Sefik Birkiye was born in 1954 in Ankara, Turkey. After a well-travelled youth (his father worked for NATO), he went on to graduate from La Cambre School of Architecture (ENSAAV) in Brussels in 1978 and took his Masters in Town Planning from the Catholic University of Louvain (UCL) in 1981.
His firm, VIZZION Architects, won the prestigious MIPIM Award in 1998 and again in 2000 for Le Jardin des Fonderies apartment building and the Green Island office complex. More recently, the Monte-Carlo Bay Hotel & Resort, the only five-star resort in Monaco, was nominated for a MIPIM Award. A track record of more than eight million square meters already built or projected has helped VIZZION Architects to become one of the leading architectural firms in Europe.
In 1979 you founded VIZZION Architect, previously known as Atelier d’Art Urbain, a firm of architects and urban planners fully committed to the improvement of the urban environment. Then, in 1997, you founded VIZZION Europe in order to create a more global approach to architecture and to extend your direct involvement in the development stage of any given project. Can you tell us about your career?
Vizzion Europe is made of 67 companies, including “project companies”: for each project, one or several companies exclusively dedicated to a definite function are established. If the project is large, having several companies can be very of great help for the assessment phase. All this is handled through Vizzion Invest. All companies are grouped under Vizzion Participation, a holding company.
The originality of my work is that usually business leaders do not have assets in their own industry. There are only a few successful examples.
Being an architect is a vocation. In the past, a single coordinator did all that was necessary for the building to be the best possible. He had to think about the different ways to use the building, its ability to adapt or extend, its budget, the quality and type of raw materials. The architect had the prerogative to conceive the entire project and was present at all stages of its development.
Over time, architecture has become a design-oriented job. Specialities such as engineering, finance, programming, project management are now taking care of economical and technical aspects.
In some countries, like France, the laws have changed because of insurance and liability issues. The architects have become only designers and do not follow construction sites any more. I studied and I started working in the 1970s, when there was some sort of housing crisis because of excessively high interest rates. I was fortunate enough to be in an architecture school, La Cambre, which was working on how to build after industrialisation.
I thought I was going to build buildings, but instead I realised that I was in a socio-economic environment where architecture and urban planning were only there to respond to problems that had actually nothing to do with spatial planning and construction. Construction was regarded as the consequence. These experiences made us see how important architecture and urbanism really are. We worked with the residents’ committees to determine their needs, to understand the urban struggles and conflicts of interest between the various social groups living together in a city. We studied the controversies from the financial and investment sectors.
We thought about how to integrate the different actors of the society in the city. The idea was not to harmonise them, but to make them live together with their differences.
For example, at that time, it was envisaged to demolish the entire Marolles neighbourhood. We asked ourselves: how can we keep people living in the Marolles area near wealthy neighbourhoods? This type of debate was spread in France, in the United States, and elsewhere, and it made me participate in major urban projects. I had since then the will to participate in projects of that size in order to have some influence on the solutions… I realised that I had to be able to achieve what I fought for. I had then so much success in the United States, New York, Chicago… And then I continued to work in France, Germany, Belgium and Turkey…
VIZZION Architects is one of the leading architectural firms in Europe. What are the key factors to your professional success in this sector?
I have never set long-term goals. Obviously when I read the books of the most famous architects in the world, I was dreaming telling myself that it would probably not happen to me. In order not to be disappointed, I set smaller goals that I managed to achieve! I tried to develop my company so that we could access major projects. Then, I made a very big office without external association. Finally, I managed to do a multi-disciplinary office in order to convince customers and investors of the credibility of our projects. For example, I consider that even a small project must respect the general environment, parking should not be built on the pavement. The whole building must consider the materials and colours of the neighbourhood, even for a small building. We must seek to participate to the life of the city, its design, its management, the possibility of cohabitation…
These arguments are even more valid when talking about larger projects. A large building should not be built in glass, so that people can live and work in the same street. One should consider city architecture with multifunctional streets, with stone-made buildings, with fewer openings, rather than single-function areas, that increase the traffic. Dense cities are more economical, and they waste less energy. The ground floor should be open to the public as shops. I am against the development of the city to the countryside. The suburb development increases the waste of land to house fewer people, without the advantages that the city has. The total cost of infrastructures costs a lot to the national budget!
You worked in many countries, such as Belgium, Luxembourg, France, the Netherlands, Egypt, the Virgin Islands and Turkey. Why these countries? Which differences, which similarities do you perceive, at the consumers’ and users’ levels?
