Winy Maas is one of architecture’s most aggressive researchers. Through his office MVRDV and affiliations with universities in Europe and America, Maas produces a seemingly unstoppable stream of insights into the environments in which architects now operate. As an advisor to the educational program of the Strelka Institute in Moscow, the architect is currently contributing to the production of eleven radical visions of the future, based on extrapolating trends that shape contemporary life, in Russia and around the world. Maas recently sat with writer, curator, and Strelka faculty member Brendan McGetrick to discuss his unusual educational trajectory, learning from the conservationist Richard Leakey, facing death in Sudan, and the beauty of architects experimenting with algae.
Brendan McGetrick: Since we’re here at Strelka, I thought it would be interesting to have a conversation about education. We’ve talked on a few occasions about how to structure the studios here and I think I have a sense of your educational approach. What I’d like to understand better is where it comes from. So let’s start of the beginning: what do you consider the origins of your interest in architecture?
Winy Maas: I’m digging into my memories… A couple of events. I remember that, when I was 8-ish or 9-ish, I was doing homework in the house of my parents and the television was on endlessly in the background. It was about this Club of Rome, and they were on television saying that the world would end, that the planet would rot. They were predicting the end of the world - but not in a religious manner, in a scientific manner. Obviously, I was not a scientist and I didn’t have the intelligence to understand everything, but they were convincing enough to leave a deep trace in my memory.
This pushed me to want to do something. I had three possible responses in the years after that. First, I could start to work on nature, on landscapes. Secondly, I should work on the deep shit, which is called the city, and so to become an architect. And third, I could become a lawyer to protect against bad guys doing even worse things. This was the romantic reaction that came out of it, and I guessed intuitively that education is a part of it. You cannot do everything yourself and, through education, I might find a role to work on these problems. Of course, these thoughts were not complete. By far...
About two years later, my parents restarted their careers; they went to different schools. How old were they?… I guess 34-35 or something like that. They both entered the world of landscape. My father became a gardener after a period of being a bookkeeper and my mom became a florist after a period of being a mom. They started a company. It was super hard work at that moment, of course, because we were living in a village somewhere in the south of the Netherlands. So that was a second push in a way, because both my brother and I were helping them. I wouldn’t say that it was child labor, but we started to participate and, I must be honest, I started to make flower arrangements and to make and design gardens when I was 13 or something like that. The drawings still exist.
BM: It’s interesting that your parents went back to school in their thirties. What was their approach to education?
WM: Well, they came from an environment that was relatively modest and relatively village-like. My mom came from a huge family: 16 kids, it was a bit of a Madame Curie feeling there. This was during and immediately after the Second World War and so they were forced to start working immediately. She became a housekeeper, for years. For nice families, in the end. She worked for the De Winter family, the family of Leon De Winter, who is a great writer and filmmaker in the Netherlands. He was born while my mother was working there, and there was still contact with that family. So that gave her a push somehow: fifteen years later, after giving birth to some kids and living in a village again with my dad, she realized that she wanted to do something with her hands and with her mind. And so making these floral arrangements was it.
I have the feeling she always regretted not having the possibility to study in her time. For my dad it was the opposite: he was the one who was able to get a minimal piece of study – again, just after the war – but it was in administration work and he was unsatisfied. He hated it and he wanted to do something with his hands more than with his head. So they found each other, somehow, in that operation. They came from two sides, in the middle of their lives. That’s what we could witness as kids.
For me the reaction was, "Ok, I want to be educated, and I want to escape from my village." The village was like something out of a book by Karl Ove Knausgård, where the majority of the kids started to work when they were 15 and only 4 or 5 percent go on to study. That was the environment. It is completely different these days and different in an urban environment. So I wanted to go away, I wanted to escape and that’s what I did, basically.
BM: Where did you go?
WM: I had the luck or the instinct to go to an elite school, a boarding school initially. It was an environment a bit like the Donna Tard’s My Secret History School. It had been a school where priests were educated, but it was a great school.
