The Belgian architect Olivier Dwek is an unrepentant purist. “The most important thing for any architect is to exclude gratuitous gestures,” he says with conviction. “Gratuitous gestures never endure.”
Dwek launched his international career in 2000, while still in his 20s, with the design of a Louis Vuitton flagship boutique in a historic building in central Brussels. And now, this month, the first book of his designs, Olivier Dwek: In the Light of Modernity, is being published by Rizzoli. The tome contains a curated look at nine of Dwek’s most impressive projects, from the restoration of an Art Nouveau townhouse in Brussels, to a sleek triplex in the posh Paris suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine, to a pair of dramatic new houses in white concrete and walls of glass that are perched on cliffs in the Greek island of Zante. “Any creative person has an artistic father or mother,” Dwek says. “Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Richard Meier, and John Pawson all had a certain influence on me. Like them, I like what is simple or pure.”
Dwek’s projects are also filled with great art and design. Almost all contain important contemporary painting and sculpture—by Robert Motherwell, Ed Ruscha, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Richard Serra, Donald Judd, Bruce Nauman, Carl Andre, Bernar Vénet, Christopher Wool, Sterling Ruby, Wolfgang Tillmans, and Tracy Emin—along with collections of modern and contemporary design—Jean Prouvé, Jean Royère, Charlotte Perriand, Serge Mouillé, Arne Jacobsen, Alvar Aalto, Pierre Paulin, George Nakashima, and India Mahdavi. He works with many of his clients to encourage them to collect. “Curator, decorator, architect: what I do is kind of a hybrid mixture of these disciplines,” Dwek explains.
His work is inspired by such great fusions of architecture and art as the 1958 Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark, designed by Jørgen Bo and Wilhelm Wohlert on the coast of Denmark, just north of Copenhagen. As Dwek points out, “The site is extraordinary. It is encased in nature and there is a great work with natural light, even without the advantages of recent, more sophisticated techniques.” A particular favorite building for Dwek is Renzo Piano’s Fondation Beyeler in Basel, Switzerland, completed in 1997, where galleries are softly lit from above and walls of glass open onto its pastoral setting. He is not convinced that many of his peers, and those who came before him, make much of an effort to respect art. “Of that earlier generation, if there is one architect who really understands art, it is Renzo Piano,” he says. “And, if there is one who knows nothing about art, it is Frank Gehry; in spite of the Guggenheim Bilbao; in spite of the Fondation Louis Vuitton. He makes his own sculptures, but he does not put architecture to the service of art. What I do, in the tradition of Piano, is create architecture that that is designed to make art shine, not to crush it.”
In fact, Dwek, who was born and raised in Brussels, came to architecture through art. “When I was young, I took a lot of art history classes,” he explains. “I took many trips to Amsterdam, especially to see the Van Gogh Museum. I wanted to pursue art, but I had my knuckles rapped by my family. ‘Art history is fine for your little sister but not for you!’ So I took classes at night at the Beaux Arts, drawing nudes. When I was 18 years old, I could have drawn your portrait as though it were a work by Robert Longo—like a photo in black and white. And those detailed drawings led me to architecture.”
Dwek is equally adept at designing a building as he is doing its interior architecture. “The philosophy is the same, only with a difference of scale,” he says. “It is always about proportions, about material, about functionality that must be connected to the form.” One of his most important design objectives is to create a visual continuity, inside and out. But the most important characteristic of his work, as the title of the book drives home, is daylight. “Take the N.E.S.T. Foundation that we did, a contemporary art space in Ghent, where the daylight turns within the building,” he says. “Natural light brings architecture to life in a way that is extraordinary.”
With his first two decades of work under his belt, Dwek is not about to slow down. He has a host of projects throughout Europe and is working on a future design collaboration with the Calder Foundation in New York. “Designing is an addiction for me,” he says. “On days that I create, design gives me adrenaline, makes me happy. Days when I don’t are gray, lifeless—they’re terrible. So, I need a lot of work!”