In each country we must adapt to different regulations. It involves making many efforts to be always accurate, complete, multifunctional, since everything changes: the legislation, people’s attitudes, social concerns, and available raw materials…
In 2001-2002 I started to make small investment funds, but at the same time I continued my architectural firm. This process has been widely criticised and created division within the firm itself. In 2004, it was necessary to stop the organisation, as it existed previously. The architectural firm was split into two, with one side with those who would continue the traditional architectural services, and on the other side those who would continue with me. We set up several real estate funds, which stabilised the structure very quickly, despite two years of crisis when we had to postpone some projects. Now, all of our projects are refinanced, and we begin a project every three months…
For each project, we open a small office in the city or the country concerned, and then we adapt the team to the needs. For example, in Turkey 30 or 40 people are working, because we have several ongoing projects. In Serbia or in Bordeaux the permanent team is composed of 3 people. The majority of our experts are settled in Brussels.
Who are your influencers?
I will quote my Philosophical mistress, Hannah Arendt. When she was asked who influenced her, she replied that it was a terribly male-centred question because only men think in terms of influence and power! For an artist or a philosopher, each step is the completion of a reflection, of an effort, of an idea, of a representation. If what you have done inspires others, it is as if you belonged to the same family. I never thought about influence. In other words, if people copy you, it means they agree with you.
If the building can remain in time, it is a pride, because I deeply think immortality is a human idea. I think that it is what we do while we live with other people and what we can give to them that makes us more or less immortal… When you work as an architect, you are rather well placed!
In each building I build, I see faults, and things that I could not do because of time or budget constraints, or inadequate number of people working on it. After every building I say “next time I will do even better!” I have never done a building saying “maybe next time, we will do a better job”. For every building, I fight to have it done properly, whether it is social housing, homes for the elderly, banks, shops… I am always trying to make it as integrated as possible in the city, and matching as much as possible with my thoughts. Unfortunately it cannot always work…
What do you think about the increasing demand to respect environmental standards and ecological concerns? How is your sector evolving due to these constraints?
I do not agree at all with the spirit of the dominant speech on ecology. I have been fighting on these issues long before ecology and sustainable development were on the front line. In the 1960s, I joined the anti-industrial group, which refuted the industrialisation and waste in the building.
Ancient cities are the greenest in the world! Hence, for centuries, all the buildings have been reused, with changing functions, since the structures were solid and stable. In Paris, London or Rome, buildings, which were designed to be public buildings, then became schools and hotels… This continuity has been completely broken down by the post-war industrialisation. Then, politicians have rediscovered ecology.
To me, there is a complete lack of a proper benchmark on ecology, what is said to be green is perhaps not as ecological as it is said… For example, eating organic fruit from South Africa, coming to Europe by plane, this is nonsense.
Second, glass buildings waste a lot of energy! The regulations on energy keeping and sustainability are bottom-levelled, so that everyone can fit it.
For me, the first way to combine economy and ecology is not to disperse the cities. Cities should have high urbanism, high density, experience multiculturalism and have mixed and complementary functions. People should be able to walk from office to home, not using highways between suburbs and commercial areas.
The best economy, the best ecology, the best sustainability is non-consumption! It means: do not use your car, isolate buildings well, and do not consume energy! I am a fervent opponent to industrial ecology. Another striking example is the “in-style” architecture. How is it possible to make ecology out of vogue, which means that it is necessary to destroy something to have something else trendy? Often, people ask me what are the current “trends”. The trends are constantly changing, so when we talk of trends, we talk of consumption, coming after the destruction! “Fashion” architecture ends up by being outdated. Some buildings will be kept as examples, but most of them would be destroyed! How many buildings of the 1960s or 1970s have I destroyed! While Haussmann buildings in Paris, for instance, will remain there for many centuries!
So, in the end, you claim your right not be “fashionable!”
Absolutely! Human beings’ needs for housing do not change every 5 years! Clothing and food tastes might change, but everyone can recognise a good city! Nobody wants to live in a bedroom town! As Plato would say, we should be blind if we could not distinguish the beautiful from the ugly! Everyone knows what is a nice town, but for many reasons it is not done. Manufacturers, industrial groups are seeking for new opportunities! By definition, which industry might be interested in non-consumption, in preserving the architectural heritage, in building timeless construction, not to build in the suburbs, not to build new highways?
Are you looking to implement this sustainability strategy in all the countries where you are located, or are you facing difficulties to implement them?
As long as my ideas are not implemented, no one supports them. These ideas are less supported because they do not correspond to what the majority of the population concretely does. Human beings are always tempted to say that if the majority of people does not do something, it is because there are good reasons not to do it! I think that it is a wrong argument! New examples may help to change the way to perceive things.
