WA magazine (China) on Complex Projects
Interview by TIAN Ni - WA magazine (China), 326 issue, 08 2017
In relation to the background of the Faculty of Architecture and the Built Environment at Delft University of Technology, World Architecture interviewed the Chair of the Complex Project (2006-present), professor Kees Kaan.
WA: World Architecture is going to publish an issue on “Space for Architectural Teaching” exploring the relationship between teaching space and architectural education. Can you please let our audience know more about the Faculty of architecture at Delft? And something about “BK City”?
Kees Kaan (KK): The faculty members of architecture at Delft come from many departments, so it’s not just an architecture school focusing on designing buildings exclusively, it’s called the Faculty of Architecture and the Built Environment, so it looks at a wider scope of everything related to the making of our environment, including urban planning, real estate management, building technology, heritage, restoration renovation, and of course architecture. And all these different departments are combined into one faculty and they all use that building called “BK City”. It is called BK City because it functions like a city. It is a place with many, different cultures or subcultures inside it, like people from different neighborhoods, with different attentions, and different interests.
So before BK City was there, the architectural faculty consisted of the same group of people. They were housed in a totally different building that was built in the 1960s designed by Jaap Bakema and Johannes van den Broek, two very important Dutch architects, and it was a building with a highrise tower, but it burned down in 2008. That building was a very well articulated architectural project, specifically designed to be an architectural faculty. After the fire, that destroyed the entire building, the faculty was provisionally housed in tents. It changed the faculty from being vertically organized to the horizontal layout of the tents.
It is totally different spatial experience that changed entirely the way people collaborated and started to work, because in the building with the vertical system, with elevators and staircases, most of the meet and greet happened only on the ground floor. After a coffeebreak or a lunch we had move up to disappear into our own individual space to sit there and work. There was not so much informal interaction between people, between different faculty members. Interactions between students and professors etc. were even less because professors and teachers had their own rooms and they could simply go into their rooms closing the door. In the tents this was not possible because there were no doors and we had no rooms, so everybody was in one big space and everything was provisionally, and that created a very informal atmosphere of exchange of knowledge and information, and meeting each other. Of course it was a bit more difficult to concentrate into work and the comfort was rather moderate. Then finally the university decided to put the faculty of architecture – which is a very large faculty actually, we are about three thousand people there – to put it in an old building they actually we’re just intending to sell but with the fire they stopped it at the last moment.
It was an old chemistry building that is now turned into BK City, and that old building became our new home. I like this building which stretches out as a long horizontal surface with different wings and courtyards, and two of the big courtyards were covered with a big glass roof. One of those courtyards became the orange room, where students work, where lecture and events are organized and that has become the emblematic space of the faculty. It’s always a bit noisy, but it is very dynamic too.
The other big courtyard became the model room, big machines are placed and many students can make models simultaneously, and the rest of the building most renovated in very fast quick way, very provisional, to make it possible for the active faculty to move in within two or three months, that happens, and it was the best thing that ever happened to the school of architecture at Delft. Since that moment communication between people of the school became more informal and more frequent.
The ambience became much better, big spaces for exchange, big floor plates, and also because of this somehow provisional character. Things were not perfect and that was exactly right. It was of course a shock. The fire shook up the whole population of BK City. Professors like me, we don’t have our own private rooms, I don’t even have my own desk. I am working everyday from my laptop. I do have a room for my chair where did my team can work together, but I don’t have my individual desk, the disadvantages maybe that you’re sometimes difficult to find, but the advantage is you work in a much more open and informal ambience, no treshholds. So I think, this is what happened to the architecture faculty in the Netherlands: fire, the tents, the new building, the provisional renovation and the way it is used. The faculty was taken out of its comfort zone entirely, and then had to work with what was available at short notice. Not everything is perfect, and it’s impossible to get the perfect. I hope gradually we will improve the building to make acoustics better in certain rooms and things are being improved, but this sort of level of inconvenience and the necessity to work with what you have, created a very strong, good collaborative spirit that improves the way people exchange knowledge and information, and so to improve education.
WA: In your opinion, what are the connections between architectural space and teaching?
KK: Well yes there is important connection, because we have experienced with the shift it made a huge impact.
It has shaken the institutional aspect of teaching. Louis Kahn said: for teaching, what you need is a place where you sit under the tree, you make a circle together and you have a teaching situation, teacher and students under a tree. To a certain extent that is true, so teaching is possible under very different conditions, but it always happens among people. Teaching is about the exchange of knowledge and information. When there is a necessity to organize teaching at larger scale, to institutionalize it, then the question of the type of facilities you need becomes relevant. Say how many trees you need with people under it, and how many big trees and small trees or big rooms or small rooms and how many meeting places, and also, so what kind of settlement or layout to make, for the institute to function. So for teaching, not with standing studio or seminar or big lectures or informal discussions, you need students to feel comfortable, and you prefer the students to work at the school rather than them staying at home, so you want them to come to the building and do their work there.
