Mouse in one hand, pencil in the other: Behind the scenes of GAFPA

Since 2008, Floris De Bruyn (1982), Philippe De Berlangeer (1980) and Frederick Verschueren (1980) have run the seductive yet honest architecture practice GAFPA from an equally seductive yet honest workshop in the north of Ghent. In this pioneering instalment of a brand new series enquiring some of the country’s most innovative architecture firms – both upcoming and established -, we sit down with GAFPA to examine their intensive career whereby they explored all architecture perspectives, from pedagogy and exhibitions to private commissions and interdisciplinary collaborations.

Visuals (c) Carlos Àlvarez Clemente

When did you found your studio and why did you choose it?

We moved here soon after we started GAFPA in 2008, on the first floor of a former weaving factory. The space is not for sale, but as tenants we are able to conduct some interventions here. It feels really free: we can add structures or make strategic changes. Even the fact that it’s a temporary arrangement is inspiring. You could think of it as a disadvantage, but at the same time it makes you think, “What changes are essential for the duration that we are here?” It’s a different way of thinking about a space.

What about your neighbourhood Rabot?

This area is a crazy mixture of people, from artists to contractors… It creates a certain atmosphere. For example, there’s a contractor on site who has made wood constructions for us and with whom we have a really good connection with. Such a close proximity facilitates evolving together. There’s still a lot of freedom here – more so than in the city’s historical centre – because there’s a lot of cheap space for rent. Thanks to this you can find a wide range of activities here: a boxing club, a dance company, an art gallery… All very inspiring. People are reappropriating these indutrial spaces, using them in rough, practical ways.

Even our own place is not fully accommodated. We have the luxury of having a space which is undefined, so we’re able to use it in different ways. We really feel the seasons here. There’s not too much gentrification, but we can feel it coming. We’ll see in five years time.

When you intervene in an existing building you should embrace its inherent richness and take it from there. It’s not about nostalgia, but rather about the succession of different choices.

How does your workspace relate to your conceptual approach to architecture?

Some of the interventions we held here were 1:1 scale experiments for projects we were working on. Thanks to the space we have here, we often use a saw instead of a cutting knife when making models. This freedom of doing things influences our work in a certain way. When we arrived here we could have said, “Lets strip everything and start from scratch,” but instead we thought, “Lets see what is attractive to us and take it from there.” It’s much more interesting for us to use situations that are already present, rather than having to make every decision on a blank canvas. A painter used to live here – you can still see the paint spots on the floor. This guy already made some logical choices, so why not accept them?

We try to find a way of working which has a logic of its own, both here and in our projects, and can continue to evolve. When you intervene in an existing building you should embrace its inherent richness and take it from there. It’s not about nostalgia, but rather about the succession of different choices. For example, the biggest compliment we could receive would be for our studio interventions to be re-used by whoever comes after us.

How much non-computer-based work do you do?

We use whatever is necessary to accomplish what we need to do. When the mouse is in our one hand, the pencil is in the other. We like to think about finding the easiest way to achieve our goal. The endless possibilities in this place drive us to adopt an experimental, learning approach.

If you would need to hire any architect in the world to design your next office, no matter the cost, who would it be?

Of course there would be a lot of architects that would do a great job, but the main idea is that we would need to feel free in the space. It should have an atmosphere of possibilities, not of omnipresent brilliant choices. Our current space was not designed to be an office space, and that creates an interesting friction. We cannot underestimate the effect that this space has made on us. If we were based in a standard office space in the city centre, everything would be different. If we had to drop a name, it would be Lacaton & Vassal, for their radical focus on the makings of a generous space.

(From left to right) De Bruyn, Verschueren and De Berlangeer

What is next in the GAFPA universe?

We’re currently working on projects with an even wider variety of scales than before. Housing complexes, master plans, a firestation, new headquarters for a dance company, a chapel… We’re enjoying the scale of our office right now as we can still be involved in all sorts of projects. We also run a teaching practice called Primary Structure, which is something like an academic office in which we can conduct research with our students.

Furthermore, we’ll be presenting a book about our work this year, which we have conceived as a project itself. It’s not so much a traditional portfolio as it is a collaboration with some people we admire from other disciplines, such as graphic designer Arthur Haegeman, who is providing the structure to said project. Artists Bert Huyghe and Aglaia Konrad and architecture critic Maarten Van Den Driessche have also made contributions to the book.