People Place Purpose - The world according to Mecanoo | The Plan
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People Place Purpose - The world according to Mecanoo

Francine Houben

Handwriting and language
The discussion on style in architecture is interesting but not essential as the main goal of the design process. A good example of this is the composition of two houses that we collaborated on together with Alvaro Siza in The Hague (1988): one in the style of the Amsterdam School, the other in the style of Neue Sachlichkeit. The two contrasting styles competed with one another throughout the Twenties with the architects of both sites believing theirs to be the true one. However, the true beauty of these projects lies in their combination; the juxtaposition of the introverted and extroverted, heavy and light, tactile and abstract. Style is an outdated phenomenon. Architecture needs a receptive handwriting that can write in different languages so that it can respond adequately to every location, assignment and culture.
A good, well-designed building is more than a smart translation of the programme. Architecture schools often teach their students to analyse the programme requirements thoroughly. Sometimes a building shape literally pops up. However, there is just one certainty at the start of a design: the use of spaces will always change. Architecture schools have to teach students to observe people and places. We can’t photoshop the world; we have to come away from our computers and touch the earth. The only meaningful quality of the built environment is the possibility to engage with the people’s senses.

Times are changing
The function of buildings is subject to change. We should aim to make buildings with the possibilities to adjust to the changing times. An adaptable building isn’t a smart concrete structure with moveable interior walls. It is essential that people can inhabit that space, make it their own. A successful example is the Delft University of Technology Library that opened in 1997. Until then the TU Delft lacked a campus atmosphere. We wanted to change this with the library. Therefore we raised the lawn on one side like a sheet of paper, placed columns beneath it, and filled the walls with glass: a building of grass and glass. A cone, the symbol of technology, pierces the library and the landscape, affixing them like a pushpin. The grass roof of the library is freely accessible for walking and lounging, creating a new amenity for the whole campus. With its grass-covered roof, high-performance glazed climate façades and subterranean storage for heating and cooling, the building reaches - at that time - the highest standards of sustainability.
In 2007 Mecanoo was asked by the new Librarian to transform the library into a “Library Learning Centre” for independent study and group research with inspiring rooms and seating areas for study and exchange. The clustering of support functions and a strategic revision of the opening time of the library resulted in the separation of different types of users. The main central hall has been transformed into a space with a variety of atmospheres. A broad scale of workplace typologies was realized in and next to the main hall, transforming it into the “living room” of the university. The library proved to be sustainable over the years.

People’s Palace
Libraries are the most important public buildings of this time. The book is no longer the core facility of a library. These days, public libraries are institutes where people not only find information but also produce knowledge Libraries are the new cathedrals of society. As an architect, you have to realize you’re working with public funds. It is necessary to understand that this public money flows via your mind into your hands and has to be given back to society. Architects have to be visionary and service-oriented at the same time.  Architecture is not autonomous art. To me, it is crucial to be socially involved as an architect.
 A building is being created together with a lot of stakeholders; it is a work of cooperation.
Central public libraries have to be people’s palaces. That is what Mecanoo seeks to convey for the Birmingham Library. People are in search of an identity within this globalizing world. As a designer in the public domain, you are a substantial part of the cultural development. While we started up the project, I was constantly in search of Birmingham’s nature. It is essential to observe the urban fabric, before making new plans. It isn’t a common approach in the United Kingdom but a public building has to be part of this fabric on each scale. During my first visit to the city I came across an informal pedestrian route along the site. My response was to connect this informal public route to the interior of the building via stairs, escalators and voids to roof terraces where you can look back to the city and the surrounding landscapes. The terraces echo the soft hills of the landscape in the distance. Birmingham’s rich tradition of industrial craftsmanship is symbolized in the façade. The steel circles are an ode to the industrial revolution. This period is associated with a progressive attitude, looking forward. From inside, these circles change the image of Birmingham again. Identity is something that changes with time; you must find and reinterpret it.  Architecture is not able on its own to find new identities for people.

