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NL Architects interview - 2

Daniele Mancini

[in italiano] DANIELE MANCINI: I'm curious to know some details about you education. You were formerly educated in Delft, weren't you? Who was your best teacher? Why?

> NL ARCHITECTS INTERVIEW - 1 NL ARCHITECTS: The School system in Delft was quite exciting. Every two months it was possible to choose a project and a teacher. The different school years were mixed. A first year student could take part in a project with people from the higher years. It was a highly inspiring and informative chaos. Another good thing was that the school was in Delft. Since it was impossible to live there (boring, small city, technical university: only male students, nerds no girls), people would commute, either from Rotterdam or Amsterdam. Like this you would meet people in the car and talk. It was the origin of our office. Our first studio was a blue-metallic Ford Escort Station. Second one a Honda Jazz, that had crashed and had dents all over, but all neatly sprayed in red –like the cab that famous artist and TV maker, the inspiring mad man Wim T Schippers 'designed' for Paris. The antenna was gone, but Pieter replaced it with regular clothes hanger made out of steel. Surprisingly it worked, we had excellent reception! And the Honda now looked more improvised then ever!

Walter and Mark started studying 5 years before Peter and I did. They got the pleasure to study with H. Oudejans, famous for his theory on significa. He could talk about a cat's ass explaining the sublime mechanism as metaphor for a door to a storage space. The cat's ass proofed that storage doors had to open to the outside. I only saw his goodbye speech; the most intimidating performance by any architect that I ever witnessed. According to the myth he used to mention to jerk off before talking to girls in order to be able to concentrate on content. He is also known for serving the typically Dutch dish Boerenkool (cabbage mixed with potato's) sitting in a bathtub that was filled with this steaming substance. Boerenkool is traditionally served with sausage.

But we were also lucky that a whole new era seemed to start. Skipping the suffocating morality allowed a fresh freedom. It became possible to investigate things without being judgmental from the start.

At some point in time Koolhaas was teaching there too. Normally one could just sign in for a studio, but now you had to write a motivation and show a portfolio of previous projects. Pieter and myself decided to team up and to apply for this project together. We made a collage that we send as a continuous fax that was 1.2 meter long to all people in the selection committee, like John Körmeling and Ben Van Berkel. It turned out that Ben did not have a fax machine in those days! I remember rolling it through his mailbox. Somehow only the friends of the students that were organizing the project were selected. This was an interesting lesson in how Network works.

As a consequence we ended up in another studio, with Hans Cornelissen. This turned out to be a crucial period in our collaboration. Hans was so hard-core in his ambition to find architectural solutions that were ambiguous or equivocal that all of us got lost somewhere. It was impossible to live up to his vision of 'multi readability'. This was extremely stimulating. He also invited Wiel Arets as a visiting critic. It was very exciting to have someone from the 'real world', from outside the school, to look at the projects. Hans disapproved of our collaboration; for educational reasons he considered it important to identify the individual capacities of his students. This of course only intensified our team spirit. Our small victory came when Wiel pointed at our work and stated how productive it proved to be to work together.

We studied furthermore with Bernard Leupen (an expert on the work of OMA, -something not too obvious in those days, the disrespect for Koolhaas seems unimaginable now. But there was a culture of typically Dutch skepticism and ridiculous resistance). The school also made it possible for young guys like Winy Maas, Jacob van Rijs and Lars Spuybroek to teach there. I did several projects with them: a perfect climate.

Thanks to the Erasmus Program, thousands of European students have been having the opportunity to move to new countries and to experience new teaching environments. Students of architecture, are very much oriented to the Netherlands and especially to the TU Delft, for the reason you can imagine. Did you do the same experience when you were students? Where?

None of us really used this opportunity. Pieter did many things before entering Architecture school; in a way it was already his second or third life. Successive and/or parallel careers in music, graphic design, information technology and as a plasterer! And he already had a son. So he was not footloose. I was too absorbed by my computer to consider it necessary to travel. Mark has been working in NY for few years 'though, but only after graduation.

