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DESIGNERS

Justine Bell & Jonas Djernes

The pair reflects on being global citizens in a local environment, and their appreciation for a good patina.

Jonas Djernes and Justine Bell are the founders of Djernes&Bell Architects, a Copenhagen-based architecture studio. They have a genuine passion for material quality and longevity. Green Collective chatted with the married couple about inspiration, appreciation for history, and what sustainability means to their business, architecture, and the broader world.

Green Collective (GC)
What inspired you to start your business?

Justine Bell (JB)
It was largely a response to a dissatisfaction with the quality of craft and the quality of built products that’s being delivered, generally. We obviously speak from a Danish perspective, because that’s our context. But we felt frustrated that the material quality or the longevity quality of what was being produced was so poor. That, combined with noticing that new buildings seem to be the preferred mode of practicing whereby we think rather, we should work with what exists; existing buildings. So we decided to launch our practice in the hope that we could make somewhat of a small contribution to a big problem, and try to sort of sway the discourse, that the focus should be really on making do with what is already made. Thinking about quality, thinking about much longer timelines, not just ourselves and perhaps our direct generations, but in longer timescales. We get most of our inspiration from history and traditions or existing materials, things that are found on or near to the site.

GC
Just for a little clarification, it seems like you primarily work with interiors and renovations?

JB
We think that most of architecture, most of building, is repair. It’s maintaining, it’s looking after the existing building stock. And we don’t think that an architect’s role should be creating a new icon or a new form; it should be creating quality rooms, quality spaces with quality materials that can last, and if that means painting an old room, then if that’s the best method, then yes.

JD
I would say we don’t do interiors. Interiors is a product of whatever we do. Does that make sense? Because when you build something, or when you do something, if it’s new, if it’s old, it still sets off from something. You build a building on the ground; the ground is still there. There’s a history on that ground, there is a person that might have had a building there 200 years ago. There might still be a building, as we hope, because that’s what you should use as much as possible. But we are not seeing ourselves as restoration and conservation architects either because that’s also again, putting it in boxes. So that’s why I’m saying that we’re not interior architects, we are people that build something.

GC
It’s more of a holistic approach, the whole piece as one.

JD
Exactly. And if the interior is a part of it, or interior is the assignment in a certain context, then that’s the architecture we do. If you’re doing a restoration project, it’s not restoration, it’s still architecture to us.

"We think the most sustainable is what already exists."

GC
You put an emphasis on history and on tangible pieces; that they have an energy and a history to them. What exactly does sustainability mean to you? And how does it affect you, your business and your process?

JB
Well, we think the most sustainable is what already exists. So that could be a building, that could be an idea. It could be a material. But then what’s sustainable is also how you treat that thing, how you look after it, or how you make it work for the situation that is now, but also make sure that it can be there for the future, i.e. that it’s long lasting because of it’s quality.

And I think aesthetics and beauty play a big part. If things are ugly, they are not sustainable because they won’t last; people will not look after them, people won’t pass them down. So, aesthetic sustainability is also a big thing. And historically there were agreements; people agreed on what was beautiful. That’s why the classical or neoclassical movements were rather easy to follow. And that’s what a lot of people refer to when they talk about the beauty of classical architecture; it was really that everybody agreed on ‘This is beauty.’ I’m not saying we should do that now. But I think we’re getting to a place where perhaps there’s an easier idea of what is collective beauty, what is relevant. And I think a lot of it will have to do with things becoming more tangible again, becoming more accessible in understanding how they’re made, because a lot of people just really don’t relate to things that are being made i.e. buildings or objects, because they have no idea. It’s made in some factory.

JD
I would like to build buildings that I would hopefully consider to be more beautiful in 100 years, even more beautiful in 1000 years. And of course, that comes down to patination of things in the wear, and palimpsest. Things that naturally evolve become more beautiful over time. One of my old bosses said, “The first scratch is damage, and 1000 scratches is patination.” You then consider it as something beautiful, as a natural progression of the material that you choose. We have a stainless-steel table from an industrial kitchen. The first scratch we made on the table, we were kind of like “Oh, man,” five years ago. And now it’s got a million scratches, and that’s how the surface looks. And it’s even, we think, prettier. It looks nicer. And it’s functionally still good and everything. Of course, that’s why we have a tendency to also think that old buildings are nice, because they’re patinated. I’d say an old brick building is very much nicer than a new building now. And that’s, of course, related to patination, but it’s maybe also related to how we make and build things nowadays.

JB
I think time is usually on the side of making things beautiful, making them good. If something lasts so long, it means it carries all these traces of so many different human histories that sort of just seem to enrich it. So this idea of patina, this idea of use, I think it’s anthropological, really. It allows you to learn from looking at that object, it allows you to understand what and why and how long, and I think that adds to the beauty of it. And I think it’s unfortunately been a culture of newness and mass production that has largely ruined the value of this in a lot of European or Western civilization. I mean, Japan still has a lot with their design objects, and perhaps less so, with different interesting ways of how they deal with historical architecture. But I think there’s definitely a resurgence of this preference for things that can get old or things where we can see patina or maker’s marks.

JD
I think we’ve also got a responsibility for keeping certain things alive from a historical point of view, at least for tradesmen, and so forth. So not necessarily that we say we have to do whatever they did in the past years, but if you do things in a certain way, certain types of trades and things disappear. Then you then all of a sudden find out you need it. It’s like with languages that die out if a certain generation doesn’t speak it, because in time languages disappear, trades disappear.

