Mark: "No fooling about" (April / May 2008)
Interview (Next Architects)
Next Architects on the steady growth of their firm, their annex in China and their work for Droog Design.
Text David Keuning
Photos Daniel Nicolas
The first Christmas package I ever received from an employer was made by Next Architects. I was a teaching assistant when, in 1999, the architecture faculty at Delft University of Technology gave its entire staff ‘The Architecture Game of the Twentieth Century’, a kind of Trivial Pursuit with ‘more than 1,000 questions about the greatest architects, their famous buildings and legendary statements’. Including questions like ‘Whom did Hannes Meyer work with on the competition projects for the Peterschule in Basel and the League of Nations palace in Geneva, both in 1927?’ (Hans Wittmer), ‘What vehicle do some of Gustav Peichl’s buildings look like?’ (a ship) and ‘for which 1924 film by Marcel L’Herbier were architects Robert Mallet-Stevens and Pierre Chareau partly responsible for the sets?’ (L’Inhumaine). In my student residence, occupied mostly by industrial designers, no one wanted to play it with me. But the handsome black box still adorns my bookcase.
Bart Reuser, Marijn Schenk, Michel Schreinemachers and John van de Water were themselves still students at Delft that year. They shared a final thesis studio and had big plans. They’d come up with the name ‘Next Architects’, but there was no actual firm yet. That would come a year later: no work experience worth mentioning, but still, an office of their own in Amsterdam and several study commissions.
Why did you not pick up some work experience at other firms before you went into business on your own?
Bart Reuser: It wasn’t our intention to start up our own office right away. We did all have the idea that we would eventually be our own bosses, but the opportunity presented itself sooner than we had anticipated. We’d done things during our final thesis programme that had attracted some publicity. The most significant was the competition ‘Het aanzien van Nederland in 2030’, about the future development of the Netherlands, in which we placed second. We were featured in a television programme, and this led to our first commissions, such as a study into the development of the Delta metropolis [the conglomeration of large cities in the west of the Netherlands].
Marijn Schenk: We also conceived our own metropolis project, in which we wanted to document how the metropolis had evolved at the end of the second millennium. During the last four months of 1999 we travelled around the world. We visited 26 cities and took photographs in each city, at 70 comparable locations. We had an enormous urge to really see the world, and so we conceived a project around that.
That sounds rather open-ended.
Schenk: No, we were interested in globalization and its relevance for architecture. This was the period in which Rem Koolhaas first came out with his narratives about the generic city, and that was a huge inspiration for us. Before we could research the Delta metropolis, we felt we had to go see the other metropolises around the world. This resulted in 12,000 slides.
Reuser: Through this trip we became conscious of the diversity of the contexts in which we build, and it gave us a common frame of reference. In addition, a lot of things came out of it – including two travelling exhibitions, which provided us with important contacts in China. in 2002 we were in Beijing and shanghai. John travelled with this exhibition and met several people at the universities who were building a lot. Young people, just like us, who were keen to establish a link to Western architecture.
Schenk: At one point we got a telephone call. ‘We’re putting together a team for the Olympic badminton stadium,’ several Chinese architects said. ‘Do you want to join us?’ Of course we thought that was fantastic. Not that it worked out, because ultimately firms like Zaha Hadid’s were included in the selection. They’re kind of in a different league. But because we’d received the invitation out of the blue, we realized that there were opportunities out there. John was very interested in China and said, ‘I’d like to go there, actually.’ And in October 2004 he went. he visited four, five firms, worked with them for days to find out who they were and what they did. in the end Huan Yang Century said: you just stay Next Architects, we’ll pass commissions on to you, you produce the design and we’ll implement it. We now have our own annex inside their offices. In the beginning it was difficult. We would produce a design for every commission they got. But secretly they were also making their own design, so that if the client found ours too risky they could pull something else out of the drawer. Eventually we figured out that we needed a different approach, that we should not be rearranging the program and making something sculptural and producing a unique façade. That’s too much for the Chinese. We no longer work on all fronts at the same time in China. That sometimes means that we can’t do much about the floor plan, but that we can produce a powerful visual. John has gradually built up so much goodwill that way that virtually every project gets quickly approved now.
Does Huan Yang Century get credited for its work?
Reuser: I don’t know exactly how they do it. All the publications that come out in China feature our name, with no mention of theirs.
Michel Schreinemachers: In China, copyright is not all that important. For their office we’d designed a new reception desk, and a few months later John came across the exact same desk at the maquette agency they were working with.
Schenk: They don’t care about their name; they care about our name. They find it more important to make clear that they are working with Next Architects than that they are the ones building the things. John in fact sometimes goes along as a mock-up. As in, this is our European partner – even though he’s had little to do with the project in question. He’s brought along as a display model.
How does working with John work in practice?
Reuser: The designs for buildings in China go back and forth. Send a graphic, respond; it’s a rapid process.
Schenk: That comes down to the level of details. Last week the same staircase came in three times, with a different railing each time. Occasionally he says, ‘This is the design brief; I don’t have any time right now, can you email me a sketch?’ So we make a sketch and later you see that sketch elaborated in the designs from the Chinese agency. One consequence of this is that we always look for clear concepts, that we make a sketch that can be explained in two sentences.
