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Winy Maas

Winy Maas speaks with inter·punct about his renowned Dutch multidisciplinary practice, MVRDV. 

For additional information and to view Winy’s full lecture, visit the CMU School of Architecture website.

i·p: As a team of students, we’re very interested in thinking about the future—not only of architecture, but the future of the profession, and by extension the future of pedagogy. In that regard, we’re very interested in the Why Factory. As a research institute and design collective, the Why Factory works within a speculative, or projective paradigm that some people might call utopian. As head of the Why Factory and Principal at MVRDV, for you, what is the role of utopian thinking as it relates to architecture’s role in society?

Winy Maas:
That’s a good question, because the connection is closer than you might think. Of course, any corporate office would say that the service that architects provide is a degree of innovation, but that is too easy.

One way to imagine innovation is through projection. With projection, the wider the scope and the longer the time frame, the more questions that arise. To give an example of that, our “Barbapapa” research, or Transformers, is about completely questioning material; through it, we’re dreaming of the ultimate flexible material. The project retrospectively or retroactively formulates questions about almost anything in architecture. In the case of the door—what is a door? What shape is a door? Or a window—can I open a window? What shape does it take? That’s how “projection” helps to formulate questions. In this case, it also helps to direct the material-science industry, asking them to research materials that can change from fixed to completely fluid, almost providing targets to develop towards. How many molecules might I need and what combinations? That for me is a clear example of how projection can lead to innovation.

i·p: Does the Why Factory as an academic enterprise afford you more latitude to engage in projective work, or do you find that same degree of freedom in practice?

In your commercial work, you of course do research—you research how to make a building. So of course this continues in our practice, but the academic environment provides a couple of advantages. First, an academic environment isn’t directly connected to commerce, so it’s a much freer and more liberal environment, as it should be. I always say that I hate architects that use academia to somehow copy the buildings that they are commissioned to do. A famous architect always asks her students to make the same opera that she’s designing—I think that’s a flawed model. The academic world is there for doing things that aren’t directly beneficial to commerce. With public resources and students at your disposal, the conditions are prime to do what you could not in a commercial context. That immediately implies that academia allows you to take risks and go further than you otherwise could. It’s the ultimate terrain where we can investigate, do research and hopefully perform experiments that lead to innovation.

i·p: So in that sense, how you would say that the Why Factory in its research translates into an architectural curriculum versus the project-based studio model?

First, it’s worth noting that there are many schools in the world. I think that there should be and hopefully they are as different as possible—I only take one position in a much more panoramic field of possibilities. In the future, I think that students will more and more be able to choose where they want to go to school and what kind of education they’re looking for. Most of you already chose to do a piece here, a piece there and another piece somewhere else—it all tends to collect somehow, a private infill. What I do with the Why Factory is take the model that is also used in the medical world, where heart surgeons that conduct research use students—and need students—for precise steps within their research. The whole world of cancer research is based on that and I think that’s a fantastic model. At the same time, not every student wants that, either because he believes that it’s not useful, or he wants to be trained as an architect only by drawing pictures or whatever the case. You all have your own choices, but seemingly, within the hundreds of thousands of architectural students, there is a group that wants a research-based education and sees value in it, and that’s what I provide.

Secondly, I believe that we need to specialize, because it helps to deepen the subjects that we’re researching and build expertise. Today, too many architectural schools try to do everything, or a piece of everything. It is very good to specialize, and I think that now, every school and even every professor should somehow specialize. But again, this only refers to the European model, and it’s here that I can do something different than what, say, MIT is doing.

So, having said that, what is our research model? It’s not completely hyper-scientific yet—that I cannot do with Masters students. That needs more money and time. It is and remains in the realm of the spatial architect, and that is something that we can do. We concentrate on one type of research—as you said, design research speculating on the future city—and that’s all, but even that single umbrella gives so much. For us, within that subject, there are basically three modes of thinking about the future city. The first is the model city, or the abstract city. For example, you might change one parameter within the model of an average, developed city and then speculate on what happens. In another mode, you might test a hypothesis on a specific site. There you have to be very careful to maintain your independence to avoid the trap of being used by mayors or planners to do their work. The third is to gather all that information into software and create an open source, interactive library. That’s our cup of tea.

i·p: With regards to international networks and the Why Factory’s partnerships with other universities, how do you see different cultural and geographic contexts informing this research?

The more contexts the better, and the more they differ, the better. I love the idea of “biodiversity” in that way. The task at hand is to find ways to increase the cultural and spatial diversity of cities and buildings worldwide. It enables cities to differentiate themselves, to attract others, to enlarge trade, and to establish stability. Having said that, I’m pretty aware that the prevalent condition now is moving towards the generic—the consumption patterns that we all live under are similar in that way. But industries, economies, and certain social and climate components already contribute to differentiation. There’s a zone of potentials there to work with, and not only in terms of form.

i·p: With regards to form however, how do you combat the kinds of icon copying in students that more traditional forms of education might contribute towards?