The urban fabric is one of the few areas that does not require change, but instead needs high continuity. Everyone knows that the ideal life is to do everything on foot, in a given neighbourhood. Take for example some beautiful areas of Brussels: you can work in avenue Louise, shop in rue du Bailly, eat, get children to school, go to the market, live in lovely streets… you have everything by 10 minutes walking! You use your car only to go to specific places!
Putting offices above train stations, in order to avoid the road traffic, is nonsense. In fact, people travel just as much, but by train. The result is expensive to the state… The result is the same: the city becomes deserted! Moreover, it is often said, “the city has lost its substance”! This fragmentation is expensive, whereas we could continue to build “classical” cities!
In Turkey, or near Bordeaux, I develop this type of project. In Bordeaux, in a given neighbourhood we are building sports facilities, hotels, and homes for the elderly, a private hospital, shops, schools, student housing, and villas along the golf course, social housing, and offices! A neighbourhood that has everything, without exaggerating one function or another!
Where does this phenomenon of dispersion of the cities and specialisation of the areas come from?
The dispersion of the city and the concentration of the functions are primarily due to the investment structure. Formerly, builders were also the investors. On the contrary, in the last twenty years, investment funds have proliferated. These funds are specialised: some are only interested in office construction, others in housing, others in homes for the elderly, etc. This specialisation of the source of funding has increased the mono-functional shape of the city. The investment funds set out the conditions: if a fund invests in a mall, it does not want to have offices or hotels, or a nursery next door! Nevertheless, today, thanks to the crisis, investment funds begin to understand that they must invest in several areas. However, even if they diversify their portfolio, they still do not mix the projects when the construction starts. They will never consider a building with housing for the elderly combined with offices, because the management and the rights associated with the ownership process are too different. I fight against it, I want to invest differently, to organise differently the management, to bring together the various rents. Thanks to my society, I am organising each project individually so that the financial investors are interested anyway.
VIZZION Europe aims at creating a more global approach to architecture. Is it adding social responsibility and ethics into your business projects?
Absolutely! It is a mistake to consider that business works better if things are not done in a good way. By doing fine, doing what people want, or desire, or what they have not even yet thought of can make it really better! For example, Apple and Facebook are working because they cover one’s needs! If you can give to your customers a better city environment at the same price or even cheaper, with savings, energy and time, do it! Actually, I sell my buildings much better than all my competitors, because I add what people look for in a building …
What pieces of advice can you give to young people who wish to start a career in urban planning and architecture?
I can only give my very personal opinion, because there is no science that embraces all areas. And opinions are versatile.
My momentary opinions are that the first rule to have a successful career is to do what you like! When one does what he likes, he would be more loyal, more trustful, and would be in the end much stronger. One likes what he does, one does what he likes, so he develops exceptional assets in comparison to people who do not like what they do and do that for rational reasons. Rational reasons can be financial, about job positioning because one thinks it would be a stepping-stone to something else… No one should ever do that! Even if one thinks it will help him later! By doing what you like, you progress much more quickly, you do a better job, and it is funny and every day is a satisfaction. Your strengths and your creativity are even significantly higher than that of someone who would do this job because it is necessary.
Rule number two, never rely on the experience and judgement of your friends. Friends make you feel comfortable, they trust you. Instead, you should look to the critics, never to the glory. Experience is reassuring, but you should start everything as if it were for the first time, with an open spirit to all the new possibilities. “Experience is a lantern you carry on your back, and illuminates the path that has been done”, as the Chinese proverb says.
We must be able to leave the experience aside, as safeguards, but every time we must do something new, better, something that makes us moving forward.
Last point: you should never work for money! The measure to the quality of a job should never be money. But when it comes to money, do not be satisfied with only a little.
According to you, what is the importance of volunteering in professional life?
Volunteering, in the sense of doing things without compensation, is actually a part of the social responsibility. One should not only volunteer through existing structures, but also through private relationships: it is possible to help neighbours, friends of friends, children etc.
By helping each other, we carry humanity, said Hannah Arendt. By contradicting the rules of nature we become human. The originality of the human being is the human artifice, i.e. civilisation, which is contrary to nature. We must not kill the weakest to survive, but we must help them to live with us. By sharing and planning, by inheriting, we build our civilisation. Otherwise, we would be animals. At all levels, we measure the quality of a man or a woman by the way he or she shares, he or she carries with him the other, with their strengths and weaknesses.
