An advocate of quality, Scipio emphasizes the importance of excellent command of the profession. She claim that the basis of every lasting design should be in knowledge and expertise about how an object, or a building, is made and used, both now and in the future.
Caroline Ludwig interviews Dikkie Scipio for De Manifest
Quality, expertise and skill. This is the foundation of every design, according to Professor Dikkie Scipio, founding partner of KAAN Architecten. She calls on architects to reclaim their traditional role and calls on the government to set out a vision for the future of spatial planning.
Which projects or experiences have shaped you?
“My father and I debated endlessly. He was a cultural anthropologist and an academic thinker. Discussions often began by negotiating the definitions of the concepts that were central to the subject under discussion. Things got pretty heated. Sometimes I would have to put the discussion on hold until I had read a book to better support my arguments. My father had an unshakeable belief in the future and science. Whenever I went out to protest and stand up against some injustice, he invariably reminded me of the cyclical nature of social movements and how things always stabilized over the course of time. Now that I’m older, I can understand better what he meant. My mother, who was a seamstress, imprinted on me a love of craftsmanship and the importance of materials and the creative process.
These are two totally different backgrounds: being analytical and inquisitive, gathering knowledge and also thinking conceptually, handed down by my father, versus the diligence of mastering hand-crafted work, understanding the material, and pursuing technical skill for creativity, learned from my mother. I am always looking to fuse the intellectual process with execution skills. It is this totality that creates quality. That doesn’t mean I’m a conservative thinker with a penchant for the past; in fact, I’m truly fascinated by new ideas and techniques.”
You believe that quality should always be the primary mind-set for any architect or designer. Why is that?
“I always stress the importance of quality – quality with a deeply rooted respect for and appreciation of craftsmanship. Two aspects are key in this regard: skill and education. Craftsmanship simply means competence in the execution of a craft. Yet it isn’t just about the execution, it’s mastering the profession. It doesn’t matter whether the product is made by hand, by industrial processes or digitally. What’s important is to think through every aspect of its making and its use – its usability in the present and the future. If something is beautiful and well-crafted, it is inviting, even when it has lost its original purpose. This is equally true for a building or an object. You should create something in such a way that you fall in love with it and will want to ensure its continued use. The design should allow for this kind of scope. Unfortunately, we live in a world of short-term projects and high turnovers. There is little to no patience or appreciation for letting something ripen and grow, and I find that a real shame. It only leads to a loss of quality.
In addition to skill, I really value education, sharing expertise and telling stories. If we surround ourselves with quality, then we get used to it in the sense that we expect or demand it. Sadly, the opposite is also true – hence my heartfelt plea. Every time I undertake research I am so impressed, again and again, by the amount of knowledge we humans have accumulated. Of course, this doesn’t mean that it’s easy to find quality in the immense quantity. So the transfer of an integral form of knowledge is incredibly important, and the vehicle for this is a good story because it motivates us and speaks to the imagination. I believe the primary themes for the future are all about sharing expertise and skill. If we no longer know how and by whom something is made and we can no longer assess what quality is, then we’ve lost our foundations. The world in 2020 has pressed the re-set button, not on the basis of a vision, but out of panic. It’s essential now to make a plan, as soon as possible, to find a new balance.”
How would you define sustainability?
“The idea of circularity as the base principle of sustainability is a sympathetic one, and yet I am somewhat pessimistic about this kind of re-use as the solution to our environmental problems. Human beings are too complacent. Moreover, it may just be a side-step that serves as an excuse to maintain the high turnover rate of products. The same goes for buildings. I see sustainability as building for the long term, designing with vision, using solid materials and applying them with skill and craftsmanship.”
You lament that planning is no longer a government task and that urban area development is mostly left to the market. What do you think is a better way to drive innovation?
