Text: Hans Ibelings
Hans Ibelings: But how would you define craftsmanship then? It's not about the craft of, let's say, the carpenter or the bricklayer.
Charles Bessard: To answer this, maybe we can speak about the way we have changed the way we work since the first project. In the first project we did, we actually tried a lot of different things before coming to a conclusion, but lately I think we've become able to choose very quickly and spend much more time crafting it, making it.
Nanne de Ru: Which is about the articulation of the particular parts, testing their weaknesses, figuring out how we can build it, in concrete, in steel or whatever. We're becoming more and more aware that already at the beginning of the project we are taking a lot more considerations into account about how we could eventually build it. But I wouldn't say our understanding of craftsmanship is the Swiss way, dealing with the act of building only; it starts with crafting the process. I would say craftsmanship is our strongest drive, but we're also conceptualists to a certain degree. However, I think in the end it's always our goal to produce something that is quite precise and particular and well made.
CB: I think crafting is also about the amount of attention that you put into one thing.
NdR: And we're also very interested in the industrial part of craftsmanship, the production part, that’s why we are also doing prefabricated things. So I think we try to avoid being only designers, and we also try to avoid being only conceptualists. And we're not necessarily interested in innovation, either.
CB: We believe in doing the appropriate thing at the right moment.
HI: Is this idea of appropriateness related to beauty?
CB: Yes, very much.
HI: There are not many architects who openly speak about beauty.
NdR: I think beauty has a very intuitive and kind of functional aspect.
HI: Antoine de Saint Exupéry once said that sometimes beauty is the main function of an object.
NdR: I think in a lot of cases people are just attracted by beauty. We're discovering the power of a good form, like in the case of the boat we're working on. When you look at the beautiful shape of a boat, it's amazing what kind of energy and emotion it evokes.
HI: But perhaps that's not an ideal and pure beauty, but elegance. I think it was in a special issue of Werk Bauen und Wohnen dedicated to this theme that someone wrote that elegance is something you can only achieve if you don't take beauty seriously.
CB: I agree it involves a certain frivolity. Beauty is fascinating, it could be very conceptual to make things beautiful, and why would you make things ugly? But on the other hand, if you think about it, beauty is truly powerful and it can also be very immoral.
HI: Do you both have a similar idea about beauty?
NdR: Whenever one of us makes something he is quite happy with and shows it to the other, the reaction is always 'Oh wow'. And that's pretty nice.
CB: And similarly we share the same doubts.
HI: And do you have similar talents or are you complementary to each other?
CB: We're more complementary I would say.
NdR: Culturally speaking there is a difference, Charles being French and me being Dutch. I notice quite often how pragmatic and blunt I am, and also how elaborate and precise Charles is. So I think we definitely have very different characters and talents.
CB: This pragmatism is what actually attracted me to the Netherlands in 1995. We French really like to speak about subtle views of things, which also sometimes delays the moment of acting, and that’s what I really like about the directness of this Dutch pragmatism. I really do enjoy the combination of these two attitudes.
NdR: We learn a lot from each other. In the end, our collaboration is based on trust. We are physically quite far apart, with Charles working in Copenhagen and me in Rotterdam. It is about knowing that you can both do things without fearing that the other will take advantage of it.
HI: Charles, one question about Denmark, as an outsider, is it difficult to gain a place in the Danish market?
CB: Yes it is actually. For example, we've just heard that we missed out on a prize in Denmark because of not being Danish enough. They don't mean it in a nasty way, but there is a lot of discussion about where were you born, while I think for architecture it is more important where your office is established. Denmark is a very protectionist country. You're always a very welcome guest, but you remain a guest. I should be careful about generalizing, but it's a very tribal, very network-based, community. The French mindset is more that you have to be a maverick to be noticed, in Denmark it's the opposite, you shouldn't stand out. And it is also a matter of language, even if you have impeccable grammar, it is difficult to blend in.
NdR: I am even more of an outsider, but what annoys me about Denmark, is that there is hardly any architecture criticism. That's partly the result of being a very small country, it's so intimate somehow that there's very little critique. But it has also led to a huge amount of copying among Danish firms, they are basically just copying the Plot-BIG style, and there's not a single critic writing about that.
CB: I think it's changing. It is getting better now. But to return to my place in the Danish context. When I'm in France, I'm not French because I live in Denmark and when I'm in Denmark I'm not Danish because I'm French.
HI: To return to your co-operation…
CB: We have two independent companies, so for us it is really about what we can gain from each other in this collaboration.
NdR: We also do some buildings independently, but we just enjoy working together. What we always claim is that pleasure is the key to success. In our case, part of the fun is that we don't necessarily have to talk about money.
CB: We talk about design and beauty.
HI: But how much fun, design and beauty is there right now in the grey reality of the current economic crisis?
NdR: It's very clear that Europe is going to take a while to get back on its feet. I think also we very much underestimated it, for instance, when we made the Rien ne va plus exhibition about crisis and architecture in 2009; I remember that I had the feeling that there would quite soon be a new momentum.
HI: Which could lead to a sequel of this exhibition, Faites vos jeux.
NdR: Exactly. But I think it was our naivety in a way. There is a huge amount of complacency in Europe which is really worrying. There is no sense of urgency, and you can really see that everything is going backwards. I think it's going to be extremely hard for Europe to move ahead, so we are also very much looking abroad to find interesting places where we could make a difference. So we want to expand our scope outside Europe.
HI: And are you happy to be an architect at the beginning of the 21st century, in these complicated times? I mean, probably it would have been easier if you had started a decade earlier.
NdR: Well, it's a hard time now, but I'm also very happy with it.
CB: I also feel that it's a good crisis somehow. As an office we never benefited from a bubble, but we also never shrank, whereas a lot of offices had to shrink, and that really changes your mindset.
NdR: The only thing that frightens me at the moment is the question of whether there will be real opportunities for young offices. I have a feeling there could be a change of guard, when you see all these middle-sized offices really getting slammed. Without mentioning names, if you talk to people from bigger offices, they all complain. When I hear it, I understand from their point of view that they're complaining because they’re used to a very comfortable existence, but in our case we’re only used to having to fight for every commission we get.
HI: Do you want to have a bigger office?
CB: We have a lot of discussions about that. If you take the way we started, and the way we run the office now, when we started up we imagined expanding the number of partners, but today we realize the quality of our mutual uniqueness. We were lucky to find each other, it's like in a marriage you can be lucky to meet your wife or your husband. Of course we need people to work with us, but the size of our office may be limited by our own personal ability to do what we want to do.