Europe has always protected poor people, developed paternalistic organisations, and was the birthplace of theories of Charles Fourier or Jean-Baptiste Godin. With socialism, resulting from the industrialisation process, democracy, trade unions, had to give rights to the entire world, invent the welfare state, develop taxes, unions, cultural activities… and all started to be managed by the State. In Europe, therefore, people consider that they pay enough taxes and thus the state has to care about everything. To my opinion, that is why volunteering does not work in Europe. Health, poverty, unemployment, culture is part of the state prerogatives.
In the U.S., the phenomenon is different because as welfare state is not as developed as in Europe, it is important for the wealthy to make donations. They award prizes for everything, in order to raise awareness of the different existing organisations, to raise money, to invest in some areas… And so the richest Americans will give a huge part of their fortune to foundations. This is not to please; it is a state of mind.
For my part, I always worked with associations, from my studies. When I started to do my job in a much more lucrative way, and I managed to create an office of a certain size, I started to help students, especially to spend their state diploma and to help non-profit organisations. I stayed a long time director and chairman of the Archives of Modern architecture. I organise every 2 years the price for green architecture. I am involved in other non-profit organisations on topics I care about, for example children, victims of domestic violence, asylum right… I always try to play a role, and not just by giving money. I even pay the salaries of people who would raise money for these causes. The biggest challenge of an association is the lack of human resources to raise money. “Rather than giving the fish to the fisherman, I teach to the fisherman how to fish!” Says a Chinese proverb.
To what extent does your multicultural background helped you to become a successful architect?
A multicultural background can help if you plan to do business worldwide. If you are only interested in the local market, I am often asked this question, the answer is simple: it depends on your ambitions. If your ambitions are local, you have to deal with your differences. However, if your ambitions and concerns are global, everyone is a stranger. Nobody holds a global citizenship! Whether you are Italian, Iraqi, Turkish, or Martian, it does not matter that much.
Multiculturalism is not linked to your origin, or to the country where you come from, even if there is one of the ways to access it. My father was a diplomat, so as a child I travelled a lot, I grew up in several countries, with several languages, always with different friends… My childhood experiences made me understand better, perhaps, the challenges of the world and to practice such an international job. If I had been educated in only one country, maybe I would have had fewer assets to solve a problem in a very international way. But a Belgian, a French, or an English person can be very sedentary as well as being very “international”. Everything depends on the experience one had when he or she was young.
It is important to experience multiculturalism when you are young. Otherwise you remain locked up very quickly in a kind of comfort. It is very comfortable to be in a known environment, where your a priori dominate all of your activities… But in the end you have less strength to face the differences, developments or cultural changes that are sometimes necessary to be a successful professional.
Why did you decide to do your studies in Brussels, in La Cambre School of Architecture?
Because I was first kicked out of all the schools where I was studying! Unfortunately, I have always hated school but also students. Soon I realised that I did not want to be like the others. Only a point of view, I hated to think that I would do like anyone. Obviously, nobody wants to remain alone, so I decided to do like people who were considered special. Soon, then, I did not want to do like everyone else at school… Then I was labelled “gifted”, I went to alternative schools I liked more, because they were more challenging. Then we changed country, I had to learn a new language… Every time I was offered something special I was happy. Once it became routine, it could not suit me any more. I even heard that I could never study!
Nowadays, I am still a free-minded person, and this always gave me a strong will to achieve my goals. I managed to join the Academy of Fine Arts, and La Cambre School of Architecture. I started to develop ideas that teachers did not expected… As a result I was advised by my professors to do something else! From there I realised I had to force myself to adapt and to make compromises. Eventually in 1978 I graduated from La Cambre School of Architecture with 95% average, just to show to the professors that I could do it right! In 1979 I founded VIZZION Architects, previously known as Atelier d’Art Urbain, and in 1981 I have done my Master’s in Town Planning from the Catholic University of Louvain.
I truly believe that it is important to listen to pieces of advice as information, but one should never blindly follow it. Any information is good to know, and what teachers say is information, but this does not mean that we must always stick to it or to act exactly as they say.
Architecture, as law or politics, are businesses that need a comprehensive view of many areas. They should not focus on easy questions only. You need a wide vision in order to tackle any kind of problems. Even if, for example, no one is able to legislate in all areas, as a lawyer you should consider and incorporate them as much as possible to your projects. The greater one is interested in complementary areas, the better one can become in specific areas.
I hate wasting my time. So, apart from my hobbies, I am absolutely not interested in things that do not help me to build my future projects. Life is short. Thus, I can either have fun, for example with philosophy and philosophical discussions, or read anything that must absolutely deal with my business. For example, I cannot imagine going on holidays without having the opportunity to learn or discover new aspects of architecture, urban planning and design. I will never go three times to the same place for comfort reasons. Each time I would like to discover a new village, another architecture, another church, another building… I do not want to waste my time.