In the exhibition Find myself a city to live in, the architects Henk De Smet and Paul Vermeulen study the impact of architectural interventions on the form and use of the city; a matter of balancing continuity and change.
No city without architecture. The city plays an important role in the oeuvre of the Ghent architectural firm De Smet Vermeulen. For their designs, this duo of architects often take inspiration from everyday urban phenomena which at first sight have no particular added value. Paul Vermeulen: “In this way we want to upgrade the ordinary so that it is no longer banal”. The projects they have worked on since they set up their firm in the late 1980s illustrate this approach with compositions and constructions in which ordinary elements are given new meaning, and architecture that is at the service of the public domain.
- De Smet Vermeulen architecten
Urban development from the bottom up. De Smet and Vermeulen deliberately opt for a broad range of work that also includes urban design and advisory studies. They see the architectural project as ‘urban development from the bottom up’. This is how they designed and built the offices of the Flemish Environmental Company in Aalst, an exemplary project for urban renewal and sustainable building that was given the Belgian Building Award and the Principal’s Prize (2005). In Antwerp, as the architects of a crèche and residential care centre, they were involved in the Intergenerationeel Wonen LinkerOever project (IGLO), which early in 2015 received the 2014 Wivina Demeester Prize for Excellent Principalship.
Vermeulen emphasises that the link with other architectural firms is at least as important as the internal synergy within his own firm. He compares it with the world of classical music: “Many of the projects in the exhibition came about in cooperation with other designers. Sometimes we took someone’s master-plan a step further, or else we chose a common theme around which, as in chamber music, an ensemble takes shape.” And this is a deliberate choice. Vermeulen: “Because the city is in itself a shared idea, interventions in the city should be the result of the same idea; considered, discussed and designed together with others.”
- Paul Vermeulen
Exhibition space becomes an architects’ studio “We are contextualists, we use a space as it is.” The method Henk De Smet and Paul Vermeulen employ in virtually all their projects is also clear to see in Find myself a city to live in. The exhibition space at deSingel is made to look like an architect’s studio, complete with drawing boards, plans and models. To imitate the atmosphere of a studio, the curators opted for an open plan, with no added partitions. And yet they make the fullest use of the space. The four internal walls, the two windows, the height of the space: all are challenged to be more than just ‘structure’ or ‘framework’.
The layout of the exhibition not only refers to a studio, but is also reminiscent of a city. Paul Vermeulen: “By putting models and plans on and around tables and chairs made of a uniform material, an urban order takes shape in the exhibition.” The elements of the exhibition include a couple of notable objects which in themselves contribute to this urban feel. For instance, the large canvases with drawings by Benoît Van Innis, a design for the Maalbeek metro station in Brussels, give you the sense of waiting for the next metro train. An element from the balustrades of the engineer’s access bridges that De Smet and Vermeulen designed for the railways in Ghent in its turn provides a view of the city that is otherwise reserved for railway workers.