After the graduation did you think to move to the AA London, or Columbia NY, or UCLA, or Harvard Boston, or SCI-Arc L.A., or Bertlett London for a master course? Which relationship do you have with these schools?

None of us was really interested in continuing our studies. Already during studies we tried to work as architects. This is one of the reasons it took most of us seven or eight years to finish University. It just seemed enough. Anyways at that point in time the 'climate in the Netherlands seemed such that maybe the dichotomy between the academic world and the practice could be destroyed. We were all excited about the possibility of making a difference in the real world.

Now and then we visit these and other institutes for conferences, or presentations or workshops. That can be great fun.

What about the Berlage Institute? I know your Hyper Catalunya / Costa Geriatrica research is now a theme for a masterclass. What about Zaera Polo? Is he as good as Wiel? Which are the best qualities of Alejandro? What are they doing at present?

When Herzberger started the school I was already present. Not as an architect or student but as an assistant to a moviemaker who made a documentary about the start up of the Institute. I was holding-up a microphone. One day the plan was to go sailing on the big lake. So we had to leave early in the morning. The students arrived at six AM and were pale around the nose; they looked scared shitless. The school promised to provide a place to stay for all of them, but they only managed to find apartments in the Bijlmermeer. In those days this was considered a dangerous area; the Dutch thought of it as their only ghetto. The area was a striking example of the Modern Ideology, a CIAM experiment of the end of the sixties: beautiful repetitive, white slabs in a honeycomb pattern. (It is demolished by now and replaced with suburban mediocrity, VINEX). What happened was that that morning the freshmen had to take the first train to the city. On their way to the station they came across a weird scene in one of the parking garages. Serious hustling was going on: unexpected activity at that early moment: loud noises, people screaming. It turned out that the garage was used for cockfights. This must have been a profound educational experience: in an environment that was planned to be ultra hygienic, characterized by design that should cater for the twentieth century dream of 'light, air and space' almost medieval customs were developing!

The Berlage always played an important role in my life. Their second location used to be only a 'stone throw' away from our office. It was crucial for Amsterdam that the institute was located there; it brought a lot of excitement and content. I have been teaching there now and then. I really enjoyed working with Wouter Vanstiphout and Rients Dijkstra at the Toyota Home studio. The assignment was to develop a freestanding house that could be mass-produced as an alternative to the omni present banality of catalogue houses. It was almost impossible for the participants to imagine a single house. They immediately turned to complexity of mass housing to show of their skills as problem solvers. The house as a Nike trainer did at first not appeal to them as a concept to be developed.

The institute has been oriented towards research a lot in recent years. Which I think was very valuable. I think it is very interesting to find out what our society is about: The Institute as Discovery Channel. I think Alejandro's focus will be more on the tactile and the tectonic: the 'original' skills of the architect. I hope he will be able to reintroduce more design and structural awareness. At least he started off with a very interesting question: what is an architect in society today?


We can call your generation the 'Europan' generation, due to the fact that most of the European young team of 90's, started the profession building the europan project. When did you win the Europan? Did you build the project? Have you never chosen a location outside Holland? What do you think about Europan? Have you never tried to partecipate together with other young European architects? What about the next Europan? Are you going to participate? Which location have you chosen?

Europan is really great. It allows the next generation to flourish. The first time we participated was in Haarlem in 1993. We worked with Michiel Snelder on a very exciting concept. The result was an asphalt square on top of a patio slab in two to three stories. You could park on roof and sometimes ramps would lead into the apartments. "Headlights make the environment perceptible and create dept: a luminous roof garden generated with Swareflex reflectors and Scotchlane markings. Fata morgana's through energy-saving Bolidt road-surface-heating that creates vapors on the ramps". According to the jury report three projects of sixty were still in the running after lunch. But only two projects could be awarded. It was extremely disappointing and exciting at the same time to find out how close we came. It tasted like more!

In which sense competitions in architecture are important by you point of view? How many competitions do you participate in each year? How many competition have you won till now?

