speech: magazine (Russia) interviews Kees Kaan

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
financial optimization.

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.