Dirk Somers
Dirk Somers (°1976) studied architecture in Antwerp and Milan and graduated in Urban and Environmental Planning at KULeuven. In 2001 he established Huiswerk Architecten together with Erik Wieërs.

Since 2003, 2011, respectively, Dirk Somers has been a teacher of architectural design at Delft University of Technology and design professor at Ghent University.

As a passionate designer, he built a repertoire with Huiswerk Architecten before establishing Bovenbouw Architectuur in 2011, which receives both national and international acclaim. Bovenbouw Architectuur exhibited at the Venice Biennale (2012), at the Architekturgalerie München (2013) and at the Singel in Antwerp (2014). In 2021, the office curated the Belgian pavilion at the XVII Venice Architecture Biennale.
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Portrait of Dirk Somers in the Belgian Pavilion, XVII Architecture Biennale, Venice, Italy, 2021 (Ph.© Filip Dujardin)
When you were a child what did you want to be when you were older?
I recall in the first class of secondary school having to report to the school supervisor because I was drawing floor plans of a house during math class. Being in a big new school I was quite scared, and it manifested itself like this. Luckily, the supervisor got quite interested in the floorplan of this 'villa' and we talked over the details of it. Of course, he mentioned that I couldn't be doing this instead of math! But it was a charming exchange and probably encouraged me to continue. As well as this my brother (5 years older and an engineer), was a little interested in architecture, and that probably encouraged me along this path too. At some point I strategically tried to convince my mother that I would study art history, which apparently worked very well to convince her that I should study architecture!
What was your favourite subject at school?
At Jesuit school you would have some cool people, especially in philosophy and literature. For example, my teacher for Dutch and English had an interest in architecture and knew who Aldo Rossi was. Unfortunately our History teacher was the opposite, and disliking modern-art we actually had to force him to teach us the subject, we believing it was so important! Then what comes to mind from secondary school is the final-year trip to Italy, where we saw not just the classics but also things like Michelucci's Chiesa dell’Autostrada del Sole.
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Renovation of 3 eclectic buildings, Antwerpen, Belgium 2016 (Ph.© Filip Dujardin)
What was your educational path?
Before 18 I was at a Jesuit school with only boys and funnily enough in the library there they only had two books on architecture: one was this general book on 20th century buildings, the one with Norman Foster's garage in yellow on the front cover; and the other was from Charles Jencks on postmodernism, that despite being phone-book-thick, I read in its entirety. It gave me the feeling it was the buzz of the moment, and so at 18 going to architecture school in Antwerp I was totally marinated in this world of Charles Jencks. It probably took the architecture school two years to knock that out of me! As of course at this time in the 90's it was the worst moment to have these kinds of postmodern ideas, the worst moment to be fascinated with Aldo Rossi...The movement was just totally over. Luckily I got to study with Giorgio Grassi for a year in Milan, so the reading wasn't all for nothing. But back in Antwerp our tutors were mainly looking towards Switzerland, taking us on tours to see early Diener, Zumthor and Herzog de Meuron in Basel, which was very fresh in a way and quite decisive in our formation.

After graduating from Antwerp however, I still felt like I didn't actually know that much, and so for the first two years practicing I also studied planning and urbanism in Leuven. By beginning to understand better the world we live in, those studies helped me feel a lot more mature.
Who was the most influential person in your architectural education and why?
In school it was certainly Bob van Reeth, who did the Van Roosmaelen House along the Antwerp quays: an inspired imitation of a house by Adolf Loos. In the end Van Reeth was a bit ashamed with the building carnival he somehow triggered by designing this flamboyant house - he had come from a more structuralist/brutalist background only to arrive at a postmodern point, before developing further into some kind of swiss-orientated essentialist/ rationalist architect. He really did change a lot throughout his career and was a very inspiring teacher. He used to talk a lot about the intelligent ruin, which was his metaphor for a good balance between structure and infill. It's things like that from his discourse that still stick with me now.
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Renovation of 3 eclectic buildings, Antwerpen, Belgium 2016 (Ph.© Filip Dujardin)
When and how did your career start?
My first job was with Erik Wieërs in 1999, who I started working for in August, but by October I had so much work for myself we decided to set up an office together. It was really strange in a way because Eric is 12 years older, but still, that's what happened, and so essentially I never really worked for anyone other than myself, and it began just a few months after graduation. In retrospect, it was a bit too soon. I definitely had more work than ideas in the beginning. But I was very lucky for what I had.