“At the moment we have complex, decentralized decision-making, insufficient financial and policy support, and a lack of market confidence. The market is urgently appealing to politicians for more direction, interference and structure from the national government. The market is completely capable of operating within clear boundaries, but if there are no rules or they contradict each other, then everything comes to a halt. Too much of urban or regional area developments have been left to the market. If you want to drive innovation in planning, sustainability and quality, we need intelligent frameworks and a competitive setting in which innovation is rewarded. The government could create these frameworks and make regulations consistent – regulations that not only control, but also stimulate. Then an implementation schedule can be chosen in cooperation with the market. The lack of an integrated planning vision is one of the reasons why public housing is becoming deadlocked. Right now only one job has been defined: volume – build as many new houses as possible. What’s needed is a bird’s eye view in which all the different aspects are seen: agriculture, infrastructure, housing, water management, nature conservation, etc. I believe in integrated area development, so I’m very happy with the recent parliamentary decision to establish a new planning institute, like the former Ministry of Housing, Spatial Planning and the Environment. That’s a good start for a centralized and integrated vision.”
You mention the deadlocked housing market. How do you see housing and working in the near future?
“The pandemic may well change how we live in the future, with more people working from home and in homes that are elsewhere. The whole system of where we live and work is currently based on the model of a nuclear family: two life partners with children and adults that work (full-time or part-time) outside the home. You strategically choose your place of residence based on where you work. This notion has been in the process of tipping for some time. A job for life is no longer on the cards. People have shorter relationships, shorter employment contracts, and faster mobility. All this impacts the existing infrastructure, the mobility sector and food production. It’s really interesting to think about these things. I teach at the FH Münster University of Applied Sciences and in collaboration with KAAN we carried out a survey recently called ‘Your home is your shelter’. A lot of young people from 55 different countries participated, young people confined to their homes. We are still processing the results, but we can already see that flexibility is a major issue, the ability to use a space in more than one way. Consequently, there is a need for more diversity in housing typologies, ones that respond better to what society looks like now. For example: more attuned to single people, couples without children, friends living together in separate smaller units, a desire for luxury and social cohesion. At the same time, we see that working from home means that the need to live in the conurbation of the Randstad or other big cities will diminish. And yet, young families considering moving out to the countryside face a lack of schools because centralized facilities are mostly still located in the cities. The funny thing is – remembering the ‘cyclical nature’ of things noted by my father – when I was a young girl no one wanted to live in Amsterdam. That city was the epitome of unsafe and unhygienic living; there were a lot of empty buildings. If you had said back then that the Grachtengordel [the main ring canals] offered great investment opportunities, not many people would have believed you.”
Your plea is to rehabilitate the profession of architect. What’s wrong with the current situation?
“As a profession we have allowed an increasing number of our core competencies – work traditionally undertaken by architects – to be outsourced to a whole army of consultants and managers. As a result, the architect is no longer expected to master some fundamental skills. The architect’s role is slowly being reduced to a merely aesthetic one in which aesthetics is simply a projected image. In such a case, architecture is baseless. We need to ensure that research, concept development, execution, finances and aesthetics are not further disconnected. An important part of our work is developing a vision and moulding this into viable architecture. The process, the design, the construction – foreseeing and monitoring how something is built – are essential elements of this. This is what delivers quality. The astonishing thing is that this sort of quality is not even demanded anymore, it’s often not even expected. Yet architects are trained to guide a design into full integration, to oversee and supervise this. Our profession is an enormous fount of expertise, experience and inspiration that can safeguard the long-term quality of our built environment. With only an aesthetic stamp of approval, the role of architects and their value to society is obliterated. It’s paramount to resist this. We must take responsibility and claim our place.”
Which creators and/or thinkers do you relate to?
“It’s difficult to name one great influence, so I’ll stick to people who share the characteristic of being fiercely independent in spirit. I am fascinated by people who have a great sense of wonder about the world and have made it their life’s mission to share knowledge with others, knowing they can never be totally comprehensive. Researchers and writers like Bill Bryson, who had the courage to relay a vast wealth of knowledge, put it into a timeline and produce an accessible book with A Short History of Nearly Everything. Edward Rutherfurd, who writes about the birth and life of great cities like London, Paris and New York. Francesco Carotta, who analysed the similarities between Julius Caesar and Jesus Christ. Or Oliver Sacks, the neurologist, who wrote about cases in his field as though they were novels. And artists and musicians too, those who express wonder through their art, like Miriam Makeba in her music. In her autobiography she describes how she sees herself as an ant, endowed by nature with supernatural power. I feel fortunate to be able to draw on the knowledge of a colourful and ever-expanding group of people who keep me inspired and full of wonder.”
Read more here (in Dutch). To get a copy of the Manifest visit de Architect website.