Why did you become an architect? And how did your firm come into being?
To begin with the second question: the week after I graduated, Willem Jan (Neutlings) called me. He had been selected for the last stage of a very large competition and needed to take on additional architects to elaborate the design. At that moment, since we had just graduated, everybody needed work, so I accepted his proposal and we started working. I had not known Willem Jan previously, and he picked me through a mutual friend. Eventually, we ended up winning the competition. It was 1989 and the subject of the competition was the biggest office building in Europe, 1 500 000 sq. m. Willem Jan, another partner with whom he started working on this project, and I continued working on the project, but then the European Union cancelled it, so that was the end of our office. And then Willem Jan and I decided to continue working together, and we set up our own firm. So you can say that the firm came about by chance. If Willem Jan had not called me that week, I would probably have done something else.
Ok, so it was chance that got your firm underway and helped you find the right partner, but (back to the first part of the question) it was not coincidence that you became an architect?
No, that was a conscious decision. However, at the time I did not know what architecture was. I decided to go to Delft, since I was interested in restoration, not in architecture as such. I was working for a large restoration company during my secondary education and I thought restoration was an interesting thing to study. So I went to Delft because it was the only faculty at university level where you could study restoration in the Netherlands. However, the restoration department at the architecture faculty was disgusting. It was a nightmare. So since I was already at the architecture faculty, I decided to study architecture instead of restoration.
That was before restoration became a much more fashionable discipline and started to be seen as part of the architectural process – for instance, in numerous reconstruction projects where restoration or conservation goes hand in hand with new architecture.
It was way before that time. I had and still have a fascination for old buildings and the history of architecture. But the restoration department at Delft was not about old buildings and a sincere understanding of old building techniques – it was about using special plastics to find the right conservation method for an old wooden structure or using the right kind of mortar in order to directly relate to the chemical structure of existing 16th-century brickwork. That aspect did not interest me at all – and still does not. But at the same time I’m fascinated by old buildings and construction techniques. Architecture is an old and very profound profession, and that kind of knowledge – whether it comes from the Renaissance or the Middle Ages, ancient Greece or ancient Egypt – should inspire us to create new design ideas.
So for you architecture is a continuous process from ancient times until today, without any breaks or need to abandon older techniques and embark on brand new design?
No, for me it is a single trend of thought and a single field of expertise. However, we never do restoration projects, since this is not our area of expertise, but in many projects we integrate and reuse old buildings. For instance the Tax Office in Apeldoorn was in fact a kind of restoration project, although it is a very modern project at the same time. We were searching for a kind of strategy for using these 50s and 60s buildings within a new overall design concept.
Fascination with old structures can be called a part of the style or identity of your firm. Another part is ornamentation, the topic with which you started your lecture. How did this subject became so important for you?
I should say that generally we use the term iconography. We came to the conclusion that it is very important that buildings communicate with the people using them, with the landscape, and with the surrounding context (whether cultural or physical).
Throughout the history of our firm we have always looked for design solutions where the emphasis is on this communication or architecture parlante. And in that sense ornamentation is one of the aspects of that strategy, but the basic idea is that architecture delivers content and communicates through iconography with the public realm. Colour, ornamentation, material, and other qualities are the instruments within that discourse.
When you were discussing ornamentation during your lecture you showed the Majoliсa House in Vienna. This famous Art Nouveau building by Otto Wagner shows how ornament becomes emancipated and begins playing what is a non-traditional role in architecture: it no longer follows the tectonic articulations of the façade, but, on the contrary, becomes a theme in itself, rendering the building’s façade unstable. Do you think architecture should be tectonic or not?
It depends on the nature of the commission. In general, I would say that architecture has to be tectonic – it has to convey the fact that it is fighting gravity. Why I showed this building is that it is a very clear example that as an architect you have to intervene at different design levels simultaneously – you have to work with the building’s silhouette, the composition of the windows, the surfaces, and you have to make sure the design is tactile and haptic. The interesting thing is that the Majolica House, like the Postsparkasse, another building by Otto Wagner, shows how the architect works at different levels of intervention: for example, the way the moulds attach the marble to the facade is a part of the iconographic programme or representation of the design.
Many of your colleagues from the Netherlands are famous for their fascination with the radical architecture of the Russian Avant-garde. For instance, Rem Koolhaas, in his introduction to Architecture. The Dutch Way 1945-2000, the catalogue for an exhibition at the Hermitage, complains that Dutch Modernism lacks this very futuristic boldness. But your firm, it seems, does not even set out to be radical. Your works refer to something very different, as does Otto Wagner’s Majolica House, which is actually quite bourgeois and not revolutionary at all. So what does modern architecture mean to you and do you consider yourself a Modernist?