We don't do to many of them. We don't get invited often enough. And the fundamental problem with competitions is the lack of communication with the client or potential users, which is an aspect of the profession that we consider very inspiring. At the same time competitions can be fruitful because of the lack of communication: they become manifestos, expressions of pure vision. When we won second prize in a small competition in Hilversum 10 years ago we were very optimistic; we had the impression that normally the second prize would get build (which turned out not to be true in this case). Sometimes the losing entries become more influential then the ones that get realized, like Koolhaas' Tres Grand Bibliotheque.


In this interview, some questions about the relationships among generations can't absolutely miss. I would like to start with the relationships with the offices and teams of your same generation: which are in your opinion your closest 'competitors'? Could you list me some names? I know for instance SeArch, VMX, DP6, DAF Architekten, MAX.1… How are you different from them?

An exhibition called the Elite of Tomorrow? has recently been presented in the fascinating New Arcam Gallery in Amsterdam. The participants are of our generation: Blue architects, Daf, K2, Atelier Kempe Thill, MADE, Next, Onix, Pero Puljiz + Branimir Medic, and more. Somehow offices like Bosch, Arons en Gelauf, VMX, ONE, SeARCH, MAXWAN, NL and René van Zuuk (the architect of the exhibition pavilion) are not included. So far I could not find out what the criteria were for participation. Maybe it is a good sign and are we already considered the Elite of Today? In the worst case we are Yesterdays.

Bart Lootsma told me a few years ago how difficult it was to find new offices in the Netherlands compared to the end of the eighties. His hypothesis was that whenever economy is doing really good, it is easy be absorbed in a big firm and get a lot of responsibility combined with freedom: an ideal career prospect. So whenever there is a building boom the good people stick to big companies that are out of control by their successful expansion. As such they are the ideal environments for ambition. As soon as economy declines, the 'air' is squeezed out of the big firms and it becomes time to open up your own practice that operates according to your insight.

Principals of some of them have been trained at Koohlaas or Mecanoo etc. Does it mean more success? How does having worked in a big office help? For the professional practice? For the 'tools for thought' you learn? For the vision? For the network of contacts?

If you start working in a firm you absorb the experience, the 'tools' and the network. It of course gives you a head start. The organic way our office came about implied that we had to 'invent the wheel'.

Mapping the young Dutch generation is very complicated due to the uniformity of the research issues and the architectural approaches or solutions. I recognize you are very original and provocative, but to be honest, the MVRDV's message is much more strong… Tell me something about you and MVRDV.

Their work and energy has always inspired us very much. They imagine the funkiest solutions and find ways to actually build it. Their rigor in making choices generates very explicit results. I like that. At some point in time I told Winy that it seemed that their work was a prescribed matrix. Every new project seemed to fill up a blank in this matrix. You got the feeling that even before a project was conceived it was already there, virtually. The weird paradox is that whenever they fill in the blanks, still something completely unpredictable might come out. That is very powerful.

And what about you and the previous generation? Mecanoo, Rem Koohlaas, Wiel Arets, Koen van Velsen, Erik van Egeraat, Ben van Berkel, what did you learn from them?

Rem opened about every door that we start to kick in.

To conclude this section, I would ask to talk about you and the generation of your grandfathers. Is Aldo van Eyck still a model? Do you believe in the cultural heritage of the Dutch masters?

Aldo van Eyck, is that the famous designer of pancake restaurants? Maaskant rules!


Recently you published your first book by 010 Publisher, containing the projects from 1998 to 2000: actually it is not the first publication! You self produced the first NL booklet since 1997. It is pretty strange you have even written the presentation for the NL 98 99 00, by yourselves. Why you didn't ask to somebody to write it? Don't you trust the critics?

