Words to live by : Ode to Geert Bekaert

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The theme of this 25th edition of the Biennale Interieur is Interiors. How interiors are experienced and inhabited has been the subject of author Geert Bekaert’s writings since the 1950s. Contemporary critic and writer Christophe Van Gerrewey interprets Bekaert’s conclusions. A conversation about architectural criticism then and now. About how Belgians are living and building. And also about Pinterest and Instagram.

By Leen Creve

‘We view Interiors broadly,’ says OFFICE Kersten Geers David Van Severen, the cultural curators, about their choice for the overarching theme of INTERIEUR 2016. ‘From highly technological and ‘living’ spaces to artistic installations and total interiors. We want to offer a catalogue of a hypothetical world.’ With that premise in mind, we can’t help but think of that other curator, writer, historian and journalist: Geert Bekaert, who died a few months ago at the age of 88. The experiencing of spaces was crucial to him. Time for a conversation with an expert on his work: writer and professor Christophe Van Gerrewey.

Geert Bekaert and Biennale Interieur

Geert Bekaert was born in Kortrijk in 1928. When Interieur was founded in 1967 he was already a respected journalist and writer for De Linie, Streven, De Nieuwe Gids, Davidsfond, Lannoo and others. He was even hired as an advisor. Later he also wrote for the newspaper De Standaard, and he made films for the Belgian national public-service broadcaster VRT with director Jef Cornelis in the 1970s and 80s. In the meantime he taught at several academies and universities in Amsterdam, Delft, Maastricht, Eindhoven, Antwerp and Leuven. He was announced as guest of honour at the Biennale Interieur in 1988 – in between Philippe Starck (1986) and Andrea Branzi (1990) – and preceded to become president of Biennale Interview from 1991 to 2000. In 2008 Bekaert looked back at the operation on the occasion of its forty-year anniversary. Geert Bekaert passed away in September 2016.

Christophe Van Gerrewey on Geert Bekaert

“I first studied literature and then architecture. His writings were treated in my architecture course. It wasn’t until 2001, when I visited the expo of Xaveer De Geyter in De Singel, that my fascination for his work began. Geert Bekaert had written a text for that exhibition – in it he talks about the relationship between literature and architecture. I didn’t really understand that text and started reading his other work. I chose literature and architecture as the subject of my thesis, and after learning that Bekaert’s collected works were not all collected yet, I focused on that during my PhD. I compiled his texts in collaboration with Mil de Kooning, and from his writings I could read the history of architecture. I divided them into six time periods and six themes. First religion, then living, then society, because architecture went through an identity crisis in the 1970s. In the 1980s, there was a return to the past in postmodernism, causing history to become the main theme. Later, during the 90s, architecture became more openly regarded as a form of culture. If I were to summarize it now, I would say that architecture is becoming more (and forcibly so) political.”

 

I would like to start with a passage from a text written in 1994, on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the Biennale Interieur. Geert Bekaert was president of the Biennale at the time. ‘The interior materialises anywhere, but is no longer tied to a place. Furthermore, it surpasses time by settling itself in its core. The most beautiful and unexpected aspect of this development in interiors is that it relates to its original meaning again: that it wasn’t tied to forms at all, but was the condition for as much freedom as possible for moving in and dealing with the world of human beings.’ Has he always described interiors in this way?

 

CHRISTOPHE VAN GERREWEY: Interiors can be viewed as the inside of a building, but on the other hand also as what is placed in that building: furniture and smaller elements, anything that is too small to be considered as architecture. He wrote about both of these viewpoints. But indeed, Geert Bekaert did attach great importance to the feeling that an interior can be the centre of the world for someone. An interior has an artificial and temporary character. But that doesn’t mean that it can’t be important. And personal. He also acknowledged that an interior might not exist anymore, because people are always on the move, living out of a suitcase. He once wrote that a hotel room is the ultimate and only true interior.

 

I think that this contradiction has always been present in his prefaces and texts about Interieur. In a 1968 text about the Biennale he wrote this: ‘Now Kortrijk appears with a whole new initiative: a biennale that, under the title Interieur, wants to offer an international confrontation of creativity in the field of interior architecture. What choice will be on offer? The fashionable diktats of the selection? Or absolute freedom? Asking the question in that way, they cannot choose either. If an initiative like the Biennale Interieur wants to be significant in any way, it can only do so by rejecting this out-dated dilemma through an honest search for the factual relationships between people and their interiors in this day and age.’ In this passage he emphasises that you should be free to put together your own interior.

 

Even though he was afraid of its potentially patronising character, he did acknowledge that every two years, Interieur is a moment for the public to question their interiors. In the 1960s it obviously still had much to do with the fight against the modernism and functionalism of the 1950s. And its stark trends and ways of living. Bekaert views Interieur as a moment to realise that there are alternatives to the prevailing standard – that this norm is not the only truth. He believes that this utopia is central to the Biennale Interieur.

Do you think that this role is still applicable to INTERIEUR 2016?

I think so. Today there are also norms and trends that aren’t given a second thought. Let me give an example: these days many people that are in their early sixties – my parents’ age – are renovating their bathrooms. These people aren’t necessarily involved with design, but they do pick up on things and are directed towards trends. Without thinking about it, they choose soulless, sleek bathrooms with square sinks: as soon as you turn on the tap, the water splashes everywhere. They don’t want to be viewed as old-fashioned by choosing a more practical, deep and round sink. They want to be up to speed with trends, even if their old bathroom was still perfectly functional. Interieur still shows alternatives to these norms and trends. There is still hope that it makes people look at their own interior and environment more critically. This is, and will remain, one of the raisons d’êtres of Interieur. But as a fair you never know whether you have succeeded. It is something that you propose to the public without knowing whether it will have any effect.

