How does one go from architectural design, working with Jean Nouvel, to real estate development for an international firm?
I joined Jean Nouvel’s agency in 1987, where I began working on the project for the Onyx center for culture in Saint-Herblain with Myrto Vitart. After that I participated in the call for tenders for the Centre des Congrès in Tours, that we ended up winning. We had a lot of similar projects coming from public procurement, and then the agency went into a nose dive. The structure had grown too quickly and there were too many teams, which led at one point to a big cash-flow problem and a significant management problem.
In 1994, Jean Nouvel left to pursue new horizons with a new associate. It was at that time that I began to work with ING on various projects, in particular a project in the Czech Republic, initiated by an encounter between Paul Koch and Jean Nouvel. We thus began to work with private, international procurement. In the beginning it was Paul Koch, ING and Jean Nouvel who suggested a strategic urban study on the city of Prague.
Opening on contemporary practices
The response provided by Jean Nouvel was more a vision of city renewal than a classic urban study, thus allowing a private promoter to directly visualize zones that had added value and those that could be potentially developed.
The idea was to define the potential for development. The project was designed with very little money, and a lot of pedagogy was required; at the time the teams in the Czech Republic didn’t really know how to design using Autocad, the workers didn’t know how to galvanize, etc. But it was a fantastic experience, involving ING who were seeking a signature, and the city itself.
There was nothing in this neighborhood in Prague prior to this project, and ING’s gamble was a risky one, but it paid off with a surprising commercial success, with shops being rented out at rates far higher than those initially estimated. This is where my story with ING begins. When Paul Koch was offered a job with ING in France, he came to ask me for advice about architects who would be interested in working in this branch of development, and it took me a while to realize that he was talking about me. And so I joined ING. The experience in the Czech Republic was very conclusive as there was a real understanding of architecture by the Czechs, a total openness towards contemporary practices and a culture of the author.
This culture is barely present, even absent in France, where there is still too much trepidation when it comes to architecture. It is no small thing to observe many French authors attempt to explain this fear of modernity.
Things are changing step by step, and we have seen singular operations led by social housing providers, always ahead of their time in France. Some among them were very willing, but the others were cruelly lacking in general culture. The difference between the French real estate business and Dutch firms like ING, is that they are essentially composed of architects, urban planners, geographers but strangely enough, very few people from the fields of economy and commerce. At ING, we insist on the quality of the programs and the sites, even if the architecture isn’t exceptional on every project, the typologies are, and benefit from attentive research.
Other than real estate promotion, what are ING’s activities?
ING Group is an international financial institution of Dutch origin that provides services in banking, insurance and asset management for 60 million clients (individuals, businesses and institutional investors) in over 60 countries.
Ranked as one of the world’s two largest real estate groups with more than 90 million euros in assets under management, ING Group has over 115,200 employees in 21 countries. ING is organized around three divisions, one for Investment Management, another Finance and the one in which I work: the Development division under the direction of Paul Koch.
Collaboration between architect and private promoter
The ING Real Estate group stands out thanks to the quality of its architectural production, and chooses to provide work to young teams of architects rather than famous names in architecture. What are the motivations and strategies of a real estate group like yours?
We have two different strategies depending on the operation, the group knows how to work with renowned architects like Jean Nouvel and Frank Gehry in Prague, and Renzo Piano in New York. In France, in the market for mixed projects, and more particularity in housing, we call on young, mature and talented teams; whose convictions with regard to the question of housing are well known to us (like Périphériques Architectes, Ed.). Our strategy consists of requiring well thought out, high quality architecture, designed and built down to the last detail. This is a normal requirement, similar to how we choose very good engineers and financiers to run our operations.
Is working with architects when one finds oneself on the side of the private sector, a way of creating supplementary value for buildings, and what would that added value be?
As a promoter, we have a mission, to “produce the matter of the city,” but also to succeed as a business. Architects are essential in the service of cities, and testify accurately to the culture of the time. They are at the heart of the system, being both visionary and responsible partners ready to work with those tasked with managing the quality of life and its sustainability. The added value of well-built architecture is obvious, it is a major factor in guaranteeing the success of the operation.
What are your criteria when it comes to choosing the architects with whom you work? In ING do you have the equivalent of what used to be called a “technology and art” department?
We work with architects whose backgrounds, convictions and commitment to this discipline are familiar to us. They belong to a family of thought, one that brings together a taste for dialogue, controlled innovation, drawing, contextual technology and building economics as the raw materials of the project. We are trying to develop a shared vision of city planning and architecture, with Dutch architects, who are engaged in dialogue with private developers, being frequently associated with our teams. A good strategy of selection would be to encourage young talents, confronting the different visions and practices of French architects with other cultures, and preparing opportunities for the great architects of our country to express their ideas.
Have you seen any evolutions in the relationships that architects maintain with the private sector, and on a wider scale do you think that the architectural call for tenders is the most adequate form for the production of architecture today?
Architects should, above all, progress with regard to the relationships that they cultivate with the private sector. They should move closer to operators, reassuring them, proving that their practice includes economy as a material for projects, and that planning and the environment are at the heart of their preoccupations. Architecture and style should not be a subject in itself, and ultimately the most important thing is a common strategy between client and architect, in the service of cities and their inhabitants. Good architecture will then follow. With regard to architectural calls for projects, I think it is often necessary for local authorities to guarantee quality and fairness. It is a process that both develops and frustrates the profession. It could often be avoided and replaced by a committee for discussion and dialogue between private and public actors so as to adapt the selection of architecture to a precise set of issues.
From your experience as an architect for a world class agency to your current role as developer for ING, has the way you look at architecture changed?
My way of looking at architecture hasn’t changed. I am still fully dedicated to it, I have the opportunity, thanks to the support of Paul Koch, my director, and of ING, to be able to think, propose and develop a poetic vision of architecture that amplifies the values of use and, one that testifies simply, but in an exemplary fashion, to the values of our times.
This article first appeared in Stream 01 in 2008.