.NL T/M WOS 8 and .NL 98 99 00 are really just office brochures, flyers, almost advertisement leaflets. They contain project descriptions only; no Meta stories, no theory, no background information, just possible 'answers' to specific questions. In general: every generalization is looked at with skepticism. Every statement can be reversed. Nothing seems to be predetermined. But we hope our motivations will filter through directly from the projects and that our opinions and passions light up like an x-ray. Since the text is the project and the project is the text we keep the project descriptions in the house. Text and imagery are one. I'm still quite unhappy with our decision make the first booklet (.NL T/M WOS 8) in Dutch. We took the advise of mentors too seriously. They said: "come on guys you want to build in the Netherlands, so your booklets should be in Dutch".

The size of the booklets is such that they can be produced economically out of one sheet -following standards of printing. The postcard size makes it easy and cheap to send them or to hand them out, almost like a business card. We are happy with them but we're not sure if we will complete the third version (.NL NOW!). We are not completely convinced of the effectiveness of the format: they prove to be a bit too flimsy and disappear too easily; they don't work in bookstores. (Although a third edition would be nice: 2 is half and 3 is a series – but what should the cover be this time?).

So I can imagine that the next book will be of a completely different nature. It would be more interesting to develop thematic books. For the final project (Parkhouse/Carstadt) we did a book about mobility: a collection of fragments from newspapers, books, technical data, zoning laws and many other sources from all possible directions. We included regulations, statistics, summaries of articles we read, advertisements, observations and comments; a total blur of data, proposals and statements like: "we made a reservation in the most expensive parking garage of town", info about Frauenplatzen and 'sleeping policemen' (speedbumps), the percentage of red cars sold in 1995 etc. A hilarious cocktail of the pro's and cons of car culture: madness. The entire thing was in Dutch and partly based on local conditions, focusing on Amsterdam. That made it difficult to imagine it published (Holland is a small market). We never took ourselves serious enough to prepare it for the (international) market. It is a pity; Architect and Car would have been a fun read. We're contemplating at the moment how to produce a magazine about ageing being one of the explosive topics of the future.

Since we don't reveal our strategies or give a manual for design, since we don't theorize the practice, I think the work is relatively inaccessible and unpredictable for critics (and for clients too). We don't really offer substantial grips or handles. This is at the same time a big opportunity, I guess.

What do you think about the architectural critic as discipline? How do you compare the European magazines of architecture? Which is your favourite? Why?

It could perform as the conscience of the profession. Being free of all ballast that comes with the production of architecture can help to get a clear view. It could perform as form of guidance; set the parameters for design solutions. It can make you aware historical references and outline effects of certain time frames. It sometimes has the capacities to break with the internal short sightedness and the incomprehensible lingo of the discipline. It can inspire, it can list and document, collect, reveal, open up. All independent critique and added intelligence is welcome.

I'm obsessed with magazines. A cool by-product of being in the magazines now and then is that they send you copies. By now we have an immense and ever growing pile of magazines in which we are presented. Completely disproportioned to our built oeuvre or the size of the office. There's such a fantastic range of magazines that for every mood there seems to be one available. There are the obvious excellent ones like El Croquis, and l'architecture d'aujourd'hui. Domus was my first magazine, an issue with Memphis (!); it got me started. I very much like Arch+, ground breaking, underground and profound. I used to get excited with the short messages that De Architect opens with, but thanks to the Interweb, these monthly bits of fresh information turned into yesterday's news. I'm looking forward for the next issue of Wiederhall: a deep magazine founded by the GREAT Joost Meuwissen with sometimes hallucinogenic texts. The Dutch equivalent of the fantastic Detail is not yet completely convincing, but I think it is crucial information and I hope it will gain body. The 'free flow' of (technical) information is important for the development of our profession that structurally seems to be hollowed out. I also hope quite soon a format will be launched for information about rules, regulations, by-laws, legal provisions etc, displaying constraints and possible escapes from them: ultimately boring and totally exciting at the same time.


