Interview: Julien de Smedt - Young at Art
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Interview: Julien de Smedt – Young at Art

27 Jul 2010

Five years into running one of Europe's most exciting practices, Julien de Smedt may not have much experience of crises. However, as he tells Phin Foster, there may never be a better time to learn.

Architecture is not a field renowned for rewarding youth. While burning ambition and a willingness to challenge the status quo are often cited as fundamental characteristics of any successful practitioner, a strong component of risk aversion and experience can be equally appealing to those actually holding the purse strings.

In most cases, young bucks must bide their time and express their creative spirit either on smaller projects or under the guiding hand of an elder statesman.

Occasionally, however, a bright spark will break through. The combination of youthful fearlessness and an ability to enthuse style bibles, taste makers, galleries, and perhaps even the occasional commission panel, can be a contagious thing to witness. The thrill of the new creates its own sort of momentum, enabling rapid growth and making the competition suddenly appear staid and static.

But we must all grow up one day and, in doing so, those who forged their reputations kicking against the establishment run the risk of becoming it. New ideas, approaches, agendas and faces are constantly emerging; what was once fresh soon becomes old.

"Julien de Smedt began his career working at OMA as a student, at the behest of Rem Koolhaas."

This might well have been the fate for Julien de Smedt. Already working at OMA as a student, at the behest of Koolhaas himself no less, by the age of 25 the precocious Belgian felt ready to leave arguably the hottest practise on earth and establish PLOT with fellow rising star Bjarke Ingles. From the latter’s hometown of Copenhagen, the firm quickly gained a global standing and, over the five years prior to the partnership’s disbandment, established a reputation for playful small and large-scale projects underpinned by a mature design philosophy that always put the practical on an equal footing with the theoretical – not always an inevitably when discussing young idealists.

JDS Architects, Copenhagen

De Smedt remained in Copenhagen upon the studio’s break-up in 2006, founding JDS. Fast-forward four years and the multidisciplinary practice is already over 50 people strong, boasting an extensive international portfolio of work and, much like Ingles with his studio BIG, maintaining a stellar career trajectory that shows no signs of abating.

Despite having run large offices for almost a decade, de Smedt is not yet 35. When the financial crisis hit in 2008, it was the first major external jolt in a career forged in sunnier economic climes. His response was another example of the dichotomy that has defined much of his work, simultaneously focused and grandiose: the publication of a book that catalogued the 365 days at JDS following the collapse of Lehman Brothers in September 2008.

Agenda: Can We Sustain Our Ability to Crisis? was much more than a self-congratulatory practice profile for hipsters’ coffee tables, however; with contributors ranging from politicians to film makers, it called for the emergence of a new collaborative dialogue as a direct response to events and explored the changes needed for architects to assume a core political and social role within this new landscape. For a guy whose career has been so synonymous with youth it all seems, well, a little grown-up.

"We wanted to engage with people about the idea of actually creating something out of this condition in which we find ourselves," de Smedt tells me. "The discussion so far has only focused on limitation. Sure, many people have been forced to make changes, cut back or even close. However, not so many are actually trying to create something new or define shifts that might be positive."

"Those who forged their reputations kicking against the establishment run the risk of becoming it."

And there is no doubt in de Smedt’s mind that change is required. His initial success may be partially interpreted as a product of what was a period of conspicuous consumption – PLOT’s early days dovetailed neatly with the dotcom boom – but his disdain for the effect the prolonged upturn had upon certain elements of architectural endeavour is tangible.

"The past ten years have probably produced the largest number of horrific projects in our history," he declares. "We’ve seen a few eccentricities in past centuries, but nothing that compares.

From the start I saw this as an opportunity to bring issues back to the table that, for a significant tranche of architecture at least, had all but disappeared.

"Look at the history of modern architecture and the few moments of real progress have come when fundamental needs have been addressed – industrialisation or post-war reconstruction, for example. Answers were born out of necessity. There’s now the need for a discussion of core issues rather than a celebration of the frivolous. Having that as the steering engine of a project as opposed to a theoretical discussion about shapes can only be a positive thing."