So the building has to provide a large scale of different facilities in different places, for the students to feel connected, to feel that they want to be there, so I don’t have the sort of recipe for an ideal teaching space. It is such a complex question, but I think that, the bottom line is exchange and meeting, and I think that is super important for a pleasure place of education.
WA: How about the mixed functions of the review space or the exhibition space?
KK: I think the most of the spaces have relatively dedicated character, for example, the model room is mostly used for models.
WA: But sometimes, the presentation and exhibition can happen in the same time and same place.
KK: Well, I would say it’s not so easy that we mix in BK City two difference things. There would be a larger exhibition space for graduation exhibitions, so that at events we do very often or sometimes we have to do that object. The other thing is the store, because our students doing the models, and we have to storage them now and then, because the classrooms have to be empty and clean, studio spaces have to be empty for new studios and then we want to keep the models for presentation, at the end of three semesters I want to make an exhibition but two storage is the work of the students, that’s really problematic, we simply don’t have this place for that so that it’s still a problem. I think it is important also to consider both exhibition and storage.
WA: So you mean in terms of usage, it’s more like leaving the place to be occupied, and then we discover our function and reinterpreted with this place?
KK: I think it depends on density. I do think we have pressure, and cannot use the place with flexibility. It automatically occurs, especially when a high pressure on the space exists. That’s not only in an educational facility but also happens in cities already, so when there’s a lot of pressure on the usage, people become automatically creative, tolerant and flexible. In BK we have a very high pressure. We have a huge facility, but still it always fully filled and crammed and it’s really very intensely used, of course there are also very quiet moments, but that has to do with the system of education. All the programs are sort of running in parallels, so everybody has his presentations in the same weeks, everything runs in parallel, so there are very quiet weeks, and then there are the weeks that you need three times the building. In that sense, it would be more practical not to run everything in parallel, because you have this academic calendar, a very strong demarcation of semesters and quarters, periods for exams, so you always have the peaks of use of the building. It is complicate.
WA: After fire, what happened to the original building?
KK: It was not a little fire. The fire completely and totally burned down the building and it disappeared entirely. So it was really collapsed, after that, there was nothing left but ashes, so that’s why we went to the other building, originally with the intention as a temporary place, and then to build a new building. That temporary solution turned out to be okay, let’s us simply stay there.
WA: As we know, a part of the areas was designed by MVRDV, what do you think about it?
KK: I like it very much, it’s very nice places. It’s one of the courtyards that they made the lecture facilities in it, the orange stairs, and I think it’s very nice, at the stairs students can sit and hang around. Sometimes lectures take place there, and it works as one of the central spaces in the building.
WA: In BK City, which part of the building is most popular for the students? How about the users’ feedback?
KK: I’m not sure, because I never interviewed the students. There are different rooms that are very much liked, but it seems they do like the cafe outside, especially on sunny days, it can be very crowded there. So there’s really a hot spot as you can say, also the espresso bar is really a meeting point, it’s very much liked. I think the students also like very much the model room, it’s a very good place, it’s very big spectacle, and it’s nice to work there and see all the models and see different students at work. The orange room, I think, is also much liked, and also much appreciated, because there is a very strong character, it’s sort of a icon for the BK City. You could say it is one of the wonderful places that is photographed a lot, but then there are also educational areas like those in the east wing, the ground floor space which is a very big nice studio, and you can work with at least hundred students, it’s super nice and fantastic.
(Proofread by LIU Yishi)
Kees Kaan has been interviewed by Anna Martovitskaya for the nineteenth issue of the architectural magazine speech: which explores the theme of regulations. Read below the full text.
Anna Martovitskaya: The theme of this issue of our magazine is rules and regulatory standards. I’m sure that as an architect working in many countries — and on projects of a great variety of different types — you must find this subject very relevant. I would like to begin with a fairly general question:
in your opinion, do regulatory standards and rules kill creative freedom or, on the contrary, do they help architects create buildings?
Kees Kaan: I would say both are the case. Regulatory standards are an ambivalent phenomenon. There are standards and rules which really do kill a project — they reduce it to faceless greyness; but there are also those which stimulate creativity and innovation. And, of course, a great deal depends on which country you’re working in. In France, for instance, the standards are very strict and regulate the greater part of building volumes under construction.