"Tectonics inspire me being able to understand how something is assembled. It's about understanding the building and allowing the materials to do whatever they do best."

GC
You talked a lot about aesthetics being important, and that leading to something being sustainable and long lasting. How would you describe your aesthetic? Clearly, when you have different clients, they have different needs, but overall, what really inspires you visually?

JD
I think to a long extent, it’s about, for me, the tectonics. Tectonics is being able to understand how something is assembled.

JD
You should be able to see the logic of the house, how it’s constructed. And the construction is not something that’s separate from how the building looks in the end. It’s about understanding the building and allowing the materials to do whatever they do best; using the materials in terms of both aesthetic and sustainability. I know there are people that are very idealistic now about what they use; they say “We all build timber buildings because timber is the most sustainable thing,” and that is true to a certain extent… faraway timber is but it’s also a matter of using the right materials for the right things for the right application because timber is not the best thing for everything.

JB
Timber would not be sustainable if you build a bridge, for example, that needed a whole lot of reinforcing in steel, or whatnot. So that’s just to give a radical example. But I think what our aesthetics really derived from, as Jonas said, are the material qualities, and then what is needed to make that building sustain or to stand up. So you have to think about weathering, you have to think about wear; so a concrete obviously has aggregate in it, mixed in it, to make it strong and we like to reveal this often, or play with the formwork that it’s cast against. It’s more like the assembling or the construct of functional elements help us get an aesthetic. So it’s not that we have a predetermined idea of what is beautiful, I think it’s just more what is relevant to that situation, or what is relevant to that material.

GC
It’s about doing something once and doing it right, building or buying with quality so that things will stand the test of time. What do you see as your next steps in sustainability as a business?

JD
I guess as an architect it’s always about refining your ideals and your goals. And, of course, building buildings is sometimes a very long process compared to other trades. You have to be very patient about things. It sounds like we are kind of on a very higher purpose mission. And I guess we think we are to a certain extent, of course. It’s very easy for us to say we do sustainable things, we build small buildings. I guess we have to show good examples of what we do and try to make sure that the story comes along with the building to hopefully inspire all people to be more… not that we are always the best ones. We also let ourselves be inspired by other people that are even better at being sustainable than us. But I guess we have to try and pull the load with the rest of the architects.

JB
We would like to have a good few examples of executed projects where we’ve practiced these things we’ve been talking about. Understanding that you can have a better impact if you choose something small. It’s not because I dislike big projects, I think sometimes you need big projects. But our experience is that often a smaller project is an easier project to make better. And I think now, there should be more people making better or doing less or looking after. So it’s sort of a collective act. So I think, at least I hope, that proving this way of working in a way that’s not based on economics–of course we have to earn enough so that we can pay our rent and eat food–but in the long term, our goal is not to extract profit. Our goal is not to earn money. Our goal is to create value in ways of working with the built environment or building spaces or materials. We both teach at the Royal Danish Academy of Architecture, and I write as part of a lovely Danish magazine called Arc Journal. They let me write about whatever’s on my mind. Also, we have a few more research-based projects. We’re part of the grassroots of quite an interesting social community center in an old boiler hall; we’re making use of a building that’s completely empty other than some services, trying to make it accessible and relevant and open. And no client has come to ask us to do that. That is part of the community that’s doing that.

I think and I hope that a lot of what is architecture and what its designed will be a bit more like that, a bit community-driven and collaborative. And yes, of course, we can take advantage of the digitalization, but I think in terms of material things, it should be more local and more handmade.

GC
I know that you value the idea of being a global citizen in a local environment.

JB
Yeah, I talk about digital globalism and material localism. There are huge benefits of having this entire digital revolution, but I think, really, that the best way would be to buy less, produce less. You should be able to make what you need with what’s around you, to minimize transportation. We’re also learning this in our job; architects love marble and natural stone, and we’re trying to limit ourselves to: What can we buy in Sweden, what can we buy in Norway? What can we buy nearby? Asking how is it sourced?

JD
We don’t do it because of the price. That’s the crazy thing. I had an old school friend that worked in a quarry in Denmark. He told me that when you take out the big blocks of stone from the quarries, you have to cut them up for whatever they have to be made into. They have all the materials here in Denmark, in Bornholm, an island here. But they looked at it financially; it was actually cheaper for them overall to put it in a container, send it the whole world around to be cut in China, and then sent back to Denmark.

JB
I hope that in two or five years that it’s not a term that you’ll have to speak about in that way because it just is the way of doing things. For us, we don’t strive to be sustainable, because it’s obvious you have to if there’s to be the next two generations. If we’re going to exist on this planet, there’s no other way. I sometimes have an issue about it being too talked about as a technique.

So ‘buy less’ is one of the main things. Produce less. I really think that consumerism is just, and I know, this doesn’t have a huge amount to do with architecture, but just this desire for consuming products is obscene. Let’s hope that everyone can become a bit more thoughtful, that there will be much less produced and much less desire to consume. And hopefully that’s brought on by being able to buy quality products that last more than one life.

We have a sort of mantra: “Making Good. Making Do. Making Well. Making Last.” It explains a lot of the things we do.

By Kristin Forte

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