In dialogue with XANDER VERMEULEN WINDSANT, winner of Mies van der Rohe 2017 Award

Andreea Movila: We are talking with XANDER VERMEULEN WINDSANT, winner of Mies van der Rohe 2017 Award and a special guest of SHARE conferences. He agreed on contributing to a project we are under developing entitled  ,,Designing the profile of the future architect” which will collect opinions on this topic from all SHARE speakers of 10 locations where we organise conferences and we will publish a volume at the end of this year as a synthesis of the discussions on this topic. His oppinion on the subject will be found in the book, therefore, now, I invite you in particular to do us a little introduction on your working background and your design philosophy.

Xander Vermeulen Windsant: I started my office in 2010 because I saw around me that some things were really changing in a professional way in the development that was going on, especially in Holland- it was a very specific context. So it felt quite natural with all the change that was going on, to start my own office, without actually having a concrete project at hand. So it was a bit of a jump into the darkness. In the beginning I had a couple of really small private commissions, but it was not enough to support an office, so I became somehow a project developer myself, I started to initiate projects when there were no projects coming to me automatically and this is also the way I started.

A.M: In this respect, do you believe that young architects, at the beginning of their career who have no commisions could start with identifying an issue in the society, providing an answer and finding a way to people to “build” their visions. ?

X.V.W: Yes, the interesting thing is that I found that for people (other than architects) is very difficult to imagine a place or a space in the city in a different way than it is at the moment, but we, as architects, that’s our job, we can see alterative realities in every places- you don’t have to make a complete plan ,you just have to kind of plant the idea into somebody else’ s head that this place could be something completely different. Regarding the projects, only one simple sketch can be enough to kind of start the ball rolling, and now it is a question of keeping the ball rolling and keeping the momentum, but I think our imagination can generate with so little work, it can generate so much kind of opening for new things to emerge.

A.M: I suppose you have to manage to sell yourself very well…

X.V.W: Yeah, you also have to be in a sense – realistic, and in a another sense also modest, that a project is never about architecture, architecture it is a tool to achieve something…a project is never all about the architecture, it can never be the only goal, it’s the social interest, is the commercial interest, is the public interest and I think you should always try to (if you initiate a project) you have to bring all this other interests into the project too and if you organize these in a good way and if you find people who leave space for architecture to emerge then you can also work in the architectural project. If you only go to a client, a potential client, with the idea that you are going to make architecture, and that’s the only thing, it’s empty.

A.M: Could this be the reason why architecture it’s so hard to be defined, that it is embodied in so many fields of activity? What is your definition of architecture?

X.V.W: I really don’t know, I only know that when I see it, I know it’s there..

A.M: Maybe as having a body, but architecture could be the soul…

X.V.W: Yeah, something like that! I mean you don’t need an architect to make buildings. A physical structure could be built by anybody who can pour concrete at put a brick on the of the other, but this doesn’t make it architecture for me. Architecture is something when everything perfectly aligns and then there’s something more emerging for all the different layers and constitutive parts. For me, architecture doesn’t exist on paper, architecture is …something very vague, I think that if it was really connected to the present issue you couldn’t recognize the architecture of a couple of centuries ago- but you can!

A.M: Could it be defined as a message?

X.V.W: Yeas, a subliminal message. I think in a sense that architecture has often been linked to music, as  the kind of a not- representative form of art. A vibrating string on a violin- if you equate that with a piece of concrete, than is not equal to the vibrating sting, which is actually something you recognize but it’s something in the perception between the piece of concrete and yourself, and where the architecture is recognized- just like the music is somewhere between the vibrating string and your ear. For me, architecture is …

A.M: … music, not sound…

X.V.W: Yeah, a building can be just sound, noise, whatever… Architecture should be better than reality, in real architecture there’s something more to experience than you put into it. In the end the difference between an architect and someone who just can make a drawing or a building, is that he is able o foresee this extra quality, kind of imagine it and have everything in mind. In the end I think it’s something magical that from something so mundane as concrete and glass and some aluminium stuff, that we can make something actually so incredible as architecture is. I think this is because we know we have to add something to it which is just beyond the mere physical stuff.

A.M: Talking about collaboration, you said that you liked to collaborate with the future inhabitants of the architecture and that it is a key aspect of the development process. So, was this the reason why you were awarded the prize?

X.V.W: It is surely a part of it. It’s also the fact that we, as architects, were very intelligent in organizing all the facilities for the people to be active in the project without losing the architectural integrity of the project. To have an instinct to keep the project simple and affordable, so we stepped back from what we were used to do- to design everything to the last kitchen, cabinets, nod. We don’t have to design that if people can design them for themselves. We only have to design that which is kind of collaborative, collective. For me this is a very interesting issue of an architecture, that in an urban situation you need to be something kind of mediator between the city as a public space, place- and really the private individual home. There is something in between that, and the family home that can only be a simple façade, but on an apartment building this is something with the entrance- when you get from the street to your apartment there is a sequence of spaces in between it and what is happening behind the front door it’s a private world. Of course, as an architect I can contribute to that, if I know this person really really well, almost know intimately, because than I really know what he/she really needs to have this private world designed for them, but in many cases this is not up to us.

A.M: So this was the main challenge of the project, that you didn’t know the final users, so somehow you should have been neutral maybe?

X.V.W: I think so… And what happens in a city- if you make a private residence for somebody, then is only one resident, but when you make a building for more than one family than you have this collective thing you have to organize, but this collective thing also has to overpass the test of time, because in three years someone might move out and somebody else is coming in,  so this collective thing remains, but the individual infill kind of resonate with the new inhabitants. This idea of only designing the collective part and leaving the private part out of the equation in a way, leaving a lot of possibilities for individual action, without actually designing it. For me it has kind of been a very important point of what urban architecture should be about. It’s a theme from which I continue to develop other projects.

