WASH: You made a statement that architecture, that architects, can’t save society. We as young architectural students rather agree with you, but we feel that this assertion may gives architects an excuse for not trying to make a difference in the world. How does that relationship work to you?
Michiel Riedijk: That is a very important question, but it contains different layers, so to speak. On the one hand, it is a question regarding professional attitude regarding the way you perceive the profession of an architect, because you could argue that an architect just provides services for a client who poses a question and you have to answer the question as precisely as possible. You can perceive that way of our profession. On the other hand, there is also a society posing a question. Not as an assignment, but society demands a certain urban environment or society demands environmentally friendly or sustainable environmental solutions, but it is not necessarily the aim or the primary question of the client. At the same time, you as an architect should find a balance between these two questions. On the one hand, the question is the control question -- I need so many square feet to accommodate my processes, from a client. On the other, the question is a demand from society for solutions and a demand from society with respect to sustainability, but also in respect to cultural interpretations of architecture or what a city should be. So that’s why I was arguing that an architect cannot save the world, however, an architect has the obligation to engage with contemporary questions, engage with contemporary demands within society, like sustainability or all other pressing issues that are in larger metropolitan areas, throughout the world physically.
That is interesting we have met many architects, or maybe it is just architectural students, that want to save the world one day—
I think it is very important that we do not exaggerate the power of architecture, that we do not exaggerate the influence of architecture. But, we also have a certain responsibility as soon as you build somewhere, as soon as your building is erected on a site, nothing else can happen there. So at the end of the day, architecture is a very violent act. Literally, if you build a large building, in order to erect it, many other things are made impossible on that particular site. That brings a very big responsibility in respect to the existing surroundings, and the environmental issues or other issues that we continue to discuss.
In a sense what one’s obligation as an architect comes down to is what projects one chooses, because one could have chosen to do social housing projects or public projects, but then beyond that actual choice, the architect doesn’t really have the power to solve these problems. Only the power to choose the projects.
Yes, as I said, you have to choose what kind of architect you want to be. That is an explicit choice; you can opt for being an architect that is highly service-oriented, which is okay of course. You also can opt for being an architect that is involved in participatory processes and empowerment and work in deprived neighborhoods or engaged in urban renewal. That is also okay. There is a kind of set of choices that is especially for you because you’re almost on the threshold of your professional life, so you can make this choice in advance, and there are also architects who opt for a more artistic practice, where the architectural outcome is more related to art-- it’s another choice. So we, as an office, we explicitly opted for a certain kind of commission; we explicitly are searching for competitions and assignments that are of interest and so -- I’ve never built a corporate headquarters. Maybe that’s not a coincidence.
Of course, there is chance, coincidence you win the competition and suddenly you are an expert in designing libraries. Therefore, when you win another competition, you are suddenly an expert in designing fire stations. So not everything is chosen in advance, but the way you perceive architecture, the way you engage in your professional life with architecture is something you should consciously evaluate and decide what and what kind of practice you want. Of course, that idea will transform and deviate throughout time, but I think you really can, or you have to, create a vision of that, so as to impose a certain idea with respect to how you would like to work in the future.
So when one has a client, it seems more or less straightforward, not really straightforward but the client stipulates the program and a list of needs they want fulfilled. One may also be interested in serving the community, but the community doesn’t necessarily give one the same kind of a program checklist, so how does one as an architect develop that which the community might need?
You should assess, but you should also take a position, you should formulate visions in advance. For instance, the Culturehouse Arhem is one of the most sustainable libraries in the northwest of Europe. The roof is fully covered with solar panels and consists of grass in order to buffer the storm water so that the rainwater does not drain directly into the sewer. These are choices you have to make in advance, then you have to convince your client that it is necessary to invest in his return on investment, on the social return, and a literal return in terms of lower running costs for the building. All these are things that you have to explicitly opt for in advance because otherwise you’ll never realize them, and so if you would like to envision how you could serve purposes that are not directly embedded in the brief given by the client, the only way I think you can push that forward is by claiming certain necessities, otherwise you’ll never get anything.
You spoke about competitions as a way of getting into new areas. We feel that architects sometimes find something that works and end up with clients that only look for a specific typology. Do you see competitions as a way to break out of those patterns?
