“When people think I’m a minimalist, I say ‘Guys, you don’t know me.’”
Sitting at the long wooden table that runs along the side of his living room, overlooked by a cardboard work by the artist Sterling Ruby, Van Duysen is not the severe individual that he seems in photographs. He is energetic and warm. Wearing his signature head-to-toe black—a casual version of the standard architect’s uniform—he is disarmingly open. He tells me, for example, that his standard-issue baseball cap is the result of a doctor’s warning that he should never go bareheaded in cold weather with a shaved head.
But he is blunt, too. He lays bare his irritation at how an anemic version of his style is now wheeled out to sell “luxury apartments” carved out of old buildings across Antwerp and other European cities. These cynical displays of façadism are built by developers keen to cash in on the aesthetics of so-called “Belgian minimalism,” the term coined in the early 2010s to describe an aesthetic exemplified by Van Duysen and his fellow Antwerper Axel Vervoordt. They tend to miss the point of Van Duysen’s approach and lack the subtlety of his best work. The surfaces are too smooth, the whites too brilliant, the blacks too flat, the storage—which is so abundant in his own home and key to keeping the spaces open—completely absent. “I know my work is very inspirational, and in Belgium, we see a lot of look-a-likes. It’s sometimes very irritating,” he says. “It’s good that I inspire others. But there is huge complexity in my approach and the richness of materials, this tactile world that is omnipresent in my work. It reflects who I am.”
Still, he doesn’t register the competition as anything other than a minor annoyance. “My work is more profound. My work has more layers,” Van Duysen says dismissively. “It’s something you cannot copy. Luckily I have this gift, that I’m very blessed with, that within this style, this tactile world, I can still surprise myself, surprise my clients.” In Van Duysen’s home, there is little true black or white. The colors are muddied with blues, greens and browns. “Most of the color comes from the material, from the use of wood, of blue stone, but also the objects we live with, the plants,” he says. “I’m a big admirer of [Mexican modernist architect] Luis Barragán—I visited most of his projects in Mexico—but his use of color reflects Mexican culture and their color reinforces his architecture within that context. Our use of color in Belgium is different.”
Although his home could easily accommodate large dinner parties and house-guests galore, he claims to rarely entertain, and when he does it’s generally no more than a handful of friends. He describes his home as his safe haven, an island of calm, that he has little desire to leave when he isn’t at work. Many of his peers—the generation of creatives including Ann Demeulemeester and Dries Van Noten who cemented Antwerp’s reputation as a center for fashion and architecture in the 1980s and 1990s—have moved out to bigger houses in what passes for the countryside in heavily developed Flanders. But Van Duysen sees no need to leave the city, especially when his home already feels like a country house.
Next year, Van Duysen will turn 60. An only child, he lost his mother last summer. His father is growing older, although still heavily involved in the business side of his son’s work. Van Duysen has no children. Does he want them? Usually, the architect talks a mile a minute about his work, about art, about books, about meditation, about his houses, about his work again. But this question elicits a strikingly long pause. “I think I believe in destiny. It was not meant to be,” he says, cradling Pablo—one of three dachshunds that are clearly devoted to him, hovering around protectively and barking when they don’t feel his attention for a while. The tone of the conversation flips between light and heavy quickly. “It’s not that my dogs are a surrogate for not having children,” he laughs, “but they are my little babies, even if they are dogs.”
“Also, I am gay, which doesn’t matter now. And I am conservative—you can see this twisted kind of conservatism in my work. I think I would have had a lot of problems in terms of being able to educate my kids. If I had kids, I would want to be with them every day, and that’s not possible. . . . But if I am not in a relationship, who is going to take care of me as I did my parents? I will have my friends, and my cousins and my nieces. I will make my own family in a different way.”
There is a sense, in the way that he talks about his relationship with some of his clients, that they might also be his family, inhabiting his spaces, owning pieces of his world. Kanye West is perhaps the most famous and the most intriguing.1 West is enamored with everything Antwerp and is rumored to be buying a house in one of the city’s residential neighborhoods, so it’s perhaps no surprise that he commissioned Van Duysen to collaborate on the house he shared with his former wife, Kim Kardashian, in California. When he comes to Antwerp now, West often stays in Van Duysen’s wood-lined attic space, which he once described as the sexiest room he’d ever seen.
“Kanye is a genius, you know,” says Van Duysen. “He’s an artist. He’s inspiring, a very emotional person. He has these extremes, and we talk about that. But more important is the chemistry. We’re friends. We like each other. It’s not always easy to follow him, but he gets me out of my comfort zone.” Two weeks ago, West was here in Van Duysen’s living room and asked for all the furniture to be moved out. “He’s really into the essence of space, into sacred architecture, monasteries. He was standing in the pureness of the space with all of the windows open,” he recalls.
“I’m grateful. Being surrounded by people I can learn from, great conversations. That’s what I like the most. This is what I am.”