Dominique Delbrouck

Brussels - 27 juin 2016

I have had the pleasure of knowing Dominique for about ten years and her enthusiasm to manage her team always amazed me.

DDS’s corporate culture is quite remarkable and it has much to owe to Dominique’s openness, as well as her drive to make her company adapt to an ever-evolving society.

In this interview, she talks about her entrepreneurial career, the necessity to keep up with the changing needs of the new generation of architects and her approach to creativity.

Dominique is not only an outstanding architect but also an inspiring entrepreneur.

I hope you’ll be inspired as much as I am by her journey.

In addition to your role as a partner in DDS, you are also the President of the APM. What is it?

It means Association Progrès du Management (ManagementProgress Association). It is an association which is basically French and brings 5000 leaders together organized in clubs of 25 members. It is based on the principle that every company develops according to the development of its leader. A company evolves when its leaders do. And it will evolve to the extent that its leaders can evolve. So these are leaders who want to challenge themselves and reflect on the future, on their positioning.

I have been the president of a club in Brussels for 3 years. The term lasts for three years with one renewable year. I will still hold office for one year and then afterwards it will change. It is the principle of having rotating presidencies. It is a very good idea. It is much more dynamic.

Moreover, candidates do not nominate themselves but are nominated by club members. It is quite a democratic and pleasant system.

On the other hand, women leaders are more sought after. We have some but the majority of members are men. It changes the whole dynamic as soon as you have a few women in the club. In our club, there are 5 women to 20 men.

Although they are sought after, it is not obvious. Because in that club, actually, the leaders are not executives of large organizations. They are women who have created their businesses, which have partnered with others: it is less easy to find. Creating your business still requires a lifestyle choice.

It is actually a serious one. How have you personally managed the family/life balance of an entrepreneur?

I have two daughters who are 20 and 22 years old. It is true that I never stopped. I had my children when I was 35 years old. So I still worked a lot before. My children have contributed greatly to my openness to the changing world.

I love what I do. Architecture is a creative profession, a profession of exchange, one which involves teams. You do not work on your own. You work with other people. We have discussions, exchange ideas, reflect on the future. I find it fascinating. This is something that fascinated me since I was a student.

How did you choose your course? Did you always know you wanted to be an architect?

I had always drawn a lot; I drew; I took photographs, made sculptures, etc.

I first of all considered studying interior design because I like detail, colour, and materials, everything which is warm. In fact, it was my father who suggested architecture to me, telling me that I could still be an interior designer afterwards.

I passed the entrance examination to La Cambre (it was still at the Abbaye de la Cambre). There was an entrance exam for architecture. There were a few technical things, such as the materials, mathematics, also a lot of freehand drawings, descriptive geometry, an essay, an application letter. And I was successful.

And I loved my studies: that was the revelation.

The people were very different from those I had known before.

I chose the city architecture, urban architecture. It was very interesting: we worked for committees of residents. I had a workshop where we worked on real projects in the city. We showed compared to the destruction of parts of the city, that there was a means of finding an alternative.

And that was how I started out in architecture.

And then afterwards, I partnered with some students who were in my year. Some were senior students. And we started the Atelier d’Art Urbain (AAU).

So you participated in the creation of the Atelier d’Art Urbain while you were still a student?

There were three of us: two students who were three years ahead of me had created it. And I worked there while I was still a student. I became a partner after 4 or 5 years.

It was actually one of the largest architectural practice  in Brussels

Indeed. But when we got out of school, there was no work at the time. So we found other alternatives. We found opportunities working for larger companies, French, I remember. And we took part in competitions. And we specialized in the creative side. Finding ideas, drawing. Back then we still drew by hand.

It was during the early 80s. Already in school, what we specialized was creating perspectives by hand, and images; that entire really artistic aspect.

We won contests like that. Large companies would ask us – we, a young company – to help them with their proposals, etc.

And then gradually, the economy picked up again. We wanted to follow the competitions which had been won. We worked on permits and then monitored sites.

The first work site that I monitored was a site of 150 homes in Sedan, in northern France. We worked together with the AUSIA office at the time, which worked a lot in the north of France. It was great fun monitoring a site when you are young!