Julien de Smedt: searching for the architects of tomorrow

That is true in theory at least, but unlike similar calls to arms from some of his contemporaries, a reappraisal of the fundamental role of the architect within this brave new world does not equate to a return to basics. De Smedt is still in thrall to the new and insists that answers lie in the future rather than the past. Unfortunately, this message does not always chime with these straitened times.

"There is the sense that people are more resistant when it comes to doing unusual things than they might have been five years ago," he acknowledges. "The temptation is to revert to known solutions. That poses a big problem because real progress never lies in repetition. We can make savings for clients through finding new answers and a lot of effort is invested conveying this point. Although that’s a conversation we fully believe in, the point is harder to get across now than it once was."

"JDS is already over 50 people strong, boasting an extensive international portfolio of work."

The fact that de Smedt does not have a reputation for luxury undertakings must help allay some fears. He is insistent that all completed projects thus far have proven profitable for their developers and many of his most high-profile schemes, VM Houses, for example, or Mountain Dwellings, have put the issues of economy and urban density front and centre. Nevertheless, any rallying cry that that demands we "sustain our ability to crisis" is bound to raise a few eyebrows. "We usually address a crisis as a temporary moment of low and as soon as it passes return to a state of excess," he counters.

"By transforming it into a verb, tapping into the immediacy and urgency created, one can address that failing. Excess makes us feel guilty, so why should it be the status quo?"

De Smedt also rejects the notion that the crisis, in its financial form at least, has passed. He cites the austerity measures in Germany and the UK as a failure to address the bigger issues, putting the market in even greater peril. In the quest for finding the right solutions he is a firm believer that architects should be in the vanguard, but they can do nothing alone.

"We are actors in so many different aspects," he says of the profession. "We are on the front line of making any move concrete; turning prophecies into reality, but our hands are tied without financial and political input. By creating initiatives like Agenda, we can group together people who have different takes on events and can address various aspects. The feedback we’ve had has come from beyond architects and students; big business has also responded in a very substantial way. People are paying attention and a dialogue is beginning."

Co-contributors included film director Lars von Trier and science fiction author Bruce Sterling. De Smedt and his team are now gearing up for Agenda 2, which will incorporate a travelling exhibition, and are hopeful of having something in place by the end of the year. The immediacy of the project means that even its principal stakeholder remains in the dark as to what conclusions it might draw.

"Because we portray what is going on in almost real time, it’s not easy to point out what the key components will be" he explains. "Implementation of the knowledge we’ve already acquired will be fundamental and a lot of our thoughts and conclusions will take a physical form. We’re also lining up a lot of new contributors – something made much easier by the first book’s success."

"De Smedt is still in thrall to the new and insists that answers lie in the future rather than the past."

But there is a lot more going on at JDS besides academic investigation.

De Smedt has only returned to Copenhagen from the Brussels office 30 minutes before we meet and is set to fly out to Rio later the same evening. Construction starts on the Copenhagen harbourfront later this year, he talks excitedly about ongoing negotiations for "a huge project in Bratislava", as well as a recent commission from GE to design an Olympic pavilion for 2012, and the final touches are now being applied to perhaps JDS’s most high-profile commission to date: the stunningly realised Holmenkollen ski jump.

De Smedt has also brought two partners on board, charged with heading up the Belgian and Danish offices, and is in discussions with a third. Where this individual will be based is a moot point: JDS’s third outpost is currently in Oslo but may be disbanded after the ski jump is complete – "it’s most likely I’ll establish something in New York," the founding partner remarks casually.

This is all laying the foundations for some stability in a career that has been lived in fast forward thus far. "I don’t want to be the guy who does all the travelling any more," de Smedt chuckles. "I want to be involved in the projects. Meeting clients and dealing with issues that arise around negotiating contracts is fine, but it’s not really what I got into all of this for."

For the first time in our interview, he almost sounds like a youthful idealist.