We all played with Lego bricks as kids, but not like young Gilles Retsin, who was so gifted at arranging the blocks that he won two nationwide LEGO competitions in Belgium at just nine years old. Though he’s now a globally recognized architect pushing the field into the future, three decades later not much has changed. Retsin still hasn’t put down his toys.
“It is funny because the work I am doing now, in some sense, is kind of creating really large LEGO blocks, based on the notion of creating kits or sets of blocks that you assemble into buildings,” Retsin says. Now wrestling with issues more pressing to mankind, Retsin exchanged the plastic pieces for eco-friendly timber, and he’s swapped his nimble adolescent fingertips for something with a little more lifting power: robots.
Retsin, a London-based architect, argues that the way we build today is extremely slow, expensive, and damaging to the environment. In response, his recent projects use sustainable materials and automated building techniques— robotics, 3D printing—with the goal of creating cost efficient and environmentally responsible living spaces and objects for everyone. That’s all well and good, but what really sets Retsin’s work apart is its uniquely futuristic beauty and impeccable design. As testament to his eye, his designs have been acquired by the Centre Pompidou in Paris, and have appeared internationally in museums such as the Museum of Art and Design in New York, the Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein, and the Zaha Hadid Gallery in London, among others.
Instead of building with concrete, which is a primary contributor to global warming, Retsin advocates for sustainably-forested timber. Not only is timber more affordable, but it also helps fight climate change by extracting carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Meanwhile, robots are already utilized on assembly lines to manufacture cars, Retsin notes, but haven’t yet been really considered for architecture. “They are relatively cheap, and eventually will be able to piece together parts of buildings, which means that you can build a house more quickly, with less material, and cheaply, because you’re using less labor. And because the process is much more efficient, it is also more sustainable. The hope is to make housing more accessible to all people.”
Retsin put his ideas to the test for an architectural competition in Nuremberg. Pairing up with architect Stephan Markus Albrecht and a team of engineers, they set out to design the world’s first fully-timber concert hall. “We said, basically, that we are going to build a concert hall without concrete, and that the elements are going to be fabricated by robots. Cut timber will be shipped to the site and quickly assembled together to form a building.” Retsin and his team built this concert hall, won the competition, and were 10 million euros under budget.
As an architect, Retsin is more interested in the bones than the skin of a building. He believes architecture too often focuses on presenting a façade to the outside world—a surface mugging for a Pritzker that pouts and demands attention, but which conceals interiors that have no logical connection to the outside shape, and which therefore feel empty, non-descript. A bit like a disappointing Tinder date, no? Retsin strives to do just the opposite. “I am trying to discover a way to put a building together that is not superficial, not just one centimeter thick, not dressing. With my designs you see directly into the bones of the building, immediately into the content.”
For those of us in big cities, the dream of renting a living space of true quality is laughable. Actually owning a place? Forget it. Instead we hunt for hours on Craigslist looking for whatever makes our bank account ache the least. “The issue to be focused on is actually designing something that is for the masses, for everyone—not just for those happy few. Generations ago, people would buy their own house when they married in their early twenties. But now, this increasingly seems impossible.”
Retsin knows that this issue won’t be solved simply by robots and timber. His work is about showing that there are ways forward, other possibilities. “I think the new generation isn’t so keen on the, ‘Oh, well I can design this super crazy building that will cost you a lot of money’ mentality. We want to see some change. For me, it’s about making people see that there is an alternative future. We just need to push for it.”