 

Was this looking for a balance between educating the public without being patronising something that Geert Bekaert was also concerned with in his own work?

Yes, that’s right. The dilemma of on the one hand showing good examples and on the other hand believing that people can make their own decisions has always been a part of his work. He thought his role was to confront people with the possibilities. But as a critic you need to be able to distinguish between the good and the bad at the same time. And to be able to explain why. Bekaert was very knowledgeable about this, but he did always try to clarify that it concerns a large audience and he tried to be as accessible as possible. He was both an academic and a television producer and journalist for a large audience.

 

Was Geert Bekaert unique in this respect?

In the field of architecture, yes. He wrote about architecture from the 1950s until about five years ago. And he always remained inquisitive. And flexible. He liked Charles Vandenhove, but was also one of the first to write about Rem Koolhaas. Many people didn’t understand this, and from a certain viewpoint it might be hard to understand. But he knew who mattered, and that made him a good critic and journalist. He literally wrote nearly every day and published 1,400 texts. These have been collected (by me, among others). And I used his writings to review fifty years of architectural history in my PhD dissertation. On the basis of his work I analysed that period in architecture and divided it into six themes (see text box). His faith in architecture makes him exceptional. He put architecture in perspective but at the same time ascribed it sacred properties. According to him, architecture has a considerable amount of influence on people. 

Where do you think that this belief in good architecture and design in Bekaert’s texts comes from?

Bekaert started working as a journalist for the newspaper De Standaard, when he was still a Jesuit. He was 18 years old when he joined the Jesuits, partly because they provided the best education at the time. He started writing in 1950, first about sculpture, then the modern architecture of churches. After that he increasingly wrote about architecture. His work always consisted of a very existential feeling that something might be at stake in architecture. When he started writing about living and interiors in the 1960s, some of these religious things stuck. They’re present in some disguised version. In 1968 he wrote a text entitled: ‘The sacred is the everyday’. In it, he tries to describe how you almost perform a church service at home. Every meal as a sort of Eucharist celebration. He kept writing about the importance of these kinds of sacred – or in any case meaningful – moments at home, even though he resigned from the Jesuits in 1974.

Bekaert notably didn’t interview many people? Or did he not publish these conversations in the form of interviews?

It is true that he didn’t interview many people. He did it sometimes, but actually he ended up not really considering what those people said. He preferred to look for what was going on in their work himself.

In what other ways is architectural criticism different than say 40 years ago?

I teach architecture theory at EPFL in Lausanne. My students think it’s odd that someone who isn’t an architect would write about architecture. In a way that’s a pity. Bekaert once published a text about Belgian architecture with the subtitle: ‘Thoughts from an outsider’. He thought that only an outsider could speak for the user of inhabitant. At the same time he was a spokesperson for architects who couldn’t or wouldn’t speak about their own work. The post-war, silent generation just constructed buildings without caring all that much. Even Stéphane Beel’s generation didn’t look for words to describe their own work. Today it’s almost indispensible to be able to communicate well as an architect, to state what you stand for as clearly as possible yourself.

How did Bekaert look at Belgian houses?

I found a text from 1989, entitled: ‘A journey through the jungle’. Bekaert’s conclusion in this text is that ‘the Belgian house’ does not exist. It has to be reinvented each time. This individualism, the ideal of the free ‘kavel’ (a housing subdivision of land), is typically Belgian. 

A recent survey by a construction firm showed that in 2016 the average Flemish person still dreams of a three-bedroom detached house in the countryside.

Yes and it’s striking that Bekaert resisted this quite strongly in the 1960s. He did become more lenient over the years, and in the 1980s he said: ‘If villas are the norm, then maybe we should try to make the best villas as possible.’ This theme is still relevant. Perhaps today is the time to look at the boundaries of this ‘verkavelingsdenken’ (thinking in subdivisions). Either way, we are starting to see its limits. The question is whether you can re-educate the public? Whose job is that? The Flemish Government Architect? Politicians? Is it possible to go against a national spirit or zeitgeist? It is a difficult discussion. And the same dilemma applies: patronising is probably not going to work.

Last question: Bekaert never wrote about it, but in contemporary interior architecture, Pinterest and Instagram play an important role. The photographs on those platforms literally inspire builders and renovators across the globe.

I might be a bit old-fashioned, but I believe that you can’t decorate a (living) culture just with imagery. You also need words. I regularly have that discussion. For me, images often say everything and nothing at the same time. I try to look at Geert Bekaert as an example in that sense. He always searched for a vocabulary to put the impact of architecture and design into words. In 2000, he wrote a text about designer Maarten Van Severen. The first sentence is: ‘Why is it that a work by Maarten Van Severen, a table, a chair or a cupboard, can be so captivating?’ Then he goes on in an attempt to answer that question with a profundity that has become rare. Page after page he tries to describe as meticulously as possible the effect that a piece of furniture like that can have – what sitting at a Maarten Van Severen table can mean.

Geert Bekaert was looking for a language to make things discussable and to weigh its pros and cons. The Internet is making this more difficult than before. You can find imagery that is repeated endlessly, but that – as is everything – is bound to a certain place and time. I see that even with architecture students. In the workshops they sometimes bring images for inspiration. But if you ask them to describe what they see, they hardly seem able to do that. That’s a problem. They might know that it is a building by Mies van der Rohe, for instance, but where, in what context, from which period and for which client? They don’t have a clue. So they can’t explain why the architect chose for that solution, right? The Internet is full of these types of context-free images. I think that now more than ever, we are in need of interpretation and context, in the same way that an author like Geert Bekaert provided them.

This article was first published in the Biennale Interieur 2016 catalogue

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