And then, gradually, we began to get our own projects.

We even worked with the United States, with an urban design office that liked our drawings and our manner of understanding the problems of town planning and architecture. I went there for 3 weeks with a colleague. We drew on the premises, for a project in Chicago. And we continued to work with them for quite a while. I went back and forth. I took photos at the site in the United States and suggested drawings that needed to be done. I took all the materials and returned to Brussels. We worked there and I took up our proposals.

In parallel, we continued to work on concrete projects.

There was always an aspect involving a bit of creativity, research and development and reflection on the image. It was really a period when we developed an architectural style which was quite iconic.

Besides it influenced Brussels’ landscape a bit.

Absolutely, and I would say that at some point we would have liked to get through but clients would ask for it. It was incredible.

Although I found that the projects had a lot of differences, there were also new and renovation projects. It was a time when a lot of office buildings were being renovated. We created new facades; we recreated interiors; we gave them a new identity.

We also worked in Turkey because one of our partners was Turkish. We had the opportunity to participate in a competition and we won it. We built a 5 star hotel in Turkey. We went to Turkey to create a satellite office that allowed us to create the hotel.

It was a beautiful experience. And as a woman entrepreneur or enterprising individual, these are all experiences that strengthen you and give you the confidence that it can work.

I had these experiences and opportunities during the first 10 years, before having my children. It allowed me to be totally free, and that, I think is important.

I watched a video of Oussama Amar, who is responsible for start-ups. He said, immediately after you complete your education, you are completely free (in terms of housing, family, children, …), you learn, you create, you are available. I think during those 10 years, I put in 20 years’ worth of work! Not in terms of time specifically, but in terms of the intensity and concentration that I was able to invest things. It is also a means of learning: time, attention, concentration. It allows you to learn a lot.

And the fact that there were a lot of us too. When we were in Turkey, I remember very well at the beginning, we had to build this 250-room hotel with a casino, convention centre, swimming pool, etc.

I was there with my partners, which are still my partners today! That’s what is also great; that’s what enables you to experience adventure.

I think, that our experiences have made it possible for us to know each other well and build a complementarity. We learned a great deal! We worked on site with engineers, with the workers. We made all the plans. We worked 6 days out of 7, 12 hours a day. We only took Sundays off.

But it was so absorbing and fascinating! It was work, but fun at the same time. That gives you a strength in the work and learning that allows you to accumulate a lot and create your weapons.

And then I had my children.

Once you acquire some experience, you get to delegate gradually. That’s what allowed me, to return to your question, to combine family life with work: being able to delegate, teamwork, trust in the team, mutual support. Well, it is true that I was not the mom who was there at 3 o’clock in the afternoon.

But we built something that worked, where the children were part of the adventure. And when I see them today, it is something I think, they can be proud of also, although at times they will say « Oh well even though you were not around a lot, you were when it mattered.” And when we were together, we had intense relationships.

When going on a trip, we went together. When I got home, I was available to them. I would put everything aside and would wait for them to go to bed. I was really present whenever I was around and I loved it. But it is true that at one point, I got a little help. There was someone who used to pick them up at school.

Working as a team is really pleasant at that level. Agreeing also to share with others. Hence accepting not always being there for everything.

Was the entrepreneurial adventure something that interested you from the start?

In fact, I never decided « I am going to build my business one day. » Now it’s true that I was raised in a culture of independence. My father was a surgeon. He was a self-made man, and I was immersed in that family culture: of not being afraid of risks, not being afraid of the future. I did not need this security – I do not know how to explain it – this material security, to plan too far in advance. I rather trust in the future, and I take things quite positively. And I like going forward. I like having new ideas.

Dominique Delbrouck, DDS, B. Maindiaux

And suddenly you had a taste for the entrepreneurial adventure since you started all over again 10 years ago.

At one point, after 25 years at the Atelier d’Art Urbain, our perspectives were no longer aligned, since one of our partners wanted to work on promotion and therefore essentially change professions.