Shadow and shelter
In 2004 we started the design for La Llotja, a theatre and congress centre in Lleida, the second city of the Spanish province of Catalonia. On each visit we experienced another atmosphere, with the surrounding orchards showing new colours and textures across the seasons. The winters are frequently foggy and wet but in the summer it is hot and clear. By designing a building with large cantilevers we provide visitors shade and shelter, shade in the summer and protection against the rain in the winter.
Neighbours told me that a fruit and vegetable market once stood on this location. Food and agriculture are a substantial part of the Spanish culture. Aqui Fruinem is Catalan for “here we eat fruit”. The chefs of the restaurants are inspired by the fresh fruit of the many orchards around Lleida and include these in their dishes. The theme of fruit also becomes an inspiration for the interior design of La Llotja. The main theatre feels like an orchard with walls of black wood in which trees of light have been cut out and thousands of leaves on the ceiling light the hall. The colour palette of fruit is a theme that recurs in small details throughout the building. Public building interiors have to be domestic and full of cultural references to be familiar to local people. By night, the building shows off its surprising and colourful interior.  

An American lesson
During my study years, intuition was a forbidden word in architecture. Rationality was the common attitude of most architects that time. In 1978 I got to know Charles and Ray Eames through my teacher Max Risselada. From then I visited Ray Eames in her house a couple of times until 1988. Her approach and attitude to work was a great example. Charles and Ray Eames were able to combine technical, human and playful aspects in a single solution. They experimented with new materials for their chairs and discovered their limitations as they went along. That led them to look for new solutions all over again. They were designers without dogmatism, and never lost sight of comfort. They are the uncrowned king and queen of arrangement. Their work has a permanent inspiring value. Their house was built in 1949 in the hills of Santa Monica near Los Angeles, in a beautiful situation behind eucalyptus trees. It shows what happens when you combine the technical with the sensorial. Architecture must appeal to all the senses and is never just a purely intellectual, conceptual or visual game. Architecture is about combining all the individual elements in a single concept. What counts in the last resort is the arrangement of form and emotion.
Complexity is one of the biggest issues for designing a public building. Architecture isn’t an individual piece of art. It is a collaborative process where lots of people are involved. The power of architecture is bringing all these unique qualities and differences strongly together within the design. For Boston we have designed a municipal centre with public facilities. It will become the headquarters of the Public School Department. Dudley Square is located in Roxbury, near downtown Boston. Roxbury is the heart and soul of Boston. In 1886 Roxbury became part of Boston and now stands at its very centre.  Roxbury is unique for its hilly vistas. It is a model of America as a melting pot and stratified society. To understand what was needed, I walked around Roxbury; talking with a lot of people along the way. For the residents, the Ferdinand Building is the symbol of what was once the vibrant heart of Roxbury, with shops and jazz cafes. For 40 years they were not able to attract any commercial party to develop the area. It took the then Boston City Mayor Thomas Menino to decide that Boston itself would build on the site.
The neighbourhood selected the architect, choosing a Dutch architect together with local architect Sasaki to envision their dream. It is fundamental to this design that the neighbourhood remains actively involved throughout. They demand that the site provide employment for local people. They also want shops and cafes on the ground floor. The design that we have tried to make is one that also creates a beautiful space, with the possibility of publicly accessible computers. In addition to the involvement of citizens and strategic leadership, the possibility for self-development and education of citizens is crucial for the further emancipation of the district. It reminds me of what attracted me to the works of Ray Eames and how the solution to these kinds of projects cannot be found through style or with a rational answer. The building is not only a secured storage facility for the desks and computers of the municipal office. The project is a new beginning for the inhabitants of Roxbury, who through such    developments can slowly start to believe in a new future. The craftsmanship of the brick façade together with the marked public route that follows the direction of a former metro-line shows their common history.

People Place Purpose
We must not forget whom we design. People belong to earth somewhere. Spaces are contextual and a reflection of diverse    climates and cultures. Architects should observe people, place and purpose instead of merely assessing the programme spreadsheet. The discussion of style is not of interest to the industry.  What we need to develop is a strong handwriting capable of writing in numerous context-appropriate languages. As a result, architects might have to think less in final images and accept that we are contributing to a long and still evolving history.
The ultimate goal is to make spaces that want to be used. People Place Purpose.

Francine Houben


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