The Dutch Architecture firm MVRDV (an acronym for Maas + van Rijs + de Vries) is the archetypal representative of the radical break from a traditional architectural discourse. By incorporating systematic research (Ã¢â‚¬Ëœdatascapes') in the fields of architecture, urbanism, and landscape design; collaborating with multidisciplinary specialists; and using the challenges of data, site, and context to negotiate with clients, users, and spectators, MVRDV has developed a portfolio of stunning, internationally recognized projects.
Recently at the Dutch Sustainable Communities Conference in Chicago, Chicago-based Archinect editor John Jourden spoke with Nathalie de Vries, one of the three principals (along with Winy Maas and Jacob van Rijs) of MVRDV about the positioning of the firm and the implications of their architectural research globally.
I'm curious about the history of MVRDV. Basically, when did you three establish yourselves as a group and how does this connection manifest itself within your work?
How do you work together? It's difficult to explain precisely. My two partners already had teamed up in school doing competitions together, and we all worked at different officesÃ¢Ë†'Winy and Jacob at OMA, and me for Mecanoo. We decided to participate in this European young architects competition, called Europan . This was the first time we started working together, and we won first prize in Berlin. This project was never executed because we suggested a high-rise building, and that was the one thing you couldn't do at that time. From then on we continued working together, up to the point of our first commission. Oddly enough, we had made a presentation and a booklet of our joint work and it came into the hands of the broadcast company, VPRO , which was looking for architects for new buildings. VPRO was the commission for the new building. So we ended up as three people in a room, with this commission and started it us (MVRDV) off. And once you get something built, people are convinced you can do it, and that jump-starts the office.
As to working together, one of us usually leads the process with one or two external contacts and the other partners assist. There are many charrettes where we meet together and discuss how projects should continue, but at the very beginning everyone did participated at all levels.
Regarding the Serpentine Gallery, what was the process you engaged in?
Well, it was very secret for a long time”¦it's very funny. (laughs) Actually, what they do is choose an architect who has a reputation already, but has never built in England. This is the basic premise. So this year they invited us, and we were very excited about it, especially since last years project was made by Oscar Niemeyer , and we are very fond of him. The thing is, it's a building with no fixed fee or budget, its all money from sponsors, and everyone collaborates and contributes to it as well. It's an installation actually, but it serves many people. The Londoners love it because they all go there in the summer and hang around the park and this pavilion. Everyone is very excited. Really, I think this is one occasion where having a good client (Ms. Julia Peyton-Jones) makes a good project. She really provoked us to stretch ourselves to the utmost”¦I don't know how to say it properly in English, but she wants more, more, more, but she's also being critical at the same time.
Yeah, it's an amazing project. It reminds me of a statement by Aaron Betsky, who said, “Architecture must be an unfolding of the landscape.” In terms of this idea of unfolding in relation to the galleryÃ¢â‚¬”do you consider this structure as the antithesis of this statement or its absolute realization?
This may have something to do with this double semblance with many of our commissions. In the Netherlands we very often reuse or redevelop places. There is also always a strange sense of loss, as soon as you start to build something, you lose place. I think landscaping a building is a way to deal with this process, and it's also another way of negotiating the relationship between the interior and exterior of buildings. Is it always really necessary to make a hard closure? Is it always really necessary to make a distinct difference between inside and outside? It's mostly a play between boundaries. In any case, with the Serpentine Gallery we're dealing with a park program and it has to be somehow linked to the pavilion. On the other hand, our intervention has to stand beside the gallery, which sets up this strange relation to objects in the park. This act of covering the existing building and at the same time creating this strange space inside between it and the temporary structure offers different spaces and operates at different levels, so its not clear whether your inside or outsideÃ¢Ë†'or if its park or building.
Wasn't there also a restriction on keeping the grass alive?
Yeah, there were all kinds of rules about how you have to treat the grass, where some the previous pavilions were raised off the ground. Yeah, you're not allowed to touch the grass in England. (laughs)
In this notion of creating 'new land,' I was wondering about the initiative of Pig City as a sustainable concept, and what's the stasis of the project?
