Urbanism is the Ultimate Safeguard of Common Sense

architect Winy Maas / MVRDV
interviewed by Adolfo Despradel, Vedran Mimica, Maroje Mrduljaš

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Interviewed in Delft, June 12th 2008


ORIS: Let’s start with your formative years. What was fundamental for your formation, as well as that of MVRDV? I’m interested it the way in which, for instance, your education and work in OMA influenced your own practice and the performance of MVRDV.


Maas: It was a long time ago. I think that the work for UNESCO had a major influence. When I was 26 or 27, going out to Africa and South America had a very strong impact on my agenda forming, I loved it. I had to pay for my own studies because it was my second study. My parents didn’t want to pay for it, so I had to do it myself and work along with my studies. Initially for the Municipality of Amsterdam, as a designer of parks, later in New Delhi and then in Nicaragua after the earthquake, building parks on the earthquake cracks. Then I was asked by DHV and UNESCO to work on different projects in Kenya, Sudan and Yemen.


ORIS: The first time I met you, you designed two machines. One was a response to the assignment at the INDESEM. That was 1986 or 1987, I think. Then you did the machine for the Venice Biennale. What was the inspiration for these machines?


Maas: Both machines indicate the desire to think about the ‘mechanics’ within urbanism and architecture, to emphasise the process and to consider architecture as a result of those mechanics. I was thinking about architecture in terms of ‘change’ that lead to urban or architectural configurations and thus products. That was what the ‘machinery’ was about, to understand certain logics of mechanics, certain coherences and non-coherences. You can see that reappearing later in the work.


ORIS: MVRDV’s first major commission was the VPRO Villa. When I was at the opening of VPRO with Herman Hertzberger, he was incredibly positive about the result of the building. My reading of Herman’s appreciation was that Herman would see in VPRO a mixture of his beliefs and perhaps Koolhaas’s or OMA’s discourse, where a sort of Montessori meets a kind of OMA operation. I believe that Hertzberger in VPRO read Montessori’s ideas on concepts like free space, prepared environment, ‘carpet’ organization of tasks, flexible organization of the company, group division of different tasks, anti-hierarchical spaces, folded spaces…


Maas: Didn’t he call Aldo Van Eyck from the building, that he should come immediately to see it? Herman has never explained his enthusiasm in a direct, comprehensive way though. Even in a public conversation at the Acadamy of Amsterdam, afterwards, that was somehow complicated. I admitted and admit openly that we went with VPRO’s staff to the Centraal Beheer building as an example of how VPRO could function, Centraal Beheer was presented as an opposition to classic office spaces and we asked VPRO what they preferred. They appreciated it above a classical enclosed longitudinal office ‘bar’. We were aiming at using the model of a battlefield of open, social space where one can encounter others, more than being inside a classic office. People have to find out what is the best space to work in. That’s where harmony meets chaos, I think that Hertzberger loved that. I think he appreciated that architecture was again about social actions and interactions that it was done in a much sturdier way than he would have done, we did it less kindly. But I have to guess his opinion, maybe you know more.

ORIS: That was my guess as well, because Herman could be sometimes cryptic in his positioning or criticism, but what is certain is that he was seeing in the VPRO building a new opening in the trajectories of Dutch architecture. I think in a certain way that was a very important building for the entire generation which Bart Lootsma assembled in his book SuperDutch with this slightly unfortunate title. The work which was then created, we are talking mid-90s, seems to be presenting Dutch architecture in a very, very significant role in the worldwide exchange of the discourse. How would you evaluate this within the Dutch condition of production of the architectural, not only buildings, but also knowledge? Research then became a sort of key factor, many of the offices engaged in research, many of the practitioners teaching at the leading schools in the world, you at the AA and the Berlage, Koolhaas at Harvard, so research became a sort of vehicle to inform practice.


Maas: One cannot speak of one consistent group though. It was too varied.


We were one of the youngest firms in that generation book and our work was referring to the work and thoughts developed in those days at the eastern American institutes and practices, say the Any generation. There was a discourse about complexity and we added an attitude where the practical was combined with the visionary, and where the applicable was connected to the general and to research. I think we played a role in this transformation by repositioning the centre of this thinking, from the US to Europe. But now things are on the move again. It’s clearly the time of Asia. Well, after ‘Any’ you get ‘Many’.