Then Giorgio Grassi was quite influential. In the end he was not a great teacher but he made us read a lot of books! Every time we put our sketches in front of him he would produce a book recommendation. Some didn't even make sense in context to the work, before or after the reading, but it was nevertheless interesting.
How would you summarise the ten years (2000-2011) in which you practiced in partnership with Erik Wieërs, under the name of Huiswerk Architecten?
Erik is very chill and relaxed, and takes it as it comes. In many ways we had a lot of fun. I was always more stressed about things, which in the end contributed to our split. I had this anxiety to go after things, which culminated in a lot of weekends in the office. Ultimately splitting up left me a little less stressed, as afterwards I didn't have the kind of 'semi-responsibilities' associated with this kind of partnership, but a clear directive: if I'm doing it then I'm doing it, whatever I'm involved in, I'm fully involved in. Overall, it was a nice and explorative period for me, where we tried a lot of stuff, some good, some terrible! But that's still the case at Bovenbouw! Just perhaps getting a little more focused... I'm totally of the mindset that it's much better to have some nice failures than only boring successes.
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Renovation of 3 eclectic buildings, Antwerpen, Belgium 2016 (Ph.© Filip Dujardin)
Which architects have influenced you the most?
Many! But the real fun thing is trying to like stuff you don't really like at first! That said, I think I was 17 when I first visited the John Soane Museum in London, which with its density and layering and the labyrinth-like spaces, was a very intense and memorable experience. As a counter example, I never really liked Louis Kahn. I thought he was so emphatic, exaggerated and too platonic. But now, at least for the last 4 or 5 years I've been into him. I can't say the same about Carlo Scarpa though! But one day that might change too, maybe in another 5 years. I think you have to be open and accept that your perception will change over time. This is true going in either direction. For instance, I became somewhat disappointed with Robert Venturi after seeing his buildings in reality while travelling in the US. I suppose this just lends more weight to the notion that you really must get out there and see the buildings in person in order to truly experience and understand them properly.
How do other creative fields influence your architectural work?
A lot of people try to develop this artistic stance when it comes to talking about architecture, which always tempts me to emphasize how different architecture and art are. I prefer comparisons between architecture and other ‘arts of life’ like cooking or fashion. These arts of life are tied in a balance between convention and imagination in a way the arts aren’t. It is not a coincidence that Adolf Loos produced so many analogies between the architectural discipline and fashion, and so few analogies that involved the arts.

That aside, I like film a lot, and like to misread people like David Lynch as an architect: his stories never make sense but the places do, the consistency of the setting he develops allows for his stories to unravel.
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Poice Station, Schoten, Belgium, 2008 (Ph. © Filip Dujardin)
How do you approach new projects?
Essentially, by cultivating the situation. Which is a very complex thing, with many peripheral influences, including the client, people involved in the project, and what the circumstances offer. It always comes back to the simple ambition of making the most out of a given situation, just like in life! It's really more the 'art of life', rather than some sort of determined framework. And in life as in approaching architectural projects, you must accept change and be versatile. It's good to think in this way and not be prescriptive. If someone asks you, 'what's the recipe for the perfect evening'? There's no right answer, and even if there is, it would only work once.
The key features of your architecture:
It's nice to imagine that there are none, as our work is quite diverse and inconsistent, but it's also unrealistic to do so. We are sometimes like the parents who don't see themselves in their children, but for other people the resemblance is obvious. I suppose there are a few aspects like tectonics or typology which recur; themes like structure and infill. There are certainly things which are based on a specific body of knowledge, however, I don't think it should be about making those things explicit, rather using these basics as a good foundation to diversify from place to place. That said, I've also become more relaxed with the idea that certain principles come back.
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Exhibition scenography to celebrate 200 years of Ghent University, Ghent, Belgium, 2018 (Ph. © Filip Dujardin)
How would you define your Architectural research?
This is a bit of a tricky question. I’m reluctant to define our work as research. Research tries to be focused and linear. The themes and topics we become interested in ultimately allow us more freedom to create in a very situated manner, and don't restrict nor define us in the way that we make successive buildings. For example, we became very interested in the principles of composition, or started to think in ’scenes’, deriving from the Picturesque. I have a whole range of books on these topics, which help. It’s a bit like learning Latin if you're a priest: it’s not fundamental to religion itself, but it helps with handling the job with more agility.

The base story for us is how architecture can contribute to the city, and it's not a question with a simple answer. Sometimes you learn years after the project has finished that in fact you didn't help the city, or that you did something amazing by accident. But nevertheless, that's the idea: that the city comes first to the architecture.
What was your first built project? How has your architectural work evolved since then?
A house with 9 studios for disabled people. It was a funny thing, a blown up red-brick house with a pitched roof, three times bigger than the neighbouring house. It looked very quirky and it's still kind of funny. At that time it was rather unusual in the architectural landscape, it was vulgar and figural but also something very abstract. Some people were rather intrigued by it I would say, and some people rather not. Also, it's funny, because here the neighbour’s house provided important context to the architecture, but ten years later they replaced it with an apartment block. The context has entirely disappeared! Then you really learn how difficult having this urban focus really is.