It had been a hyper-Catholic, seminary environment, with a Jesuit-like feeling, on a big estate, surrounded by soccer fields and parks, somewhere in the landscape. Then, at a certain moment, all of these Catholic priests started to marry. They were suddenly against these strict religious components. They wanted to open themselves up, and the influence of theologians like Bonhoeffer was enormous in those days and you could see this whole German influence, which was so close-by - Joseph Beuys and all of these thinkers, wow. That was beautiful. It dredged into this environment and created a flood of a new generation of what were basically young Socialist thinkers in this school. This clash of Socialist and Catholic thinkers was beautiful to witness and was a second observation of what education can mean.
BM: What’s the name of the school?
WM: It’s Beekvliet. There are 3 or 4 of these places in the Netherlands. So it was by coincidence that I somehow went there and when I arrived I was like, “My God, what a relief! What a world! What a space!” I use the word space, because we’re talking about architecture and, for me, Strelka is not only a space of architecture, it’s a space of thinking. So that was the case at that moment; it was like a huge universe suddenly opened up.
BM: What was the curriculum?
WM: It was basically classical. Philosophy and rhetoric were important elements that came from old Catholic times, dredged in the official subjects. The Socialists, the young 40 percent, maintained these subjects; they didn’t kill them like in other places in the ‘60s and ‘70s, they actually took them further on board. Of course, studying Greek and Latin was connected to that. Funnily, the school also had a great tradition in volleyball. The Dutch are not so bad; they became at a certain moment volleyball Olympic champions in the Atlanta Games. Some of the people who played on those Dutch teams also came from that school.
BM: You mentioned space: how did the school’s physical qualities influence its education?
WM: There was a culture that allowed every teacher to do what he wanted to do, and there was so much space in these beautiful buildings and in this landscape. The drawing teacher, for example, had a giant hall that he could turn into an exhibition space. The teacher for Dutch language was a writer and a philosopher, and he had a huge library in his room with three rows of books that we’d dig into. We had a lot of opportunities, maybe because of a mixed budget: there was still a budget coming from the Catholic Church at that moment and there was also a new law about how Dutch public education was funded. They could use this combination to have a huge basis but, secondly, to have certain kinds of investments in this school. That happened in other places in the Netherlands, and in Europe I guess, but it’s of course a fortune to be part of that.
BM: As you were studying there, was this Club of Rome idea still resonating in your mind?
WM: Yes, that continued. There was an analysis of American presidents some years ago. It analyzed the main subjects of their campaigns and found that the subjects were based mainly on what the presidents had witnessed when they were around 16, 18 years old. That was a funny analysis; also with Obama it was clear. There are things that you respond to at that age, and it dictates, maybe not a lifetime but it dictates a lot. I find that a very interesting hypothesis, and so, yes, that Club of Rome thing somehow continued. Of course, the media also continued with it; it evolved.
Then I made another choice. I thought, “I’ll take my time for studying.” So I didn’t go to university. Why? Because if I would have gone to university, once I was done then I would be finished. In the Netherlands, we have also a system of diploma schools. It’s four years of education that is oriented toward "execution", more than "contemplation". So I took a decision to become a landscape architect by studying in this kind of environment, knowing that I would go afterwards to study architecture.
That choice had serious implications, which I discovered years later. First, the school, RHSTL in Boskoop, is a place where you learn a lot of stuff. This is not like a university: to be honest, I find universities very poor in providing real technical knowledge. They are more about structurization, they are more about the overview, but they rarely give technical knowledge to students. Many architecture schools provide a very bad education on computer systems, for instance, or technology in general. It’s amazing how they let students float.
The world of design in many places is so vague, and what was good about Boskoop is it gave you, for instance, 10,000 plans to study. Beautiful. And I still know them by heart. The technical drawings for all sorts of sewage systems and water systems were given to us. And I loved that. I didn’t want to have an overview yet – to come from above then go down. My decision was, I want to go from down, up.
BM: So your plan was to build up a foundation of technical knowledge at this diploma school and then go to university to add theory?
