Julie Palma English, remember that name. From a fantastic art deco house in Sint-Genesius-Rode, the architect works on high-end realizations with international class. 'I have an aversion to routine.
Julie Palma Engels lives and works in a beautifully renovated Art Deco house in Sint-Genesius-Rode, three streets from where she grew up. If you don't know the architect's CV, you'd suspect she's a bit base stable. But that is by no means the case. Before she settled in Brussels, the globetrotter lived in Chicago and London respectively. From there she designed houses for her private clients in Belgium.
And at the same time she drew on projects of her husband: Jo Palma. He is a Portuguese-Canadian architect specialising in gigantic projects, such as residential towers in Manhattan or the police headquarters in Miami. He worked for SOM: the architects' office that designed the new NATO building in Brussels.Jo Palma started his career with the Portuguese star architect Álvaro Siza, after which he worked for the British office Foster + Partners, with whom he designed the Berlin Reichstag. But he gained most experience in XL corporate architecture at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), the American office where he was design director for 16 years in the branches in Chicago and London. It was there that he met the Belgian architect Julie Engels. Blessed it was to work there in large teams. That constant adrenaline, I got a kick out of it. I had 20 men under me there,' she says.
What you see is what you get
Two years ago Jo Palma started his own agency with about 25 employees and offices in Chicago, London, Miami and soon New York. His predecessor Julie continued her own office Studio P Architects, but from Brussels. When we lived in Chicago, I already had my own design agency. I used to draw there at the kitchen table. If I had a skype meeting with one of my clients in Belgium, sometimes my children would just come into the picture. That wasn't disturbing, it was disarming: those clients saw that I was even a human being, who had to find a balance between life and work. For me, the philosophy is always: what you see is what you get.'
Actually, Julie would live in London with her husband and family and follow up all their projects from there. But living with quality and finding a good school for their daughters proved impossible. When the architect in Sint-Genesius-Rode happened to see a sign 'for sale', near her parental home, her curiosity was aroused. The villa from the thirties turned out to be a sheltered workshop, which had been rebuilt rather badly over the years. Without erasing the authentic elements, the architect stripped the house into a luxurious family home, which also houses her office. The inter-war atmosphere is still very tangible in the house, thanks to restored wrought ironwork, beautiful parquet floors and luxurious interior doors in tropical wood. With the budget of a small house in London, we were able to buy a large house here and renovate it completely. The choice was quickly made,' says Julie Palma Engels. My husband is also relieved. He is almost two meters. When he saw the ceiling heights in this house, he was very impressed. In London he barely got inside those tiny apartments. Now he commutes from Brussels to Chicago and the rest of the world, where he has yards or teams.'
Aversion to routine
A conversation with English is not an ordinary architectural talk full of hollow jargon or pseudo-philosophical drivel about light and space. No, Julie is to the point, ad rem, funny and rather restless. And that while architecture is a profession that requires a lot of patience. A project takes about a year and a half. And building a career takes a lifetime. The older you are, the more you know and the more experience you have as an architect. I don't want to peak too soon, because if you succeed quickly, you will rest on your laurels too soon.
Quiet is an understatement, because careerwise the ambitious Brussels architect was already pushing the accelerator. There are many architects who can dream at the age of 40 of what they already realized with Studio P Architects: commercial buildings, but especially high-end apartments and houses, all the way to Ibiza. I don't want to limit myself to Belgium,' she says. 'Here we are with too many fish in the same pond. Everyone knows everyone. It's not that hard to become a big name here. Abroad the competition is much bigger. The biggest pitfall is to repeat yourself as an architect. I have an aversion to routine. If my employees design details, which we have already used in another realization, I ask to start over. Before you know it, you're in a pattern and doing your bandwork. While just the creative design work is the most blissful phase of the process'.
A big name will most likely become English in its niche. She has a large network, her name is about the tongues. And with her bold approach, she can handle the most demanding clients, she proved. Yet her style is not totalitarian: she doesn't just impose her aesthetics on her clients. Architecture shouldn't be a dictatorship,' she thinks. The most important thing is: educate your client and explain to him or her why you choose for A and not for B. That's not a question of beautiful or ugly, because everything depends on project to project. Recently, a client challenged us to draw a house with as many round shapes as possible. With our pure, minimal style that strives for the essence, that was a great challenge. But we managed to design something that both the client and our agency supported. An architect is like a stylist: we help people with a certain taste and figure to dress beautifully. But to stay in fashion terms: someone who loves Chanel won't go shopping at Versace any time soon. The same applies to architects: everyone has their own style, which the customers consciously choose. And the end result is always haute couture made-to-measure, often even for the ready-to-wear budget. If there is a common thread in my oeuvre, it is still my modernist approach. I like to be inspired by the work of architects like Mies Van der Rohe or Le Corbusier. I translate their visual language in a contemporary way. Passive houses with mud walls, for example, are not our speciality. But when we do, we surround ourselves with the right specialists and consultants'.
As a woman, Julie Palma Engels is a maverick in the segment of high-end architects. It is - unfortunately - still a man's world, in which she has conquered her own place in a relatively short period of time. I always say that I have chosen a male profession. But when I'm at the shipyard, I don't care about sexist remarks. I know what I'm talking about,so the stepparents have to listen to me. By the way, clients don't choose me because I'm a woman. Claiming that a woman is better at designing a house, because she has more empathy for what a family needs, would also be all too sexist. I speak four languages, that's my big advantage,' she says.
Inside Julie Palma's house it is quiet, but in the garden there is a lot of activity. Craftsmen are building a garden pavilion, which serves as a garage for collection cars. Thanks to an elevator there is room for eight cars. Jo Palma is a passionate car collector, who owns a Ferrari F40 and Lamborghini among others. But you'll rarely see him or Julie taking part in car events, such as classic car races or courcours 'élégance'. They prefer to enjoy a ride in their cars in all discretion. The love for cars is in Julie's blood. My parents are both active in the car trade . They don't really collect, but you can find them at car races like Le Mans. Cars and architecture have more in common than you might think.'
Photography by: Birger Stichelbaut - Thomas De Bruyne (Cafeïne.be)