Their Way: Traumnovelle

Their Way: In Conversation With Traumnovelle

With ‘Their Way’ Keytrade Bank and Horst inspire their shared philosophy of entrepreneurship and innovation through an interview series.

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Words by Blurbs
Photos by Lukas Turcksin

Keytrade and Horst share DIY entrepreneurship as a common denominator. With ‘Their Way’ they inspire their shared philosophy through a content series. ‘Their Way’ offers the stories of DIY entrepreneurs at the forefront of art, architecture and music. We delve into the messy, yet inspiring and insightful process of entrepreneurship. We celebrate and feature compelling stories, challenging initiatives and examples of integrity from around the world.

We sat down with Traumnovelle, a self-described militant architecture group founded by three Belgian architects: Léone Drapeaud, Manuel León Fanjul, and Johnny Leya. Seated in their light-filled corner of an office building in the EU quarter, Johnny shared their philosophy and inspirations with us. They’ve made waves in the architecture world for their work on the Belgian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, and in the cultural sector for their stages at Horst Festival. They are guided by stories, and still believe in a higher Euro-topian ideal and the power of trying.


Horst: Let's dive right in! Could you start with letting us know who the core team of Traumnovelle is and how you came to form an architecture studio under that name.

Johnny Leya: You have myself, Johnny Leya, Léone Drapeaud, and Manuel León Fanjul. We met at La Cambre in Brussels, which is an interesting school. For example, we only had WiFi in our last two years… but we had really crazy, fantastic teachers with very different personalities. We somehow understood that we needed to create a space for ourselves after school where we could embrace theory and architectural critique in an open way and raise the questions that we wanted to raise. So we decided to create an office, Traumnovelle, which is related to the first project that we did together in 2014.

We asked ourselves in the third year: What should we really be focused on? I’m still a geek or nerd, but I was way more back then. I was doing 3D models and crazy stuff. We were in a school with maybe one black-and-white printer, and no WiFi. What could we learn best there? It was theory and history. In China, you have amazing technical schools and amazing architects, but the books are still here. We’ll always be able to find people with the tools and techniques, but we wanted to learn how to think and how to look.

Horst: What is behind the name Traumnovelle?

Johnny Leya: That's a good question. We have 1000 stories about it. I will tell you the real version: we had to think about the future for the Bozar, to add an architectural intervention. At that time we started to think of the project, we discovered that Brussels was the second city with the most lobbyists in the world. But where are they?

Horst: They're hiding among us.

Johnny Leya: Yes. Being in the supermarket and wondering, “Are they a lobbyist?" And then the European Union aspect came to the foreground. It was during this crisis in Belgium where we didn’t have a government for a long time. We started to think about a story which we titled “Eurotopia”. In the story, a war happened between the north and the south of the country. Of course, the French and Dutch were each very enthusiastic to take over. The Germanophones wanted everyone to calm down and create a new European state. We created this story to say in an extreme way that Brussels is already a kind of European non-state or European institution. Then we started to think: what are the characteristics of Bozar? For us, it was obvious – it should be a nightclub. It's a place where people can connect and meet, but with all the romantic ideas of what the night can offer. The name of the nightclub was Traumnovelle, related to the book by Arthur Schnitzler and a life that is somewhere between a dream and reality.

"Sadness is the beginning of everything. It’s about being very sad about everything that’s happening in the world, but still wanting to create some hope."

Horst: Could you state your main mission and ambition as Traumnovelle?

Johnny Leya: It's always a difficult question because it makes me feel a bit sad. Sadness is the beginning of everything. It’s about being very sad about everything that’s happening in the world, but still wanting to create some hope.

There is a writer that we love, J. G. Ballard, and this concept of meta-modern. Our mission is based on the feeling that the situation we’re in is a real disaster, but we want to address how to live with that disaster – how to enjoy it, how to have hope, even though we also believe in the power of being hopeless. Because when you're hopeless, that's when you start to act. A meta-modernist example is that you are in the middle of the sea, your boat is sinking, and you have two islands. On one, you have cholera and the plague, on the other you have cannibals. You have to make a choice. You have to try, so that’s what we’re doing. Our main goal is to learn how to create communities, and how architecture can assist in that.


