Alessandra Orlandoni - Is the Datascape matrix your pragmatic approach to a project?
Winy Maas - I’d rather call it “direct”. Pragmatism conjures up something boring. I hope that MVRDV walks the fine line between reality and experimentalism. We believe that architecture must be about facts and real life experiences, and be comprehensible to ordinary people; it has to communicate clearly what it wants to be and what it wants to say. At the same time our projects have to be forward-thinking, experimental and explore new possibilities for the future. That type of experimentation needs communication. That explains as well the directness of the work. Experimentation needs an agenda, knowing what’s to be done in the future, what the priority elements should be, and making sure they show up in your building.
Datascape is a research method done from about ten to five years ago and published in our earlier book Farmax. It’s a technique to explore the set of invisible rules that govern architecture and town planning - social and political rules, and so on, by literally showing them and their consequences, their maximizations; it’s also a way of making these rules as explicit as possible. It gives you a set of clear, real data that forms the blue print for deciding what would be right or wrong in a given context. They intend to discuss whether we should keep these rules in the future, or if we need updated ones.
A.O. - So first of all you “map” information about the place.
W.M. - With Datascape, yes.
A.O. - Is it a start or a conclusion?
W.M. - Datascape is a synthetic “temporary” result. Let me give you an example. When we were confronted with the reality of a historical city like Amsterdam we came up against rules that did not allow for a new “visible” programme from the street level. We were able to show the possible consequences of the rules. When applied radically they created insane buildings as “shadows” behind the existing facades. They combine a petrified façade with a heap of “invisible” programme behind it. It was actually quite beautiful. But it showed the maximum densification possibilities. But is that maximum density desired? Or do we need extra programme to innovate and update our old “museal” cities?
We think that the limitations of current regulations need to be pointed out and that a critical approach helps people assess what is effectively right or wrong to keep. This can reveal elements of how to approach thinking about the future. That’s how social and political confines can be overcome, and how buildings that are ahead of their times will get built.
A.O. - At first glance your products differ widely, both aesthetically and conceptually. Think, for example of the Casa de Historia in La Coruña, the Mirador in Madrid, and the residential neighbourhood of Hagen Island at Ypenburg in Holland.
W.M. - There are a few remarks there. On the one hand, we try to avoid repeating and copying ourselves, so it’s good that our buildings seem different. On the other, we want to emphasize the interrelations among our projects, that they are part of a wider “agenda” or ambition. Further, all buildings want to be direct, communicative, and use direct architectural language.
Let me explain how the Casa de Historia and Mirador are in some ways similar although seemingly very different. First, they are both advertisements of their ambitions: Mirador tells us that it’s better to put public spaces on the upper storeys rather than create inner courts at ground floor level; Casa de Historia communicates the importance of what it represents and attracts public attention by its sheer size; at the same time, it upholds the identity of the region - in this case Galicia - the shape of the building reproducing the shape of this region. Both are communicative architectures. Secondly they share their compactness, in terms of height and density; they both aim for higher densities and capacities, “flipping” an expected flat building.
A.O. - Would you say that in your projects density takes on an ethical dimension? Do you see this principle being echoed in the - often unbridled - development of the cities in the Far East?
W.M. - Ha, maybe! Density is clearly one of our ‘obsessions’. There’s a saying that artists without obsessions don’t count! In architecture, the term “density” is all too often taken literally to mean a high concentration of vertical buildings. In fact it’s a much wider concept. It has to do with how we use the Earth’s surface, how everything is distributed over land or water surfaces. Just think of the density of information out there in the atmosphere generated by GPS - mind blowing! As to the Far East…a clear density quantum can be seen. It is an interesting and maybe exemplary case how to approach and innovate density and capacities. I think it’s right that China experiment with different forms of urbanisation. Ten years ago, Pudong would have been unthinkable.
A.O. - Your “magnificent obsession” has pushed you to take on agriculture and animal farming. Pig City (1*), the vertical farm, lies somewhere between bio-science, fiction and reality. Jeremy Rifkin, has described “The European Dream” based on quality and sustainability as the only way forward for the future. Do you see Pig City as blending density and sustainability?
W.M. - Yes. I share his theories on the need for sustainable development. Certainly density also concerns the countryside, “forestification” (2*) and agriculture. As we show in KM3, our new book, agriculture and forestry require more then 70% of our spatial needs. It is alarming that architects don’t work on that matter! In that respect it would be good if farms could be built on several levels, go up rather than out. This is not only sustainable in capacity terms (we need more agricultural space to feed more people), it allows us as well to innovate the current farming. It helps to incorporate the new knowledge on sustainable farming. Animals should thus be raised in healthy and ecologically viable environments that require sufficient space to ensure the animals’ health and avoid disease. Pig City is an example. Pig raising in Holland is a key activity and on the increase. Pig City is an attempt to combine an increasing number of animal farms with animal welfare, and so our own welfare. As I said before, I am interested in all processes of densification, not just in cities. They all have an important underlying idea: leaving more space for human beings. The land mass is being eroded by climate changes; population growth, greater comfort, increasing demands etc. require us to leave as much free space as possible.
A.O. - You designed Hagen Island, a residential neighbourhood of detached, widely spread out houses at Ypenburg just outside The Hague…(3*)
W.M. - So what?
A.O. - Is that design not contradictory to your density pleas?
