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Interview with two Belgian architects in London
Date:03 October 2016
The embassy has had the pleasure to meet up with two Belgian talents on the London architectural scene: Ramses Frederickx and Michele Brackx. Both architects consider London a very attractive place to work, a vibrant metropolis where artistic ideas emerge and fuse to give birth to remarkable architectural achievements.
Ramses Frederickx grew up in an artistic family of art collectors, which led him to orientate towards design and architecture from a very young age. After completing a BA and an MA in interior architecture in Belgium, he pursued his studies at the Royal College of Art in London. Frederickx started his career working at the renowned international practice of Lord Foster where he specialised in the fields of architecture, interiors and furniture design. Ramses Frederickx’ contributions to various high-profile projects around the world shaped his career as one of the finest London-based creative architects. His leadership skills and strong self-initiative eventually led him to run his own successful company specialising in high-end refurbishments and furniture design.
Was it always your aspiration to become an architect?
Frederickx: Growing up, I enjoyed drawing, inventing and making things. Creativity runs in my family with my mother being an arts teacher and my father an engineer with a passion for collecting art and designing interiors. So visiting buildings and seeing inspirational architecture was always part of my upbringing. At the age of 14 I decided I wanted to be an architect or interior designer working with spaces, furniture, lighting, etc. I therefore switched to an art school in my native Antwerp to prepare for an Interior Architecture course at the Henry Van de Velde Institute.
Brackx: I was interested in animals and nature when I was studying Latin-Science in secondary school. Inspired by National Geographic documentaries, I initially thought of becoming a marine biologist, but at the end of my secondary school education I decided to strike a balance between my creative artistic side and my scientific interests. I ended up studying architecture and couldn't have made a better choice. My job requires a diverse set of skills. I design, speak to contractors on site, draw, write, coordinate, etc. There is always a new challenge to look forward to.
What’s the attraction of working as an architect in the UK?
Frederickx: I originally came the London to do an MA course at the Royal College of Art in Architecture and Interiors. During the summer break in my first year I was offered a job working at Lord Norman Foster’s architecture practice. Once I graduated I worked there for 5 years on very exciting international project including the new World Trade Centre in New-York, Beijing Airport and a luxury resort in Singapore.
After 5 years I decided that working in a large firm was not for me, so I set up my practice working on London-based residential projects with a more direct relationship with clients, contractors and a challenging budget. Initially, that took some adjusting since being in the leading role means you carry far more responsibly to deliver a successful project whilst at the same time trying to make your own business work.
The UK and the London market in particular is very fast moving and open-minded with influences and clients from all around the world. A melting pot which can be very exciting and means that each project is unique.
Brackx: London has many internationally renowned architectural practices that attract talent from all parts of the world as well as clients that offer opportunities to work on exciting and prestigious projects around the globe. In addition to this, there is always something new to see and do in this capital of art and culture. That is what brought me to the UK initially.
During my final year at university, I had the privilege to study at Tokyo University as part of an exchange programme. Over the 7 month-stay, my academic architectural project based in Japan, was reviewed and critiqued by an international jury, including the spokesman for Japan in Belgium. I was taught by and honoured to meet some of the most famous Japanese architects including Tadao Ando and Kisho Kurokawa. It was a culturally enriching experience which opened my eyes to an entirely new world. Japanese architectural education is very different from what is taught in Belgium as it emphasises different areas. From my brief experience, Japanese architects prefer to start carte blanche for buildings to meet new briefs, rather than preserve and conserve existing building fabric. This tendency has led Japanese architects to create some of the most innovative and experimental buildings. Apart from studying, I would often go on short trips with other exchange students. This took me around the south of Japan, including Osaka, Kyoto, and Kyushu. I had a great experience enriched by meeting polite and courteous locals and making a few great friends whom I still keep in touch with.
After Japan, I got my first job in London. I loved the opportunities my job offered and enjoyed working in such a vibrant city. After 2 years, I returned to work in Belgium to fully qualify as an architect. During that year, I worked on various exciting projects, but eventually decided to go back to London. One thing led to another and 9 years after my first arrival I am still here!
What projects have you been involved in in the UK and which have given you the most satisfaction?