ORIS: You spent almost ten years working on Excursions on Capacities, which was then compiled in the book KM3 where you did a series of not only academic research, but tests and practice with buildings in Holland and abroad on the virtues of densities, the way in which cities or buildings could be more compact, more multi-programmed as well. Often you would receive a critique from the American east coast on the lack of clear ideology vis-à-vis the kind of argument on density, and then your answer would be ‘Yes, but we have sliders, so if you want more ideology, we’re going to push that parameter on the sliders if that parameter is prevailing in any particular context.’ Do you see today a legacy that you and other people produced in research on densities on a kind of complex urban environment? I’m referring to a legacy in the sense that you produced certain objects and certain theories. Those theories dwell on that argument of applicability or usefulness to particular urban configurations, either from the point of view of developers, the city administration, the users. How would you see that research being taken by other practices in order to be implemented? When density is created, like in China or India, the mainstream of architectural production is still about mono-functional towers, nothing like what actually has been produced or proposed in your research.


Maas: Well, there are sometimes iconic elements in the recent tower production, like OMA’s CCTV building or Steven Holl’s building in Beijing, that are quite connected to our KM3 intentions. We are like-minded people in the goal to encourage better production for denser environments. Processes are slow of course. KM3 focuses on ‘capacity’ over ‘density’. We see that in many recent Asian developments are all about capacity: how much can you absorb and make in a place?


It does not mean only that everything should be concentrated on one spot, but it is also a discussion on where to place density: on how to divide the given territories more logically and how to think about changing it. These kinds of observations were and are pretty important for our built and non-built work. This work was helpful in commenting and nuancing the theoretical work. Like on our Cube: this cube as a hypothetical dense and mixed ideal, which was developed at the Berlage Institute and later deepened at MVRDV. I think it still is a valid illustration of the work as it is a good framework.

ORIS: Even more today, I think. We see all these developments around the world where Shanghai skyscrapers look like a cube unfolding. One of my most interesting observations about your work is Pig City. I don’t know what the impact was, how it was received here in the Netherlands, but I know that when I saw it for the first time it seemed a little bit crazy, but now when you study the research, or when you see the elements of cities, it seems like an almost essential way of how to consider farming, making skyscrapers for the amount of land that you need for pig farming. How do you consider the bridge between your very visionary projects like the Cube and the Pig City and actually implementing these ideas? More because these visions are pretty much radical. They are not visions for tomorrow like ‘Let’s just double the height of the skyscrapers,’ they’re really radical visions of how to consider these cities, which also, I think, creates a conflict in people’s awareness of how to think about them as real objects. How do you see this gap being bridged?


Maas: I wrote in one of the KM3 chapters about how to translate or how to mutate between theory and practice. In Pig City a series of developments happened afterwards. All indicated a way to deal with it. The radicalization helped enormously. Radicalism is needed to make the argument very clear.


And in the architectural world, when realized, radicalization is needed to let the building ‘survive’. It makes visible what you want to say. It needs to be direct and not too mythical, and this is what they share. It is on the edge of being populist or popular. But I prefer to use the word ‘Pop’ for it. That allows for depth.


The other relationship between the two is that you see fragments of those studies appear in production. We’re now working on a big spot in Paris that is a complete three-dimensional city built according to the logic of the site and the client.


We’ll do it in Malaga in a different way as well. Even in smaller things like the hanging gardens in Valencia. It took a while to get it done.


KM3 comes in pieces. You do what you can do with that kind of moment and you find the logic and the context in it and relate to the general topic.


ORIS: Did you have in mind that you would actually be able to build these research projects or were they just radical visions that you felt you needed to put on paper?


Maas: You always bet on more horses. So at the same time that you develop a theoretical composition you’re already testing it in parts. It comes at the moment that you think about it as an extension of landscape, where it becomes a lifted roof, the birth of the Dutch pavilion was there! This is clearly an introduction to KM3, where you have plazas high up. The pavilion was a dream and we couldn’t realize everything, it was only a part of that assumption. But it did pieces. In order to believe in denser environments, you have to solve the contradictions in them, or to solve their Achilles heels.


ORIS: So you would say that there is a kind of potential in doing research experiments within academia, and then, after sometimes a considerable delay, they would come into the kind of context in which they could be really tested.


Maas: Yes. It is of course a niche market. We perform in it and others don’t. After fifteen years one can note that there is not an MVRDV style but maybe an attitude. All the buildings are maybe very different but in KM3, for instance, they share a language (namely as direct as possible) as an attitude and even an ‘agenda’. Architecture is slow, it takes time. Thoughts are faster and writings are faster, but to prove the importance of words, you actually need those slow products in a way, and on the other hand it gives depth, it gives more nuances. The agenda leads as well to wider possibilities in more countries, but with contextual interpretations, local applications, thus enlarging the richness. It starts to give a relationship between the generic and the specific.


