common. NJME explore the roles of contemporary institutions, their visions or the lack of them, and the reasons for their operation. They look for changes or, conversely, stagnations and the reasons for them; a stigmatization by past as much as following tradition and history.

The original project by Barbora Ševčíková will focus, for example, on a private museum of radios, a graphic design show or an independent gallery. It shall take a closer look at the situation they find themselves in, the ways of their financing, as much as the approaches to the management of a cultural organization. The selection of videos and photographs is left to the individuals in the question and their judgment in presentation of their work.

05 Exhibition credits

Author of the Project / Curator: Barbora Ševčíková
Author of Texts: Barbora Ševčíková, Jana Pavlová
Online Presentation Concept, Editing and Realization: Lenka Střeláková
Translated into English: Palo Fabuš
Published: 18. 3. 2016