Frederickx: The majority of my projects involve, at some point, creating bespoke pieces of furniture within an already tailor-made interior. Often, the physical limitation of space in London properties means that a bespoke solution is not only the most personal for the owner but often the most efficient one too. It’s where our creativity as designers can flourish the most whilst at the same time incorporating the clients’ brief and personal taste offering something unique.
We recently completed a penthouse maisonette flat in South Kensington arranged over three floors. The client’s brief involved giving every room its own character using a wide range of materials. The attic of the house was converted into a single open plan loft space with an enclosed terrace. We took off the entire roof of this grade 2 listed building before raising it up and building a roof terrace on top of it with amazing views across London.
Fulham house designed by Ramses Frederickx
Brackx: I have worked on a wide range of projects from high-end interiors, to private houses, schools, to mixed-use buildings, etc. They are all very different and interesting at the same time. One of my favourite projects is Regents Place by Farrells, which was my first project in London. It was a regeneration scheme next to Regent's Park, and includes a residential and two commercial buildings. I got to design the two large high-end reception areas for the commercial buildings and followed the project all the way through from concept to completion. One of my tasks was to present my design to one of London's largest and most important property investment companies. I love interior design as you can see the final product relatively quickly in comparison to architecture.
Another favourite project I worked on is the German Ambassador's Residence. The building is located on Belgrave Square and is a Grade I listed, Graeco-Roman building. When I started working on the project, the condition of the building envelope was in a poor state. Having carried out our initial investigation, we discovered that over the years, the building was poorly maintained, and more importantly, poorly renovated with the wrong specification of paint being used. This conservation project required a lot of time to attend daily site meetings as there were many unforeseen issues. It took about 2-3 years of painstaking hard work to renovate and refurbish the building to its original design, and I feel proud to be part of preserving a piece of London's history.
Regent's Place by Farrells, designer: Michele Brackx
What are you currently working on?
Frederickx: We are about to start the full refurbishment of a house in Chelsea which will involve the excavation of an additional floor beneath an existing basement. The project has been 3 years in the making. With planning rules for basements in the borough having been tightened recently, we have been through a tough planning battle. Finally, work can start on site of what will be a highly technical and structural challenge resulting in a stunning home.
Brackx: I am currently working on the design for an educational establishment in Brixton. The project includes the design of 3 schools; a University Technical College, a College and a Further Education College on a very constrained site which is challenging from a design and planning perspective. We are currently developing the detailed design for the contractor, which can be built out of standardised components that will in turn increase cost efficiency and reduce construction time.
Are you in contact with other Belgian architects working in this country?
Frederickx: My colleagues are all British and so are most of the contractors I work with but I do meet up with other European architect colleagues some of whom are Belgian. It’s always a good opportunity to share stories about the architectural world in London and catch up on what’s happening in Belgium.
Brackx: I am in touch with some other Belgian architects but as far as I am aware there are not many of us here in London. For example, my office has 110 people (large for an architectural firm) and I am the only Belgian. I have never worked with Belgian colleagues in the same office in the UK. Most of the Belgian architects I know in London I've met either from previously studying architecture in Belgium or from networking events organised by the Flemish Club. They work on very different projects, varying from private housing projects to designing a base on the moon, which shows again the great opportunities London offers. Some of them have also been able to find time to teach in Belgium whilst working in the UK.
Do you visit Belgium regularly?
Frederickx: I still have a lot of family and friends in Belgium. My children spend some of their school holidays there. On average we probably travel to Belgium 4 to 5 times a year.
Brackx: I try and visit Belgium every 2 months. I think it is important to keep in touch with my roots, especially when Belgium is only a convenient 2-hour train journey away. I still read and compare Belgian and British newspapers to make sure I am aware and understand both opinions on certain topics and keep track of what is going on in Belgium as well as in the UK.
How do you feel Brexit might affect your profession in the years to come?
Frederickx: The referendum result came as a shock to the architectural industry within which the vast majority voted to remain. The design industry in London is a diverse melting pot with most practices having an international workforce. Foreign influence can offer enormous benefits and an elasticity of thinking to a design practice. One outcome of the referendum has been a growing intolerance towards the European workforce and some people have complained about feeling less welcome or less valued within their team. Personally I am worried that the UK won’t remain the magnet for creativity which has helped build its international creative profile.
