In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, one of the major changes within cities around the world has been the rise of so-called "privately-owned public space," a development which has attracted the attention of many urbanists and is still being widely debated. However, for MONU Magazine, the increasing prevalence (and arguably, acceptance) of such privately owned spaces for public use gives us an opportunity to discuss another aspect of public space: interior urbanism. With the rise of the shopping mall and the increasingly diverse functions required by buildings such as libraries, interior spaces now resemble exterior public spaces more and more.
The following interview is an excerpt from the 21st issue of MONU Magazine, in which MONU's Bernd Upmeyer and Beatriz Ramo interview MVRDV founder Winy Maas, discussing the concept of interior urbanism in the work of MVRDV, in particular in their Rotterdam Markthal, Glass Farm and Book Mountain projects.
Bernd Upmeyer: This new issue of MONU Magazine deals with the urban scale and urban aspects of interiors and especially of public interiors. Because we have the impression that these days public interiors are creating public spaces of a quality that can usually only be found outdoors or in connection with the outdoors. This is why we wanted to look at public interiors with a fresh eye and at interior urbanism as a professional field that might demand new experts: interior urbanists, who are neither interior architects, nor architects or urban designers, but something more of a hybrid.
Beatriz Ramo: So we think that there is a new generation of public interiors that we should investigate, which we found, for example, in cities such as Tokyo, Shanghai, and Hong Kong. Probably you have reflected already on this form of public urban space that happens in the interior, some kind of “Interior Urbanism”, in relation to your “Market Hall” project. How might we define its parameters, do you think? Is it a new form? What are we dealing with here?
Winy Maas: There are more ways to approach this. First, we could simply follow and build Buckminster Fuller’s Cupola and to make basically an acclimatizer, as I called it in KM3. Secondly, we could comment on the isolated box, like the malls, that remains in the classic dichotomy of exterior and interior. For me - in that respect - the most interesting part where the term interior urbanism makes sense more and more is within density. The denser you are the more the role of the interiors makes sense and becomes active. To look at Nolli would not be so bad here.
BR: Yes, Nolli was also one of the things we thought of initially when talking about interior urbanism.
WM: Nolli becomes obvious when you go, for example, to New York, where the lobbies are part of the streetscapes. It also becomes apparent in your experience in Indonesian Kampongs or Chinese Hutongs, where your neighbors are somehow part of you own interiors. In the case of the Market Hall, ultimately, I would love it if it was surrounded by a lot of buildings, because then the Market Hall would become stronger and better than in isolation.
And it becomes also more and more apparent in our television programs, where we show our interiors and private lives in public space. Why are we doing that? And when? Is this a desperate attempt to be closer to each other?
And we can talk about the way global products are so successful. The so-called ‘I aspect’. Like iPhones or Samsung, they are generic, but can in a relatively small way be personally adapted. They share private-ness with generic-ness.
Also, in our interiors we are dominated by the generic. The concept of IKEA creates a big and cheap catalogue that you now find in most interiors of the world. In that way all these interiors are somehow collective. We share interiors more and more...
And, last but not least, by home automation and the use of sensors and robot technology in our households our private life is constantly monitored and its data are endlessly collected and are becoming increasingly accessible by others…. The house is quite public in this way.
I think that today a larger freedom of choice is very important when it comes to the built environment. In one of our first housing projects, which was in Ypenburg , everyone could create his own patio house. In any shape. They were simply collaged and ‘middled’ with their neighbors. It thus became a collage of the different personalized ideas of the inhabitants. Somewhat similar to a Yin Yang puzzle. That led to a negotiation between two boundaries, between intimacy and collectiveness, and thus between private and public.
Such boundaries are also clearly visible in the Wilhelminapark House in Utrecht. This double house façade creates a visible and thus public game between the two neighbors and their individual interiors. The interaction between individuals as a base for a collective.
But generally speaking I think that currently increasingly almost all collective spaces are moving to the internet or onto television, which I think is very relevant for the discussion regarding public interior spaces.
Publicly vs. Privately Owned Interiors
BR: Which ownership type do you associate with public interiors? Public or private ownership? A lot of people still relate public spaces with public ownership and believe only then the highest level of freedom can be provided and only then the spaces can be open to everyone. But today many public spaces are increasingly funded privately and boundaries between publicly and privately owned spaces are starting to blur more and more.
WM: True. There are more privately owned ‘public’ spaces today. What a contradiction! I don’t know what will be the result of this though. Some are owned by one institution or owner. Depending on its organization it might lead to collective usage. Others are based on shared and collective owners. Most of these things have not yet been constitutionally settled for the long term. In the case of the Market Hall, we still have to wait and see how it will work out, because it is owned by a private body.