One thing I really learned is that between words and buildings there's a very difficult relationship. In the early days I would design too much in terms of conceptual ambitions, growing older I have become less rhetorical. The balance is much better now. Sometimes in the past we would really insist on an idea only to see the end result is not that good. Now the idea can come more naturally, even from the making itself. Or ideas slowly pile up. You also learn that a building's users don't judge the building by the ideas behind it, but have a much more personal, physical relationship with it.
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Renovation of a row house, Antwerp, Belgium, 2019 (Ph.© Filip Dujardin)
Since 2003 you have been teaching Architectural Design at Delft University of Technology and since 2011 you have been a design professor at the University of Ghent. What does teaching architecture represent to you and how does it influence your work?
Well the good thing about talking over things so much is that they become clearer to you. You learn to objectify certain intuitions and notions you have. That's one aspect.

In terms of the practicalities of teaching, in retrospect I find that the best results come from teaching design courses where to some degree you already know the outcome. If it's too open and unpredictable, without a good brief encapsulating a defined set of things you're trying to teach, it's a less successful education. It's very boring to describe it like that, but to my feeling it's the case that if you have this strong set agenda, the students emerge happiest. I am thinking more and more that we shouldn't be too artistic in our approach to education; it shouldn’t be too mystical and foggy. I don't fancy the fog so much, students waste too much time trying to find their way through it!

I think architectural education should be more about teaching the fundamental aspects of the profession. Outside of that, every student has the intelligence to develop his or her personality in a certain direction. But the fundamentals are key, and too much overlooked by the educational institutions. Making a simple building well is so difficult, it's almost impossible to grasp. I'm 44 now, and I still think that to have all the components of a building under control is extremely difficult. Architecture is weird in this way, and also because so many things matter to the outcome of the project. Even the coarseness of the pointing matters. Imagine in literature if the quality of the ink mattered, if the words of Dostoyevsky could be destroyed by a bad print...in this regard architecture is so complicated.

What I have liked to do in the last few years is take students through the streets and indiscriminately analyze buildings. Talking architecturally about building elements as we see them most often, in 'everyday' compositions that are familiar and that we think we know, but which actually take decades to master. Through doing this I got to admire the older architects more and more, who were making real advances between the 17th-19th centuries, realising how much better they understood buildings in their totality. Really since then architecture hasn't progressed at all, and the only job left for us is to slow the decline!

I don't think I'm being too reactionary when I say this, I just genuinely believe that it's a stretch to say architecture has improved in the last 100 years. Imagine making a row house in the city now which has the same quality as back then, it would be an amazing achievement just to avoid the use of cheap and ugly materials. Of course the elements would be higher performing, but efficiency should not replace beauty, as it unfortunately has. At some point technology went into super-speed and architecture stalled. I hope in the future there will be a moment when they no longer have this hostile relationship, but currently it's not the case. In the 19th century this didn't exist, the person making windows, the person cutting stones, they were all in a joint project of craftsmanship and in a way understood each other's language.

That reality probably won't come back, but however we do it, we should aspire to get on top of technological standards. It's a condition of our time, but the main thing is to make the most of what we have and not lament this fact. In the future I can't imagine they will blame us too much for using aluminium windows and lots of silicon when there was little other choice!

In the end I would say teaching is a bit like self-training, it's very confronting. You can listen to yourself at times and think, I'm actually saying nonsense! It forces you to understand things better for yourself and in turn students. It's a bit of a catalyst, as you're pushed and forced to become sharper in the way you understand things.
Along the way, what is the best advice you have received, and is there one piece of advice in particular which you would share with young architects and architecture students?
Everyone's actually looking for recognition all the time. It's a very fundamental thing which took me until the age of 40 to fully grasp. When you understand that you start to speak to people in a different way. Another fundamental thing was getting into transcendental meditation, which practiced over a number of years has made me much more relaxed about everything, less nervous, more patient.
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Renovation of a row house, Antwerp, Belgium, 2019 (Ph.© Filip Dujardin)
In your years of practicing and teaching architecture, which developments/ events represent the biggest challenges you have faced in your career?
Four years ago I had a total burn-out. I wanted to quit then and was kind of standing on the side of the docks just frozen. I was managing an office of 13 or 14 people at the time and had just mentally collapsed. For the employees it was awful too, because I would come into the office every morning and just want to change everything, or panic at every decision that had been made. But it was because of them that I chose to carry on and get through it, I couldn't live with the idea of being their captain, so to speak, and abandoning ship. So I had a crash- course in burn-out relief and then it was all about getting everything back on track, for myself and everyone else.

