Winy Maas, a founder of Dutch firm MVRDV, believes in the kind of high-density urban living only skyscrapers can provide. He talks to Icon about his love of "intensity architecture" and explains how the pixel will help architects reconcile individuals to collective living
Even by the standards of the Far East, 40,000 unique towers by a single architect is a lot. But this is what MVRDV intends to build in Shenzhen. Fortunately, they are only a couple of feet tall, and will all be made of Lego.
It'll take a lot of bricks. "We have these heaps of bricks, millions," says Winy Maas, a founding member of MVRDV. "We're getting another 20 million soon." And a lot of builders, too – 1,000 students will be numbing the tips of their fingers producing towers that conform to the rules laid down by The Why Factory, MVRDV's urban think tank joint venture with the Delft University of Technology.
This pharaonic effort – with a twinkle, Maas compares the towers to the terracotta armies of Qin Shi Huang – is at the invitation of the Hong Kong, Shenzhen and Guangzhou governments, as part of an attempt to refresh tower typologies in the region. It also addresses two areas of concern for MVRDV: using towers to increase urban density and using the pixel as a basis for 21st-century architecture.
MVRDV is perhaps the most substantial of the so-called Children of Rem – the diaspora of more than 40 studios that have emerged from Rem Koolhaas's OMA. Like OMA, MVRDV is based in Rotterdam and there are similarities between their designs. But while OMA occupies three floors of an anonymous office building, MVRDV's 80 staff are based in a charming red-brick former printworks. Similarly charming is Maas himself, an irrepressible fountain of affable volubility.
Despite the location of this project, Maas's dream is for it to develop an authentic European skyscraper, distinct from the art deco and international style models spawned in the US and the dreary stacks growing in the BRICS. "We imagine a more social, ecological tower with more space for individuality, collectivity, creativity," Maas says. "It's our ultimate desire that individualism can be connected with density and therefore with collectivism."
That's a bold ambition, especially given the apparent contradiction at its heart. So how can this be achieved? Put simply, Maas wants to open up the high-rise, to increase its volume without greatly adding to its structure or footprint, and insert public space into the fissures created. Over a series of Lego towers, one step is taken in one direction, then in another, then another. Seen in sequence, a rectangular block morphs into something more extraordinary. "You use the same mass, but you turn it into something that is a mountain, or every apartment has three facades rather than two or one, or it's opening up in its very heart," Maas says. MVRDV calls the method "porocity", welding together "porosity" and "city".
"Pretty" isn't the first word you'd reach for to describe the recent results. They're thrilling, bold, even magnificent, but you'd need a microscope to find a trace of Gemütlichkeit. MVRDV is perhaps best known for a series of giant apartment blocks, the Mirador and Celosia buildings in Madrid and the Silodam and Parkrand buildings in Amsterdam. These large slabs – Maas happily describes them as "monsters" – have been opened up: Mirador and Parkrand have parks and plazas inserted in multi-storey voids, Celosia has a central courtyard and an envelope penetrated by loggias, Silodam is a riot of different facade treatments.
And the same principles have been applied to an office building in Oslo. DnB NOR, a Norwegian bank, wanted its new headquarters to reflect a post-financial crisis observance of transparency. Rather than plumping for the usual pseudo-transparent glass box, MVRDV's building is a brick slab separated into blocks and cracked apart, with glass-enclosed and open-air access routes snaking up and down it. The bank's clerks work mostly in the brick elements, and communal functions are in the glass ones – as well as the trading floor, which occupies the heart of the building rather than a lightless bunker.
Chance encounters, those apparently magic moments that have become such a desideratum in recent office design, are thus catered for. Maas, with a smile, calls it an "answer to banking crisis". "In places you need intimacy and stability, where you can't look in, and in others you want to show [the public] you're OK," he says. It's a fascinating and intricate building, combining the modular sensibility of Herman Hertzberger with the playfulness of James Wines.
Density – or intensity, as Maas also calls it – has been a preoccupation for MVRDV since its foundation. As well as building its distinctive monsters, its research almost exclusively delves into the challenges of density, super-density and hyper-density. Pig City (2000-2001) proposed intensive farming on a hitherto unimagined scale, housing porkers in giant towers to free up land.
Another project pondered the consequences of moving the entire population of the Netherlands to a linear city along the Belgian border, leaving the rest of the country for farms and parks. Sky Car City (2007) looked at the implications of Blade Runner-style flying cars in high-rise megalopolises. KM3, the practice's book on density is a 1,000-page breezeblock.