BR: Is the Market hall owned by one single company?
WM: No, there is a conglomeration of four owners: one group of private house owners, one owner of the houses for rent, one owner of the parking, and one of the retail and the market floor.
BR: How does that work? Do they all need to sign, for example, a constitutional agreement, that the space should always remain a market?
WM: I don’t know exactly. Ask the developer. I am aware of the risk that it could easily become something else. In this case we would normally design a space that can easily be converted into something else. But we created a kind of unusable space under the arch, an empty space, which makes the entire project more challenging. The glass façade can always be removed so that the space becomes a normal open passage and the windows of the houses, with a different owner, somehow have a controlling effect on the usage of the market hall space.
BR: What would you do if the market leaves?
WM: Well, as I said, it can become a normal covered street. But there are other possibilities. You can turn it easily into a concert hall or a pool.
BR: Will the Market Hall have a clear timetable?
WM: It will be open 7 days a week from 10 until 8. We always say that it should not become a luxurious food court like the one at Harrods in London where stalls are designed by one designer. It needs to be a bit rough and a place where the butcher can throw blood around.
BU: A bit like Rotterdam’s Blaak Market that is located just in front of the Market Hall.
WM: Yes. With a little quality upgrade though.
BR: So, you imagine that these kind of ‘dirty things’ happen inside the hall?
WM: Yes, it could be slightly rough. The materialization and the detailing will therefore be rather basic.
The Glass Farm
BU: We read that you were born in a village called Schijndel in the Netherlands and that you made a proposal for the main square of Schijndel for the first time in 1976, when you were 18 years old. Up to today you created a fairly large number of projects with mixed public functions and public interiors. Recently, one of those proposals, namely the “Glass Farm”, got realized. Based on your experience over almost 40 years with this project, but also in general, how would you say public interior spaces have changed in terms of their functions, meanings, and spaces over that period?
WM: The Glass Farm project has its own very particular history that led to the project that is being built today. Its location, which is the market place of Schijndel, was bombed by the Americans and this left a big hole in the centre of the village. This transformed the village into one of the uglier environments of our country. So, this is where I was born. And although the site has been renovated in the 1950s, everyone realized that the whole thing did not turn out so well. But the question was what to do and how to finance something new. So, it was discussed to what extent a privatization of the place could be acceptable and private money could be productive and improve this public space. Eventually, there were private investors that were interested in investing in a building such as the Glass Farm that, with its enlarged form and its enlarged transparent prints of the village’s average farm, has a strong public purpose: namely, an object that is of the village and that represents the village. In the end it became a commercial success. Both for the investors, and for the surrounding shops and restaurants, as well as for the community as now many foreigners come by for a visit…
BR: What functions does this building contain exactly?
WM: There are shops, a wellness center, a bar, and a restaurant in it. The restaurant is super successful and runs very well. It is private but the building is used by the municipality for its own propaganda. It is a success, because it is in this case political and it became to a certain extent very urban, very collective.
BR: If we would make a Nolli map of the Glass Farm, it would probably be represented as white, no?
WM: Yes, that is true. But on the other hand I think that the Nolli map is not completely updated to account for the current possibilities, because it is two-dimensional. It does not talk about height and it does not say anything about the role of the facade and the images on it. In the case of the Glass Farm, the facade plays an enormous role in activating the spaces.
BR: Yes, it is true. The Nolli map is only two-dimensional. To use it would not work in cities such as Tokyo, or Hong Kong, where public spaces exist on multiple levels. Maybe Nolli maps should be upgraded and include the 3rd dimension as well.
The Book Mountain
BR: When we spoke to Petra Blaisse yesterday she told us that she does not like to sign two contracts in projects where she works on both: interior public spaces as well as exterior public spaces. She said that she would prefer to only make one contract, which would be for the entire public space.
WM: I can completely understand her. For our “Book Mountain” project in Spijkenisse - a town close to Rotterdam - we also only signed one single contract for everything: the plaza, the interior, and the skin in between.
BU: This project exposes quite dramatically the interior to its urban context as the facades and the roof are entirely transparent. What is the story behind this project and what was the reason for this strong visual connection of the interior with the city?
WM: Well, I think that public libraries are one of the last remaining real public buildings of our generation. In the case of Spijkenisse, the city wanted to have a new library to encourage reading and to elevate the level of knowledge among its people. But apart from the library and the books, we integrated other functions that form the heart of the building: offices, shops, and cinemas. The books are positioned on top of these functions, and we added a glass skin around them for protection. In that sense the Book Mountain is a kind of Buckminster Fuller Dome, while the Glass Farm is a sort of inverted version of this Dome, which is another possible aspect of your “Interior Urbanism” topic: when an interior becomes - through this inversion - an exterior and when an exterior becomes an interior.
