The programme for November 30th, the last day of the exhibition for Platforma, the competition organized by Project Baltia, LSR Group, and the New Stage of the Aleksandrinsky Theatre, featured lectures by members of the competition jury. The speakers were architects Jeroen Schipper (Rotterdam), Kimmo Lintula (Helsinki), Ruben Arkelyan (Moscow), and Maurice Nio (Rotterdam). Project Baltia’s correspondent managed to talk to Maurice Nio, an architect who is often called architecture’s artist and poet.
Dmitry Pilikin: My first question is a traditional one for this column. How did you become an architect?
Maurice Nio: How can I answer this? Being an architect is like breathing. I was always excited by ideas and I was always doing something creative, but there came a point when I realized it would be much easier to realize my projects if I had something specific and comprehensible, for instance ‘architect’, written on my business card. I’m anyway only ever going to do what I find interesting, but this made it much easier to embody my ideas.
D. P.: But you qualified as an architect?
M. N.: Yes, of course. I studied architecture at university, and it was a very serious school – a complete course covering both architectural design and mathematical calculations. I love mathematics: I find it just as interesting as art.
D. P.: You find a transport stop and an entire museum equally interesting to design. Let’s begin with the museum, since the reconstruction of the Centro per l’Arte Contemporanea Luigi Pecci in Prato is a truly important project – and your website even begins with a video of you talking about it. And in what you have to say, you are as attentive to the park around the museum as to the museum itself. Why is this?
M. N.: The museum is a complex space. Everything begins with the basement, where an open public zone is planned – a convenient lobby, cozy restaurant, and lecture hall. For me this is also an important part of the museum because I view the latter as an open and accessible space where people can come who perhaps are not very fond of going places to look at art seriously. Which is to say that this is a space not just for getting to know works of art, but also for meeting people, walking with the kids, and for talking. So it’s natural that the park around the museum should be involved and should function as an essential part of the museum. Only then can the museum become a cultural centre and not simply a place containing a collection of valuable objects. So the garden, the sculptures in the garden, and even the trees in this garden are all part of the museum. All this forms a single system, a unified complex.
D. P.: As far as I can understand, the museum’s location is not very good, being near a major transport route, and this is a problem which also needed to be solved …
M. N.: Yes, there was a problem with how to create a convenient entrance for visitors, but we managed to solve it. The museum is outside the city centre. But what do we mean by ‘centre’? And what kind of building has a determinant influence on the shape of a city? Usually, urban space is shaped by a majestic church or a town hall building – i.e. by architecture associated with religion or authority. But a museum is always an extremely important place of culture and is entirely capable of drawing the city centre towards itself. Moreover, churches no longer play such an important role [in Western Europe (Editor’s note)] and today are more places for tourists. So the fact that the museum in Prato is situated outside the city limits does not mean that it may not itself become an attractor. I called my proposal ‘Sensing the Waves’, underlining the way in which the museum’s function has been transformed. A symbol of this change is the enormous antenna which grows out of the building like a high-sensitivity sensor.
D. P.: Had you seen the centre’s collection before you began working on the project?
M. N.: No, but, naturally, when we won the competition, I started studying it. The collection is fairly rich; it’s made up of private gifts, which makes it rather uneven. So this is not the situation you have when the exhibits have been painstakingly put together by a single curator. Moreover, the collection comprises different genres: it contains photography, painting, sculpture, and numerous other diverse things. So the objective was to create a floor plan that would give structure to the entire collection and make it look like a coherent whole.
D. P.: It’s clear from your design that you worked out in advance how, for instance, the windows would be arranged and what would be visible through each window.
M. N.: Yes, that was precisely the objective. It was necessary to place the structure in the park in such a way that it would be possible to view it not just from the park, but from the museum too.
D. P.: On this subject, let’s discuss another project of yours – the Schelderpak Transferium, a new-generation park. How did this come about? Did you plan the park as an idea for a new generation of residents? Or did this generation itself declare the need for such a park?
M. N.: As in all my other projects, the first thing I did was to formulate a question. Our next step is to produce a visualization and observe the reaction to it. Time moves so quickly and is so variable that we cannot wait for society itself to formulate something and pose a question. The architect has to anticipate this process.
D. P.: OK. Now let’s turn to the The Amazing Whale Jaw bus station at Spaarne, a large hospital in Hoofddorp. A hospital is always something functional and serious, and suddenly, right next to it, you see a happy, carefree structure which makes you smile. For me this is not just a utilitarian structure, but a piece of sculpture or public art. How do people react to it?
M. N.: That’s a good question. I keep hearing various rumours and stories about this project, and that makes me glad. Some people say this station resembles Pipe Rigate, the short Italian pasta shape. Others say, “No, it’s an art object or sculpture”. Still others say, “It’s a surfboard.” So everyone has their own impressions, which is great – since it means that the structure can be described in different ways, which is what I was aiming for. But I’ve never heard anyone say that this design raises a smile. You think the entire hospital is suddenly going to start smiling? Well, that’s not bad; thank you for making such a suggestion.
D. P.: I liked your Flower Power – yet another confirmation of your idea that each project should first be given a metaphorical name, out of which it then grows. And I see a piece of wordplay here: your name is Maurice and in this particular project you enter into dialogue with Morris – William Morris, the English socialist who was leader of the Art and Crafts movement and designed some magnificent graphic patterns. But this name also undoubtedly contains the scent of the 60s, with references to the hippie movement and George Harrison in a flowery shirt with a pattern by the same William Morris. Why did you choose this metaphor for a structure which is fairly functional – the Zuidtangent, a system of viaducts, tunnels, and bus stops?