I would like to focus on your relationship with Italy, because it seems unusually frequent for a young foreign team like you are: in 2000 you realized the NL Lounge for the Biennale of Venice, the Fuksas's Biennale, and later on, at Biennale 2002, your 'Mandarina Duck' Showroom Project, was exhibited in the Dutch Pavilion as NAI Prize's entry. Therefore, your projects have been displayed on the Italian DOMUS, 2A+P, AREA and ABITARE. I conclude that Italian architects are, more or less, accustomed with your projects. Now I'm very interested on the opposite direction of the discourse. Did you get from these, let's say, 'filters' (the Biennale and the Publications) any clues about the architectural Italian condition? How familiar are you with the Italian architects and architecture? Could you say five under 40's Italian teams? Could you say five big offices? Have you never thought to collaborate with one of them?

I'm deeply moved by the work of Giovanni Michelucci. The Chiesa dell 'Immacolata Di Maria Vergine in Longarone is stunning. It even has an outdoor section! A church as a stadium.

The Biennale is always amazing already by the location. Venice is unbelievably beautiful. It works as a symbol for the situation that young architects find themselves in, especially in Italy. It is funny that the most groundbreaking event takes place in such ultra preserved environment. A surplus of historic beauty combined with a shrinking population. The city as a historical theme park. What is the need for New architecture? My father had a stroke while visiting Florence for a 'working vacation' (he was a painter fascinated by the landscape of le Crete and by the Palio -he used to draw the races on the spot). He was brought to the Santa Maria Nuova, that happened to be the first hospital in Europe and as such is now the oldest. It was built in early 15th century. It is still there and it is still functioning! What opportunities do you have as an architect if these products lasts that long? Re-use of the existing more and more becomes an important task. As a mental experiment I'm interested what Venice could look like if transport would be privatized again. Could Venice be re-vitalized by allowing people to use their own water-scooters or boats instead of water taxis only? How would this change the city?

It is frustrating to realize that at the age of 50 you're still a 'young' architect, especially in Italy. Michelangelo was 24 for when he sculpted the Pieta. It is very unproductive to exclude the potential of young people. Mies was 18 when he constructed his first house. It is very strange that young people are not taken more seriously in our profession.

Thanks to events like Archilab and the Biennale you get in touch with many people from many countries and backgrounds. This is very important and exciting. The other assimilation of ideas from other places is through our workforce. In a strange way we don't seem to be popular with Dutch architects or students so through the years 80% of collaborators has been from outside the country. This in some ways must leave traces. Are we still Dutch?

The third way is through meeting people that work in Amsterdam but come from all over the place and that go to the same Bar Bep like we do. Forth is through teaching.

Partly the Biennale works like a 'city of embassies'; the rules of the local country apply to each pavilion: a home game in foreign country. In that sense it would be interesting to take that seriously and to really apply the law from each country: open a coffee shop in the Rietveld pavilion in order to catalyze exchange.

An event like the Biennale is supposed to work like a catalyst for participants. How did it come that you were chosen for the Dutch Pavilion? Was that Biennale an appropriate circumstance to extend your professional network? Did you meet interesting architects? Did you find the Fuksas' Biennale provocative? What should the Biennale represent for young architects like you?

Kristin Feireiss, the energetic curator of the Dutch entry, who brought together a wide range of people and ideas, selected us for the design of the pavilion. It was Matthijs Bouw –who was involved from the start at the level of content and process and who participated with a video that was on display in the pavilion- who came up with the title: "NL Lounge, private city / public home". Less aesthetics more ethics was a very provocative theme. Massimiliano seemed to be interested in the way processes work, how can you generate architecture, what are your starting points and how can you make a difference as an architect? How can you get a grip on developments in society? To limit your self to purely stylistic questions won't help. We responded to this idea by making an installation that was 1:1, by eliminating representation (how can you exhibit architecture anyway?). By installing a library-bar-furniture-shop-book-store-livingroom-workstation-lobby-square, a 'real' engine for some of these processes came into being. The installation raised the question how to deal with ongoing privatization. We suggested having a sweeper at the door to keep out part of the audience to make tangible that the Space Formerly-Known-As-Public more and more becomes exclusive and discriminatory. Within the collective field of the NL Lounge the main asset was the capacity of individual appropriation; customization of light, audio, climate, input and output. The Sound Focusing Speaker System was the invention that brought relaxation in the cacophony that this collection of free choices traditionally would result in. These 'Sound Showers' have the unique and groundbreaking capacity to unravel multiple outputs into understandable info, to turn public space into private. Invisible borders define perfectly directed, intimate acoustic territories. The Lounge was a technical miracle, more then most visitors could imagine. It worked so well that you just wouldn't notice! The installation functioned in a quite subtle, ambiguous way on many different levels: the lounge was comfortable and alienating at the same time.

