In Conversation with Belgian Architect Nicolas Schuybroek
Nicolas Schuybroek started his own practice in 2011 in Brussels, Belgium, with a well-defined purpose: to create and to produce architecture, interiors, and objects characterized by an acute sense of detail, craftsmanship and intuition, while retaining a feeling of warmth. The search for timeless minimalism and apparent simplicity are central in his work, such as the love of unassuming, tactile, and raw materials. No straining for effect — only a muted elegance.
AD Intérieur 2018 by Nicolas Schuybroek
Image by Claessens & Deschamps
LV: Laurent Veilleux
NS: Nicolas Schuybroek
LV: I'd like to start with something that's been told many times throughout your interviews, where minimalism seems to greatly influence your practice. Could you trace back when you started getting inspired by that?
NS: First of all, I have to be honest with you. I do have an issue with the word “minimalism” as such, has it's been used over the past 20 or 30 years as a kind of melting pot word that used by so many different people to characterize projects and designs that do not really resonate with each other. And minimalism, for the second part, has also been linked to very cold, sterile interiors for so many times, and that's something that really bothers me, because we're trying to do quite the opposite. In that sense, I would instead say that our practice tends towards some kind of “warm minimalism”. The true essence and meaning of the word minimalism for me is to avoid, to get rid of all the clutter, of all that is unnecessary, or that doesn’t add functional or aesthetic value to a project. And if that's the definition of minimalism, then yes, I am. Although I think we have to be very careful with that word.
“The true essence and meaning of the word minimalism for me is to avoid, to get rid of all the clutter, of all that is unnecessary, or that doesn’t add functional or aesthetic value to a project. And if that's the definition of minimalism, then yes, I am.”
LV: Given that we agree on that definition of minimalism, when did your interest in that concept come around
NS: It's been part of me for a very long time. I think it mainly comes from my education. I've always lived in highly, and probably over-decorated houses, and by that I mean more like the kind of British style decorated houses. I also spent most of my childhood in a boarding school and I was deeply influenced by the bare structure of the place, a very simple way of organizing life. From then on, I have always thought that what really mattered was to enter a space that brings you peace. I've also always been deeply impressed by the impact that architecture or interiors can have on someone, either positive or negative. By bringing one to the essence of things, to something quiet, serene, the architect truly succeeds at his or her job. So I think that this interest as always been there, and it became bigger and bigger over time, and obviously after I started my internship at Vincent Van Duysen’s office in Antwerp.
LV: Have you thought about working at Vincent Van Duysen's office for a long time before moving back to Belgium?
NS: Absolutely. When I made that decision to go back, there was only one office where I wanted to work, and it was his, because it represented the vision I had about architecture. And not only architecture, but also the link with interiors, furniture and object design. And that's something you wouldn't see everywhere even than 10 years ago. Only a few international architects would work that way, and I thought, "This is really what I want to do. Creating connections between different disciplines is so interesting to me, so where else could I go if I'm so interested, so drawn to that?" And I was very lucky, actually, because I got the job and spent five extremely important years there, from 25 to 30 years old.
LV: I can imagine... I'm not an architect myself, but if I were, Vincent's office is definitely one I'd love to go work at, based on the values and aesthetic vision of the firm.
NS: There is Vincent, and also Axel Vervoordt in Belgium, and it's really interesting for us because they've been practicing architecture for so long. Of course, they have much more experience than I do, but they have been such great ambassadors for Belgian design and architecture abroad. We have to be very thankful for that because they opened up the pathway to so many other architects and designers abroad.
“There should not be any boundaries between design, graphic design, visual arts, and architecture. It should all blend together.”
LV: Absolutely, they do, and they also influenced us in our own practice. Working with clients on visual communications, photography, and art direction, their work has inspired us in many ways.
NS: That's good to hear because that's what actually should happen. It's this kind of symbiosis and porosity between all these different disciplines that's interesting. There should not be any boundaries between design, graphic design, visual arts, and architecture. It should all blend together.