In Albania we make 3D interpretations with a lower concrete quality, which leads to completely different appearances of similar suggestions (e.g. of ‘kissing towers’ and spanned buildings). I love it. Or in Japan in Nigata, where a lifted building creates a proper usable public space in an extreme climate. Thus KM3 becomes richer. The issue of context brings depth.

ORIS: There was always in your work this concern about global issues, climate change, issues which probably are fundamental for our survival or our development. How do you actually see the influence of our discourse in really engaging fundamentally with global issues? Could we put ourselves in an equal position with economists or politicians, or global thinkers on the future of the earth?


Maas: There’s a strong role for architecture now in giving direction to the agenda again. Sarkozy’s idea about Grand Paris illustrates the need for the visionary again. Some architects are able to visualize that, to spatialise it.


ORIS: My question is not the ability of architects to visualize, I think that’s our way of communication. The question is how those visions could fertilize the imagination of politicians and people making decisions. That has been a little bit difficult, I would say, in the past few years, especially with architects pretty much being understood to really work either as a service industry or as star architects, providers of iconic buildings, but not really as serious thinkers on a vision for the city, development of the city, where they would be even taken seriously in terms of projecting certain strategies and plans for the city. I think your work has been obviously more in that direction, being taken more seriously in a debate with key figures that make decisions.


Maas: I think what you sense is that this kind of agenda criticizes the icons. Don’t misunderstand me, icons are very much needed, but it’s the content of icons that needs to be discussed. I see so many icons and I don’t understand their meaning. A copycat of something that has been done in a north Spanish city has suddenly been placed in city X in Asia. That I find extremely uninteresting. I understand them, because cities want a piece of someone, like a collector of a museum, but the meaning is relatively limited. It will be interesting to develop criticism on icons.


I think there’s an over focus on criticism of the fact that a city needs an icon or not and I think that’s wrong. We should shift more attention to the content of the icons, than to the existence or non-existence of icons. If you have 50 million euros, you can only do a small piece of society. You can only illustrate, and through that you can illustrate the direction or attention, that’s what is so needed. Why are critics not dealing more with that topic?


What you say about offices that behave like service providers, I have to agree that this service industry is getting more and more important in the globalized society. They behave like chameleons, taking over any research, any demand, any fashion as fast as possible.


They absorb it immediately. We can learn from that and them enormously. We need to professionalize as well. And we need to be faster.


ORIS: What do you anticipate as future architectural research issues? What kind of position should architects assume in order to establish themselves as serious partners in the debate about the condition of cities? In the context of academic research this position should be anticipatory in sense that a ‘slow discipline’, like architecture, becomes a sort of fundamental research for the future of cities.


Maas: There is a lot to do. How to invent even in times of shifting economics. In a way it is as if we have to find a way how all the big themes can be adapted over time… so there will definitely be a prolongation of what is going on. We are always cursed by our previous generation that already invented what we are doing. Every generation will say this.


Like greenness. Sustainability is incorporated in architecture and planning. It is now simply there. It started in the 1970s and the 1960s with the Club of Rome and now it simply is a part of the agenda. It’s excellent; you don’t have to concentrate anymore on it. But it leads as well to enormous ugly buildings. (That are not that sustainable therefore!) So there is a role of how to use this theme and combine it with other elements.


But some other themes need attention. I am thinking especially about the whole aspect of automatization, the robotic aspect of architecture, that you have to engage yourself to the software that the architecture will produce. We will be taken over by other industries in a while if we do not team up.


Also, the whole participatory process that started in the 1970s is again becoming pretty strong, and in the future we have to engage ourselves to visualize it and to be a part of it.


And we continue to behave sexily, attractively. To make the big themes being built. And in order to innovate and experiment…


Architecture is still sexy, but less sexy than three years ago; it is slightly taken over by designers and the fashion industry. We still have to re-concentrate on that to make architecture again a part of the world, in a way, to give that glitter and glamour back to architecture again.

ORIS: What about ecology? You said that sustainability is already done, incorporated. Ecology is still an issue because there are different kinds of ecologies, we can discuss social ecology, for example. I think that you have addressed some of this kind of issue in KM3. You don’t interpret ecology only in terms of sustainability but in a broader cultural context. I would like to hear more about your notion of this relationship between ecology and urban planning and architecture.