We, the three other partners, Christian, Grégoire and I wanted to continue as architects. That was how we created DDS. It is clear that when we ended AAU, the question of what we wanted to do arose: did each of us want to work for another company, or create our own? And then we decided we wanted to continue the adventure together and re-start something.

Up to that point there had been 100 of us and then there we were 17, including three of us. It was at that point that we took on two other partners, Dirk and Olivier, and started again.

I remember: it was unbelievable! There had been about a hundred of us; we had offices, knowledge, etc. And then we ended up, overnight, in a small duplex. I really felt as though we were almost starting from scratch. But at the same time, there was an exciting aspect because we were actually going to build something that suited us, what we really wanted.

Then we gave it a try, we really wanted to do something together.

You are really complementary.

Yes, we were, as they say, a « dream team ». Really. Together we possessed all that was necessary for each project we undertook. I felt strengthened with them, and I think, they felt the same, too.

We went through a grieving process for what we had experienced before. And we did not rebuild based on the past: we wanted to do something different and contrary. So we changed our entire way of working too.

Compared to the outside and clients, there we remained very enterprising. We kept the aspects of dynamism, creativity and friendliness.

We understand their challenges, and we really try to understand where they want to go. We participate in the process with the client.

And internally, with our employees, gradually, we have built an organization based on a culture of initiative, motivation, individual responsibility. There are 70 of us today.

The goal is not to be more; but for everyone to grow together, to have the pleasure of being together, working and above all continuously learning.

For me I really think, I put myself in situations where I can learn continuously. I had a discussion with one of our staff today. I said to her, « I need your opinion. Let’s get together and share.” We organized a meeting and we discussed the 4, 5 latest projects that had come out, getting everyone’s opinion, giving our opinions on projects, how we could better respond,… I really believe in co-construction. That is what we are really about.

Yes, it is remarkable that your office places the client at the centre of the process. Another truly remarkable thing is the strong and innovative corporate culture that you have successfully set up, and you are the one who was the initiator, the guardian and the driving force behind that process.

I really like that, because I believe it completely.

How would you describe the culture of your company in two words?

That really means that we work together, that everyone should have their place, and that everyone has something to say, to offer and do. We believe in more exchanges with respect to each other, in the collective creative process, of collective intelligence which, in all the projects we undertake, enable us to achieve results that are much better.

And it also allows employees to identify with our projects. I would not have worked on our projects alone like that. And the people with whom I work would not have done so either. We did it together and it allows us to be proud of the product and the projects we work on.

In terms of corporate culture, we believe that people must be involved in the process and be part of it. I think it gives you another connection with the task. It provides a system of trust. At a set point, we no longer work on just the task. We seek results in terms of quality, adequacy, in relation to a client, pride in the project we have worked on. And this is something where people can be recognized for what they do.

It’s not that DDS that we recognize, it is the work everyone does.

It is a culture that precisely takes into account the changes in the mindset of Generation Y. Throughout your journey, you have witnessed changes in attitudes, following the young people you hire. How do you address that?

At the Atelier d’Art Urbain, I was used to the entire architectural line going through me. We hired people who loved this architectural line. I myself taught this line to people who were in proposition of adequacy in relation to this.

I had had enough! I wanted to turn the process around rather than always having people ask « Is it going in the right direction? “I asked them what suggestions they had for me.

And I liked it. I realized that it was also consistent with the evolution of today’s youth. But there is a difference in the mentality of 10 years ago and today. Even, 5 or 6 years ago when I engaged somebody who was 23, 24, he referred to me in a formal manner. Today they don’t. So in 5, 6 years it will still change.

It is moving at an incredible pace.

Being at the APM, having followed conferences, and sharing our concerns with everyone, it is important.

It helps you shake up yourself and see the long term a bit. Current themes appeal to me a lot. Being motivated in what I do, being involved in what I do, appeals to me. If I had to work for someone else today, I would find it much more rewarding to work by getting involved in the overall process, than, as before when you joined a company, you stayed for 45 years, you worked for the image of the company, you worked for a boss, which was something of a mentor. I however feel more comfortable being more transparent, to listen to what people are offering. I tell them, « go ahead, surprise me! “ There are no smart things or silly things. Often great ideas come from something that appears to be totally unbelievable.