Horst: You define yourselves as militant architects. Can you tell us how and why you would categorize yourself like that?

Johnny Leya: It’s interesting to self-categorize as militant indeed. We just want to fight for different things that we believe in. We are trying, either by building projects or unbuilding projects, to fight for something or to be against something. It’s a bit more difficult when you have clients that are asking you to design an office space. Even still, we ask, “What are we for in this situation, and what are we against?” It launches our thought process.

Horst: Are there specific organizations or projects that you took inspiration from when you started out? What were your reference points?

Johnny Leya: Novels - a lot. That said, while Léone is reading more novels, I'm more into essays, the whole Foucault thing. Rem Koolhaas was also someone really important for us because he was the path to this ‘joyful apocalypse’ concept, and how to embrace it. But he’s also a very cautionary character because Koolhaas is at the forefront of the neoliberalist way to deal with everything. I don't have any more specific names, but we are interested in practices that bridge between disciplines. It can either be some radical architects from the '60s, but also a lot of contemporary artists in the way that there is research behind everything that they produce.

Horst: How did you go from purely speculative projects to curating the Belgian pavilion at the Biennale? What was that process like?

Johnny Leya: The challenge we made for ourselves is to not have any difference between a speculative project or fiction and something physical that we’ve built. When we do a speculative project, we are alone and autonomous, and able to create our own fiction or story. When you work with a client, you also have his or her stories that you have to work with.

Luckily, we have found clients with whom we managed to create a new fiction. We are looking for ideas that we actually believe in, and we are completely embedded in storytelling. We propose an alternative or another point of view; we look at less desirable things. It's also written in my DNA that architecture is a cultural production and all cultural productions are stories based on stories. We take many things for granted, as if they were natural. Nations are new, but we feel that they’ve always been there. For me, coming from Belgium and abroad, being from an in-between, I don't have any story to relate to. Most contemporary hi(stories) aren’t made for us. They need to be completely smashed away, and we need to propose new stories.

Horst: Can you talk about any financial or logistical problems you've overcome as a group or in some of your projects?

Johnny Leya: Yeah, for instance the two-year Covid crisis that we had was frightening. We are constantly trying to find a financial balance between our projects. If one project is not well-paid, then it's the other one that has to be. I think the difficulty is to keep that balance between the two. That's something that we try to do. We don't want to be stuck in a situation in which we have to accept projects that we don't want to do. We want to have the office that we want to have.

Horst: Have you turned down projects that were very interesting financially based on your principles or beliefs?

Johnny Leya: Yes. A 15-million euro castle. I still have nightmares about not taking that castle, but it happened.

"The European Union idea is one of the last potential utopias. The EU project was created by Altiero Spinelli, a communist that wanted to ‘destroy’ the idea of nations in favour of a grassroots approach based on connecting people. But the real European Union emerged through trade and finance agreements."

Horst: Who is Traumnovelle serving? Are you seeking more to reshape the thinking within the architecture community, or do you want to have a broader, people-based approach?

Johnny Leya: Actually, we believe a lot in collaboration, but don't want to do grassroots  or participatory architecture. We do believe in making proposals and discussing them. We work with the art world, but also with public institutions. They are supposed to represent people. In the discussions that we have with them, when they're good – and most of them are good – we continue working with them. We expect politicians to defend the voices that elected them. This does happen, maybe somewhat surprisingly, in Charleroi and Brussels.

Horst: Can you explain how you came to set up offices here, in the sort of semi-abandoned European Quarter? You also have offices in Charleroi. Could you explain the story behind the location choices?

Johnny Leya: At Traumnovelle, we love lost causes – we’re a bit romantic. We always try to find hope. The European Union idea is one of the last potential utopias. The EU project was created by Altiero Spinelli, a communist that wanted to ‘destroy’ the idea of nations in favour of a grassroots approach based on connecting people. But the real European Union emerged through trade and finance agreements. Nevertheless you still have the possibility of a political utopia embedded in this big trade organization. You have to dig a bit, but it's there. There is a Dutch architect, Berlage, who said, "To build is to serve." But whom? What? At Traumnovelle we would like to help to build this European project.