As I said, in the early 90s we won several fire stations and at a certain moment we really thought we should avoid fire stations. As a result, we did competitions with many other kinds of buildings and we lost many of course, but we also won a lot of competitions. But you have to invest into that and then you open up into other terrains in a kind of conscious choice, or one morning you wake up and think oh, I’m an expert in this or that, but I don’t want to be. Therefore, you go in another direction, which is tough: economically tough and intellectually tough. Because you have to get into new knowledge, find new design solutions, develop new expertise, yet nobody trusts you. Because if you’ve never built a museum building, no one trusts that you know how to build a museum, but you develop that. It’s of course, again, a conscious choice.
This seems related to project-based design process in treating each commission as its own project. We were wondering if you could give some more insight into how that process plays out in your office?
In a way, we are part of that school, but on the other hand, we deviate for that matter because I always tend to see a kind of continuity within the work. So, in fact, we could argue that the most important design you are making as an architect is designing your office. Not designing the furniture or the layout but understanding your office as a project. In the examples that I just gave you, regarding the choices you make in respect to taking commissions for this, or during a competition, these are deliberate choices about how you envisioned your office as a project. We always thought that the office was a kind of laboratory developing new typologies, developing new ideas in respect to materiality. Doing literally fundamental research into how to produce undulating glass, how to produce certain colors in prefabricated concrete. So instead of interpreting commissions as separate questions, we always like to see a sort of continuity in the way we address assignments and we literally borrow design solutions from project one and recycle them in project two. And transform or mutate it in project three or four, or 60. Therefore, there is a kind of continuity of knowledge with respect to understanding. But within the project-based approach, I would argue that the most important thing is the to perceive architecture as a knowledge-based profession and that you do not perceive the commission as a coincidence.
Today I have to design a farm, tomorrow a church, and you should not see these as two separate events. We always try to envision the continuity between projects and whether the solution for the farm can be recycled when designing the church. As I said, the office is the main project distinguishing different trains of thought within the office portfolio and output and trying to learn from that. By offering a new perspective claiming that ornaments on the materiality are the main driving forces in the design process, you also kind of establish a new insight for yourself—most of all, by classifying and reinterpreting what you have been doing permanently. You are also enforcing a sort of knowledge base within your practice. I would argue that you should be very much aware that architecture is a knowledge-based profession, which is contingent upon different events lining up. Today we are doing a church, tomorrow we are doing a farm, and the day after tomorrow, a ballet school, and who know… the next day, an apartment building. As soon as you only perceive these four different assignments as independent projects, I think you will slide into a highly pragmatic approach, but I agree with Aaron [Betsky] that by seeing projects as solitary questions, the most pragmatic answer is what you might lose, and with that a kind of thematic undertone that brings together the farm, the church, or the ballet school and the apartment building. And I think it’s very important that you develop this narrative as young architects. That you develop a narrative that’s good, that can give an underpinning. At the end of the day, the farm is different from the ballet school and the apartment has to be different from the church. But still you need this kind of underpinning that creates a consistent body of work, a body of work that relates to your vision of society, relates to your vision of architecture—relates to the way you would like to live, but also relates to what kind of person you want to be, what kind of professional you want to be.
When you have a building such as the Deventer City Hall, a project you did which is surrounded on all sides by other buildings that have a lot of history, how do you approach that?
This particular commission was a very demanding commission because we won this competition but there were many protests in the neighborhoods. People thought that this municipality should not spend so much money, public tax money, on a new building. The question was raised—why did the municipality vote for a new building in this particular place anyway? So this was a very vulnerable assignment and so we opted for a very didactic approach where we tried to convey all our design ideas in a very consistent step-by-step manner in order to develop a story about the organization of the façade and how it relates to the adjacent buildings. We developed very clear steps in a very clear order to engage the neighborhood and explain what is being done, and also to build up a majority vote of the City Council when the building had to be approved, and then pushed to get the final building permits. In these particularly vulnerable historic environments, and especially with these complex political processes, it is very important that you explain what you are doing to yourself. So as to detach yourself from your intuition. So first you always have some intuition that tells you that the building should look so and so, and should be organized in this particular manner. But in these kinds of vulnerable situations—politically vulnerable, technically vulnerable, historically vulnerable—it helps you define in advance steps you want to do. And the design aspects you are trying to lay out.