So 20 years has been spent advocating high-density urban living – what's the virtue of it? First, Maas says, there's an ecological argument – but it turns out to be quite a capitalist one, too. As long as we base our economy, our culture, our system of values on growth, a gap will develop between the space we need and the space we have. "So what do we do? Do we go to the Sahara, to use it better, or the North Pole? Or we try to solve it using denser zones and avoiding growth in certain areas? If the Chinese had Russia also, maybe they wouldn't make cities like this."
Second, there are cultural advantages to increasing density – it generates connectivity. "I love to see people. I hate hermits, and there are many people who have the same belief, who believe proximity makes sense. That's a fundamental part of our culture for many of us" says Maas. "And it makes sense, because this kind of heap of ants in which people do their own thing leads to innovations, to unexpected relationships, but also to clustered activities that encourage depth in research and economic activity. So this intensity is useful and defensible." Lastly, Maas wants to make what he calls "intensity architecture" – arising from the demands of density: "That is exactly the beauty I want to defend."
Buildings like Celosia and the DnB NOR offices might be large, but they're only high-rises by European standards. Maas's dream of European skyscrapers is, for the moment, on hold, with projects across the Continent crushed by austerity. "Suddenly we forget that densification has many benefits," Maas says. "One-third of the world is dealing with densification as the only way to solve [problems]. In China, in Indian and Brazilian cities. There's a market there, so if we can't do it in Europe, let's do it elsewhere!"
And that's exactly what Maas is doing: building some of the most astonishing skyscrapers in the world, mostly in the Far East. In Jakarta, MVRDV is building Peruri 88, a 400m tower (taller than anything in Europe) on the site of the former mint.
The Indonesian capital, Maas says, is "the world's largest village", composed largely of kampongs – collective societies, originally a rural unit of organisation. "And they're beautiful – you have your own life, your own roof, even your own cows in the city! It's beautiful, very un-European, this informality." Peruri is part of a cluster of modern high rises, atop a station on the city's first metro line, and is an effort to bring together a variety of scales in the metropolis.
With two "legs", Peruri also addresses another MVRDV interest: linking pairs and groups of towers above ground level. This is the principle behind the Cloud, a pair of luxury residential towers proposed for Seoul. Halfway up, these two towers form a blocky "cloud" of public space – gardens, swimming pools, restaurants and cafes.
This project caused a controversy when it was first publicised at the end of 2011 as some saw a resemblance between it and the images of the second plane striking the World Trade Center on 11 September 2001. Maas, already grappling with the political sensitivity of a project intended to symbolise unity in a divided country, and above a new station that may one day handle rail services to isolationist North Korea, was perplexed. For him, the desire was to generate connectivity: and connectivity in towers was safer, providing multiple points of exit and entry.
The Cloud in Seoul and DnB NOR in Oslo are also "pixellated" buildings. Along with projects such as the Sky Village in Copenhagen, Denmark, they betray the studio's interest in breaking buildings into blocks and rearranging them, which sometimes, as in Oslo, entails doing something similar to the social structures within. It's this fixation that will have 1,000 students on their knees in Shenzhen.
Pixellation has also cropped up in work by OMA and another OMA alumnus, Bjarke Ingels' firm BIG. The pixel is a tool, Maas says, a scaleless carrier of information, "a common denominator between small and big, and that's what you want, in electronics and in architecture. What is the best manoeuvrable space between the structure, social entities and moments of division and flexibility?" Working with blocks, buildings can be "scripted" by computer programmes given rules such as, with DnB NOR, every 6x6 working unit gets at least one outside window. But Maas doesn't let the computer do all the work; he intervenes once it refines the results.
Pixellation is Maas's route to combining individualism and collectivism through high density. An example of how this works is the Vertical Village in Taipei (2011): a research exercise that promises great things. "You choose a house, you design it, and then the Village Maker works with you to put it on top of the others," Maas says.
Everyone gets the home and facade of their choice, and these houses are sculpted into a tower. Quite a modest one, for now: 50 or 60 units to begin with. "Which is fine, 50, 60 houses on top of each other, each with a different character," Maas says. "[But] the dream would be a mound of them, a skyscraper."
The digital pixel is the defining material of our age. MVRDV pays more heed to the workings of the digital world than many architects, and reflects this in its output. Its proposal for a library in the city of 's-Hertogenbosch in the Netherlands is modelled on the way search engines and data centres operate.
The facade is covered in multi-directional rails and pixel-shaped reading rooms travel up, down and around the building, taking users to the information they want. The practice is closer than any other to a true data architecture, a new idiom for the digital age.
Images: Boudewijn Bollmann, Jiri Havran and MVRDV