words Justin McGuirk
Petra Blaisse and I are standing in the passport control queue in Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport. Somehow this is both the most mundane and, for its strangeness, the most exotic place to start an interview.
It’s 7.45am and the Dutch designer – coiffed and polished in her long apple-green coat – is impossibly elegant for this time of the morning.
She is also the only person in line whose passport is sheathed in the polychromatic stripes of the European Union flag proposed by Rem Koolhaas. In an hour’s time she will just make her flight to Riga, while ten minutes later I’ll be boarding one to London. For now though, she is serenity personified, and it’s rubbing off on me.
Blaisse is the only designer in the world working successfully in both textiles and landscaping. This fact alone gives her something of a mystique. Her Amsterdam-based practice, Inside Outside, designs gardens, public spaces, interiors and, most famously, vast curtains for theatres, concert halls, museums and building facades. Blaisse has worked with an array of architects including Tim Ronalds, UN Studio and SANAA, but her career has been largely defined by her collaboration with Koolhaas. Her influence is there in the early houses, such as the Villa dall’Ava in Paris (1992), through to grander recent projects such as the Seattle Public Library (for which she designed the landscaping and many of the interior surfaces) and the Casa da Musica in Porto (for which she designed two immense, building-defining curtains). Their relationship stretches back 20 years.
“So the trust, of course, is there,” says Blaisse, “and a language that you start to recognise – and you influence each other.” But she also describes herself as just “one of those satellites” that include writers, filmmakers and photographers that Koolhaas’ Office for Metropolitan Architecture likes to invite to take part in its work to disrupt the ordinary patterns of architectural thinking.
By now we are sitting in a café in one of Schiphol’s countless concourses, drinking coffee and trying to hear each other over the saxophone muzak and the flight announcements. We were supposed to meet yesterday at Inside Outside. But Blaisse had gone to her printer in Belgium to make last-minute changes to the monograph she is about to publish. Today, she will be consulting on a landscape scheme for an OMA masterplan in Riga.
The curtains Blaisse designed for the Casa da Musica concert hall in Porto, completed last year, are a telling example of the scope and impact her work can have. As concert halls go, the building is a total exception in having two vast windows, one behind the orchestra and one behind the audience. Each window was layered with an acoustic curtain, a blackout curtain, a transparent sun-reflective voile and what Blaisse calls a “view filter”. This 15m-high filter, a loose mesh made with thousands of hand-tied knots, is what provides the aesthetic counterpoint to Koolhaas’ sharp-edged concrete box. It took 17 women in Germany 700 hours to make, and it is a beautiful, implicitly feminine object. In her peripatetic childhood Blaisse once lived in Porto, and the curtain drew on her memories of those days. “I remember the women going to church with this lace cloth covering their heads,” she says. “It was a very open structure of lace – black for married women and white for unmarried women. As we had decided that all the curtains would be colourless in the whole building and were only about three-dimensional structure, I wanted to mimic or relate to this lace.”
But aside from being a poetic piece of craftsmanship, what is impressive about this curtain is that, before it had even been made, it was influencing the architecture. It was no final-stage adornment but was integral to the design from the outset. “OMA is now used to my curtains and they know that we can solve things for them, so they can dare to decide to make windows because they know there will be a solution in the end.”
Blaisse is often seen as providing the “soft” to the architect’s “hard”. Inhabiting the traditionally female domains of gardens and curtains, she is easily viewed as a domesticator or beautifier. But this does little justice to the degree of her involvement in most of the projects she undertakes. “Curtains turned out to be a very useful tool not only for implementing warmth or softness but actually for solving programme,” says Blaisse. The placing of a curtain’s track, after all, is a programmatic decision. “The trajectory of the curtain programmes not only the functional things but also the visitors. You can lead the visitor from one space to another, you can create rooms, you can shut off spaces, you can create transition from inside to outside.”
The same is necessarily true of the landscaping Blaisse did for the Seattle Public Library, which provides the transitional phase between the city and the building. The planting, which helps to mitigate the sharpness of this most angular of buildings, is reflected through the interior in the grass patterns of the floor tiles.
I ask Blaisse whether she ever feels frustrated by the perception that she is fulfilling a stereotypically feminine role and, indeed, whether she ever feels constrained by that role. “It was a hard time in the beginning because your thoughts go much further than just implementing something. But it’s more and more getting to be an integral part of the whole process and therefore an integral part of the architecture. Also, [my work] has the flexibility and multiple forms of use and effect that you can hardly reach with architecture. It can be highly visible or hardly visible, it can complement the architecture or it can contradict it.”
“She does things that stretch one’s notion of what the possibilities are,” says architect Tim Ronalds, who collaborated with Blaisse on the recent renovation of the Hackney Empire Theatre in London. Blaisse was intially determined to subvert the idea of the red-velvet stage curtain. “The client was so astonished by what she’d come up with that he fired her. But she wouldn’t go,” adds Ronalds.
Blaisse, 51, was born in London but her childhood was also divided between Portugal, Sweden and Austria. She studied art at the Hammersmith College of Art and then at the Minerva Academy in Groningen, but didn’t finish her studies, going on instead to try out a range of fields from book illustration to advertising and ultimately winding up as an exhibition designer at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. Specialising in the applied arts, Blaisse came to design an OMA exhibition for the museum in 1980. In 1987 the practice invited her to design all its exhibitions, and the experience proved to be the testing ground for her specialism. “We thought of ways of not only showing the classic architecture, you know the drawing and the model. I really wanted to show the whole process of work and symbolise the mentality behind the work. So [the exhibitions] became more installations than anything else, in the sense that lighting and material and colour and textiles already influenced a space, and made spaces in such a way that they told more about the architecture.”
In 1991 she founded Inside Outside, and as well as being a constant presence in the work of OMA, the practice has completed dozens of independent commissions for parks, gardens and interiors. However, despite being only one aspect of Blaisse’s output, it is the curtains that fascinate: their ability to be both decorative centrepiece and – as soft walls, doors and facades – a flexible form of structure; their conflation of feminine craft with masculine programme; their power of erotic suggestion in dressing and undressing a building; and their complexity as constructed objects.
Blaisse designed two sets of curtains for UN Studio’s recently completed Mercedes-Benz Museum and, although 50m long, they are as intricately layered as a burlesque stripper’s getup. The base is made of a rubbery, spaghetti-like amalgam called “choucrout” (saurkraut) on which are laid folds of fabric. If you lift the folds you can peek through. “Many of my curtains have openings in one way or another. Probably I’m totally claustrophobic or something, but the idea that you really close off something without possibility of peeping through or peeling …”
I ask Blaisse whether she’s inspired by the work of any of her contemporaries, and she is refreshingly strident in response. “Not in the curtain field. I’m not inspired by anyone.” She does reel off a long list of landscape designers, however, including Burle Marx, the Belgian practice Wirtz, Frenchman Yves Brunier and the Dutch Mien Ruys. “She created landscape gardens that were much more an extension of the architecture, where shrubs are like walls and where lawns are like rooms.”
Blaisse pauses to listen to a flight announcement. It’s not her flight but at this point we’re both cutting it fine. “I think I need to go,” she says. After we part I hear a final call for her flight. I don’t catch the name of the person they’re calling but they’re threatening to take their luggage off the plane. I feel a twinge of guilt as I picture the most elegant woman in Schiphol scrambling for her gate.