What we always try to do is envision five different drawings, of the façade in this case; and all five of these different drawings are made to focus on very different aspects, so you make a drawing that is particularly focused on proportions. Or you make a drawing that is particularly focused on material aspects. And by constructing a rationale, it enables you to address all these topics separately and helps you to precisely design what you want at the end of the day.
During your lecture at the School of Architecture at Taliesin, you said something interesting—two images that exist simultaneously can create a third image sort of manifested in the center, like you implemented in the Institute of Vision and Sound with the blurred images. Considering this world which is increasingly digital, is there a possibility for an architectural narrative through images solely? Is there a possibility for the architectural image to convey meaning?
I don’t know, but I think that the image as such is one of the most powerful design tools that we as architects have. What is of utmost importance is that you are always able to interpret the image as such. That you are able to derive a concept from the image at hand by giving it a name or by giving it a very specific title. You have a cup, but you call it a tower. As soon as you see the tower in the cup, you will always remember the cup is a tower. By using two different images at the same time, the images can be reinterpreted. It helps to come to a merger or a synthesis of different images, but also helps you again to have these parallel trains of thought—highly evocative trains of thought that are directly related to the power of the image. And a more analytical train of thought that helps you by naming things, that helps you understand what kind of specific topics you are addressing, the specific images. That said, I do think that digitalization is a revolutionary force within our practice. Your generation in particular, you may not have been born with the iPhone, but I was born in the early 60s… digitalization had already started its course, but it was completely invisible in society. But as we moved into the 90s and onward, suddenly, society changed to digitalization and robotization and computers.
I think it helps you design in a different kind of way and create mergers between images. But at the same time, I am 100% convinced that architecture is an intellectual discipline—an intellectual activity—we do have to [contemplate] the seduction of the powerful image. But at the same time, by using abstract words, because words are abstract, I can say “girl” we all think of a girl, but we can hold thousands of different girls in our minds. Still we are using the same word. So, I can say “tower” and point at this cup, you more or less understand… this might be a circular tower. Words are very powerful means, but images are similarly powerful, but due to development in society, it seems that the images are more powerful than the word. I do wonder whether that’s true, because in essence, abstract concepts are always conveyed in words or even through mathematical notations.
In the process of building and design, one may spend a lot of time with a project and it becomes very personal—it can takes years. But when it’s built, one has to let it go. We’re wondering what is that experiences like for you? Does it excite you when it takes on a life? Or is it a bittersweet moment to let it go?
These things are like your children—you love your children, but one is good in basketball and another is good at playing the violin, the third one is good at playing rugby. They’re all your children, you appreciate them for their different qualities. The same goes for buildings. You cannot compare them, but you appreciate them for unique qualities. There are bitter moments when the qualities you thought, the qualities you had in mind in advance and qualities that you integrated into a certain aspect of your design, work out in your design, or it wasn’t appreciated in your design. Or it wasn’t understood in a similar way as you imagined it would. That is part of the game, because sometimes children do things you hate but they remain part of your family.
You’ve compared the architectural image to something like language. Does it mutate over time? We’ve historically seen artists influence architects and architects influence artists. Do you think that happens and does that play a part in architecture? Are artistic images so powerful that they influence architecture?
I think that it starts with understanding architecture as an intellectual discourse and understanding it within that discourse, there are different layers. First, you have the operational procedural layer in designing: first you do this and then you do that. First, you have the overall organization and at the end of the day, the final color or whatever. If you understand that within the design practice, within execution, practice is procedural, that aspect forces you to do first this and then that. But also helps you invert that and to understand why you should do that instead of doing this. It’s important to be aware of this… funneling: it is part of the process. So be aware of design containing a strong procedural aspect.
The second layer that you should be aware of, that design contains, is method or technique. To use a pencil in the proper way, or to use a computer in the proper way. At the same time, it forces the direction of your solution, because if you use a soft felt, you can do something very subtle; with the fat felt, you can’t. So your technique and the means applied force you consciously or unconsciously towards a certain direction. So the second layer defines designing as an abstract discursive profession that distinguishes limits and the possibilities applied within a specific procedure.