Moreover, everything started for us here in this part of Brussels. We saw how we’re lacking architecture, we're lacking design, we're lacking people, we’re lacking so many things. We can at least try to help build them. That's why we’re here. We have also developed a series of projects; we have 27 projects in the EU quarter now. It's the same in Charleroi, a similar history. In Charleroi, you have the story or fiction, and you have what’s real. You see it right away, everyday. What do you do? You act.


Horst: How do you think architecture can address issues of making space for culture and nightlife? Here in the EU quarter for example, it’s a bit of a cultural dead zone. There's been a few pop-up projects, like the Every Island project at Stam Europa. How do you create culture and, more specifically, a nightlife identity? How do you think architecture plays a role in that?

Johnny Leya: Something that obsesses us is the idea of the sublime. The sublime is about experiencing an intense feeling based on pleasure and a bit of displeasure. And how, through that, you also feel connected to a bigger whole, like the earth. You are in an in-between, between reality and a dream. For us, nightlife is one of the best ways to reach that sublime. You might have a lot of displeasure in a neighbourhood or not enough pleasure. At the same time, maybe those displeasing elements are just ingredients waiting for something more pleasant to arrive, and something incredible can happen.

Culture is the best thing that we’ve created to connect people and to build communities. I remember a talk that we had last year about Horst being involved in local neighbourhoods. Horst is also shaping a community, and this community will go out and keep spreading the ideas. You don't need to address 10,000 people to address 10,000 people. Maybe we address two, and if we create the connection, the learning, the space, you can already have a big impact. Maybe not, but at least we enjoyed it, and learned something out of it. There's this exponential factor, that even small connections and communities can then have a ripple effect on a much larger group.

The EU quarter is a fantastic neighbourhood traversed by a lot of people from a lot of countries. Amazing people, also some less-than amazing people. They are all here to be connected to the city, to be connected to each other. It's about creating space for connection.

Horst: Can you tell us more concretely about your experience making a stage for Horst Festival? How do your processes differ when doing a scenography vs. a building project?

Johnny Leya: For the Horst Festival stage, our work is connected to this Viennese joyful apocalypse. Perhaps it's time to say, "Okay, it's the end. Let's do it properly… Let's finish in beauty." We don't see any signs that are saying that it will be better, so let's finish it right. Somehow there is still room for a little bit of hope. When the Russian revolution started, it started because they were sure that all was lost, that it was too late.

Horst: Are there other areas where you think you can have an impact, or are those the intersections that you find the most interesting?

Johnny Leya: This connects to the question “For whom are we building?” Somehow, we are just collaborating with people or ideas. Sometimes, the tools of the discussions are in a gallery. Other times, they are in the street. Our tool to discuss is architecture… the scale, the proportion. It can be light or concrete... well not actually concrete. We have things that we can't do anymore in 2022, like using concrete.

The question at the centre of architecture is that you build for someone else. Even if you had to build for yourself, you don't really know yourself. You have to gather so much information. For us it’s really about talking with the people that know and letting them be the judge. They are the experts. For example, we have projects in Kinshasa. Kinshasa is the future, the lab of tomorrow. We’re not there so we really have to do our research and trust the locals that live there.

Horst: You have said that you often work with politicians. Do you find that you get caught up in political drudgery?

Johnny Leya: There is an interest behind every project. I would say that the first thing is, of course, finding someone whose interests are OK with you. We never forget to ask them what they want out of it. Because we are all being used, no matter what. It's about by whom, how, and defining the terms a bit. For example, you can use me from 12:00 to 5:00 PM, but then I'm free to do what I want.

Horst: Last question. Do you have any tips for other young architects or activists starting out? Or perhaps something you’d like to say to your younger self?

Johnny Leya: I think the first advice is "Just do it." Really. It reminds me of something that Virgil Abloh said: “You want to do T-shirts, do T-shirts.” Don't talk about it, just do it. I think that's the first thing. You want to have an office, do an office. Clients? You don't need clients to start.

I am also fascinated by this ideal in the US, this philosophy of being able to do what you want, where here in Europe it always starts with a critique. We think it’s better to have something in-between. In short, no, I will say nothing to my younger self. It sounds pretentious but actually it’s better to learn as you go.

Horst: Yeah. Maybe just, "Have fun."

Johnny Leya: Yes. Absolutely. Have fun.

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