This month we talked to one of our architects, and true visionary, Vincent Callebaut.
The “Vincent Callebaut Architectures” agency was created following the Shanghai World Expo in 2010 during which they exhibited their manifest projects across ten pavilions. These projects included floating cities for climate refugees (Lilypad), vertical farms in New York (Dragonfly), zero-carbon hydrogen planes (Hydrogenase), and self-built upcycling villages in Haiti (Coral Reef).
In general, what motivated you?
The common target of these projects was to develop an imaginary eco-design advocating positive ecology and drawing inspiration from all living things, that is to say, shapes, structures and all the feedback loops we found in ecosystems. This discipline is now called Biomimicry and is expanding rapidly. Following the exhibition of our research work in Shanghai in 2010, many promoters, investors and stakeholders have commissioned us to design ecological projects internationally, mainly in emerging countries in Southeast Asia, South Africa, and North and Latin America. Today our agency, based at Place de la Bastille in Paris, has around ten employees who are constantly building bridges between laboratory research in collaboration with universities and scientists on the one hand, and application of innovations in industries and on construction sites on the other.
What do architecture and design mean to you? What impact do they have?
We live through architecture 24 hours a day: in the office, at home, during transport, in theatres, in the streets. This directly influences our health and comfort. Being an architect is like being an haute-couture designer, it is inventing spaces that dress you and closely embrace your body like a garment to optimize your quality of life and magnify your emotions.
What do you think is the greatest strength of your creations?
I am part of the new generation of architects sensitized during our adolescence by Yann Arthus Bertrand, Nicolas Hulot or even Al Gore who has alerted us for the past 30 years on the harmful effects of climate change.
Caught between the denial of climate sceptics and the cry of help from "collapsologists" who announce the end of our civilization, we optimistically advocate the right symbiosis between Nature and Humanity. Our architecture is destined to be ecological, vegetated, and producing its own energy thanks to renewable energies, recycling its own waste thanks to biomass plants and phyto-purification lagoons, and being built on the basis of bio-based materials.
Our creations demonstrate that it is possible to implement a circular economy which ensures that everything that is produced and consumed is recycled and recyclable, which then transforms waste into resources in virtuous loops, and which aims for carbon neutrality. In short, an economy that can implement the ecological and inclusive transition.
You designed the Belgian pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai. What have you learned so far from the cooperative effort between a government agency and your company?
The government agency, builder (Besix) and the architects have but one ambition: to make our country shine internationally. "The Green Arch", the Belgian pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai, was intended to be a non-standard "out of the box" building which, from the first sketches, expresses the dynamism and diversity of our country.
This project is a true "spatialization" of the concept of "Belgitude", a clever blend of Latin romanticism specific to Southern Europe and high pragmatic technicality obtained from the Germanic and Anglo-Saxon countries in Northern Europe.
Two creative companies (such as yours and Assar Architects) working together can create fireworks, both in a positive and a negative way. How did you set up your cooperation? What were the challenges?
"Connecting Minds, Creating the Future" is the main theme of Expo 2020 Dubai. With Assar Architects and our Krafthaus scenographers, we have applied this leitmotif to the letter to imagine a project with a very strong identity that can be summarized in two pencil lines on a simple box: A green building-bridge forming a huge wooden arch to accommodate a vast public Agora protected from the sun.
The result of our rich and intense collaboration will express the affinities of each living force of our plural team to design a unique project from the overall concept to the mastery of the smallest detail.
After the design process: how do you support the construction of the Belgian pavilion?
Our role as architect is to guarantee BelExpo the quality of the construction by integrating the submitted studies and following up on the site progress. For example: respect for the budget and deadlines, the management and the noble integration of sponsorships, and the engineering of the organic façade built with more than 5.5 kilometers of wooden louvers forming a giant moucharabieh.
What vision do you want to bring to the Belgian pavilion and Expo 2020 Dubai?
The Green Arch will be Belgium's showcase for over 6 months. As an architect, we want to promote the know-how and innovations of the best Belgian manufacturers and companies in all fields. The kiosks, the exhibition, the brasserie, the business centre, each space is carefully thought out to highlight our art of living, our gastronomy, our ingenuity, our engineering and our ecological commitments.
How has the current pandemic affected your work?
Since the spring of 2020, the Covid-19 health crisis has required a lot of resilience, agility and creativity to reinvent our work methodologies, and to constantly be able to adjust the project in real time when addressing, for example, the deficiencies of certain suppliers.
Do you have any advice for those who want to embark on the same adventure as you?
Do you want to become an architect? Be fiercely persevering and always keep a dose of unconsciousness if you want to continue sleeping at night. As Oscar Wilde said so well, always aim for the moon to at least land in the stars.
Besides the Belgian pavilion, of course, what is your favourite project you've worked on and why?
My agency's favourite project is the one that allowed us to demonstrate that we could make architectural utopias a reality: the “Tao Zhu Yin Yuan” project. A 50,000m² residential tower of which we won the tender during an international competition in Taipei, Taiwan.
When a customer believes in you and empowers you, you're ready to move mountains for them! This is what we did for our Taiwanese client "BES Engineering Corporation".
After 10 years of studies and construction, this spiral ecological tower was delivered in early 2020. It is covered with more than 23,000 plants, shrubs and trees, absorbing more than 135 tonnes of CO2 per year through photosynthesis. Certified earthquake-resistant 7.0 on the Richter scale, and LEED Gold Plus and Diamond Level labelled by the Low Carbon Buildings Alliance, it demonstrates that nothing is impossible and that the future of an ecological, sustainable and united city is a dream that can be realized today.