Today marks one year since Queen Máxima of the Netherlands opened MVRDV's Markthal in Rotterdam to great public fanfare. In the 12 months since this event, the building has come to be recognized by the architectural establishment as being among the most important of MVRDV's designs. Perhaps more interestingly though, it has become widely popular among the general public - on Google you can find references to "Rotterdam's Sistine Chapel" in a variety of languages, and articles about the building have appeared in publications everywhere from Colombia to Vietnam.
MVRDV Head of Public Relations and Business Development Jan Knikker's article, published today on ArchDaily, shows that this widespread recognition was not accidental; it was the result of a widespread and comprehensive PR strategy initiated by MVRDV and carried out by a team that included every one of the building's major stakeholders. It's a fascinating and provocative tale that offers an insight into one of the least trusted facets of architectural practice. However, it also largely ignored one important element that undoubtedly contributed to the building's popularity: its design.
In order to connect the two parallel lines of Markthal's design and its PR campaign, we spoke to Knikker and founder of MVRDV Winy Maas to talk about Markthal, PR, awards and architectural media. Read on for the full interview.
Rory Stott: In Jan's article explaining the story of the Markthal PR campaign he writes "It hit me that this could be the big one for MVRDV, the project that would become a household name, much better known than its architect." What is it about Markthal's design that makes it such an important building in MVRDV's portfolio, and Jan, what exactly was it that brought you to this realization?
Winy Maas: Markthal is important within our portfolio in rather a specific way: for now it is the most popular building we’ve built. Other buildings have other important positions in different ways: they excel in being democratic, green, social or experimental. Architecture is an applied art and the sheer fact that so many people have visited Markthal gives the building a strong meaning.
Jan Knikker: The moment of realization came while I was walking around the construction site when the second floor was coming up. From the streets around, people kept staring at the structure even then, as it was only beginning to emerge. I pictured the completed building in my mind, and was thrilled that something that to me seemed so surreal, would soon become a reality. Rotterdam lacked a large interior space at that time and here it was, the city’s living room. If you extend any house with a living room you change life inside the house, and clearly this building was going to change Rotterdam in that way.
RS: Even if this building is remembered as "the big one" for MVRDV, you are presumably not content to settle with your greatest success behind you. What lessons will you take forward from Markthal to ensure future success?
WM: Ha. Brace yourself, there will be more "big ones." Markthal is a design from 2004 and like many of our projects it is characterized by its love for density, and its contextualism, on multiple levels. The design of the market hall responds to the urban setting, the desire to monumentalize and celebrate food, the program of the market and the financial situation that supports it. Don’t forget, it’s not a folly; it’s a highly rational building, but it is also bold and daring. Perhaps the biggest lesson learned from Markthal is that we can build a well-organised and highly functional commercial building of 100,000 square meters within time and budget without compromising its overall quality and concept. Also, we came close to creating a public space with private money.
A great deal of the building’s success is due to the fact that Provast, our client, was passionate; they wanted quality; and that we as architects found solutions to all of their demands, problems and sometimes also, their fears. We also exceeded their expectations, which is important because it creates room for more architectural experimentation. With Markthal we grew up as an office, without compromising our ideals.
RS: There are many buildings that critics have suggested bring the sought-after "Bilbao Effect" to their cities - but they don't usually involve markets and housing. What was it about this project that allowed such an unusual confluence of things?
WM: The Bilbao Effect was never our goal, it was a by-product we noticed only recently, since The Financial Times wrote about it and the visitor numbers were published. The question to us was, how to build a contemporary covered market that attracts people and that emphasizes the need for good food? That a market can be a celebration of food we learned from Spain, but the introverted architecture of the Spanish market halls was outdated and would not work in Holland. There was no budget for the imposing environment this celebration of food required - because the rental prices of the market stalls are low - so we simply used the apartments as the walls and ceiling of the hall itself. A straightforward but effective urban intervention. In the wake of it we created a new typology of apartments that has become immensely popular.
I think we succeeded in celebrating and monumentalizing food, and that in itself is such a universal value: we all eat, we all like food. This is why Markthal became so tactile.
RS: Jan's article mentions that while Markthal was spectacularly received by the press and the people, and received multiple real estate and engineering awards, architectural awards have eluded it. The reason given in the article is that "so much popularity is suspect to architects." Do you think this is the whole story, or is there more to Markthal's awards snub than this?
WM: I don’t see this as an issue so much.
JK: I monitor the overall response to our work and this aspect surprised me so I wrote it down. Architects are, in my view, very sensitive and suspicious towards marketing. As an architecture PR professional I find myself in a constant dilemma between reaching out to potential clients that require a more general approach, and to architects who demand a more intellectual exchange. Of course there are ways to engage architects commercially, brands such as Freitag, Maison Margiela or Camper are experts in it, but from peers they expect content. So every time I post another millionth visitor they are probably embarrassed about our garishness, whilst developers tend to be impressed.