It's in the minds of the people. (laughs) It was an investigative research project”¦
Was there any response from the agricultural business or the government of the Netherlands to the project?
Yes. Both the Dutch government and the agricultural business were involved in the project; they commissioned it as a study. It was left a bit vague and there were a lot of ethical questions surrounding it.
With the treatment of animals? (See Archined's Pig City discussion.)
Yes, the treatment of animals. What it does show clearly, like all of our projects, is that we take it a bit to the max and show reality. I mean, we have pigs on the seventh floor in pens. This exposes the enormity of the agricultural industry that we have to deal with in the Netherlands. So if we all want to keep on eating this meat for a certain price, what are the consequences and how can you make it as humane as possible. It was actually a way to provide more space for the pigsÃ¢â‚¬”more space than they have on existing farms.
Was there any local opposition to the project?
No, I think people understood the demographics of the situation, and because if you explain to people the why and how, they realize the implications. I guess if you are outraged or whatever, then you should eat less meat and save more money. If that's your problem with the project, you know. (laughs) Although we're not going to build one.
Right. At least not at this pointÃ¢â‚¬”but for the future?
Well actually, in the end, it has to do with if we want to keep on living the way we do, or become more sustainableÃ¢Ë†'I think today somebody mentioned this idea of the zero energy building and buildings that can create energy. These types of ideas are what ultimately interest us (MVRDV).
Right, such as using the methane and recycling what the pigs produce?
Do you see a relationship between Pig City, the Serpentine Gallery, and the scarcity of viable land in the Netherlands? And should this type of thinking be manifested globally?
It's hard to tell, I have to say there are probably areas with a lot of space to do things. So what we are doing now, especially my colleague WinyÃ¢Ë†'he is an urban planner/landscape architect as wellÃ¢Ë†'can be seen now at an exhibition in Paris called “Climax ” which does take this globally. So yes, I guess this comes from a Dutch starting pointÃ¢Ë†'with the productivity of the soil, the amount of people there, and that we live together in relative peace. We (the Dutch) were probably the first people to ever think and deal with this. As architects and with the help of scientists and other experts, we try to deliver the imagination of the means. Sometimes these take the shape of negative utopian images that we devise, because those are needed as well. In spatial terms this means looking at the consequences of Ã¢â‚¬Ëœdoing' and these are really difficult calculations and perceptions you have to make. I guess we are already doing this as well with the Kyoto Treaty , where countries can trade their CO2 emissions. You know where you produce less, and we want less to harbor, so they trade them. It does happen, and I guess that's the position of todayÃ¢â‚¬”it's the economic situation of ecology, because apparently this is the only thing people are effected byÃ¢â‚¬”their own wallet, when they can see the cost of something.
Right, but at a certain point doesn't sustainability also reach a point of terminus or a Thermidor where there is a certain saturation of the system?
We already stated this fifteen years ago on an earlier project, that ecology is economy.
Considering the American condition seems to be in opposition to that of the Dutch positionÃ¢â‚¬”in terms of the availability of useable land and its useÃ¢â‚¬”what can be done or utilized from the Dutch experience of land economy to improve or change the American culture of consumption and design?
I think in general, it's a matter of attitude probably, and sometimes it's enforced upon you by certain circumstances under which you live. We are growing a bit towards you and you are growing a bit towards us. (laughs) We have to be optimistic. I have children and they will have to deal with the fact there is no oil anymore, probably. Everything is so much more short term than we probably realize right nowÃ¢â‚¬”all the effects of what we do. I'm not quite sure if you can just transplant ideas, because people live under different circumstances here than we do in the NetherlandsÃ¢â‚¬”maybe a different way of thinking about life. At least if we understand the reasons why we do it, maybe from that we can turn it around.
What I see as the biggest difference is in the United States, it seems to go bottom up and in the Netherlands, it is very much top down. Top down, also has its problematic side, because everyone starts to take it for granted, and here (in the U.S.) you really have to struggle to get things done and have opinions accepted and changed. So I guess these things have to meet half way. You need a little bit of support from top down and the causality to change from bottom up.
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John Jourden is an (a)rchitect and pathological thinker living in New York.