Have you heard of my next book? It’s coming out in several months—it’s called Copy Paste, and it’s a badass copy guide for architecture of the future. In it, I will express the opinion that I do think that copying with improvement is good. There’s a fear in architecture that everyone must be authentic and constantly inventive, but copying is actually already occurring at large in architecture today with all of the design stars. That’s just one observation.

The second observation is that in the meantime, despite this fear, there has been more copy-pasting than ever before. We do that because the image industry is fast, and so I think that it’s fine to do as long as we reference who we’re copying. Academia has recently become interesting because there are a number of professors now in court cases, blamed for not doing original work or not referencing enough. But I say, why can’t architects take parts of good buildings and improve upon them in some way? I think my career clearly also shows this. After leaving OMA, I have been constantly referencing back to the ideas we explored there, trying to make them better. You have a whole sequence of buildings, from the Two Libraries building at Jussieu [by OMA], to VPRO in the Netherlands [by MVRDV], and later, the Yokohama Port Terminal by Alejandro [Zaera-Polo] and Farshid [Moussavi] that show how undulating floors can come together to somehow meet two spaces. There are also other interesting examples, some American ones, like Preston Scott Cohen, but these are not as fundamental in that respect.

i·p: Could talk about your experiences in school, now with the benefit of hindsight to be able to compare your understanding of architectural education when you were a student to your perspective now as a professor?

Of course I have a bit of a weird education, as you have seen. I had my start as a florist, and then became a landscape architect in a small school, which I loved. I then went on almost immediately and started to work because I loved building up a portfolio of work experiences, in combination with further studies as an architect and urbanist. I misused, or rather, abused my status as a student to enter all of these offices—you are cheap, so that’s an advantage. I went on with urbanism, and thought that architecture was maybe also not so bad, and so added it to my interests too.

How do I make sense of all of this now? Looking back, I had somehow entered a “supermarket” full of different modes of education, and I felt that any door I chose opened a whole new series of paths, a beauty in of itself. I was happy to collect them, these different experiences, in that way. [TU] Delft itself was very much a supermarket of a school, with 3,000 students and all of these weird professors—all lunatics—and that was actually very nice.

Beyond school, happily there were also a huge variety of different places where I could work. You could go work with someone like Rem Koolhaas, or [Herman] Hertzberger, or with municipalities like Amsterdam where you could make more money than at those other offices like OMA. With all of these possibilities, I decided not to follow the track of the corporate office—I didn’t go to SOM, but instead took another sidestep and worked for UNESCO for a couple of years in Africa. Those were missions, and so I did a six month mission to Lamu, Kenya, a two month mission to Sudan, a three month mission to Yemen and then came back to have three months for a studio. I then went back again to Africa, going further, to Zanzibar—that was somehow a gorgeous sequence of adventures.

So what does this say about me? I took an enormous number of sidesteps, but I still think one of the most important ones was my time spent as a landscape architect. Why was the model of the landscape architect so fascinating? Because, while he or she must design gardens with varying grasses and so many plants, at the same time, he or she must also consider the landscape—the widest picture imaginable, the panorama. He or she has to be able to span the gap between extra-small and extra-large almost naturally—that fascinates me. That does not happen much in architecture. Architects are so concerned with the nuts and bolts—how does the roof come together, what does the bathroom look like—that they sometimes forget the bigger picture. Urbanism often only concentrates on the bigger picture, but then neglects the architecture.

"For me, landscape architecture highlighted the scale separation that occurred in architecture and provided me with a better model."

i·p: Did landscape architecture then play a role in your goals at the Why Factory to pursue a wider agenda than just architecture?

Yes, exactly. Definitely. One former boss once told me when I decided to enter architecture, “It’s fine if you do that, but please don’t forget about the bigger picture you learned as a landscape architect,” and I still keep that in mind. As far as I’m concerned, it remains a fruitful ping-pong game between those two scales—they endlessly seem to address each other in my career. But please, as you listen to me, don’t forget that I do not want to encourage people to copy my process. Everyone is different. I hope that in this issue you collect different strong opinions on how to educate, on how to make a career, and all the different angles that are out there. I admire Peter Zumthor, because even though we work very differently, him with his philosophical precision and monk-like behavior, I find it fascinating that he works so consciously and precisely in that way. People like him pursue their interests so extremely that it becomes characteristic of them, and that’s when it becomes very deep and authentic. That is, as I hope, what universities can stimulate or what personalities can provide. That is also why I value criticism because indeed, we need criticism that makes us stronger. Too many professors are copying each other, like, “Oh, he’s doing energy calculations, so I need to be green too!” We all do too much of the same thing.

i·p: In that sense of learning from strong personalities, how did your time at OMA working under Rem Koolhaas influence your architectural output?