LV: Absolutely. I'd like to know, what elements do you believe make a successful architecture practice?
NS: That's a complicated question. There are many answers I could give you, things that most people do not think of. First of all, I think it takes a lot of time, energy, optimism, and passion to get there. If you don't have that, don't even start. And there are many, many hidden subjects, I think, behind a successful practice, apart from design aesthetics and the creativity and the talent you might have. It's a question of discipline, of organization, of surrounding yourself with a really good team and people you like working with. It's also being good with numbers and making sure that your office remains financially viable. You might be the best architect in the world, but if your office is badly managed or not financially viable, it's going to end really quickly. I call those “behind the scenes subjects” because most of the architects usually do not speak up about them, although they are extremely important and, I think, key to a successful practice.
LV: If I put myself in the shoes of a new architect, there is a lot that has to be tackled. Perhaps you could tell us a bit more about it?
NS: When you open architecture books and you see architecture presentations. It's always about presenting projects in a very literary way. But the story you don't hear is, how did they get there? What's their story? What's the history of the office? What were the complexities or the difficulties they had to go through? How did they shape up their office? I always thought that there was some kind of hidden secrets behind so many offices where you actually don't know how everything started and how everything works. And it's weird because you have so many creative jobs, like writers for instance, where you have an interview, but then you would very quickly go towards a much more personal path and interview, hear about their stories, who they are, where they come from, what are the challenges they had to go through. That’s something you never hear from architects. I think it would be quite refreshing to start opening up about that because it also says a lot about the creative process.
LV: What would you say has been one of your greatest challenges so far?
NS: There is so much work to do, commitments and sacrifices to maket to grow your business. I would say, making sure you turn down the projects you shouldn't do or the ones that are not good for you, and only try to find the ones that you should actually do, and trying to put the money subject aside from that. Those aspects make it kind of a roller coaster when you start your own office.
LV: What steps do you take when approaching a new project, if any?
NS: The are of course a few steps that are fixed, that you have to go through, be it a small or a large project, an interior design project, or purely an architectural project. There are a few steps that you have to go through, and the essential steps are just the study of the context. It might seem really evident to say that, but it's the study of the context that makes sense of everything that will happen afterwards, the context, the geography, the light, the volumes. And that is something that you have to go through for every single project, small or large, interiors or architecture. But once you've been through these steps, so many other little things become important in your relationship with a client, and all those other steps are generally very different from one project to another. The study of the context is something that I find extremely important because we've seen architects over the past decades who would actually build the same type of architectures wherever they would build it, whether in Asia, in Europe, in the US, whether a private house or a public building. It would have the same type of design, the same type of aesthetics, the same type of materials. And I think that's probably, from a personal standpoint, but also from an architectural standpoint, the most insane thing that you can do. It's reducing architecture to something so boring, so repetitive, that it just doesn't make sense anymore.
LV: Do you use any principles or rules when dealing with the client's needs or expectations?
NS: I like the word rules because it makes it feel quite disciplined or organized. I think that the first rule is to make sure that the client has the time to deal with the project. A client who does not have time or who will not be present during the process is completely uninteresting for us. Some architects might like it, but for us it's a disaster because we need this connection with a client. The second part is that we need to have a very good understanding of a client’s wishes. And that really goes into the slightest possible details. That's also one of the main differences between private and public projects. The fact that, for most of the private projects that we do, there is an end client in front of you, so you perfectly know who is going to use your building and how he's going to use it. That makes it really interesting for us. And that might sound weird for you, but when we work with couples, we try to establish a basic rule or ground rules that communication with the client only goes through one individual, so the phone or the mail exchanges always go through one single voice. It's something that we established a few years ago, and it's a tremendous help in establishing a good design.
LV: Do you sometimes feel like you are acting as a psychologist with your clients?
