Julien De Smedt, Architect
Words by Nikolaj Hansson. Illustration by Sine Jensen.
Born and raised in Belgium whilst living and working between offices in Copenhagen, Brussels and Shanghai, Julien De Smedt is quite a citizen of the world. Besides running JDS Architects, De Smedt also partakes in Makers With Agendas, a design project with the aim of exploring new design typologies. If that's not enough for you, he also gives lecturers at architectural schools around the world and has received more awards than the most of them. We linked up with De Smedt for a chat about youth culture, underdog countries and why compromise is king.
Both your parents have a background in art. How do you think this has influenced you through your upbringing up to where you are now?
It's hard to say. My dad has an art bookstore and my mom was a photographer and painter but could never make a living out of it. Of course I've been surrounded by art books my entire life but it wasn't until I started taking art classes in high school that my interest awakened. But I was already then critical of most art I discovered. And I quite quickly moved towards architecture. I decided to be an architect at 16. In a way I'd say that my lack of interest for art in my early years came from a criticism of the abundance of irrelevant art. Architecture felt more tangible and more grounded in needs.
How did Makers With Agendas come about? Did you see a gap anywhere that needed to be filled?
You could say that. There is a strong aspect of reaction in the genesis of MWA. Even the name is associated with NWA which definitely stands for a reactionary behaviour towards the music industry. We felt like the state of design was somewhat in crisis. It's one of the most polluting industries. In a world where everyone tries to deal with environmental issues, the design world seems careless: always producing more for less and less meaning. With the slide towards pure aesthetics devoid of reason or need, we felt we should take a stand. With the crisis and the decrease in buying power, our consumption society has turned towards the design industry as its new outlet. We're trying to give it substance rather than useless beauty.
Do you find context to be crucial, when you create your designs, whether that is interior design or architecture?
Absolutely. For architecture, it's obvious and hardly avoidable. Context in product design is different. It's the context of the industry that matters. How do we produce, what new needs must we answer, which improvements can we make? We try to outline these wider issues that paint the facets of our society through the 'Design Is...' poster campaign. In this project, generated by photographer Nikolaj Møller and myself, we address problems and potentials within our society that can inform the design world or outline its influences, positive and negative.
The Holmenkollen Ski Jump by JDS Architects
What is it like designing a ski jumping hill in Norway one day and a shelf system the next?
It's like addressing 2 completely different issues with the same mindset. The start is the same: to extract the essence of the task at hand, its inherent shortage and give it the most performative answer.
How do you think your background in skateboarding has affected your approach to architecture?
It has been elemental. I've learned to understand city life and adapt to it, which is essentially what's required to be an architect. You can definitely say that the school of hard knocks is a really good school for architects.
When undertaking a new project, how much emphasis do you put on the economic aspect of it?
It's a huge part of it. Practically essential. Some of our strongest achievements were made with very limited budgets. There's a general misconception in the world of architecture that wants us to believe that good (and different) architecture should cost more. It's only the case if one isn't clear about the priorities to take in a given project. Architecture is a discipline where compromise is king. It's therefore essential to know what matters in a project, what must be kept and what can be traded out.
Do you believe architecture has had a certain impact on youth culture? If yes, how?
I think it's slowly starting to become cool. And younger audiences are paying more attention to it. Typically, architecture comes from old money. But a turn has occurred where younger entrepreneurs shifted their interests to real estate development and by that also changed the face of what's produced. At times, it's to be closer to society as it evolves today. City authorities have also been more and more aware of the impact that younger citizens have on city life. Take our Kalvebod Waves project in downtown Copenhagen: it's completely geared to motion, play and urban life.
The Stilt by Makers With Agendas
Some are by the opinion, that the younger generations have a different approach to architecture. How do you see this?
I think there are many ways to answer this question. Of course, my way to make architecture has a lot to do with allowance: granting the right for all to use it and abuse it, in a positive way. We lay the ground for the unexpected to happen and that's always best implemented by younger generations. There's a strong aspect of play at hand here. Our buildings are frames for lives to unfold. There's nothing more gratifying than seeing your work swamped with people living their life in whichever way they feel.
I heard that you are quite the Jay-Z fan. With relation to the ghetto projects in the US, do you think that the architecture surrounding you can influence your personality?
Yes. Both in a good and in a bad way. If your environment is tough, it might make you react actively. It makes you want to change things for the better. Jay-Z wanted to get out of Marcy's projects and he did, while keeping a linkage to it, because he knows that it's also what made him.
Do you see yourself as an idealist?
Yes. Not in a naive way but rather because I believe that by addressing issues in what I do can eventually change things, at least for some people.
You’re born in Belgium, but now based in Copenhagen. What is your general impression of the Danes?
I see myself as a world citizen. If that's true, I'm now in Denmark but I'm also constantly traveling and working in multiple environments. I'm a curious person so diversity and discovery interest me. I rarely give a general opinion of a people. I've met great Danes and other appalling ones. I would though celebrate the Danes' capacity at entrepreneurship and achieving their goals. It's also a feature you find in other underdog countries. Like Belgium.
The Iceberg by JDS Architects