An MIT Alumni Association Publication

When Royal Dutch Shell solicited proposals for a new research center in Belgium in 1985, it received the usual series of plans for lifeless concrete bunkers. Philippe Samyn SM ’73, took a different tack. Noting the site’s sloping valley and charming beech forest, he envisioned a grouping of administrative buildings and labs connected by streets and bridges, affording views of the terrain. The design was aesthetically pleasing—and cheaper than said bunkers to build. “Before this, research buildings were considered monolithic with little concern for the environment,” Samyn says. “I created a village rather than a fortress.”

Almost 40 years later, his firm Samyn and Partners is known as a pioneer of site-specific architecture. “Not one of my projects resembles a previous one,” says Samyn, who considers himself a “morphologist” as much as a builder. “My main activity is to think about what the best shape and materials for a site are, taking into account the environment, culture, and history.”

“Not one of my projects resembles a previous one,” Samyn says.

Portrait of Philippe Samyn standing outside a house. He is in a blue dress shirt and bow tie.

Samyn grew up in the Belgian countryside, where his father was a mechanical engineer and his mother was a painter. With a love for both art and math, he studied structural engineering, graduating from the Free University of Brussels in 1971. He visited MIT on a backpacking trip and was immediately drawn to its focus on thinking beyond concrete. Arriving for a master’s in civil engineering, he embraced a philosophy of creative problem-solving. “The teachers would say the word ‘problem’ doesn’t exist—there are just questions. And questions have answers,” he says.

Samyn applied that attitude to emphasize efficient use of resources. “I hate lost money,” he says. In 1997, he developed a way to optimize the shape and strength of materials to withstand load and forces such as wind without using any excess—a formula that has become industry standard.

Samyn’s designs over decades reflect site-specific architecture in action, from the majestic glass and steel of the European Council headquarters in Brussels to the austere polygonal shape of the Princess Elisabeth polar research base in Antarctica, which features a novel envelope of woolen felt, plastic foam, and stainless steel to protect against high winds and subzero temperatures. When a design for a Chinese port project left out parking, Samyn designed a slender tower to stack 25 levels of cars; the tower is now considered a landmark.

Despite this range of innovative designs, Samyn doesn’t hesitate when asked to pick his favorite: “The next one,” he says. “I forbid myself to look back. Every project is a new adventure.”

This article also appears in the January/February issue of MIT News magazine, published by MIT Technology Review.

Top photo of the Glass Centre at the Flemish Centre for Modern Art: Marie-Françoise Plissart