M. N.: In today’s urban space there is very little chance of seeing living nature. The nature which surrounds us is something alive; it contains energy and transmits this energy to us. And, of course, this energy can be used for architecture. I like looking at the flowers on Holland’s flat fields… you know that there is an entire tulip-growing industry here. The fields are so colourful and geometrically arranged that they resemble architecture.
D. P.: Another project I want to ask you about has a fairly formidable name – ‘Cyclops’. This is a residential building which manages to combine the principle of privacy (a principle which is fundamental for the modern city-dweller) with the function of public space. Why did you decide to call the project by this name? The Cyclops was one-eyed, but your building has numerous ‘eyes’.
M. N.: Of course. It’s just that there are 12 cyclopes here. According to myth, the cyclopes are fairly autistic creatures and live each on their own, but here I placed them all in a single settlement (laughs).
D. P.: Modern psychologists describe the inhabitant of the European megalopolis precisely as an autistic, self-sufficient creature – and have even invented the term ‘metrosexual’. But you planned this house in such a way that its residents are forced to cross each other’s paths just as soon as they leave their apartments, since public space begins immediately on the other side of the apartment door and there are no fences. There is no ‘private territory’. Who has been brave enough to buy apartments in the building?
M. N.: This, of course, depends on specific people. There are people who are so fed up with individualism that they want to go back to socializing. The idea was that each resident has a garden – and, on leaving home, he or she spends a certain amount of time walking through the garden. But the garden is not divided into zones; it’s a communal garden where people meet one another and spend the weekends during the warm part of the year.
D. P.: This house likewise stands in a fairly complex territory by a transport interchange. How did you resolve the problem of acoustic ‘pollution’?
M. N.: Yes, you’re quite right to mention pollution. During the design and planning process we had to study the locality, take measurements of sound levels, and then calculate everything with great care. As a result, we were able to protect the house from excessive noise – thanks to a multi-level layout. We slightly lowered the site in order to create an acoustic lens which allowed us to ‘hide’ the house.
D. P.: So for you sound is also an architectural, physical object?
M. N.: Of course! We never lose sight of engineering issues: the architect should be an artist, but at the same time he or she should have a good understanding of physics and mathematics.
D. P.: Another project with a menacing name is David and the Hulk. In fact, this is a water-purification and incineration plant in Hengelo. Ecology is a good thing, but where did your Hulk come from?
M. N.: Hulk, of course, is the green monster. The project dates to 1997, which means that it predates Ang Lee’s blockbuster based on the Marvel comics, which made Hulk world famous. When I created this design, the client asked me to build a special space for use as an office, i.e. for the people who work there. And I created an absolutely white office from which you can observe the entire recycling process carried out by this ‘green monster’. Which is to say that small and fragile David plays with the monster in much the same way that he once had the courage to go out and fight enormous Goliath.
D. P.: I imagine a small person in a white boiler suit who occasionally emerges from the office to cast a critical eye on the green giant. But how can he stand the giant’s smell?
M. N.: In fact, there is no unpleasant smell, since the system has been very well built and all waste is either burnt or recycled – for use in road construction, for instance.
D. P.: Well, now is just the right moment to ask you about your art projects – and not just because we cannot help sensing an artistic approach in your architecture, but also because on your website you put these projects in a separate section. My first question concerns The Thousand Dreams of Stellavista. This project plays with architectural décor, but instead of using it functionally, makes a collage of it. And when I look at this project, as an art historian, I immediately remember the wonderful American artist Louise Nevelson.
M. N.: You’re absolutely right. It was Nevelson’s works that were my inspiration. This was an opportunity to work with architectural elements in a non-functional way. The paradox is that there are numerous small parts of plasterwork from the 18th and 19th centuries of which we are unable to get a proper view, since they are situated too high up, where we cannot see them. However, when such fragments fall into our hands during restoration, we see how magnificently they have been made; this is true handiwork. In the case of Nevelson, her ‘paints’ were parts taken from furniture fittings, while for me the same role is played by architectural décor.
D. P.: And did you know that Louise Nevelson was born in Russia?
M. N.: No, I didn’t! But I understand that very large numbers of Europeans left their homelands during the first and second world wars. It’s a pity that one of Nevelson’s most outstanding works perished during the collapse of the twin towers in New York.
D. P.: Another project of yours, Dark Matter, is a large abstract sculptural shape inside a building. Did you design it together with the building? What did the client think of this?
M. N.: For me this was part of the architectural design. Usually, people start furnishing a building after the architect has left, but in this case I had the opportunity to take part in this process. The client was delighted with my idea. In general, I like inventing things; I like employing in my architecture projects the kind of sampling which is used in today’s electronic music. But my ideal format is the book. I set myself an objective which exercises me at the given moment, select illustrations and fonts, create a polygraphic design, and even do the line breaks myself if necessary. And the end product is an Object which contains everything – including meaning, content, form, and architecture.
D. P.: You were a member of the jury for ‘Platforma’, the competition to design a transport stop in St Petersburg. What were your impressions and what can you say about the winning project?
M. N.: I think ‘Amidst the Stars’, the winning project, was the most poetic design for a transport stop submitted for this competition – and perhaps not just in this competition.
Project Baltia thanks the Netherlands Institute and the Netherlands Consulate General in St Petersburg for help in organizing Maurice Nio and Jeroen Schipper’s visit to St Petersburg.