WM: Yes, it’s maybe a kind of northern European approach to education. I think that it’s quite good that you have a very technical, applicable layer in our society and a thinking component. Of course you have to mix, but this separation is actually not bad because it challenges the two. So that was the choice.
But then two things happened. My father expected that I would come back and take over parts of his business, especially because I was trained so perfectly for that. And I said no... I said I wanted to study further and I wanted go abroad. So I went to Denmark and I didn’t come back for a while. He was super angry and we were completely separated for a while. Also financially, so I had to pay for myself at that moment. I came back to the Netherlands and started studying architecture, but I immediately had to find a job beside that.
BM: Where were you working?
WM: With my landscape diploma I could jump into the Amsterdam City Government. I found a nice position there for a while, working on the Bijlmermeer and the Vondelpark and some of the other, bigger problems of Amsterdam. I could work on the problems of whole ecological systems - how to get more fish in the canals and things like that. So I would do some studies and then I would work on a project. Besides that (it was a part time job) I would study again - designing a house or something, very classical TU Delft architectural training.
Then there was an earthquake in Nicaragua. It’s sad story, of course, but for me it is a fantastic story, because the City of Amsterdam decided to adopt Managua to help, as a project and to help with knowledge and technology. So I could help because I was one of the fonctionnaires of Amsterdam.
Just after that earthquake, we analyzed the cracks in the earth throughout the city. So after this analysis we made a plan saying that we should keep some of these tracks free from building activities. I was a landscape architect, so what to do with those liberated zones? We just planted grass and mango trees everywhere. For kilometers.
BM: Why mango trees?
WM: Mango trees, because they were easy to get and they grow fast and they have a good root system that can keep the ground together in case there’s another earthquake. So, as I say, they grow fast and after a year the first mangoes came and they dropped their fruits to the ground. People saw that, because around these cracks people had started to rebuild their homes. These people took white sheets from their beds and put them under the trees so that when the mangoes would drop they wouldn’t rot. They land on the sheet, you put them in a van and you take them to the market. It was almost like a mosque – there were all these blankets everywhere with people sitting on them and all these mangoes.
If you think about emotions, which I think is a very important drive for architecture, beside all of the rationale… Like now the Market Hall is constructed in Rotterdam and you see how people are using it, and those mango cracks somehow have the same value and touching element. Anyway, from that moment onward I decided that I wanted to jump around.
BM: So the effect of these mango trees in Managua taught you something about the unintended consequences of design?
WM: Yes. Well there is a certain hope in it. And you start to play with that. I guess that you do it also; you have an instinct and you jump on it, and those decisions mark your life. And you can’t go back afterward. I’m aware that you can make a wrong decision but in this case it was literally fruitful and inspirational.
After that, I came back and went to school again. An architect from India was there doing a course and he pulled me to New Delhi to design the National Theatre with him. Then I went back to the Netherlands to study again, and there was a very nice announcement by a Dutch engineering firm working for UNESCO that needed someone in Lamu, Kenya - a place that is currently getting attention because of the murders at Garissa University. So I jumped on that. Because you build up a curriculum: for UNESCO after Managua and Delhi, and having this combination of landscape and architecture was immediately so attractive.
There are two types of jobs at UNESCO: one is the type where people are always sitting at their desks in offices in Geneva or Rome or Nairobi. But the other type is called missions, partly done by commercial firms and I could do a mission in Lamu, which is a very beautiful town on the coast in Kenya. The mission was initially to protect the town but also to guide the investments. So when refugees come in from Somalia, how to place them within the town’s monuments, but also how to design the new Hilton hotel or how to restore the caste, or how to create a tax system that makes the construction and maintenance of a sewage system possible. So that’s what we did.
BM: What kinds of people were you working with?
WM: I was a part of a group of five people, that was the core team, but then there were probably forty or fifty more who were constructing and renovating things.
BM: And one was an expert on tax systems?