BU: The transparency of the building and its mix of functions reminded us also of the famous Crystal Palace that was built in London’s Hyde Park to house the Great Exhibition of 1851 and was designed by the English gardener Joseph Paxton. The huge, modular, wood, glass, and iron structure was originally erected to showcase the diverse products of many countries throughout the world. It was at the time the largest amount of glass ever seen in a building. Was that similarity intended and to what extent does the Book Mountain create an interior that can be compared to expo pavilions?
WM: The Crystal Palace, the dome of Buckminster Fuller and the Book Mountain are really close to each other. All three are creating interiors that feel like exteriors. They cover exterior urban spaces. However, both had different motives. While the Crystal Palace had a strong exclusive exoticism, Buckminster Fuller’s Dome is purely urban...
BR: Which type of interior space would you consider as most public at the moment? You have mentioned that libraries are some of the last remaining real public buildings. I also see, for example, the Centre Pompidou: the hall, the bookshop, and the library are totally accessible by the public almost until midnight. It is so open that even many homeless people are using it. It becomes like a public space that is entirely inside of the building.
WM: Yes, this is a very successful example of a public interior. Maybe the best building that these architects have ever made. In that kind of building you can say that you really feel at home. Like on a street such as the Champs-Élysées...
BR: What makes you feel like this? Do you need to own a building to truly feel at home? How public and open does a space need to be to make you feel at home?
WM: I think an endlessly high level of generosity is hyper necessary, the feeling that all are welcome and safe.
BU: Is the possibility to express yourself and to be able to influence, shape your environment and personalize it, as you have called it at the start, also important to feel at home?
WM: Ultimately, yes. These kinds of possibilities make you feel that you are really invited.
BU: Earlier you mentioned the increasing importance of the internet as a public interior space. In such a digital world, do we still need physically built libraries such as the Book Mountain?
WM: I am completely aware of the duality. That is why the Book Mountain can be seen on the one hand as a replacement of the internet but on the other hand also as a kind of sarcophagus of the last books.
Winy Maas is one of the co-founding directors of the globally operating architecture and urban planning firm MVRDV, based in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, known for projects such as the Expo 2000 and the vision for greater Paris, Grand Paris Plus Petit. He is also professor at, and director of, The Why Factory, a research institute for the future city that he founded in 2008 at TU Delft. Since 2013 he is Visiting Professor at the University of Hong Kong. Before that he was among other places Professor at ETH Zurich, Berlage Institute, MIT, Ohio State, and Yale University. In addition he designs stage sets, objects, and was curator of Indesem 2007. He curates exhibitions, lectures throughout the world and takes part in international juries. Recently Winy Maas joined the Economic Development Board of Rotterdam (EDBR). In 2012 he was appointed urban supervisor for the city of Almere and since 2003 he has been supervising the Bjorvika urban development in Oslo. With both MVRDV and The Why Factory he has published a series of research projects.
Beatriz Ramo founded STAR strategies + architecture in 2006 in Rotterdam. STAR is a practice dealing with architecture in all its forms. The office has won several prizes in architecture and urban development competitions in France, the Netherlands, China, Iceland, Lebanon, Norway, and Spain. Since June 2012 STAR is part of the Scientific Committee of the Atelier International du Grand Paris working in several researches for the development of the Parisian metropolis such as the ‘Co-Résidence’. Beatriz Ramo is a regular collaborator on MONU magazine on urbanism. She lectures frequently at universities and cultural institutions such as at the Pavillon de l’Arsenal in Paris, the National Art Gallery in Vilnius or the SCA in Buenos Aires. Her work has been featured in publications such as Casabella, AAfiles, Domus or Abitare... and exhibited at centers such as the NAi in Rotterdam, the Storefront Gallery in New York or the Ludwig Forum in Aachen. Before founding STAR, Beatriz worked at OMA- Office for Metropolitan Architecture.
Bernd Upmeyer is the editor-in-chief and founder of MONU Magazine. He is also the founder of the Rotterdam-based Bureau of Architecture, Research, and Design (BOARD). He studied architecture and urban design at the University of Kassel (Germany) and the Technical University of Delft (Netherlands). Since June 2012 Upmeyer and his office BOARD are part of the group, led by STAR - strategies + architecture, that has been choosen as one of the new six teams of architects and urban planners appointed by the Atelier International Grand Paris (AIGP) to be part of the Scientific Committee for the mission: Grand Paris: pour une métropole durable. He holds a PhD (Dr.-Ing.) in Urban Studies from the University of Kassel (Germany).