I myself experience it every day.

For example, we are now going to spread on an additional floor. Rather than deciding on five, at the level of partners, we organize a brainstorming session with the whole team.

I ask them the question: « what do you want to keep in DDS, what you want to change, what do you suggest? »

We put everyone’s ideas on a flip chart, and then we summarize everything, and there are things people have said that surprise me. They have made me discover, or see things differently than I could have imagined, and I think it is superb. I like to be surprised by the people I work with. And I think we do not do it enough.

Because I realize that I can also have automatic reflexes in my approach. The challenge is to set the framework so our automatic reflexes can be shaken up and recreate others. And that’s what I love doing!

Although there are always aspects where you have to maintain continuity. The goal is not to change in order to change everything. The goal is to say « how can what is the vertebral column continue to grow? “ Nothing is ever static.

So that is how to develop « security and stability » in a company without it hampering the necessary continuous evolution.

Some balk on occasion; they say, « oh dear why improve it further, I do it well! “ But if they feel safe in the team, in the task and its execution, people are really able to challenge themselves. It is when they feel insecure, they cling to things.

So we endeavor to implement a framework in which things can develop. We even work on it among partners.

Because you can also end up with people who have been with us for 15, 20 years and who feel threatened by newly hired young people whose voices are heard. It is part of the current culture, young people do it spontaneously. Before it was not the case; it’s not that we did not want it to be so. Today it is and it is important that we evolve in this direction.

The goal is to really understand that we have as much to learn from one side as the other.

I really think we have so much to learn from younger people and from everyone. Whether we are younger, come from different backgrounds, have different skills, it is not really a question of age. From the moment there is this mindset of listening and wanting to learn, we all learn from each other. I really believe that.

When you see the level of architecture, everything that is done in the world.

Before we only had a few books. Now we have access to all the images in the entire world; we can discover what is being done in China, in Asia and around the world, ponder on what is the most suitable where we are knowing what is happening on the other side of the world. It is incredible. So I push to ensure that everything does not come from us; I push for the sharing of ideas.

I prefer to show rather than say « he will pilfer the idea. » There are so many ideas around us. I do not claim to know it all. And then that is how to put ideas together: that is intelligence.

« The” good idea, as it is taught in school, there are only a few architects in the world like that, who continue to perpetuate the star system process, with people who go to them to learn from this mentor, from that star.

It is a method. I am not saying it is good or bad, it is just a method.

I think it is something that will always exist; it is related to the star system, to artists. Frank Gehry is an artist in himself: it is clear that it is his personal process … So in our case, we work differently. People come to us to share a little of our thinking on growing together.

What is creativity for you?

I think creativity is precisely putting together different elements which enable us to make a product that is creative, coherent, lasting and of which one never tires.

I find that creativity still means today being able to see buildings that have existed for even one, two or three centuries and are still there.

People like Horta or Alvar Aalto were exceptionally creative people and their work remains.

Creativity interests me in the permanent sense, not in the ephemeral sense.

Creativity is for me something that will mark its time, mark an evolution, and be in a course of change in the world; not be in a repeating world.

Last week I visited the Mons Memorial Museum, which is a renovation of an old industrial building made by the Belgian architect Hebbelink.

The entire interior is contemporary but at the same time, the building is old and then we speak of a slice of life (the two world wars) … I think it’s very creative to put everything together: the new, the old, the emotions, which we experience in this place.

At the same time, we have a foot in the past in terms of what was and a vision of the future in terms of what will be. I find it beautiful.

And trips like that, ensure that my creativity is renewed.

Not far from there is St. Séphorian’s cemetery which was built in 1914 and where the English and Germans lie side by side. It is creative, as a symbol of peace and humanity, a place where opponents are buried in the same place. The graves are arranged in a certain way. It is part of the landscape. In the midst of nature, you have architecture and poetry and a story at the same time. And you walk in there. I think it is super creative. That is my vision of creativity.

Dominique Delbrouck-Realty 2016

Can you develop the way you feed your creativity?