NS: Definitely, and a diplomat as well. I think it's a mix of many, many different jobs. First of all, you have to be a good architect creative-wise. You have to develop something that others don't do. You have to be a good diplomat. You have to be respectful. Sometimes you have to be a financial wizard. Technically, you need to have a pretty good understanding of how to deal with things onsite. And of course you have to be a pretty good psychologist as well. But you normally get help from all the people around you, your team, and the contractors on site. It's about finding a way to put all the right people together in the same room and make sure they will work together in a nice and fluid way for the next two or three years, because that's usually the timeframes we have to deal with.
LV: You do work with clients internationally, and other architecture firms all over the world are trying to reach out and expand their practice to work on projects in other countries and then their home country. What kind of advice would you give to an architecture firm trying to work with foreign clients? Or what kind of traps would to tell them to avoid in any way?
NS: Well, let me first say that it's not something that I really have mastered myself. Even if I'm not obsessively looking for projects abroad, it brings me great joy to deal with these kinds of projects because first of all, Belgium is a tiny country, and everyone knows everyone, so it's extremely refreshing to be able to work with different cultures. It forces you to adapt to different contexts, to a different way of working, and it's just extremely refreshing. Of course, the biggest trap or the biggest issue that you have with foreign projects, especially if they're far away, is the difficulty of controlling the architecture details, the construction sites, and generally speaking, your design aesthetics. And that might result from time to time in really frustrating situations. On the other hand, it has a positive impact on the way that you have to deal with the project itself because it forces you to draw and to go into the slightest possible details. You have to consider everything, every single thing that could go wrong, because you are not on site. That's an interesting impact.
LV: What value are you trying to bring the most to your clients? Or what kind of end result brings you the most satisfaction?
NS: I would have to say... After one or two years that a client has moved into one of our projects, I love to see how the architecture impacts someone in a positive way. If it can bring a certain level of joy, quietness and serenity to a client and see that someone changes through the architecture, that's the most gratifying thing that I can actually expect from a project. It’s definitely what we're looking for.
LV: What kind of achievement are you the most proud of so far?
NS: Well, we didn't know at the time how much impact it would have on us, but the biggest challenge for us so far has been to work on The Robey Hotel in Chicago. We knew it would be stressful and that there would be difficult things to overcome, but that was definitely one of the biggest challenges I've ever been through so far. And it's rewarding afterwards because not only it's an incredible learning school, but also you get to work with other fantastic teams and it allows you to tackle other foreign projects in a much easier way later on. But that has definitely been one of the biggest challenges of the past years.
LV: Got it. I have two last questions. Is there any artist, architect or designer who has influenced you in the past or who you would like to mention in this interview?
NS: There are way too many for this conversation. I'm also deeply influenced by many, many subjects that have nothing to do with architecture. It can be an art installation or visual arts installations. Artists like Dan Flavin and James Turrell have always played a big role for me in the sense of experience of space. Most American minimalist artists from the '70s have also played a role in that. But it can also be music. I've always nourished a certain obsession for the work of Steve Reich. All those exterior influences somehow have an impact on what I do. One of the architects that I greatly admire is Luis Barragan, a modernist Mexican architect who designed absolutely fantastic contextual buildings in Mexico. On the contemporary architecture side, the work of Studio Mumbai, for instance, is for me amongst the most interesting firms in architecture at the moment. But I'm also drawn to more ancient installations, and then I would not really talk about architecture, but rather about the sense of light, symmetry, proportion of volumes that you can find in ancient Roman, Egyptian, or even Greek architecture. Even if it has absolutely nothing to do with my day-to-day work, the way all these subjects are treated in buildings and architectures from centuries ago are still very actual, and I think that more architects should re-visit that.
LV: If you were to give an advice to your early 20’s self, what would it be?
NS: That's a tough one. I would say don't be too impatient. It's been one of my biggest struggles since day one, because projects in architecture take so much time to complete. Between the design process and the actual moment when you a project is completed, it takes at least three to three and a half years. It's something I'm having a hard time to live with. I think that would be my most important advice.
LV: Perfect. Thank you so much for all this valuable information, hoping that others will get inspired by your answers, and hoping we could do a part two in a not too distant future!
NS: Of course, it would be a pleasure!
All images courtesy of Nicolas Schuybroek Architects