The third layer is maybe the layer you are referring to, the syntactical element of design, where there are components to be envisioned within your design practice that recur, or that ought to be applied in a certain way, that might form a certain grammar of solutions, or they might form a poem or a sonnet. Or lyrical structure that enables you to put all these other ingredients in place. So, while thinking about designing an office, try to be aware of these three different levels occurring simultaneously as design solutions. Imagine you are drawing a staircase, and this staircase is of course an element that could occur on a kind of syntactical level, as an element that reoccurs, but you could also argue that it could operate on a conceptual level, or the whole building could become the staircase all of a sudden. In the final example, the staircase as design ingredient is re-conceptualized and forms the main design, and it moves the overall design. Work on being aware of these three levels occurring concurrently within your practice. Within your design you are also able to make “artistic” moves where the staircase reoccurs as a full conceptualization. I think that is really something that we have derived as a profession, that we derived from art. The whole notion proposed by Rene Magritte, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” or by Marcel Duchamp’s interventions of having a bicycle wheel on top of the stool (a ready-made). These ready-mades and artistic emblems are also very powerful sources for inspiration as merely by reassessing the bicycle wheel or a pipe, all of a sudden, completely different design emerge. Maybe the form of a coffee cup tower, I think that is a good tower.
We think that playing in those three different stratagems benefits the design process. Do you think it is possible, or important, to translate that process to the users of a building?
I think it is only very important within the group with whom you’re designing. So no, referring to Marcel Duchamp or referring Rene Magritte outside the office, or explaining that you have these three levels or layers of design process—that doesn’t help. That doesn’t help because if you’re designing a fire station, at the end of the day, the main officer of the fire brigade needs to know whether his trucks are going to be parked in the right position, and whether the sliding polls are behind the trucks. He will not be interested in Marcel Duchamp and he is right, of course, the commander is right—the trucks have to be in place, the poles have to be in the right place. Dressing rooms must be adjacent to the site poles. Of course, you can refer to Marcel Duchamp, but the building still has to work. So, you have the confines of your office to follow your inspiration, and within those confines you must find the means to convey the intelligence of your design when you’re meeting with the commander of the fire brigade.
It seems like two very different things that you must balance.
Yes, but it is also one of the beauties of our profession; this polarity between being highly descriptive and clear in thinking, whilst generating images that are highly discursive and convey abstract thoughts and concepts. This aspect also allows for you to engage with completely different communities and helps you engage with people who expect a completely different narrative. The director of a ballet school is not interested in a certain narrative, since the person wants to know if the stage is big enough, and he’s probably not interested in different narratives either. But within the office, within your design studio, maybe the fact that you have this stage of a certain size is of course relevant, but not so relevant that it propels the design process. It is just a measurement that has to be accommodated, but maybe there are other sources of inspiration that propel your design process that are not related to measurements.
How important is the element of surprise for you? We noticed in the Institute of Vision and Sound that one may think that one understands the building from the outside but upon entering, it is a completely different experience. Is that a conscious design decision, to elicit this reaction of surprise?
Not necessarily their reaction but it is very mundane if things are clear at first sight, so I think that it is very important that things, whether it’s a mug of coffee or a building, contain different layers of meaning. The mug—it reads Indonesia and Australia, but of course, it contains coffee, so there are different narratives visible, and the same ought to be true with buildings. You have to weigh the building performance in an urban setting, so it has to provide a certain performance in the way it acts in its particular urban setting, and this can be fairly distinct or fairly different from the way it operates literally. From the outside there ought to be a continuity of the façade that should relate to the adjacent buildings in terms of proportion or materiality, but within the interior a complete different narrative or questions are at stake. Hence, the facade could be developed relatively autonomously from the narrative. And so the design ideas should be developed independently from the interior.
And that leads back to your three tiers of design.
Michiel Riedijk is a Dutch architect and professor at the Technical University Delft. He is the co-founder of the architecture office Neutelings Riedijk Architects in Rotterdam, Netherlands. Over the past twenty-five years Neutelings Riedijk Architects has established itself internationally as a leading practice, specializing in the design and realization of complex projects for public, commercial and cultural buildings.