A.M: And how did the prize change your life and the way architecture is practiced?

X.V.W: The funny thing is that the first half year is chaos. It’s we really didn’t know what happened to us, we have never expected this to happen so…

A.M: How big is the team you work with?

X.V.W: My office at that was 2-3 people, so it was a small office. So, after receiving the prize it was actually overwhelming, and very strange, and it was the funny idea that some clients were interested in this, but some were not – they say:  that’s a difficult architect- you expect him to be very expensive.

A.M: So this could be the dangerous part in being famous? For other clients to think that you’ll rise the prices and become unapproachable…

X.V.W. Oh, no, no, the difficulty is that when you start working on a project you don’t star as it might win a prize.

A.M: How would you describe the state of architecture in your country?

X.V.W: In a way, architecture is kind of famous because of its liberal design attitude. As architects we have a lot of liberty to design the way we want, and this is important because we’re not responsible for anything.

A.M: This including the legislation?

X.V.W: Yeah, we are not accountable for problems in the  construction, so we can’t be held accountable if something goes wrong. The opposite of this is that we can be very free in our thinking, and the downside is that we are very easy to be put aside- we have very little power in the process. What I see happening in Holland is that architecture is easily coming down the slope to become only marketing. So the fancy form, the color palette and the strange structure is only kind of a commercial interesting thing- it is a fancy thing. I’m not so optimistic about the state of architecture in Holland, because we can do anything, doing something crazy becomes the norm, there’s no restriction, there’s no kind of inner logic anymore, we can do anything. So we have to find our new inner logic, to put new constraints on ourselves in order to do something meaningful.

A.M: So, this could be a project for the state of architecture in your country- to find a new logic of architecture?

X.V.W.: The main negotiation should be about projects, which are not just about building houses but which are about really creating special environments, in which social issues, environmental issues, energy issues are integrated into, and from this comes a new logic of the project and then we have to think how are we going to build this. So we don’t start from the logic of construction, but we start from the logic of an issue we want to solve, and then we’ll try to find the most appropriate way of constructing these solutions.

A.M: If a young architect comes to your office, what would be the quality that you would value the most?

X.V.W: I think modesty. I get a lot of open applications form people who say they know everything, and they have experience in everything, they are so flexible, so creative etc. Of course you have to show what you know, but I think it’s more important to show that you understand that there is still much more to learn.

A.M: This is related to sincerity and being honest with yourself.

X.V.W.: Yeah, each time a project has a new logic to it, so of course you can use the experience you have in order to deal with the current project but the main think which is important is what is unique to the project, what is different in a project, what is specific in a project. The ability to be open to the  specificness of the project is far more important than showing that you can draw a kilometer- high building. I don’t care- if it’s about garden shed we should put all the energy into creating the perfect garden shed, to be open and flexible in our mind to think about that.

A.M: You concluded your contribution to the project ,,Designing the profile of the future architect” saying that we should be stepping back in order to go forward. How would you explain this statement? Would you explain it by modesty?

X.V.W.: I think we should step back from making architecture for the architecture sake. We should not be making architecture because we’re architects but because the project is done in such a clever and intelligent, thoughtful and fitting way, that we, as architects organize the perfect set of conditions for architecture to emerge. We have to be like directors, like movie directors, organizing everything so that the movie can come to play, without actually playing any role. We have to make sure that the contractor- the contractor is “making” the architecture, the physical building, so we have to inspire the contractor to do our work. We have to make sure that the client understands that his request/demand is best answer by a specific solution which is going to be architecture. And I think that if we do that then we can become part of something which is not about architecture but which is about working on real issues of the world, and when we do that I think we have a much more profound basis for architecture, then just approaching architecture as a nice form, or a nice shape- because then we’d be only working on the outside while we have to work on the mechanics that are IN the project, what’s the logic within the project. If we are able to work on this, then I think we have a much more profound basis for the shaped and the materials we suggest.

A.M: I would end up by asking you what was the best piece of advice you received during your career.

X.V.W: Wow…[ he hesitates]. I think it has been to take it easy. Especially when I just started working I was very very inpatient about developing my own career. I wanted to be a project architect. After my second year, third year I thought I knew everything- I wanted to be a project architect.

A.M.: Architecture is a profession of maturity.

X.V.W: Yes. I’ve graduated in 2004 so after working for 14 years in the profession I start to kind of slow down in the way I do it (architecture). I’m very hectic in the way I really like to finish things and to have the things going, but things have to evolve. A project takes 5 years or something so you have to learn something in these 5 years, to learn a lesson, only after that to implement the lesson into the next project.

A.M: There are always different questions, switch from different questions and we have to develop another answer every time.

X.V.W: Yeah, there are multiple projects going on at the same time, so you have links to the projects, and it gets far more interesting, but you have to give it time to the project.

A.M: To enjoy the project eventually.

X.V.W: [laughing] If you are busy for 5 years on a project than it would better be fun on the way there, if your only concerned about the problems than they are 5 years of misery. You can think that you’re collaborating with a lot of people during this period of 5 year, I come across a lot of people, we’re all working on the same thing, it’s fun, it’s nice- it should be something positive. In 5 years you’d have achieved something and you had a great time on the way.

A.M: So…to stay modest, take our career easily, enjoy and be fun on the way of the process. So it’s perfect since we sum up our interview in a positive way. Thank you very much for your time!

X.V.W: You’re welcome!

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