This month we talked to CEO Renaud Chevalier and architect Axel Baus from Assar Architects.
Assar was founded in 1985, by the desire of Eric Ysebrant to create an architectural firm that meets the challenges of the architectural profession in Belgium.
In general, what motivated you?
The initial objective, which is still our current one, was to gain the confidence of our customers through competence and reliability as well as to set up a structure which could change the practice of the profession by passing from a certain form of craftsmanship, in the noble sense of the term, towards professionalization. This involved in particular, something which seems obvious to us today, but which was far from being so in 1985, the computerization of the processes of design, quantification and management of projects. The Assar group, which is currently structured around a head company, has five subsidiaries established in Brussels, Antwerp, Liège, Luxembourg and Paris. Its shareholders are made up of 27 people, the vast majority of whom are architects, all of whom are active within the group. The total workforce of the group is 155 people, with 17 different nationalities, spread over Belgium, Luxembourg and France.
What do architecture and design mean to you? What impact do they have?
I remember that during my studies, my philosophy professor liked to say that architecture was the second art, after cooking. Indeed, he maintained that cooking was the first art, because it is the one that brings everyone together around a table to share emotions, feelings, experiences, life in short. Architecture comes right after because it offers a place, a shelter for this sharing. Our approach to architecture at Assar is in this continuity. We believe that architecture must be inclusive out of necessity. Indeed, architecture only exists in its relationship to humans. For Assar, inclusive architecture is one that takes into account the needs - moving, living and working - and the diversity of all - children, adults and seniors. It is inventive and evolving in its form. It is accessible to all in its use.
What do you think is the greatest strength of your creations?
Our approach has always been one of listening to the customer. In each of our projects, we seek to best meet the needs of our client today, but also to think with them about their needs will be tomorrow. It is therefore not a question of following our client, but of guiding them, of considering with them the flexibility that they wish to integrate into their building to make it evolve synchronous with their organization.
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?
This experience is rich in lessons in several respects. While the notion of Belgitude is the common cultural point of the various stakeholders in the project, we see that each one's approach can be very different. As far as we are concerned, the collaboration with BelExpo is a first -even if we have already worked very frequently for Belgian and international public authorities- as is the design of a pavilion representing our country. Never before have we had to think so deeply for a project to be the architectural expression of our culture, it is a very interesting challenge to which everyone contributes positively and enthusiastically.
Two creative companies (such as yours and Vincent Callebaut Architectures) working together can create fireworks, both in a positive and a negative way. How did you set up your cooperation? What were the challenges?
The basis of any efficient cooperation rests on the ability to understand and above all to have confidence in one's partner. Assar and Vincent Callebaut have decided to bet on this human factor, allowing success both from the point of view of collaboration and on the technical aspects. This determination has created the energy and momentum necessary for the success of this ambitious project.
This collaboration extended to the entire design and production team, including facts and fiction for the scenography, but also Besix as a general contractor. It was necessary to create and set up a common working methodology between all the project's stakeholders. In the end, we all worked on a single 3D model of the building, which facilitated discussions during the design phase.
After the design process: how do you support the construction of the Belgian pavilion?
As mentioned by Vincent (Callebaut), our primary role as an architect is to follow the execution studies and to guarantee their quality. With the added nuance that our project is being built thousands of kilometres from our offices and this in the midst of a health crisis. We had to adapt our execution approach and strengthen the remote collaboration already in place during the design studies. The 'BIM' (Building Information Modelling) tools used by almost all project stakeholders have improved the quality of the technical coordination of the project and avoided having to solve them on site, in the end we can say that what appeared as a challenge at the beginning of the studies turned out to be one of the strengths of this project.
What vision do you want to bring to the Belgian pavilion and Expo 2020 Dubai?
An international exhibition is undoubtedly one of the best occasions to think out of the box, show our know-how and our innovations. Our desire as an architect is always to design buildings for the end user; in this case we want to show the visitor through a simple gesture, "the green arch", that Belgium is a country which brings together people, cultures, ... "Connecting minds", "creating the future".
What projects do you have lined up for the future? What are your dreams for the future?
We have a lot of projects going on in a wide variety of fields. We like to say that our projects support everyone throughout their life. We design hospitals in which children are born, but also nurseries and schools to support children and young people in their educational journey. Furthermore, we have many office and laboratory projects, both for private companies and institutions, projects for recreational places such as sports facilities or shopping centres. On the other hand, we design housing projects in its various forms, whether they are individual or collective housing, hotels, rest homes, or even penitentiary institutions.
What are the biggest challenges you face regarding your work?
It is to continue to listen to a changing world, which is constantly evolving, it is also to use our acquired experience as a tool to improve ourselves further and not as an intangible certainty.
We are getting more offers to collaborate with other offices, Belgian and international. This experience is enriching for us and also challenging to manage to combine different approaches and cultures. We see these collaborations as opportunities to improve ourselves, to learn from the experiences of others, and to share our own.
Which values and objectives do you bring to your work?
Designing places and spaces for each individual's activities, meeting their aspirations, respecting the environment, integrating technologies and safety standards all come from co-creation. By combining our professional skills as architects and city planners with the opinions and considerations of occupants, residents and institutions, co-creation we offer a vision: that of an architecture that benefits everyone, anchored in the present and turned towards the future.
How has the current pandemic affected your work?
We are fortunate not to be too affected by the pandemic. Of course, we have all had to learn to work differently, to improve ourselves despite the obstacles, but real estate is probably resisting this crisis better than other sectors. The need for housing and workspaces are still present and this year has given us the courage to imagine this world differently. In 2020 our order book continued to be renewed, our workforce increased, we opened our agency in Paris, and we can look forward to 2021 with confidence and serenity.
Do you have any advice for those who want to embark on the same adventure as you?
To be an architect is to dare to question yourself constantly, it is to accept, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, that our creations shape us just as much as we shape them. But to be an architect is also to have the humility to accept that our work exists only to be of service to others and that our achievements live only thanks to their occupants.
Besides the Belgian pavilion, of course, what is your favourite project you've worked on and why?
It is difficult to choose just one, as each project is an opportunity for Assar to develop a new enriching experience, whether from an architectural, technical or relationship point of view. What's especially exciting is to see how one project can feed into another.