Rotor’s quest to safeguard the country’s design and interior heritage

Salvaging Belgium’s design and interior heritage one construction site at a time, Rotor’s spinoff Rotor Deconstruction symbolises what the future of building should look like. We speak to founding partners Maarten Gielen and Lionel Billiet about the practice’s meteoric rise and critical acclaim.

Writer: Dieter Van Den Storm

Along Brussels’ canal, towards Vilvoorde, Rotor Deconstruction – an offshoot of architecture and design practice Rotor that was founded in 2005 – is a young company that specialises in the field of salvaged building components, dismantling and selling them on. Its warehouse is DIY haven, stocked with recuperated toilets, washbasins, stained glass windows, marble tiles, wooden cabinets and various types of other constructions escapees, all neatly and minutely archived. Adjacent to the warehouse, a smaller house stocks more previous objects such as lighting, furniture as well as other vintage design and interior rarities.

“Is it obvious that collecting used materials is somewhat of a fetish for us,” laughs Maarten Gielen, one of the founders of Rotor. “About 10 years ago, when we started our project, it was almost obvious we wanted to work with used materials. Sustainability was a very loaded term back then, mainly misused by bigger contractors who were only interested in using other, less harmful materials. We tried to find another way of dealing with the topic. Re-using materials – and god knows how many there are – seemed an obvious choice. It all began rather impulsively and unstructured. We collected materials we found, stored them in our own cellars and started doing small installations for the kunstenfestivaldesarts or private projects. But soon the search for new used materials became a burden and interfered with the actual design process of other projects. If we wanted to see this project through, it needed a more structural approach.”

People tend to see us as the rescuers and preservers of heritage.

“We were doing a lot of different things,” continues Lionel Billiet, another of Rotor DC’s founders. “From collecting to designing. Everything was connected, but it was not always easy to explain how these dots connected. Growing meant a better management, a more clever collecting system and an organised storage. We made a list of all Belgian suppliers who deliver second-hand stuff, from the smallest dealers to professional companies, so we could make a difference and contact them in case of. We looked for another approach though. Materials would only be of interest if they added an extra value. Call it saving some architectural heritage if you want.”

In the last couple of years, Rotor’s reputation grew exponentially thanks to its different approach. Indeed, they recently were awarded with a Henry Van de Velde Award for best company by Flanders DC, the Flemish institute responsible for the promotion of Belgian design talent. On an international level, they’ve been recognised by Rem Koolhaas, who asked them to make an exhibition on the back office operations of his practice OMA / Office for Metropolitan Architecture for the Barbican Art Gallery in London. This gave them an unrivalled opportunity to get a detailed insight into one of the world’s leading architecture bureaus, which resulted in an exhibition that included more than 500 different objects such as material samples, plans and models. “Being at the right moment at the right time to recover materials is a challenge,” explains Maarten Gielen. “Of course we get tipped most of the time when a building is being torn apart, but we also go looking for them ourselves. Perhaps that gives us the best fulfilment. Sometimes we don’t know what to expect, other times we discover rare peculiarities. Take the changing banking sector. That’s a sector in which the coming years will see a lot of interesting items being released. The most spectacular deconstruction site was the recent dismantling, and reuse, of interior fittings at the former Generale Bank, the headquarters of BNP Paribas Fortis in the centre of Brussels. About 210 ton of material came out of the building, amongst which precious objects from some of Belgium’s most important designer, such as Jules Wabbes and Christophe Gevers. That’s a lot of so called garbage we saved. Can you imagine if this had disappeared?”

“Perhaps by mistake, but I think people tend to see us as the rescuer and preservers of heritage,” Lionel Billiet goes on. “Larger facades are obvious to safeguard from demolition. For the smaller interior fixtures and fittings, people turn towards us, though we actually don’t make a distinction between doors, ventilation systems or smaller objects. They are all precious to us. The little objects like lamps, tables and door handles don’t represent a lot in volume but are a nice addition to the collection. When used in a creative way, they can all serve in one of our own projects.” “Flemish minimalism is on its way back,” Maarten continues. “I get more and more attracted to heavy postmodern buildings form the seventies. Even if it’s not evident working in these buildings as they are heavily infected by asbestos. We recently found beautiful coloured glass tiles from the former Belgian crystal company Val Saint Lambert which were used in churches. For the Book Tower in Ghent, designed by architect Henry Van de Velde in 1933, we were asked to safeguard the bookshelves. On every floor of this 64-meter high building, the shelves were especially designed to fit between the concrete columns. They are now stocked to be re-used once the renovation and the refurbishment are accomplished. It would have been a waste of materials and heritage if these shelves wouldn’t have been re-used. Most of the time the construction material isn’t replaced because its natural life span is over, but because the new owner wants different materials used.”

Most of the time the construction material isn’t replaced because its natural life span is over, but because the new owner wants different materials used.

Building and re-constructing remain the core disciplines of the company though and, considering its list of clients, they have more than enough on-going projects in the pipeline. The diversity of its many projects is a direct result of the various different profiles of people working at the Rotor head office. Everything is and must be possible. “We’d rather say yes to direct commissions, as we always want to push our limits. Working on an architectural project creates a very intimate relationship with the client. We are fond of trying out new techniques and we know it’s a challenge working with us. That’s why the trust must be mutual. One of the projects we are very proud of is the cultural centre of Bomel. Materials from five different sites came together in this one project, such as the cafeteria of the General Bank in Brussels, including the tables, the ceiling and the cappuccino bar. Storage cabinets of the arts centre, with doors in a light-coloured wood veneer, come from another dismantled Brussels office building. Content- wise it was a very interesting collaboration as decisions were made on a cultural level. We interviewed all the different users of this centre, from the cleaning team to the visitors. That gave us extra insights in the programme this building needed.”

In a couple of weeks, at the end of April, the new centre for fashion and design – MAD Brussels – will open its doors in the heart of the capital. Here, Rotor teamed up with the Brussels based architectural company V+. Together they stripped some existing buildings in the city’s Dansaert neighbourhood, transforming these into contemporary white temples of light, glass and used materials. The colour white is omnipresent in all its layers. Interesting references are made to the Brussels metro using the same, but white version of the tiles and the flooring. The mix between existing floors and concrete columns, re- used materials like marble walls and a mirrored elevator case gives the building a familiar but contemporary feeling. “People can’t really label us as our projects are very diverse and we always combine elements from different eras. Post- modern with tight designs, seventies with fifties material. That blurry zone between dismantling, designing and re-using material is one we cherish. Crafts are disappearing and we try to safeguard this by re-installing the beauty of the material, even if it was used before.”