Maas: True, that is why I mentioned the participatory aspect for instance. There’s a more evolutionary aspect in planning and architecture that goes beyond the current dominant themes. The Spacefighter (The Evolutionary City) project is meant to think that change is actually attractive. We should speed up in the thinking that diversity (and ecological diversity) is extremely important, in order to create a self-critical society. Thus making opinions more important. How to combine that with grander themes? How to combine the hyper individual with the collective?


Sustainability needs to be criticized. As I said, often they are very ugly buildings, I agree. There is no article about the beauty of them, but beautiful buildings are more sustainable than ugly buildings. The topics on sustainable buildings are scarcely related to mobility, which is probably more important than some other aspects. There is a lot of criticism possible and we should apply it to that movement as well. It should also be beyond religion. We should accept more and more other things besides it as well. I think that’s how it is; sustainability becomes like technology, like drawing methods, like a management, a part of the architectural practice.


ORIS: Will we only follow Arup’s drivers, or a kind of Arup’s rather technocratic sort of machine? For example, Arup is now trying with the Chinese to develop Dong Tang as an eco-city.


Maas: It’s a movement, the eco-city movement. It’s not only Arup any more.


ORIS: They represent themselves as a kind of centre of excellence for the know-how on sustainability and huge political bodies like the EU now have a form to check how your project is sustainable. How do you see this instrumentalization of sustainable arguments in addressing more collective, social, cultural aspect of sustainable development? Can architecture play a role in that?


Maas: It should. It can make it more apparent. Or not. It can dramatize. It can integrate it, etcetera. But there is a danger. It costs more. We neglect that all the sustainability measurements cost about 15% more. Clients do not have that yet. And then there is no money for other qualities. Architecture has to point out the dangers and the beauties.

ORIS: That’s my second question on a different sort of activism and how it could be pursued through NGOs, through David Harvey’s discourse etc. Where is this democratization on the decision making process really, how it can really take place and what could we provide in order to pursue the collective and social agendas?


Maas: Good question. Our software wants to do that a bit. But there is more. We can make architecture in a specific way, in a symbolic sense. We can counter propose to what we see. We can make new ideals. We can make visions. You can say that you are against Dubai, which can be a complete ecological disaster. But you cannot deny that it’s there. There are three or four techniques that we can start to apply. Academia has to become sharper so we can speed up a little bit with the comparative methods on this. What cities should we make?


ORIS: In your development of your visionary ideas or concepts about the city, is there a political level to this?


Maas: Always, I think. I translate the word political wider than you maybe think. As we started working on Grand Paris, I became interested in the combination of Sarkozy and Bertrand Delanoë, the mayor of Paris, because they’re both my clients, but that’s what I said, I didn’t choose between them. I see that they need each other in order to create, in this case, a very exemplary city. Personally, I’m quite connected with the democratic background. Bart Lootsma said that our models are deeply based on democracy or welfare production. I cannot neglect this. In itself, this is politics from ancient Greece. The only change is the method of how you do it, that’s what we’re discussing. How do we invest in social housing, how do we pay for it, and how do we engage ourselves with welfare development? That has become in the last ten years very different than the years before, basically through the development of Asia, India and Brazil, and through the decay of the US and the decay of the hyper capitalistic directions, in the light of the credit crisis. There are more nuances coming now in how it should be done.


ORIS: You basically agree that development of urban models is also development of certain political models?


Maas: Yes, it really is crucial. It is less extremist or polarized than it used to be. In France, you are always either left-wing or right-wing. Today I think it has developed in another way.


ORIS: Today, there is a lot of talk about the public-private partnership. You have inevitably in the development of cities a private interest which has to negotiate with the public interest. Now the question is who are the representatives of those interests? How do you see the critical role of the architect through whose design these negotiations between the public and the private will be crystallized?


Maas: There’s a clear lack of it. Or a danger that a public opinion is disappearing. Who takes that role? Politicians and critics via the media. And architecture’s media possibilities therefore. And urbanism. Some people say that urbanism has ceased to exist. But I guess it is the ultimate safeguard of common sense! So let’s make more urbanism.


ORIS: The very assumption then if politicians would somehow, after the disappearance of the welfare state, release some sort of market forces to develop further the city, seems not to be an entirely operational model. Indeed we need a kind of person arguing for the collective and putting agendas in front. In that sense I think architecture can be a very serious partner in fundamental decision-making processes.


Maas: But it’s again a question of how to do it. Again: we have to behave very publicly and manoeuvre, fast, sharp and strong.