Europa building in Brussels by Philippe Samyn

Meeting - Philippe Samyn
Philippe Samyn trained as a civil engineer at the Free University, Brussels (VUB) and MIT, and is also qualified in urban planning and applied science. He founded his practice Samyn & Partners in 1980. It is situated on the southern edge of Brussels in a repurposed farmhouse bought in 1991. Featuring a reflected pool that exudes a Zen-like tranquility, it is now the base for about 50 staff.

Philippe SamynPhilippe Samyn

A tall man who wears a bowtie, is often seen with a pipe and still uses a slide rule in his everyday work, Samyn seems at first to have stepped out of another age. But like the Europa building, the future is being engaged behind the facade. Engineering and sustainability meet in his concepts which range from utopian visions for a city of vertical tubes (The Vertical City, 2014) to staircases. His love of numbers surfaces in conversation as well as design. For example, ‘don’t use the Golden Ratio, it never works’, he contends -(Hans) ‘van der Laan (architect-monk known for the plastic number) proved that’.

M&G Research Laboratories in Venafro, Italy, completed in 1991. Image Credit: Samyn and Partners. Photo Matteo PiazzaM&G Research Laboratories in Venafro, Italy, completed in 1991. Image Credit: Samyn and Partners. Photo Matteo Piazza

The Europa building is unique both on the big scale and in myriad small details. Blueprint asks: Was it a case of many people generating so many ideas?
I designed this building with my slide rule. I have designed everything alone, as ethically as I could. You have an array of people around you, but, I’m responsible, good or bad.

Where did the idea of reusing wooden window frames for the facade come from?
In 2003 I had proposed using wood entirely for a new nursery for Crèche Watermael-Boitsfort in Brussels. [At Europa] Michel Polak’s architecture for the Résidence Palace is… like a web of horizontal lines with an interdistance of 3.54m, the height of the floor. It is the basis of the wood-frame patchwork. The aim was to create harmony that charms and attracts… A frame is always human-sized. I thought, if I make this cube out of garbage, that would be great.

The Rogier Tower, co-designed with Jaspers-Eyres Architects and completed in 2006, now has programmed LED facades. Image Credit: Georges De KinderThe Rogier Tower, co-designed with Jaspers-Eyres Architects and completed in 2006, now has programmed LED facades. Image Credit: Georges De Kinder

There is also a high-tech clarity of structure, and concern for the user. Is it influenced by the likes of Richard Rogers?
I feel very much an empathy. Rogers is so capable of humanity. I am in that vein… quiet movements. Architecture is not art. Architecture should welcome people.

In Europa, light structure designs can be clearly seen, from its structural bracing to perforated steel in staircases. Has this always been a prime concern?
I have done a lot of work on making structures lighter. In 1997, I discovered the ‘volume indicator’ [a tool to optimise structures that considers two-dimensional structural elements under maximum load].

New technologies enable great advances in structure, but what about 3D-printing?
Robot manufacturing is much more important than 3D-printing.

The sustainably built and operated Princess Elisabeth Antarctic Base began service in 2009. Image Credit: International Polar Foundation – René RobertThe sustainably built and operated Princess Elisabeth Antarctic Base began service in 2009. Image Credit: International Polar Foundation – René Robert

You won a 2008 Global Award for Sustainable Architecture, and 2007 winner Wang Shu invited fellow 2007-2009 laureates to contribute to a sustainable cultural resort on Lujiazhi island in Zhoushan. What was your contribution?
Wang Shu gave me three projects to do in Zhoushan. One was using old ship parts to make a hotel in a quarry. All structural works are made of welded steel plates and bars, so that they can be built by local shipyard craftsmen. (One Zhoushan project is reportedly now underway but progress is unknown.)

You have won other sustainability awards, including for the Belgian Antarctic Base. What is the future?
My motto is always saving energy, the circular economy. No oil, no gas — it’s coming in one generation. It will be a new adventure!

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