Brussels – Not every co-working space can say it’s housed in a building that’s part of a MoMA collection – but not every co-working space is a Fosbury & Sons space. So, when Stijn Geeraets, Maarten van Gool and Serge Hannecart entered Constantin Brodzki’s Modernist masterpiece in Watersmael-Boitsfort after a call from a real estate agent, they knew they had found the home for Fosbury & Sons’ second Belgian outpost – after all, it is the only Benelux building in MoMA’s collection.
But the location has something more than repute, it has infective ambiance – the yellow gold of the windows reflect radiantly in grey weather, and the sheer visual weight of the concrete juxtaposes against the setting of the Sonian forest beautifully. Inside, you suddenly feel as if you are in your favourite café, or restaurant – nothing is out of place, not the candles, the flowers, the décor. But for Geeraet, van Gool and Hannecart, this attentiveness is the whole point. The team has a certain alacrity that keeps them at the precipice of workspace evolution.
After major success with Fosbury & Sons’ first space in Antwerp, they chose to expand the membership-based brand to Brussels, where they will open three locations. The Watersmael-Boitsfort location is the first in the city swarm: companies can rent out offices in the eight-story building, and freelancers can freelance to their heart’s content. Badaboom – a democratised setting that pivots on organic networking and positive work psychology.
So, if you’ve ever imagined what working in a ‘1970’s James Bond film that takes a ride and lands in Japan in 2018’ feels like, a trip to Brussels is in store – together with interior architectural practice Going East, Fosbury & Sons has got that just right and then some.
How does the redesign honour the spirit of the building and move its lifespan forward?
STIJN GEERAETS: This building, which was undervalued for too long, deserves to be used, walked through, and enjoyed. We want everybody to be able to come in and experience this building and the beautiful environment.
At the beginning of the project, we met with Mr. Brodzki at his home, which is nearby. He is 93 years old, but nevertheless he passionately gave us his vision about the building and what aspects we should keep to our attention. It is a very technical building, everything is thought through. Every detail is so well designed with a keen eye for simplicity. It all looks so logical, but that simplicity implies the difficulty and makes it so beautiful. The new things that were added are slightly different interpretations of the same material.
For instance, with the rough concrete walls, it was an inspiration to use the same concrete, but in a smoother finish. We used a lighter finish for the wood, more of Japanese kind of flavour, so that it wouldn’t become too dark or too vintage. I think Going East found the right balance between vintage and contemporary.
The eighth floor used to be the ‘Director’s floor,’ which has a more upscale interior with a lot of dark wood. It was preserved for only the happy few and directors of the company. Now, we are democratizing this floor, making it totally accessible. There are several meeting rooms, offices and the Bar Giorgio.
"An office today still looks the same as 50 years ago. We asked ourselves a simple question: Why?"
The space takes on a decidedly more grown-up and compelling narrative than many co-working spaces today. What shift does this respond to?
It's an answer to a shift in the way more and more people are perceiving the concept of ‘work’ – not only the typical co-working audience. What we are seeing is a hunger for more autonomy, fulfillment and synergy, coming from everyone – whether that be a team of lawyers, a web design firm or a group of employees of a big corporation, the needs of today's generation are different than 50 years ago. As a result, those needs can covered in a more appropriate and contemporary way, and not just because of technological progress. But still, an office today still looks the same as 50 years ago. We asked ourselves a simple question: Why?
We want to provide a valuable work-life environment for anybody who is attentive to a certain quality of life – here, we’ve created a very ‘human’ space which feels natural, not too clean – with some imperfections – just like people. We tear down walls between companies and people, making a very fertile platform where collaborations occur every day: in the end, that is exactly what makes people happy – connection. To me, that’s our most valuable contribution. It’s our mission to make people aware of the fact that work can be a positive factor in life.
Inside, the design is so intimate: at times, you feel like you’re in someone’s apartment that you never want to leave. Why is this empathic approach so important for productivity and fostering connection despite increasingly digital professional relationships?
People value a space within 20 seconds. The impact of environment on your wellbeing – feeling good and at ease – is huge. It is scientifically proven that people value a well-designed space, like a home, restaurant or hotel, far above traditional office spaces.
"I would rather invest more in prevention, than to invest in healing"
Feeling positively within a space makes you get into a certain state of mind – in the mindfulness world it’s called the alpha level – which activates an increase in problem solving mentality. In a stressful situations, instinct takes over and creativity vanishes. Neuroscientists recently made a correlation between an increase of alpha brain waves – either through electrical stimulation or mindfulness and meditation – and the ability to reduce depressive symptoms and increase creative thinking. A crucial feature is live greenery, proven to increase cognition by 26 per cent and decrease absences due to sickness by 30 per cent. As a company, I would rather invest more in prevention, than to invest in healing.
Despite the fact we live in a digital age, we will always need places to physically meet each other. Offices will always be there, but it’s all about how we interpret them and what we do differently. It’s like paper. [Laughs] We will always use paper and paper notebooks, despite having tablets and phones.
You’ve mentioned how this location is specifically for those who spend a lot of time in the heart of the city – this space advantageously removes people from that environment – what is that intended audience ‘looking for,’ so to speak?
Today, a lot of people live in the countryside and work in busy city-like environments. That means you cannot enjoy the greenery during the day by daylight, like a walk in the forest, and when you’re at home, you cannot enjoy the perks of the city, like restaurants, bars and clubs.
So we do the opposite here in Boitsfort: during the day you can enjoy the greenery, when you go home, you have all the things a city has to offer. It’s just 10 minutes from the city centre, and you come into this green lung – the Sonian Forest – 4,421 hectares of pure forest.
With three locations opening in rapid succession in Brussels, what is happening in the local market in terms of entrepreneurship? Which market and business trends are you responding to or anticipating?
We are seeing a tendency toward products becoming a service. I don't want to buy or own a car, rather, my need is flexible mobility. I’m not interested in buying a lamp – I need to have my building illuminated when it needs to be. So a company like Philips doesn't sell lamps, they sell light.
This is a different approach, which unburdens people from little distractions. We see the office as a total service, where companies don't have to think about refilling coffee beans or toilet paper. Focus is the new luxury, and companies also need to focus on their core business to enable themselves to grow or to become healthy.
This interview has been edited & condensed for clarity.
Frame's coverage of the opening of Fosbury and Son's Watersmael-Boisfort location was part of a sponsored press trip to the location in November 2018.
location: Chaussée de la Hulpe 185, 1170 Watermael-Boitsfort
text: Lauren Grace Morris
fotos: Jeroen Verrecht