MVRDV | icon 036 | June 2006

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words Kieran Long

“How can you beat them?” asks Winy Maas of MVRDV rhetorically. He is setting out the battleground of contemporary architecture like a general plotting the response to an invasion.

“We have to compete with quite heavy opponents,” he continues. “New Urbanism in the US is highly politicised and very successful, and there’s the retro architecture in Europe which is like an oil spill going over the European landscape.” Maas is the oldest and most talkative of the three partners of the Dutch architecture practice. To my right sits the calmer, more pragmatic Jacob van Rijs, looking a bit like an intelligent Ruud van Nistelrooy, to my left is the diminutive, bobbed Natalie de Vries.

We are sat in the warehouse building that MVRDV occupies in Rotterdam, discussing how the practice’s work has developed from being a junior member of the Superdutch generation of the mid-1990s to working in several countries around the world. But Maas and the other two partners are striking by their willingness to fight battles on a large, even epic, scale rather than just concentrate on individual buildings. As well as construction projects, their work includes polemical exhibitions, films, software and books, all of which make MVRDV as much a research organisation as an architecture practice. Climate change, land use, economics, agriculture, energy production and the property market are the parameters of MVRDV’s work – to them, there is no limit to the architect’s area of responsibility and enquiry, and their own area of interest seems infinitely broad.

MVRDV (the name is an acronym of Maas, van Rijs and de Vries) was founded in 1991 after the partners won a first prize in the Europan design competition with their Berlin Voids housing project. Maas and van Rijs, like so many Dutch architects of their generation, met while working at Rem Koolhaas’ OMA in Rotterdam; de Vries had worked previously with Mecanoo. Although the Berlin project was not built (theirs was a high-rise scheme that was never likely to get past strict Berlin heritage regulations), they continued working together, completing the influential Villa KBWW in 1997 (in collaboration with Bjarne Mastenbroek) and winning the defining project of their early career, an office for Dutch television company VPRO. The building’s swooping concrete undercroft may be its most striking feature, but its complex plan and section crystallised MVRDV’s interest in a flexible, research-led approach, using the site’s restrictions (VPRO is the deepest office building in the Netherlands) to generate an adaptable working environment.

“VPRO’s employees inhabit the building in the most extreme ways,” says de Vries. “The building is sort of a rock, it’s eternal,” adds Maas. “And the organisation is fluid – the building is a container in which people can shift around.”

VPRO was the first sign of MVRDV’s knack of producing timely projects that surf the architectural zeitgeist and capture the imagination of the profession. The second appeared in 2000, the remarkable Dutch pavilion at the Hanover Expo, which was a layer cake of sustainable architecture. It remains the iconic project of that year’s Expo, despite now being in a state of extreme disrepair. In 2001 MVRDV published one of the most notorious theoretical projects of recent years: Pig City, a proposal for vertical pig farms to save space in the crammed Dutch landscape.

More recently, the practice has completed projects in its housing masterplan in The Hague, on a dockside in Copenhagen and in the Mirador social housing area in Madrid. All are remarkable typological explorations, at odds with their contexts. The Mirador housing seems out of scale with the city around it, but its scale is that of a perimeter housing block tipped on its end, with the courtyard translated into a void in the heart of the building.

Maas explains MVRDV’s stylistic twists and turns as a question of marketing: “There are different approaches to a global market. You can brand your style, as, say, Zaha is doing in a very super manner, or you can brand your approach. And I think our approach is very practical and dialectical; there is a desire to build the outstanding out of a dialogue.”

If Maas’ attitude sometimes has the air of a politician’s, then MVRDV’s new book (substantially written by Maas himself), KM3, is the latest part of the propaganda war. This doorstop of a publication is 1,400 pages of what de Vries calls the “context”
of the work. It follows polemical books Statics (1992), Farmax (1999) and Metacity/Datatown (1999), all of which have helped to disseminate MVRDV’s ideas more effectively than their now considerable body of built work on its own.

Van Rijs says: “[Influencing people with the books] is not the main and first goal, but I think it’s nice that it happens. At Delft University library there is one copy of Farmax that is so completely disintegrated that they have put it in a vitrine as a kind of museum piece – it’s impossible to lend it out any more. That’s sort of fun.”

There is no doubt of the books’ influence, particularly amongst students. KM3 is a mix of essays, transcripts of discussions and interviews, commentaries on projects and drawings, and photographs and models relating to MVRDV projects. The format makes it easy to plunder and photocopy, the graphs and charts make it the kind of information resource that is fashionable enough for architects to enjoy.

Also included with the book is a CD containing two pieces of software, developed by MVRDV with Eindhoven-based software company cThrough. The first, Climatizer, is a programme that offers visual representations of human actions on the world’s environment. By adjusting various parameters, the user can see the effects of various actions on the global climate. The interest in software suggests a desire to export the analytical approach the practice has developed, even to the extent of giving away the tools it uses. “Of course we dream of having our own software sold on the market and earning money like Microsoft,” says Maas.

Van Rijs adds that the development of these tools has made for easier decisions when working on large-scale urban schemes: “The programmes came from certain projects where there was just a sea of options that was impossible to control by subjective analysis. [Using these tools] we could make a kind of leap in the analysis, do much more precise studies.” The implication of these computer programmes is clear: that the designer’s intuition is no longer enough to resolve complex problems in the contemporary city. But they are not worried about accusations that this leads to a disingenuously direct relationship between data and the architectural form. Van Rijs again: “We think that the word ‘inevitable’ could be applicable in certain conditions. You try to set up a logic that makes [a proposal] impossible not to accept.”

MVRDV is working in all the places where the attention of the architecture world is currently focused. The practice is about to join the roll-call of superstar architects who have designed fashion boutiques in Tokyo’s Omotesando shopping area (icon 019), for example, and has contributed ideas to a high-profile plan to reconstruct New Orleans post-Hurricane Katrina. It is also building mass housing in China. “We are trying to show alternatives to the towers that have been dominating Chinese
cities in the last 20 years,” says Maas. Van Rijs adds: “The projects we have are very commercial in a way, but part of that is revealing a future. It’s important not to overestimate the potential of the Chinese market. There is a tendency in the Western press to say anything goes, but of course it’s not true. This CCTV project [Rem Koolhaas’ monumental office development in Beijing] is not the normal project, it’s the exception.”

In addition to the global dimension of their work, there is success at home. “Finally we have an exciting project in the city of Rotterdam – that took a while,” says Van Rijs. “It’s a market hall, a typology that does not yet exist in Holland.”

The breadth and amount of MVRDV’s work can make it difficult to sum up the practice but, to Maas, the underlying theme is the residual evidence of their enquiries in each of their building projects. “People sometimes ask what is really MVRDV, and I think there’s a certain kind of clarity in the trajectory. The architecture we engage with makes the explanation of the project always very visible. When you see the object, you see the question mark.” Added to this is an approach that is convincing to a wide variety of clients without compromising on formal invention. It is parametric urbanism with a dash of Microsoft marketing, an all-inclusive approach that suggests MVRDV could win most of the battles it chooses to wage.

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