It is by going to visit places like that. But also cities like Berlin, London, Paris, Lyon, Nantes, Barcelona. But also in Belgium, there is a lot too. When you see Antwerp, Ghent, it is fabulous. I recently went wandering in Mechelen, to see the countryside, new constructions, the confrontation of the old and new. I stimulate my creativity like that: while walking, wandering. In Brussels too, in places like Tour & Taxis, the Saint Gery halls, restaurants.

Can we talk about Brussels precisely? What do you like about the city? How would you advise someone to approach the city?

Brussels, approaching the city means walking and not being afraid to walk or take the tram. And be able to say, I will leave the upper city, I will go down to the Sablon and then I go to the royal square , I will go back down by the Albertine, then to the Grand Place , I will continue via the Queen’s Gallery, the rue des Bouchers, Sainte-Catherine’s square, Antoine Dansaert street then the canal.

I think you could stroll around Brussels on foot in one day.

When you see Brussels when you wander around and you see the Sablon, the old Sablon, Saint Jean’s Square, Sainte-Catherine’s Square, it is wonderful.

Brussels is about both wandering and looking around yourself. And then there are the museums: the Magritte Museum, the Museum of Musical Instruments, the museum of comics. There are also restaurants and markets such as the midday market, or the one on Flagey square or Chatelain.

I think it is a city where there is a way to spend a week, to discover very different things. I love walking in Brussels.

It is important to explore each city on foot. We must allow ourselves to wander, and not go to places specifically meant for tourists.

We have the opportunity work on a project that is next to the Grand Place, next to the Queen’s Gallery. It is an honour to work on a project in the city centre, in UNESCO’s perimeter. That is to say that I respect the city and at the same time give it a contemporary character evolution. It is fascinating.

And then you also have the Tanneurs market, not far from the Church of the Brigittine Chapel, it is also a contrast. I think Brussels is a city of contrasts. You must love contrasts and must love to hear many other languages.

Last Saturday night I went to a bar called Bravo, on Dansaert Street towards the canal. It was really nice. There is a small concert hall below. And above you can have a drink. It was a friend who holding a concert: he was playing the drums.

It was in a former industrial building. It was new, very mixed: you had people of almost every nationality. There were all ages too. It was a Belgian group and the singer was a woman of 40 years, an American. The drummer was 50-55 years old and he was playing with his 25-year-old son. So, in the room, there were the son’s friends, the father’s friends, the girl’s friends… It was intergenerational. I like the mix of nationalities and generations. And being there, listening to the music, all together, with all those generations, I found it extraordinary!

In Brussels it is possible and it is really nice.

And then there are architectural gems, but beside that, the horrors!

You mean the famous « Brusselisation ».

Brussellisation. At the same time, what is unbelievable is that it takes me back to when I was at school.

At the time, we worked for resident committees and on counter projects for developers bulldozing parts of town. Today we work for developers, on beautiful integrated projects in the city, etc. So today I end up wondering on occasion: What do we keep, what do we let go of, why do we keep and why do we let go? Keep yes, but keep from the moment it can revive and evolve and give something else. Keep at all costs no!

From the moment we can revive old places again, it is wonderful. And from the time it works and it can be experienced by people yes.

A city that moves, it is a city that lives.

Thank you for this fascinating interview. I wanted to tell you that I found what you have done at the level of corporate culture in this society, remarkable. This constant reevaluation and the will to prepare the company for the future. To not remain stagnant and complacent.

Preparing the future business and making us grow and the people around us, and ensuring that you work with people who are at ease with themselves, in their minds and with what they do. Who are more open to everyone. Who are more open to tolerance, who are more open to others. Preparing a positive future for the society of tomorrow.

That role, this impact is something that provides direction.

Architecture, yes, but also everything we build together. Enabling people grow so they can have a certain balance to accept differences. When we see what is happening today, it is important.

I think as an entrepreneur, we also have that role.

I think we really have a role in the future of humanity for a future world which will, in any case, be as good as today if not even better.

DDS & Partners Website

Picture credit: Main picture: © Bart Gosselin. The other ones:© B. Maindiaux