WM: Yes and there was also a lawyer involved obviously. And don’t forget that Richard Leakey was the director of the National Museums of Kenya, our client, at that moment. He would become minister later. He had a house in Lamu and he helped us a lot. He started the national park system, so I was taken on board to develop national heritage. I worked on Lamu but also on new National Parks. One was in the southern part of Kenya where there was a giant ficus tree forest. Huge trees and, because the trees grow over ruins, under that forest we decided to make tunnels and we chopped a path system out of the ficus.
So that was another fortune - to meet Richard Leakey and his family. Super archeologist and thinker. I remember he took me to his lands, because he wanted to build a new house on the Rift Valley. One of my lessons in architecture came then: because the Rift Valley is beautiful. You have a cliff of almost 1000 meters and you can see below, like in The Lion King, all of the antelopes running and the wildebeests running.
He had land there, but you can never buy land in Africa, you can only occupy it. This is a specific approach, which is actually quite beautiful, somehow. So he had a loan to occupy the land and build a house. I, of course, was fascinated to make a house on the cliff. I guess I did it later with the Balancing Barn project. But Richard Leakey said, "No, I want the house to be further away, so that I can walk to the cliff. Then, when I’m at the cliff, there is nothing." I said, Jeez, man, what wisdom! To not spoil the best places of the world…
BM: This was before his bomb attack?
WM: Yes. He was attacked afterwards. The opposition was very strong and, as you know, he lost [the use of] his legs. So you see immediately the danger of those kinds of situations. If you want to work on something that touches these Club of Rome issues, well that’s what he was doing with this beautiful National Park project and how he approached the poachers of elephants in Kenya and in Tanzania. But this is dangerous work.
So then I needed to come back to the Netherlands again to make my studies. But soon I was pulled by the engineering firm and UNESCO to another mission. The Yemen Earthquake. I eventually could make a sequence of three months studying and three months of adventure.
BM: That alternation is interesting, especially since, by doing these missions, you put yourself in a group of professionals from other fields, working on legal issues, developmental and infrastructural issues, reforming tax systems, and so on. You were probably compressing years of professional experience in each of those trips.
WM: People were saying, "Why are you going to Africa? Are you crazy? You should go to the US. That's the place where architectural thinking is happening." Because that was the place to be at that moment. But it was one of those instincts. There were too many people going to the US, and the Harvard situation is... No. Let’s not do that. Let’s do the opposite. And that worked well because that world was very small. In Africa you have to do a lot and so you’re even more quickly connected to decision-makers than I could have been in the US.
So I did mission after mission, going back and forth. And, of course, I became ill. Meningitis. I was 27 at the time, when I was in Sudan. There was a war, so there were no planes. Then I had to escape the country, and military people helped to bring me from north of Khartoum to Egypt. And I think those were the worst ten days in my life.
BM: I have to say that I would love to hear more of that story, but we don’t have that much time, why don’t we…
WM: Sorry for this monologue.
BM: No, it is extremely interesting, but there’s something I want to ask you about, so let’s flash forward a bit. Having now taught in several places – at MIT, Yale, having started the Why Factory [at TU Delft] – how have you channeled the lessons you collected through this unorthodox education into those more formal environments?
WM: Well, one thing I learned from those experiences is a step-by-step method. You take one thing, finish it, and go to the next one. Finish the job. At some point I decided not to do a PhD, because seven years - with all respect for the people who struggle through this – was too long for me. And this decision not to get a PhD now dictates my academic career, as you can understand. But it also helped me start to teach.
When I came back from one of these UNESCO trips, I started to give lectures because people wanted to hear the stories and to get the details of this sort of work. A good start for developing lectures… A little later, after I started working at OMA, I began to give studios at Delft. The format of these studios had been developed in the ‘80s by Herman Hertzberger. Herman created what he called an international design seminar system, where he could invite people like Renzo Piano or Morphosis to come together to teach for two weeks and produce something. So I did two of these with Herman and then I initiated some afterward.