The impact on the building industry is already being felt. Leading up to the referendum, the uncertainty resulted in clients putting off the purchase of a house or cancelling projects outright. I would imagine that this climate of uncertainty is here to stay for some time and it’s hard to quantify the long term impact it will have on London as a city and the construction sector nationwide.
Brackx: It is difficult to predict what the effect of Brexit is as we don't know if or when it will happen, and on what basis the UK will continue to move forward independently from the EU. What I can see right now is that the funding for some new construction projects in the private sector are put on hold as investors/funders are waiting to see how this situation evolves. There are also other projects that have been funded or part-funded by the EU, and it will be interesting to see how this gap will be filled in the future.
In the past, I have also worked on a project in Belgium for a British firm. Unfortunately, opportunities like this may be more difficult for British firms to win contracts or tenders post-Brexit. Having said this, as British firms have also been working in countries outside of the EU, more focus may need to be placed in these areas. Taking Jestico and Whiles as an example, from offices in London and Prague, the firm has won and completed projects in the Middle East, India, and Australia.
In the last few years, house prices in the UK and particularly in the capital have increased beyond belief. What’s your prognosis for the future?
Frederickx: The pressing issue of rising house prices and rent hikes is a threat to the future of this city. Living and working in the creative borough of Hackney, I see young, talented designers being priced out of Shoreditch to find expensive workspaces further out. The irony being that those are the people who made the area attractive in the first place. Many parts of this city are rapidly being transformed into an extension of central London, often replacing creative spaces with soulless developers flats and bland coffee chains.
The creative industry in this city excels; we are a world leader. The sector as a whole is one of the major contributors to the UK economy. I’m not sure what the answer is but surely foreign investment into buy-to-let property cannot be good as a long-term strategy to maintain the heart and soul of a city.
Brackx: London is an attractive place for people to live and work. For this reason, it has a huge demand and low supply for housing, which is the underlying reason why property prices keep rising. From my perspective as an architect, my interest has been in designing and developing places and communities that are liveable and affordable. With the investment in transport and infrastructure in London, new places are emerging as well as regeneration schemes in brownfield sites that should create more homes and help relieve some of the pressures in housing stock. Hopefully, along with a new London Mayor, more ideas will emerge to stabilise house prices.
Are you planning to stay in the UK or have you got plans to work elsewhere in the future?
Frederickx: Having lived in London for 16 years I have put my roots down and feel very much at home in the capital. I love the vibrancy of London, its cultural diversity, restaurants and museums. There is always something new happening and I love that vibrancy. Escaping to the countryside on the other hand, isn’t very hard either. And with family living up in Scotland we do get to travel around the UK more than on mainland Europe.
Brackx: I moved here because it is an international city with lots of opportunities and challenges. My partner is British-born Chinese. This is the city where we met. So for us staying in a vibrant city like this, where we both have equally good opportunities, is the logical choice.
What do you appreciate most about living in London?
Frederickx: London has so much to offer on so many levels that you never get tired of this city. The quality of life here can be far greater than in other capital cities.
With its abundance of parks, green spaces, tree-lined streets and low-rise buildings, it isn’t a concrete jungle like for example New York where I briefly lived before moving to London. My local area still has the feel of a village but has the buzz of a world capital.
It can get rather hectic in some places but that really depends on where you need to be. I am very lucky to have my office within a 10 minute walk through the park from where I live. Most of my other journeys through town I try to cycle. Many people just descend underground to the tube and take it to wherever they need to go but by cycling and walking you discover places you didn’t know existed and you get to know your way around.
Apart from the obvious museums, galleries, restaurants, etc. I also love the fact that London can be a great place for children to grow up. My kids attend a great primary school in our street. London schools received a lot of funding in the past 15 years and as a result the university admission after London schools is out-performing the rest of the country. Add to that the proximity of parks, swimming pools and sport facilities which I use greatly makes it a fantastic place to live.
Brackx: In London you can always explore a new exhibition, restaurant or other event. It makes it very hard to actually leave this place as there is so much to do. I live in Walthamstow, next to the Lee Valley Reservoir Chain, which is great for walking and cycling and I work in Central London where it is always busy and you can feel the vibe of the city. I love this contrast between my work and living environment.