An illustration from an aerial perspective, showing a black and white line drawing of several buildings, designed around a central circle, where there appears to be a lake and a road that culminates in a turning circle, around some greenery. It is set in green surroundings, with illustrated trees and foliage.

Inspiration to construction and the paper in between

Isn’t it funny how in an intensely digital world, the devices we use often try to replicate the familiar – the way things used to look and feel? Instagram, for example, originally made our photos look like old fashioned instant prints. And e-readers mimic the experience of holding a real book in your hand. And while it would be something of an understatement to say that these things have taken off in a big way, there are still some places where paper brings the magic.

In Belgium, Atelier d'Architecture de Genval is one such place. A pioneering and respected and architectural practice, it has a foot in both the digital and traditional. “First ideas always come from the pencil and paper,” says Associate Architect, Christophe Lambrechts. “At our firm, we start with the requests of our clients, so what they express with words we have to put on paper. Through drawings, sketches, design, we integrate their demands and show a vision for the project on paper.” From this point, the architects will return to the studio and render these ideas into more detailed drawings. With the help of Computer Aided Design tools, the concept can take on a more precise aspect, which can then be presented back to the client for review. “When we are ready to show the results or the plans, again we go back to paper,” explains Christophe. “We use plotter to get the plan on the paper and use this to communicate it with the clients.”

This is the beginning of a thorough back-and-forth review process that blends printing, sketching and annotation with digital editing until Christophe’s team and the client reach a shared view that achieves their goal – whether that’s a brand new residential or commercial building, or the refurbishment of an existing space. Often, during these meetings, Christophe will use a translucent overlay paper (“like we say in French ‘calque’”), in order to add the most up to date information onto the plan. These early plans, from pencil drawings to printed digital renderings, can look like works of art in their own right, long before any excavating or piling of the physical site begins. It is not unusual to see architect’s impressions, drawings and plans in galleries – even ones that are not ever realised as buildings (Zaha Hadid famously illustrated an idea for a club in Hong Kong that subsequently was too complex to design!). These early drawings are the place where inspiration meets practicality and the experience of architects like Christophe is essential to creating buildings that are both purposeful and beautiful.

A black and white aerial architects’ illustration of a building, rendered with different thicknesses of lines to denote outer and inner walls shaped of squares and rectangles. It also uses a cross-hatching illustrative technique to show differing usage areas. Around the outside are lightly drawn aerial views of trees and foliage, including details of branches. The words ‘URVATER HOUSE’ and ‘Bruxelles 1640’ are printed above the drawing.
This delicate and precision illustration is from the hand of the founder of Atelier d'Architecture de Genval – André Jacqmain. It is the original design of the ultra-modern ‘Maison Urvater’ from 1958. The building is considered a masterpiece and significant milestone in Belgian architecture.

However, an architect takes a long journey to reach this point and Christophe studied for many years before he joined Atelier d'Architecture de Genval. This included a two-year apprenticeship out in the field, working alongside the contractors who are ultimately responsible for building the designs. He describes that “hand in the mud feeling” of being confronted by the execution of a plan that started life as paper and pencil. These years were a means to “better understand what we design. To see how people are building the details we have invented, to know what the difficulties are and how the contractor uses our information, our drawing.”

Drawing by hand is fundamental to the learning process for architecture students, and in Christophe’s case, he was not allowed anywhere near computer aided design tools during his first projects. “Every plan, every drawing, was handmade,” he explains. “You first use translucent paper, so you are able to review a first sketch and then make a new sketch over it. Afterwards you use thick presentation paper in the A1 or A0 size to express your ideas in a better way.” During this time, he learned to use traditional architect’s media for bringing his ideas to life, such as Rotring pens and aquarelle colours, which give that soft watercolour look that is frequently seen in artists impressions of new places and spaces. Christophe accumulated a knowledge of the surfaces and tools that were required to visualise complex ideas for clients, as well as habits that will remain with him for a lifetime. For example, he carries a notebook with him and uses it to document ideas wherever he goes. “It’s kind of an anti-stress ball,” he laughs. “You take your pencil, you take some paper, you take your time. You forget what’s around you and you start drawing and thinking about your project and what you can do with what inspires you.”

Left: a quote that reads ‘Drawings made by computer help us to react faster, but we still use hand drawings for the first ideas, the first sketches, that’s something we will never get rid of.”. On the right is a black and white portrait of Christophe Lambrechts. He is wearing a dark shirt and has short, dark hair. He is smiling.

Back at the office, Christophe and his colleagues conceive and plan huge buildings in minute detail. However, from a practical perspective, something as seemingly simple as presenting them can actually be a challenge. Even the smallest element can be of critical importance and require thorough examination, so fine detail must be presented in the context of the greater design. Atelier d'Architecture de Genval recently purchased a Canon imagePROGRAF TZ-30000 large format printer, which outputs exceptionally high-quality prints at a scale appropriate to the impressive skyscrapers, striking public buildings and elegant apartments that the practice is famed for designing. “In our business, we wouldn’t be able to work without a plotter,” says Christophe of the printer. “If we have a tower to build, the plotter is the only way to have the all the information visible on a certain scale.” Even so, he and his colleagues routinely subdivide projects into several huge, printed pieces that surpass even A0+++ in order to go further into the detail.

Christophe will not admit to being an artist (“I have a degree in engineering, so I’m more technical,” he says, modestly), but the work that he and his colleagues undertake can most certainly be described as beautiful. And for him, because each design can take years to realise, the experience is both personal and professional. “It’s not something you start at the beginning of the day and at the end of the day the job is finished. You take it with you, it is in your mind for many long years.” However, it is tangible in a way that most work is not. Creatively, it’s the best of all worlds. “When you see the proportions that you put on the paper and see it being achieved, it’s great. You see that you’re making new neighbourhoods or a new street in a city. You are part of a bigger whole, it’s an amazing feeling,” he beams. “That’s what we love in our job. The fact that at the end you can enter it and see the results and the people using it. Because buildings are for people.”

Written by Sandrine Castagne