For example, they prescribe very rigidly what the distance should be between buildings based on the angel of daylight exposure. In the Netherlands, on the other hand, the authorities have gradually come around to introducing performance standards rather than restrictive ones. Which is
to say that we architects no longer hear “such and such is not allowed”, but “if you do this, you must ensure that there is so much daylight, such and such fire-safety protection, and so much energy consumption”. The architect has to prove that his design meets certain performance standards. You have to admit that this is a completely different way of setting standards.
AM And which of the two approaches seems best to you as an architect?
KK Personally, of course, I find it more interesting to work with performance standards. I can’t say I find it simpler, no. It’s probably simpler to work with prohibitory standards: you take into account all the necessary prohibitions, end up with a result, and then calmly set about building it. Often, of course, you’re kicking yourself thinking about what you could have done, including with regard to aesthetic design, but were not allowed to do, to make the project richer. As for performance standards, on the contrary, they compel you
to be highly inventive so as to get the results
you need. Of course, this means more work for the engineers. But, you know, for me it’s very important that there is always a chance to go to the municipal authorities, explain the gist of your proposal, and be heard. If you can prove that the city will be improved by a particular building being built with certain deviations from the standards, you should be allowed to do it.
AM Since you’ve started talking about different approaches to regulation in different countries, I can’t not ask about Brazil, where your firm also has an active presence. What is the situation there with regulatory standards?
KK It’s a completely different world there. Of course, Brazil does have regulatory standards and they’re mainly prohibitory ones, but it’s also common there to simply ignore all kinds of things. And they often build quicker than we sketch,
so… I’ll put it this way, we can’t always manage
to get our sketches to match what is being done on the construction site. But we haven’t lost hope of eventually getting a better grasp of the local specifics — given that at the end of the
day regulatory standards are a reflection of the national identity and the building culture of a particular country, and this code needs to be studied long and attentively.
AM Do you take on local partners in each country so as to improve your understanding of the local regulations?
KK Yes, of course. Local partners are essential. Although the character of the interaction with the firms assisting on a project may gradually change quite substantially. For instance, in France,
— after completing several projects, — we already feel ourselves to be about 80% independent of our local partners, and in Belgium the degree of freedom is even higher. But in Germany, on the contrary, it’s impossible to do anything without a good local partner.
AM Do you think that in the context of global urbanization regulations should gradually become increasingly universal?
KK Only those standards and rules which concern our existence on the planet in general. If each of us does not make an effort to prepare the planet to accommodate 10 billion people, then nothing’s going to work out. Which is to say that as far as concerns energy saving and treatment of resources, I would probably be in favour of a certain unification of the rules. But in the case of regulations of a more local kind which concern the culture of building in a particular place, it’s unlikely, of course, that they should be treated
in identical fashion. Standards are also a way to impart legal stability to development projects. This is very important from the point of view of economics too: people need to be sure that they will recoup the money which they’re investing.
If the rules and standards do not suit the given culture, then people won’t comply with them and that means there can be no guarantees.
AM One of your best-known realized projects is the reconstruction of the Central Post building in Rotterdam, which is now the most ecologically sustainable listed building in the Netherlands. Was attaining such high results a matter of what you wanted, or did it follow from the regulations?
KK I would say that in the present case there was a happy match between the building’s basic capabilities and the ambitions of the client. This is a 1950s building which was originally used for sorting mail. We turned it into a mixed-use office complex for the creative industries. Without changing the building’s external appearance, we increased the number of storeys and doubled the usable floor area. The smart lighting and ventilation, the cooling ceilings, and the double-skin facade, which lets in lots of daylight, make the building a record-beater in terms
of ecological sustainability. So in this project maximization of profits went hand in hand with maximization of ecological sustainability. That is not always the case; this particular project was lucky. And for that we have the client to thank, of course: all the decisions — including with regard to the cooling, the ceilings, and the lighting — were taken from the point of view of
AM You have created buildings of all types — educational institutions, administrative buildings, cultural buildings, and housing.
Is there a building type which you haven’t worked with due to the rules and regulations being too strict?
KK I don’t think so…. I wouldn’t want to build
a prison, but that’s more for personal reasons.
I would find it oppressive. Although, on the
other hand, we did design some court buildings containing a block of cells — but cells where prisoners are kept for one day only. From the point of view of the dictate of regulations, building type is not that important: the most pressing issues arise when you begin to tie a building’s functional program to its architecture and neighborhood
in the city. And for us this is always the most important question — how the structure interacts with the site on which it stands. The design efforts are focused on finding a solution where we find a layout and a program for a building which allow us to fit it perfectly to its surroundings and to impart new qualities to the latter. Strictly speaking, it is for the sake of such moments that we do all our work — to find the best way that the new and the existing, the private and the public, can engage with one another and to come up with ideas that make the city a better place to live.