In the end, the saying, 'congratulations on your burnout' really comes to mean something, as if you handle such a situation well you can really come out the other side a lot stronger, as I did. It's a valley you have to walk through to reach a higher summit, if you like. As after the event you learn to handle your brain much more consciously, and cleverly. Our mind is a weird engine which we don't really control very well and certainly through meditation I learned to use the head much more purposefully. It's an amazing source of energy but it can direct you the wrong way if you let it. In general mental health is still too much of a taboo subject, it should be talked about a lot more, which is why I'm very open about it. But more fundamentally, there is a great opportunity in every crisis!
Is there a book which is of particular importance to you as an architect?
Of course there are many. Someone I'm into at the moment is Trystan Edwards, the person from whom Venturi borrowed the term 'inflection'. Another would be Rudolf Arnheim: The Dynamics of Architectural Form. The latter is very sharp in describing the physical nature of architecture, owing to the author's skill in writing about art and sculpture, and I often found myself reading it thinking, ‘this is where Peter Märkli got this or that from’... although I've no idea if he's ever read it. For me it was certainly an eye opener.

Then there's Gio Ponti's Amate l'architettura, which is a funny and very fatherly book in the way that it literally tells the reader, ‘do this, don't do that’! Ponti is much more direct than Venturi and talks as a designer. It's not very high-brow but more into the making. The book is also full of things which are not true, but for a slippery knowledge field like architecture that's not a problem! For example, he would inform the reader that the best clients do not have children, owing to their apparent ambition. It's total rubbish to say things like that! But the simple truths it does reveal, such as not to colour the floors the same as the ceilings, lest find yourself trapped in a hamburger, are funny but true. Too often in books the author is being prudent and saying things which are obviously true, which in a way can be very boring, whereas Ponti just cruises through everything to convey his personal truth.

Then there are more books like that: Experiencing Architecture from Steen Eiler Rasmussen; Elements of Architecture from Pierre von Meiss; and all these books have the same point of departure in the introduction: asking ‘what is our body of knowledge’? - Somehow with the feeling that a lot got lost in the 20th century in the cause of Modernism, which through its anti-bourgeois nature somehow brought about the eradication of aesthetics. In the political project of having more equality we somehow unconsciously or consciously decided that making something beautiful was an elitist ambition. Still today, that fact means as architects we have lost a lot of our power in society, because if the architect can't tell you what looks good then what is his or her authority, actually? Apart from a bit of technical knowledge that engineers can handle better...

I think we have to train people to have the capacity to tell people what looks good and what doesn't look good, and it will give us more power. The notion that aesthetics is a waste of time and will never provide you with ‘power’ is totally untrue. For instance, from my everyday contact with clients I know if you can explain to them in simple words why something looks good or why something else would look terrible, then you end up with a lot of power to make important decisions. If you try to hide behind a fog of conceptual language they lose you, and you lose them. The books I've mentioned are somewhat about that, and about working on that body of knowledge.
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Renovation of a row house, Antwerp, Belgium, 2019 (Ph.© Filip Dujardin)
An instance of architecture important to you:
What comes to mind is perhaps not a conventional answer, but in the first year of architecture school they took us on a bus journey to Amsterdam and we saw the Piraeus from Hans Kollhoff. This really made an impression on me. It had been finished for about one or two years and I was so taken aback with the building; it was enigmatic and confusing. As a 19 year old I was asking myself, ‘is this building old, new, or what’? The realisation that a new building could have such a complex, layered identity was staggering, and the sentiment has stayed with me forever.
A personal motto/ something you remind yourself:
The ability to turn all of the resistance you will inevitably face into positive energy. Practicing this, I've really learned to be interested in disagreements, and see the potential in them. It's an energy that can be channeled for good. Even when you lose a competition for instance, there's perhaps an option to think, ‘maybe this is actually for the better’? - It gives you time to focus more on certain aspects and reflect on the process, maybe then the idea can resurface in a better condition. This kind of mentality you really need in architecture, as it's such a slow profession, with such a huge amount of resistance on the path.
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Residential care home, Oostende, Belgium, 2019 (Ph. © Filip Dujardin)
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Fire station, Berendrecht, Belgium, 2014 (Ph.© Filip Dujardin)
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House extension, Mortsel, Belgium, 2012 (Ph.© Filip Dujardin)
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Apartment Building in the Docklands, Antwerp, Belgium, 2021 (© Bovenbouw)
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Werfstraat, Brussels, Belgium, 2020 (© Bovenbouw)
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Werfstraat, Brussels, Belgium, 2020 (Ph. © Alex Turner)
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Werfstraat, Brussels, Belgium, 2020 (© Bovenbouw)
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Werfstraat, Brussels, Belgium, 2020 (© Myrthe Geelen)
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Belgian Pavilion, XVII Architecture Biennale, Venice, Italy, 2021 (© Alex Turner)
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Belgian Pavilion, XVII Architecture Biennale, Venice, Italy, 2021 (© Alex Turner)
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