Etienne Descloux likes it classic. The Swiss architect draws all of his creations first by hand. He works almost exclusively in the art world: for museums, galleries, and art collectors. His aim? To make the world a little more beautiful and curious on the way.
“Architecture permeates all areas of life; we’re all surrounded by it. That’s why it’s so important,” says Etienne. It forms the backdrop of everyone’s life and it’s this inherent sense of value in architecture that he wants to honor—in that he creates it. “Even if it’s maybe too simple for an architect, I really want to find beautiful solutions,” he adds.
The architect is standing at the kitchen counter on the top floor of his apartment in Berlin Mitte and preparing verbena tea. The room is a good three meters high and the windows look out on an enormous courtyard, almost big enough to be a park. By one of these windows, he’s arranged a multitude of picture frames in various shapes and sizes, all filled with photos and special finds. Etienne’s affinity for art is clear from his notable clients, among them, the renowned Kunsthaus Bregenz and Galerie Isabella Bortolozzi. His work also stretches beyond the art world with projects for A.P.C., BLESS and Düsseldorf’s Dreischeibenhaus—as well as this, he’s also the creative mind behind the FvF Apartment in Berlin.
“Creating without sketching—it doesn’t work.”
Etienne takes a seat on his sofa next to yellow sketching paper and a fountain pen. At the moment, he’s working on a creation for a New York gallery that wants to open a project space in Brooklyn.
This portrait is part of an ongoing collaboration with LAMY that celebrates penning creative ideas.
That looks exciting. Can you tell us a bit about the Brooklyn gallery project?
I was recently in New York to see the space and to get a feel for the proportions and the context. It’s a single room that used to be a garage. In the front there’s a roll-down door—that’s going to stay, and then there’s the interior. We’re not going to make a clean gallery space out of it, the kind you come across a lot in New York. I want to leave the floor as it is, and the walls will just be painted white, but nothing restored.
Really? Even the floor’s going to stay as it was in the garage?
Yes. Of course, it will be cleaned, but all of its grooves and irregularities will stay. I’m always really looking for the right intervention, the right gesture, that will change a room but not distort it. It’s important to me to preserve the history of a space, to leave something of the original quality intact.
What other interventions are there?
Lighting, of course, has an important position. That can change perceptions enormously. Then at the entrance there’s an angled glass front that’s visible when the roll-down door is up. At the back of the space there will be a “broken” wall that’s freestanding and leaves a bit of space between it and the rear wall. You’ll be able to hang art on the wall, use it as a stage or just walk around it.
The verbena tea is finished. Etienne sets off for his studio on Linienstraße. He follows the same route every morning: past his vegetable patch, over Oranienburger Straße and Tucholskystraße and then on to Linienstraße—until he reaches the prefabricated building that houses his studio.
How important is drawing to you?
Creating without sketching—it doesn’t work. I know that I only really grasp a space through sketching. I have to use my hands. It’s a creative process that finds its way to me through my fingers; it can’t go through the head. Drawing is crucial. Sketching is essential. Maybe there’s an idea, a vision and I visualize that with a pen on paper. It’s what makes it suddenly clear if an idea could work or not.
Peter Sloterdijk once said, “A human being is an animal that thinks with its hands.” Is that what you mean?
Yes, I believe so. A lot opens up for me only with a pen and paper. Walking through a space or having the floor plan in front of you is necessary, but the creativity, the comprehension, the development of the design, they only come from drawing by hand, the jotting and scribbling, that’s where something materializes.
Is there an advantage to technology? Does digitalization bring an added value with its perfectly modeled 3D objects?
In principle, I’m happily old fashioned. I leave innovation to others. Digitalization is not my terrain. When I started studying, we all still drew everything by hand. From top to bottom. Then came the computer drawing programs. Of course I also use these now, just to see if the design works in perspective. The client also sees these digital drawings, but for me there are no renderings. That’s not my thing. And I also don’t think that anything will be built more precisely because of them.
“I have to use my hands. It’s a creative process that finds its way to me through my fingers.”
You grew up in French-speaking Switzerland and were raised bilingual, as your mother is German. Is there actually a French word for the German sense of “begreifen”?(English: somewhere between “to grasp” and “to comprehend”)
You mean that you only understand something and grasp it once you’ve actually touched it? Hmm, no, I believe there isn’t in French. “Begreifen” is actually a great word. Sometimes all it takes is an experience, then if you’re lucky you grasp something. For example, after reading an article about me, a prospective client got in touch because he really wanted to hire me as an architect. I also then worked for him, but I have to say, it wasn’t a really good project. It did not run smoothly. And that’s when I grasped that I prefer to work for friends—and maybe friends of friends. It’s just like that. Maybe I know enough artists and gallerists that I’ll never run out of work.
And you always work only for friends? Always for artists?
Yes, if I look at my projects like that, that’s true. There is always a friendly atmosphere. And in the widest sense, I’m always moving in artist circles. Maybe there happens to be an art collector there who’s planning a restaurant. And then, maybe I happen to know him through the gallerists. Or an artist that I’ve known for a long time has bought an apartment and wants to convert it.
Or the house for your older sister. That was certainly also familiar.
Yes, that was exciting. My sister had lived in the USA for a long time and we had also drifted apart because of that. Then she and her family—both kids and the dog—had the idea to build a house in our hometown of Neuchâtel—and she wanted me to do it. I had a lot of time, and through the development and discussion our relationship became something new. The house brought us closer together. People usually tend to claim that building projects divide people.
From Paper to Reality
A glimpse of Etienne’s work
Villa C, Neuchâtel, 2010 Photo: Michel Bonvin
Galerie Isabella Bortolozzi, Berlin, 2010 Photo: Michel Bonvin
Kitchen (private apartment), Berlin 2016 Photo: Felix Brüggemann
“Drawing by hand: that’s how something materializes.”
How did the design phase take shape?
I believe I made a good 2,000 drawings of the facade. Well, okay, maybe in reality it was several hundred. In any case, they were hand drawings [he brings out a large stack of papers], from which I then produced a digitized version—and from there on I could change minute details with a click on the computer and try out countless variations. That’s the freedom of technology that we spoke about earlier.
Marshall McLuhan said, “The medium is the message.” What do you think, do your tools have an impact on your designs?
You’d have to ask Tobias [Engelschall], my partner. He’s the architecture theorist [laughs]. Honestly, I believe I really can’t judge that; I do it as I do it. I draw by hand and then a computer drawing comes from it. Maybe I lay a transparency over it again and use a pen again. I do it until I get the feeling: that’s it now. It’s a process that I follow passionately. I want the best result. So if the medium influences my aesthetic, that’s something others will have to judge.
And did you always know that you wanted to be an architect?
Yes, already as a child I painted houses in every form and color. My mother also kept a few of those drawings. My favorites are a pyramid house and an eight-cornered house. I’m still mainly interested in architecture and art and don’t do anything else all day. Sometimes I go to Berghain or to the Philharmonic—or we cook something. But I do what I love, and I don’t need anything else.
Thank you, Etienne, for the verbena tea and stimulating conversation. We wish you all the best on your future endeavors. If you’re interested in Etienne’s work, you can find his projects here.
This portrait is part of an ongoing collaboration with LAMY. The series introduces creatives across a host of fields who all share love of writing and drawing by hand—both a personal and authentic form of expression and the starting point for creativity.
Meanwhile, see which other creatives we’ve been in touch with in Berlin and scan through our portraits dedicated to great architecture.
Interview & Text: Gudrun Pawelke
Photography: Felix Brüggemann