AM To what extent, do you think, are experience and broad competence important in this process?
KK Competences are important, but you have to understand that additional competences can always be acquired — for instance, by hiring the appropriate specialist, perhaps someone who knows a particular building type or the specific regulatory standards, to work in your team. For example, we won the competition to design the Netherlands Supreme Court without having any experience of designing court buildings. And although there was undoubtedly an element
of luck in this, I am sure that the secret of our success was that we are able to listen in an unbiased way, be open-minded, and understand the real needs of the given city and society,
the needs that lie behind the specific competition brief.
We take it for granted in Rotterdam, walking around in a city that is one of the greatest sculpture gardens in the world. How amazing it is to be able to stumble upon, lean against or sit on art – sometimes by world-famous artists – that gives our public space more meaning. How amazing it is to have the privilege to welcome or the right to object to the placement of new artworks – works that some cities can only dream of. We seem almost unaware of it.
Siebe Thissen is now providing us with a compendium, an excellent overview placing the art in its social and historical context, and allowing us to see the full wealth of art in Rotterdam’s public spaces. Leafing through this book fills me with pride. I see it as the ‘grand finale’ of an era, now that our ideas on public space are changing rapidly.
While public space used to be defined as space that wasn’t privately owned and was delineated by building facades and entrances, and where on occasion the space might have been entrusted to artists when conceded by the generosity of a builder/owner, today the line between public and private is slowly blurring. A new generation has emerged that no longer aims for possession, not on account of political ideals but because they do not see the point of ownership. It’s the backpack generation, those who were brought to school in the morning and told that their father, neighbour or grandad’s third wife would pick them up after school. It’s the generation that grew up with prosperity and the certainty of everything always being available, though not always from a single source or through ownership. It’s the generation that sees sharing as natural and is not impressed by ownership. The line between public and private is disappearing. The emergence and popularity of Uber, Airbnb and Green Wheels are the consequences. Even Porsche currently has a sharing programme!
So all this also has a significant effect on perceptions regarding the idea of public space. When the concept of ownership no longer clearly distinguishes the separation of public and private spaces, where exactly does public space begin and end? Or does it even end? The establishment of the first POPS, Privately Owned Public Spaces, are indeed already a reality. Insofar as I know, no artworks have yet been installed in these new public spaces that have shown any kind of different response to the space, but it is inevitable that there will be one.
Another exponent of this new sharing is the sharing of knowledge. Information used to be under private custody and traded, but now we are used to a networking and knowledge-sharing society in which it seems that having access to information is free. What we have overlooked, however, is that this is intellectual knowledge, not the know-how and experience that one physically builds by doing. It is the doing that is necessary to master a craft.
Now one of the things that make art in public spaces so special is how well they are made. They have to be, because whether they are free-standing or part of a building, they must have a suitable physiognomy and the right feel, as well as being robust enough to withstand the affections of the public and our climate. Also, the sculptures are often of such a scale that if they were not suitably constructed, they might topple or collapse under their own weight. Creating these works demands therefore not only outstanding artistry, but also a high level of technical craftsmanship. Much can be said about the meaning of the artworks, yet the skill with which these works have been made has long been taken for granted.
Just how unjust this is, becomes apparent when we recognise the serious shortage of real, skilled specialists. True tradesmen are few and far between; there are few craftsmen today who have managed to master, for example, glassblowing, the working and casting of metals, leatherworking, the many forms and applications of stonework, brickwork and concrete, and fabric, lace and pattern production. The list of ‘endangered’ trades seems infinite.
It’s a serious situation because to excel at a particular skill may require many years, even decades, of practice and patience. The urgency is clear from the fact that several multinationals have instigated programmes to recruit real craftsmen. Often older people and sometimes even the very elderly are being hired so as not to lose the knowledge once acquired and to share their expertise with younger people who can learn and pass on the value of the skill – skills that are often necessary to make excellent art.
I am grateful that Siebe’s book has lots of photographs of artists at work. It illustrates the importance of craftsmanship. It has often been artists, in fact, that have ensured that knowledge has not been lost. Let’s take serious note of this, for without craftsmanship there is no art in public spaces.
The timing of this book couldn’t be better. It contributes to awareness of the quality we should be surrounding ourselves with and, moreover, hopefully inspires a respect for the expertise necessary to achieve this. It also reveals to us our attitudes to public space, where the visual arts show us it is truly the discipline that opens our eyes to all the different ways of looking at the world – the ultimate public space. The world is changing at a rapid pace and we are here to experience it. How exciting is that?