Peers are important: we meet them in juries and need their approval; but architects often seem to reflect critically on mass success, and Markthal is, in its essence, a wholly popular building. I also sometimes wonder whether our work is fully understood. The architects in the jury of the Building of the Year award of the Royal Dutch Society of Architects mentioned for example that the hallways in Markthal’s housing are disappointing.
WM: Huh? They are covered with beautiful stone and have a double sculptural stairway. And windows to the Markthal itself… Have they been inside? The hallways are a carefully staged experience. We extended the street in its materialization right up the apartments' front doors with granite. The Rotterdam street stone is also Markthal’s façade material, it is in the lobby, the lift and the hallways, and at the end of this grey granite trajectory there is a window on to the radiant colours of the market, almost as a catharsis. There is less of an intermediate situation between the outside and the inhabitant’s intimate, interior world.
JK: I recently spoke to many of the building’s residents and they confirmed that the experience works as we intended it to. Every time they come home or leave, they have a quick look into the market. The hallways already feel as though they are part of the city, and are designed not to detract from the main architectural event. In The Hague, you have the Panorama Mesdag, where visitors walk through a tunnel and suddenly appear in the midst of this overwhelming 360-degree painting; Markthal’s hallways also offer this experience. They’re meant to fade into the background, as service spaces "serving" the main hall with its vast ceiling. I wonder whether the jury understood this when judging the entry. Markthal’s press text was already 11 pages long, and it is impossible to explain every detail. I wish people would call more often before judging.
I think there is sometimes a harsh discourse in architecture that is not always as productive as it could be. Why can’t nostalgic architects just enjoy blobs as being different? Not being an architect, it continues to surprise me how little the profession is collectively organized. There are hardly any good unions for architects and tender conditions are grim. Architects are continuously forced to work for free against each other. In my opinion the constant competition and negative reactions to each others' work is bad for the profession. Winy is about to publish a book made at The Why Factory about one of the side-effects of the situation.
WM: The book is titled "Copy Paste, the bad ass copy guide." We explore one of the last taboos in architecture, the copyright, or its Asian translation, the right to copy. In science you can take the latest research as a basis for the next step, but you need to quote your predecessors of course. In architecture, there is an obsession with authorship. In the book we discuss the dilemma, but also offer a guide and method for copying, or even better, evolving and improving. With the help of some tools we developed, we turn iconic museums into housing, hospitals and even bridges. It’s great fun.
JK: Open source would be a great way for the discipline to evolve. But, you would not mind a copy of Markthal popping up in say, Buenos Aires?
WM: In a way it would be a compliment, but we should not settle for just a copy. The architects should say "we took the idea of MVRDV’s Markthal and developed it further" or "we adapted it to a new urban context" and this should be general practice and generally accepted, not a one-off event.
RS: What would the profile of Markthal be today if you hadn't initiated such a widespread PR campaign? More generally, what are your thoughts on the role that PR plays in promoting certain projects over others and therefore directing architectural debate?
JK: I see the promotion of Markthal very much as part of the long-term regeneration process that Rotterdam, as a city, started in 1989 after experiencing urban decay when the port became automated. Without the PR campaign, the city would lack an important player in this urban transformation, and within the last year, an extra 4 million visitors. MVRDV as an office would be smaller and perhaps still be more of an architects’ insider tip. During the crisis we professionalized the practice and Markthal then gave us the PR boost to grow. But it’s all relative, there are few architects who are household names, the general public still does not know us but the building is well known around the globe.
More generally speaking, PR in today’s media society is just a part of the job; it is a tool like BIM or BREEAM. Trying to steer the general debate through PR definitely has limits. A mediagenic building hits much harder than one which isn’t. I can do a lot to help the building’s impact, but I cannot create the same impact with every building. Markthal was in one sense highly unusual because of its role in the wider story of the city’s transformation, and in another, a continuation and extension of what we do for every building we design.
WM: Especially if a significant project is not that mediagenic, we present it continuously in universities so that it enters the discourse in that way. It is more of a struggle. The Why Factory analysed media coverage of architecture and found that any project above 500 square meters is less likely to evoke identification and therefore less likely to be published by the general media. And architecture media follows this logic up to a point. You all love smallness, digestibility. For example our Didden Village is well covered on ArchDaily; but Barba, The Why Factory’s project on the effect of new flexible materials which provokingly predicts the end of architecture, hasn’t been discussed by you yet. It will come out this autumn as a book. We would love to discuss more of these kinds of admittedly more abstract research projects with you; things which are and should be a bigger part of the architectural debate. Aren’t you otherwise always too late?
"Barba" will be featured on ArchDaily upon publication later this year.