The question raised by the Berlage Institute recently can be understood in a similar way: what can an architect enact in society today? My generation just got rid of the surplus of ethics that obscured thinking; ethics as prejudice. Instead of working with the believe that society could be made according to optimistic ideas about humanity, we tried to find out what was really there and how could we mould it, massage it, seduce it into any desired direction. Or embrace it because it is there! It created an immense freedom, everything, every direction could be explored. This 'lightness' became unbearable for Roemer van Toorn who, in Fresh Conservatism suggests it is time for a new commitment. For me the commitment is in pursuing these options radically and turning them into questions. Our commitment is in presenting alternatives for the way people live and work and use their space.

Publishing on magazines and journals by my point of view, has two values: the trivial one is that the office takes the advantage to be better known, the other is that the office's ideas start to circulate stimulating the debate. Which is your impression in this sense, about the Italian publications, for instance Casabella, Domus, Ottagono, Abitare, Area, Lotus, Il Progetto? How is your evaluation on the content, in comparison with the Dutch Magazines, like Archis, for instance?

Publishing is the next best thing to building. It can be very rewarding to have your ideas presented to a big audience. When were asked to participate in an exhibition in the framework of Europan we decided to print postcards so that one could take parts of the exhibit home. People could send them to their friends. Like this we could reach a great number of people. This seemed important since the so-called Market started to rule the production of architecture. In that sense for us it is much more interesting to reach people from outside the profession then our friends all over the globe and stimulate debate among ourselves. We wanted to be in the woman's magazines. Or in car magazines, or the newspapers. It is quite amazing to see the impact of TV. So-much coverage! Abitare Uno, DOMUS Due! So there are three kinds of target groups: colleagues, possible clients and future markets. By offering alternatives we hoped New Markets could be created. But these alternatives have to be disseminated somehow. This process turns out to be much slower then we hoped.

In that sense Domus, Ottagano Abitare and Casabella are quite effective because many people from outside the profession read them. But most magazines are too design based and if we want to evoke real progress design alone might not be enough. Although it is already encouraging if great numbers of people are interested in architecture. My hope is they will become even more idea based, focusing on new ways of planning and organizing cities and environments. In that respect the extremely powerful potential of a magazine like Wallpaper cannot be overestimated. They could potentially even popularize The Bijlmermeer; turn it into something glamorous (it is a pity, it is too late, the area recently got demolished).

At the end, could you say five important masterpiece of Italian architecture?

Lingotto Fiat Factory, Casa Malaparte, Pantheon, San Pietro (especially the space in-between inner and outer cupola, that is saturated with the promise not only of the wonderful view over Rome but also of the possibility of a 'God's eye' view over the interior), Thermae of Caracalla for being "the Biggest Mother Fucker ever" (using Ariaan Geuze's very welcome contribution to the Architecture Dictionary).

And more, could you say five books you read, by Italian authors?

Sorry, I waste my time watching TV! (But I skip Rai Uno 'though!) I read some Italo Calvino. Right now my favorite book is Asfalto: il carattere della citta (a cura di Mirko Zardini) that is not yet translated to English so I cannot really read it. But the book radiates pleasure and excitement and LOVE for the subject.

(2. end)

Interview made by Daniele Mancini in May 2003-January 2004. All rights reserved: Daniele Mancini and NL Architects (Pieter Bannenberg, Walter van Dijk, Kamiel Klaasse and Mark Linnemann), 2003.


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