The important thing is that this was a workshop format that led to a production. So this combination of “using” students to make something that is therefore stronger and more appealing and visible was basically born there. So then how does it evolve? The studios eventually turned into a theme that I could combine with the work of the office – we were starting MVRDV at that moment – and this eventually led to [the first book] Farmax.
The books that have come out since then form a sequence and in that sequence are mini steps. Because I know that in one studio you cannot do everything. I’ve witnessed that students, especially when they are about to graduate, want to put everything in the final project – with despair. The project is unreadable in the end. So I always say, “Just choose one thing.” That’s also a step-by-step method and it’s taken on board in this sequence of books that we’ve produced – from Farmax to KM3 to Space Fighter and so on…
At that certain point the Berlage opened, and I started to participate as a teacher. Those were post-graduate studios and they became quite successful. I’ve always felt that postgraduate studios, like at Strelka, are more important than politicians think. There’s a big discussion in the Netherlands at the moment about whether we should still subsidize postgraduate institutions - because they don’t have a curriculum or a form of accreditation, as such. But to me institutions like Strelka are the think tanks of the planet – and we are so unaware of that.
So from these studios at the Berlage we made a sequence - about observations on the globe, our extraterrestrial activities, everything about capacity that we could imagine - and KM3 came out of that.
BM: Did you ever consider doing more at Berlage than just leading studios?
WM: Well, at a certain moment, Wiel Arets left and they were searching for a new dean and they asked me to participate. They chose Alejandro Zaera Polo, which was fine for me. They did that because they were worried that I would treat it too much like a dictator who is obsessed by a certain kind of production. Which is fair. I would not be a very generous dean, I guess. I’m more like a researcher that wants to do things. So I’m glad that they didn’t choose me.
Then I started the Why Factory and, for a while, there was a bit of a competition between Berlage and the Why Factory, but I said, "Shit, that’s how it happens…"
BM: What did having the Why Factory allow you to do that you couldn’t at Berlage?
WM: I could apply that studio model in a more profound and academic way. I had a staff; I could simultaneously do two or three studios, each leading to a different project. I began to understand how to give birth to new projects and new subjects. The Why Factory could help an effort to establish three or four paths, to test certain directions. Some of them become successful and others fail – and that’s an important part of the research enterprise too. Up to now I’m very happy with that model. It makes me almost addicted to this interpretation of education.
BM: Yes, because it is a very particular interpretation that leads to a particular experience for the students.
WM: I’m aware of that and I have a lot of respect for other types of education. As we’ve talked about before, I’m aware that there are teacher-teachers who take students by the hand. You need that and I am very sympathetic to that approach. There are many kinds of teachers and I’m more of the producer kind.
At the moment, research is very hot in the western world. The coolest people at the moment are those who find a new solution for cancer or who do an in-depth research into anthrax and can then communicate their work beautifully. Due to that, they get budgets for their next profound research – and we’re talking about millions, if not zillions. So somehow there is a hipness to research these days, with the college tour phenomenon, etc.
Architecture hasn’t participated very well in that. Strelka tries: it is one of the sexiest institutes that exist, but it can do more. I can also learn from that. Especially internationally. According to the standard of many academics in the architectural world, I am very successful, maybe too successful. But when I look at the kinds of researchers who I mentioned before, who impress me a lot, I’m fascinated.
So that encourages me to take a next step and ask for a serious amount of money. Because now I can work with biochemists, now I work with modelers of artificial intelligence to model systems, now I work with guys who create artificial photosynthesis. Groundbreaking researchers. I find that super sexy and super good.
BM: I think for architecture it’s extremely important to be more actively connected to work like that, work that has more momentum and cultural power behind it. That’s perhaps the key to architects reclaiming some of the visionary qualities that they once possessed and which have since more or less moved to Silicon Valley.
WM: It’s happening here and there. You see it in some of the sustainability research that people are doing. For instance, algae research: I find it beautiful if some lunatics are starting to do that. I’m not interested at all at the moment in studios that are designing a house with a roof. You could also say that I’ve lost a certain part of reality according to some, but that’s really fine...