We think of ourselves as contemporary architects. We are children of our age. On the other hand, our firm questions all kinds of Modernist assumptions related to social progress and progress through the use of technology. Of course, we apply modern techniques and ways of producing buildings. But we doubt that the emancipatory agenda related to Modernism can ever be accomplished by architecture. We don’t question the necessity of emancipation nor the necessity of modernization, but (and in this sense we are definitely not modernists) we question that architecture can ever perform within this agenda. I do recognize that we are not 100% modernists since we deviate from the avant-garde agenda in much the same way as typical postmodernists do.
This is also visible in your projects for Russia. If we take, for example, your project for Moscow City Hall (2002) or the Judashkin flagship store project (2007), there you can see the influence of Russian art and the Russian architectural tradition, and this is not the Constructivism that Dutch architects typically refer to, but the much older context of traditional Moscow with its Kremlin walls and Orthodox churches.
As I said, we are interested in all periods of art and architecture from the Mesopotamian age up to the present. For us within design thinking there is no hierarchy between a 17th-century iconostasis, the brickwork of St Basil’s Cathedral, or the way Shukhov created his radio towers. In our design for the Polytechnic Museum in Moscow you can clearly see the tradition of Russian engineering – in the lattice work of the load-bearing structure. On the other hand, what you are talking about – parallels with the interiors of Moscow churches – is certainly characteristic of our project for the Valentine Judashkin flagship store. And at the same time we pay tribute to this Suprematist ‘euphoria’- typically related to the work of El Lissitzky and Leonidov – where we enjoy fighting gravity and clearly relate to the horizontal structures El Lissitzky proposed for the Garden Ring in Moscow. We do not comply with the modern international style, but try to relate to a specific context. From Malevich’s Black Square to Faberge eggs and everything in between. The almost hysterical ornamentation typical of the Romanovs – something which is fascinating and seductive – on the one hand and on the other the relentless interpretation of Modern art as seen in the work of Malevich or El Lissitzky are for us of equal importance.
Can we say that one of the keys to your method is craftsmanship? What you are doing is an attempt to bring contemporary architecture back to crafts. Even your book At Work is written in a kind of didactic manner, in the way that old masters would teach pupils the techniques they needed in order to achieve the best results.
For us architecture is a craft. And craft is not necessarily execution of the process, and not necessarily the way the eventual building is made. The craft is in the design process itself. We strongly believe that by meticulously elaborating the design through different media – models, drawings, cartoons, and diagrams – and by using all the instruments that are part of the architectural tradition, you will eventually get better designs. So the craft is in the way you elaborate the design thinking. At the same time, of course, there is a strong emphasis on materials and the tectonic quality of the building. But the attention to craftsmanship is not necessarily attention to traditional ways of executing the structure. Definitely not. It is awareness that the architect should intervene on various levels simultaneously: from the desktop to how the lights are integrated in the ceiling. The craftsmanship and the relation to crafts are always connected to the way you structure your design process and the way you try to integrate a complete view of the work you are creating. The designers’ act is always a projective one. You are constructing the environment for a future which is not yet known: all designs conceived in the studio will be executed 5 or 10 years after their conception. For this reason, in order to create a good design, you have to be able to evoke an image that matches this future that you don’t know yet. So the craft of designing is the ability to picture clearly this unknown world.
Let’s go back to the beginning of our conversation: the relation between restoration and architecture. In St Petersburg and Moscow we have an ongoing renovation process that is sometimes officially called ‘conservation’, but in fact often results in loss of the authentic old city with the creation of a kind of Potemkin village in its stead.
I strongly disagree with conservation techniques that bring a monument to a kind of ideal original state. There never is such an ideal state. In fact, if the building is 300 years old, adding new layers of history to it should be possible. But if you start to reconstruct the notional past, then you should systematically do away with all electricity, lighting, flush toilets, heating systems – and only then can you consider your approach to be honest. But no one actually does this; instead, people create a kind of veneer mock-up of the original state, which might be superficially correct and reproduce the appearance of the building, but in fact is a highly dangerous and regressive idealization of the past.
Unfortunately, this often leads to old buildings being demolished and simulacra being erected in their place. They may look like old buildings, but inside they are efficient and totally new structures.
Indeed. And this is ridiculous! Because it makes it impossible to provide the qualities we have in the 21st century. So this is a very anxious approach because it conveys a lack of trust in the old structures (whether they are old or reconstructed) and simultaneously in the contemporary situation, in modern architectural solutions.
Text: Vladimir Frolov
Photograph: Alisa Gill
Illustrations provided by Michiel Riedijk