There's something special about architecture in The Netherlands. From MVRDV's iconic Markthal in Rotterdam to WAM's whimsically stacked Inntel Hotel in Zaandam, for years Dutch design has questioned accepted architectural norms. The country has long been considered a leader in design, catalyzed in part by The Netherlands' famous architectural trailblazer Rem Koolhaas. Since 1975 Koolhaas' Rotterdam-based firm OMA has realized dozens of unorthodox designs and has been linked with the creation of more than forty major architecture practices worldwide.
In 2000 Bart Lootsma released Superdutch, a bestselling opus on the mythology of Dutch architecture and its thought leaders, which provided a glimpse into the enduring humanist approach to design that has earned global praise for the country's architects. In the book, Lootsma profiled a handful of Dutch firms including UNStudio, West 8 and MVRDV. Fifteen years later, students from Canada's Simon Fraser University formed a collective called Groep Drie to continue the conversation. From Herman Hertzberger to Ben van Berkel, Groep Drie sat down with The Netherlands' most innovative designers to talk urbanism, spiritualism, color, and more.
Read on to find out what The Netherlands' leading architects had to say.
1. Ben van Berkel, UNStudio: Architecture and experimentation are inseparable and must be pursued in tandem
Co-founder and Principal Architect at UNStudio Ben van Berkel believes in a holistic and experimental approach to design. "The fascination you have for life can give many different answers to many problems," says van Berkel. Founded on the principles of unpacking tradition and questioning the modern understanding of urbanism, van Berkel sees UNStudio as a hybrid situated at the intersection of theory and reality. UNStudio's experimental use of color serves as a manifestation of the firm's mission, he says: "color is a fascination, but it isn't about color. It's about how you can read spaces, adapt, and how colors can make more depth in architecture," adding that "we need to be more flexible and more hybrid with architectural entities and typologies."
2. Herman Hertzberger, Archituurstudio HH: Architecture should improve the lives of the people who use it
"They call me a social architect, but I'm just after dignity of people," says Hertzberger, the 83-year-old grandfather of Dutch Modernism. In his highly successful career, Hertzberger has led Architectuurstudio HH to much acclaim since 1958 with his belief in the transformative power of architecture, a principle that has guided his humanist approach to design for decades. "My theme is the life of the building," says Hertzberger. "When I'm making a school, I think about what's happening in the school. What are the teachers and students in want of?" This spiritually grounded approach has earned Hertzberger a reputation for creating intuitive, human-scale buildings with the ability to transcend architectural barriers. "Architecture should make people better, to come to the best spiritual feeling," adds Hertzberger.
"On the same lift: a poor person and a rich person? [Clients] don't believe in that. I think that's stupid - insanely horrible," says Winy Maas, designer of Amsterdam's Silodam project, a mixed collection of housing for tenants of income levels. For Silodam, Maas steered away from the traditional hierarchical method applied to mixed-income housing, opting for an integrated method of coexistence. Maas is a co-founder of Rotterdam-based MVRDV, a firm that thrives with complex programs and outside-the-box thinking, particularly in civic and housing projects. Removing conventional residential segregation has become the modus operandi for MVRDV's many housing projects, ushering in a new era of communal living in an urban setting. On programming Silodam, Maas says "if you first build a corridor house, then gallery houses, then public space, then villas, and do it for every level then we have a 3D village."
4. Adriaan Geuze, West 8: Context is crucial, but a touch of whimsy can enliven the city
"In urban design and architecture, you need elements with more meaning and purpose than their functional determination," says Adriaan Geuze, co-founder of Rotterdam and New York-based urban design and landscape architecture firm West 8. Geuze questions imposed architectural standards through inventive interpretations of function, form and context. A distinct sense of whimsy can be felt in the firm's work, typified by a set of twinned bridges constructed on the outskirts of Amsterdam. Seeking to circumvent the need to build a drawbridge, the firm conceived of a cartoon-like design that soared ten metres above the water at its highest point. "The bridge was too steep for Dutch legal authorization, so we applied for it as an art piece," says Geuze, adding "this is the complex world of urban design, where sometimes you have to realize your target in another way."
5. Jouke Sieswerda, ZUS: Collaborate to build meaningful projects to improve the city, even if only temporarily
Project leader for the Luchtsingel, a new elevated temporary urban pedestrian pathway running through Rotterdam's city center, Sieswerda believes in the lasting effects of temporary structures. ZUS, short for Zones Urbaines Sensibles, operates out of a reclaimed-office-tower-turned-school-turned-office-tower in Rotterdam known as the Schieblock. The tower has served as a catalyst for the firm's regeneration of Rotterdam city center, acting as a point of passage for pedestrians on the Luchtsingel. As Sieswerda explains, infrastructure projects are crucial, complicated and littered with red tape, adding "if it works, let it grow. If it doesn't work, think of something else." Although installed temporarily, Sieswerda sees the Luchtsingel as an emblem for the success of urban installations. "Temporary structures have the possibility to evolve and become permanent," he says.
6. Gerben van Straaten, Dutch Urban Design Centre: Cities are fluid entities that should be designed for continual change by residents
Working at the intersection of European and North American markets, the Vancouver-based Dutch Urban Design Centre (Dudoc) led by Gerben van Straaten aims to integrate European sustainability and planning successes into North American cities. van Straaten, a devoted urbanist, believes that "design makes sure that every opportunity a certain place gives you will be used by the people, and can be reinvented." Dudoc forms meaningful connections between architects, businesses and citizens while simultaneously proposing vital improvements to urban centers. "If I go into a new complex and have to build a new part of the city there, I try to find a janitor. I don't talk to the directors," van Straaten says. "Within an hour I learn more about order and disorder, things that work and don't work, than I could from a director."
Find out more about Groep Drie and watch the rest of their interviews with Dutch designers here.