It was one of those steps along the way of course, but it was for me very important—a great and very meaningful time with a truly deep collaboration. Personally I think UNESCO was as influential as OMA in my case. But I do love Rem’s work and I was happy that we could work very closely together—the office at that point was under 25 people, so it was a very close relationship in those two and a half years. And yes, I learned a lot. I learned to talk—Rem is someone who gives space for argumentation, but he does so in quite a concise manner, so that was a good reference to learn from. I also appreciated his way of making books, in using the format of the book—not only those that he has published, but those that he creates to present his projects—to reveal the analysis and proposal. The third thing I learned of course was the importance of using an enormous amount of blue foam to make an endless number of models for comparison. Afterwards, you see distinctions, the offspring, and all of the interesting differences as well.

i·p: What is MVRDV’s attitude toward print media? How you see it playing a future role in architecture and architectural discourse?

Yes, it’s an interesting role, but how long will print media continue to exist as such? We of course work on blogs, and were one of the first offices to do so regularly, also checking Facebook to see what potentials it provides. But even with all of these new media forms, I believe that the process of making of a book, whether printed or not, is helpful by giving you time to put things in their proper order. Even with Rem proclaiming at the [2014 Venice] Biennale that the order-less book is the way forward, for me, it’s different. I love the issue of narrative, sequence and an evolutionary way of looking at things that a book provides, positioning things one after the other. Even the fact that at the Why Factory we tend to do books by subject is already different than the sequences we use at MVRDV, where our books are based on what I called “excursions.” There’s Farmax: Excursions on Density, KM3: Excursions on Capacity and we’re now working on KM4: Excursions in Time—that’s almost like [Sigfried] Giedion in a new jacket.

i·p: What role does history play in the day-to-day research of the Why Factory? Is it a place to start from, or does it creep in later?

Well day-to-day, that’s quite a word. Of course, with any site that you’re working on, you look at what has happened there. For example, for our project for Zaryadye Park in Moscow, we researched the Moscow city plan and tried to find ways to blend history in that way. So you can research history, but the more important question is, what then do you do with it? We need some kind of criticism on that level, because far too often, people make historical references for no reason. It’s often horrible because what they’re doing doesn’t actually say much—it’s a cheap copy or reference. Usually, it’s either not very deep, not humorous at all, or because the reference is so serious, everyone starts to distance themselves from it. Even worse is when it’s completely kitsch or the reference is only nostalgic.

There’s a lot to say about history—that’s a project in of itself. The book I just mentioned, KM4, is about just that. Imagine what you could do if you had one studio that for a year long only explored the different ways of investigating what you could do with history. You could make the best catalogue possible! There’s already quite a lot of knowledge, so asking what to do with it is the better question. Can’t we do that together?

i·p: Relating projection to history, how do you position hypothetical projects or speculation on future cities in relation to historical models or past projections of the future—that is, the history of future cities?

I love those—I love history in general, and I also love history of history as they say. And it’s true that sometimes they can be used and improved upon, like I mentioned with Copy Paste. Constant [Nieuwenhuys] had brilliant ideas in the 50s and 60s for urbanism and it would be wonderful to apply them to certain situations today. We, in some ways, were inspired by Le Corbusier with our Celosia building in Madrid, in order to build what couldn’t have been built at the time and in admiration for his thoughts. It plays an important role in that way. I often also make reference to [Heinrich] Schliemann, with his excavations in Troy where he found layers of different cities, all from different epochs. For me, it serves as a model for the development of cities—the adding of new layers of interpretation, one on top of the other, each evaluating and building upon the previous one. City adaptation—that’s something that’s needed in the case of the future city.

So these design histories do play a strong role in our work. The Glass Farm plays on that also, or even the Balancing Barn, which we did for philosopher Alain du Botton and his Living Architecture foundation. Making a new barn in the British countryside, we sought a balance between the temporary and the eternal. We imagined in the background, Prince Charles, the personification of British Heritage, somehow “vomiting” all over it while we presented. That made the design almost constructive. I think history is one of the tools we can use to comment, to ironize, to make more serious, or to deepen our work. It’s a wonderful zone.

i·p: Five years down the road, where do you expect the Why Factory to be? When you founded it five years ago, what did you envision the research agenda to be, and where do you see it going?

It hasn’t changed that much. For me, the project is still moving forward with enough innovation and momentum to avoid any inbreeding. So no, it’s not finished yet. Are there changes? Yes, of course. There are new opportunities. Five years ago, I could not have imagined Barbapapa as a specific research project, or how we brought in austerity as a parameter, but it all still fits under the same umbrella.

i·p: To conclude, do you ever see the Why Factory branching out from that umbrella, from Future Cities as an agenda?

I don’t know yet—that’s too early to say. For the moment I want to concentrate on that model, because as I said before, everyone deserves their own terrain. We’ve developed our own model that doesn’t step on anyone else’s toes, and I think it will continue to be very fruitful for us, well into the future.