W.M. - We want to work on the “Achilles’ heel” as well. In this case: how to innovate suburbanism? Can a denser suburbanity be created, without leading to the monotony that has recently created this ‘sea’ of row houses, as the development of the neighbourhood next door to our project shows? Can it incorporate individualism and collectivity? We chose to cut the demanded row houses and to distribute them over the given terrain in a loose manner, so that a communal space appears: one can look in between the houses. And it creates a more individual appearance of the houses. The extra costs for the facade claddings could be paid by a reduction of infrastructure (no roads, only a ring road) and by the reduction of ‘details’ (no gutters, one material). This leaded to a child-friendly environment and an iconic, slightly ironic appeal. Can it thus be seen as an optimistic and constructive form of criticism?
A.O. - In 2002 you took part in the Architecture and Water exhibition at SFMOMA with innovative solutions for buildings near bodies of water. You exhibited four family houses contained in a single block suspended 12 metres from the ground.
W.M. - The Four Water Villas were suspended over the water and did not clutter up the water’s edge, a worrying phenomenon in Europe, and in the US where buildings occupy the beach, making access impossible. In many parts of Los Angeles, you can’t even get to the beach! This is another project that aims to free up public space while densifying the current situation. Unfortunately the economic downturn in Holland in ‘02/03 meant that the building didn’t get built, and the houses were constructed on the ground. To make the initial idea of not obstructing the public view of the lake an economically viable proposition, we developed houses, without gardens by creating verandas. That made it possible to run a canal in between the houses to end up before benches overlooking the water, providing public water edges. You could call it an ‘economic transposition of a great ambition’!
A.O. - Music is a cultural expression and a social phenomenon. It influences attitudes and lifestyle and at the same time is a means of social aggregation. How do you relate to music and how, if at all, do music, space and architecture interrelate?
W.M. - I adore music and I like designing space where you can dance, though I would never design a building with the criteria of a musical composition, if that’s what you’re getting at. That sort of approach doesn’t interest me. Take for example a composition by Stockhausen, typical of a sort of “compositional disorder”. It wouldn’t be sensible to transpose that language to architecture and make a building with crooked windows, say. That would be very superficial. But I think it’s fantastic to design an environment geared for dancing and exchange between people. Like we did for the BBC competition in London. The idea was to create a “whispering” space where in any point of the building you could hear people murmuring. We were designing acoustic density. People connect in a very intriguing ways when they hear their own whisperings… or the design for Les Halles in Paris where we turned this invisible catacomb into a three dimensional glass valley with a public ‘dance floor’ on top, accommodating a young generation, now hidden in the underground.
A.O. - The Effenaar in Eindhoven was a social centre that needed a professional, not a cultural overhaul.
W.M. - Yes, it needed a technical update for its current qualities as well as a sincere enlargement. We turned it into a vertical club in which the heart, the club itself, is formed by the surrounding programme, that created balconies so that from the central hall you can see into all the spaces.
Now we are designing a new night club based on the ephemeral, that will shift the real into the virtual. It’s a vertical building, completely in glass. It’s real in that it exists physically, but by embedding liquid crystal displays in all glass surfaces, the d-v-j can create images on floors, walls and ceilings so that the dance area can have constantly changing simulated scenarios. The images can be seen from the outside too. It’s a dance-machine, a wholly psychedelic environment.
A.O. - What happened to your project for the Serpentine Gallery pavilion in London, planned for the summer of 2005 and then cancelled?
W.M. - What the press reported is true. It was an ambitious project we made together with the Serpentine and Arup. The costs were too high for the acquired budget. It took 3 years. A pity.
A.O. - You have worked with Rem Koolhaas…
W.M. - I worked for two and a half years at OMA
A.O. - Are you one of his pupils?
W.M. -I am a pupil of several people, but Rem is one of them. He was one of my professors for my graduation project at school.
A.O. - Are you distancing yourselves from OMA?
W.M. - Yes and no. There’s maybe a (fruitful) ping-pong game between OMA and MVRDV, a continuous back and forth. When OMA recognizes (through ‘Mutations’ for instance) the analytical approach and the ‘mapping’ of the existing, we emphasize with Farmax and Datascapes the maximization of the existing and with KM3 the need for ‘constructions’ over analyses only. When SMLXL shows the desire to engage itself with ‘scale’, the Regionmaker shows interactive itineraries to combine top-down with bottom-up, individualism with collectivism. When Content was about the move towards the east, KM3 wanted to construct the understanding for a continuous flow. Et cetera.
A.O. - MVRDV is described by some as the young practice that has reinvented modernism…What do you think?
W.M. - Very often the term is ambiguous. If by modernism you mean a constant attention to the future, widening the possibilities of research, scale and different solutions then, yes, I relate to that. If you see the term as a set of rules that defines a style, as something static…. I don’t think that has anything to do with us at all!
We are interested in broadening the field, not narrowing it and imposing formal rules that generate a style.
A.O. - What shows up most in your work is a concern for architecture and town planning. What’s your position as regards the way contemporary art, product design and architecture interrelate?
W.M. - Maybe they share more than we can think. We don’t exclude design for our work. We see at as well as an instrument for the agendas mentioned earlier. For the Lloyd Hotel in Amsterdam we worked with about 30 different designers on the differentiation of the rooms. For the Spijkenisse Public Library, we designed all the shelves and furniture together with a designer; at the Villa VPRO radio station, we did the doors and the lighting fixtures. We try in every building we realize to develop a possible product. With Philips we made recently illuminating hammocks.
For us, interior design is also the result of density, of information and the mingling of the various professionals involved in the whole project. We try hard not to identify too much with our products. That’s why the contribution, the voices of others are important. We want everyone who collaborates on a project to be visibly a clear part of it. We are against the use and abuse of the term “starchitect” in the sense that he/she oversees every detail and creates it in his own image. As Andy Warhol said “In the future, everyone will be world famous…
A.O. - …for 15 minutes, at least!”