The number of projects you’re working on in China is pretty high in proportion to your total number of projects.
Reuser: That’s because of the different organization of the agencies. In the Netherlands we do everything ourselves: design, drawing, building supervision. In China we work with a smaller team, but with the huge backup of a large local firm. We can produce a lot more there, because we’re mainly involved in the initiation and concept phase.
Aren’t you concerned that you’ll lose control of what gets built there under your name?
Schenk: Yes, but that happens anyway. You see it in projects by some of our colleagues. Through John, we’re aware of work in China by Western firms that they don’t publicize because it’s not good enough. You have very little control of the building process. A client or contractor takes decisions late in the process without consulting the architect. Again, that has to do with copyright. If we’re producing something in the Netherlands and halfway through the client says, ‘Very nice, that orange wall, but we’re going to make it brown,’ you can say, as the architect, ‘This is our design; we’re willing to discuss a different colour, but you don’t make that decision.’ Even if it’s his own house and he’s paying for it. In China that’s unthinkable.
Reuser: You have to think carefully about what your role as an architect should be. In the Netherlands there is this idea that the architect is a renaissance man who has a clear view of everything that happens from start to finish. At least that’s what many architects want, and there is a lot of moaning when it doesn’t turn out that way. In China this idea is ludicrous. You’re part of a process in which, with your capabilities as a spatial designer, you make as good a contribution as possible to what is taking place anyway. If you apply this kind of thinking, you can contribute a lot without having to be embarrassed about things that turn out other than you would like. In the Netherlands this way of working might bring us criticism, but I think that’s outmoded.
In addition to buildings, you also produce objects, primarily for the design collective Droog Design. Your Slow Glow, a lamp containing fat that melts under its heat, is now in production. And the Ready Made bookcase will soon be produced in a limited edition. Did you consciously go into product design to cover as broad a field of work as possible, or did this come to you by itself as well?
Schenk: It started by itself. Droog Design invited us to contribute our ideas on their products in 2000, the first year of our existence as an official firm.
Schreinemachers: They were going to do a project in Milan, and it was about boundaries. That’s an architecturally relevant theme. We started working with boundaries around the home, for instance a door or a fence. We wondered whether we could approach these as something that can form a connection. This led to fences incorporating a bench, a ping-pong table, a bike rack or a shared watering can. The nice thing about this kind of small project is that you have to develop exactly the same kind of concept when you work on a larger scale. Only the building process is different, and you’re dealing with different parties at the table. And you learn things you can apply to larger projects.
Schenk: In this project the central question was, ‘What is the essence of a fence? And can you also make something that brings people together, rather than separates them?’ This idea is also evident in our bridges in Enschede, for example. A bridge is a functional object; it allows you to get across the water. But we wondered whether you could also do something that would bring together people from the two neighbourhoods on either side of the water. We made the footbridge as high as possible, to provide a view, and placed a bench at the top. This makes the bridge an attraction, a landmark in the neighbourhood. Instead of the fastest-possible crossing, we made obstacles, to turn the bridge into a destination.
When you see all your products together, the buildings as well as the interiors and the furniture, what is the one feature they all have in common?
Schenk: I think that the ideas that underpin the designs are evident and legible. There is a clarity in the architecture that makes you understand the object quickly. All of our projects are free of frills, of extraneous details. Powerful and clear, no fooling about.
Yet a building like the house in Wiel, that’s very contextual, almost traditional. If I had been shown this unawares, I would not have recognized it as something of yours.
Reuser: That traditional form comes from the ancient, fragile landscape of the Betuwe. The cultural history of the area plays a significant role in the design. We had in mind the modest, restrained form of a barn, in keeping with the landmark farmhouse that is part of the country estate. The house is conceptually very simple. It is a long saddle roof with one big box under its crest along the entire length of the house, which can be used from two sides. On one side are separate rooms and on the other side one large space. In the box itself are plumbing, heating and electricity equipment, the toilet, the bathroom and the kitchen. That’s something we do in many other projects as well: loading objects with more functions than they were originally intended for. A lamp that melts fat, a fence with a bike rack, kitchens in which tables fold out of the wall: they are usable things, not just there to freak people out. Many of our projects contain inventive solutions, and these then form the character of the building. Another example is the Ready Made bookcase. This is not so much a cabinet in which people can keep their books. It is a cabinet you buy with the spines of the 100 best books of all time included. They’re already in there. It’s our response to the way people treat their bookcases. You collect books, you put them in the bookcase and then you never read them again. You do it to display them in your interior, to say to your visitors: this is my intellectual background.
That sounds a bit cynical to me. Is that intentional?
Schreinemachers: Yes, there is a light cynicism in there. That’s also typical of Droog.
Typical of Droog, yes, but also typical of Next?
Reuser: Yes, I think so. It’s a commentary.
Schenk: You also see that commentary, for instance, in our design for a residential building for 3,500 students in China. It is an enormous mass; its scale would be unimaginable in the Netherlands. We made sure every student got his or her own bay window. That way we make the power of the number visible. You can almost count all the little rooms. It is a cynical commentary on the massiveness of Chinese society, but it does produce qualities. And our clients recognize that, including in China.
One of the questions in your game was ‘For how many occupants did Le Corbusier design the Unité d’Habitation?’ Do you still know the answer?