All Buildings Cannot Be Great. Architect Jacob van Rijs

Anna Iltnere


“I became an architect by chance,” says Jacob van Rijs (1965), one of Holland's leading architects, as he finishes up lunching in Riga. At first, his dark hair and eyebrows, as well as his quick way of speaking and Benelux origins, make me feel as if I'm sitting across from Colin Farrell's “Ray” from the film “in Bruges”, and that any moment, I will hear him say how boring medieval cities are. Even though van Rijs has a distant link to the theatrical arts (his mother is a drama teacher), I am wrong – Jacob van Rijs is an architect, a true Dutchman, and he sees completely different problems with the cities in his country; in fact, these problems are at the basis of his concept of density, in which he gives priority to a compact urban environment with a mixture of functions. 

The architectural offices of van Rijs and two other partners, MVRDV, emerged on the international scene in the 1990s. MVRDV began garnering wide-spread acclaim with their first large-scale project, the Wozoco housing estate for the elderly, which has become a modern-day architectural icon in the Netherlands. In 2000, MVRD was entrusted to create the Dutch pavilion for the World Expo in Hanover, Germany. That year's motto, “Man. Nature. Technology”, which was appropriately sung in German by the electronic band Kraftwerk, was expertly embodied in the project created by van Reijs and his team. The above-mentioned concept/idea of density was expressed by the creation of six different natural landscapes in a multistory building, thereby making a self-sustaining microcosm – which was quite a novel approach thirteen years ago.

Notable gems in his biography include a stint at the OMA offices, under Rem Koolhaas (just like Zaha Hadid, Bjarke Ingels and numerous other top-dogs in the field today), and it wasn't an elbowing-in just to be at the side of the famous architect. “It was a part of my education,” says van Rijs. “Rem was a professor at the Delft University of Technology, where I studied.” Rem Koolhaas is not only a global star, but also a Dutchman whose central office is located in Rotterdam. Rijs adds that the Dutch have a special architectural tradition that reaches far back into history. And finally, he believes that the hullabaloo over “star architects” is long over, and that it belongs firmly in the past. A more contemporary approach to architecture and architects will also be made more evident with MRDV's book, which will be coming out in June and in which voice has been given not to the architects, but rather to their clients, the inhabitants of the buildings, and even to passersby. “Back to the person,” says van Rijs.

But returning to the event of chance, “I'm not one of those who, already as a child, knew that they were going to be an architect. Not even close,” says van Rijs. “At first, I started studying biochemistry, which turned out to be very dull. Too much time had to be spent in the laboratory. Then I went to art school and understood that I want to study design. At university, this was a game of chance, since there were more people wanting to get in than there were open spots. I didn't get into the design department, so I took my second choice – architecture; which I have yet to drop (laughs).”

Do you still think that sustainable architecture is boring? 

(Laughs) Yes, I really said that once... A time will come when all architecture will be sustainable; it won't be anything special anymore, but rather something completely self-evident and something that doesn't even have to be mentioned. Of course, we'll always need flag-bearers to bring in the new technologies, the new standards. Nevertheless, muddling about over just “sustainability” is utterly boring.

Has today's architecture developed to the point where sustainability has become self-evident?

We're close to it. Maybe not so much in the Baltics, but, for instance, in the Netherlands, architects have strict regulations concerning energy efficiency and such aspects. The Scandinavian countries have even stricter guidelines. 

In my opinion, every building that can withstand the test of time qualifies as sustainable. The critical issue always comes down to how good is the design. If it's uninteresting, a building that is only technically sustainable can seem morally outdated after only a few years; so, that's not enough for true sustainability. The sustainability-boom, in my opinion, is overvalued. It's not that it's not essential, but it definitely shouldn't be the main architectural motive. 

What then, as an architect, is your main motive?

Architecture is a slow profession. Completed projects must be able to endure. Even with the changing of end-users and the changing of times, the main idea must remain clear. To create that – that could be seen as the main motive. Short-term projects are another thing; they are only meant for an instantaneous and direct effect on society.

The architectural profession is special in that the end result lies several years into the future. The plan for a project is created in the present, but it's meant for a future society. How do you handle such a specific mission?

On one hand, it can't be done. It's impossible to foresee the future. That's a dangerous job – imagining that in the next decade we'll have flying cars, and therefore putting landing platforms on the roofs in the plans... Tricky! Because in that case, the whole structure of the building would have to change – with entrances not on the lower level, but on the top floors, and so on... In trying to predict the future, you can make really big mistakes. You have to be able to create a building that will seem interesting even after many years, and one that will be adaptable. Maybe an office building needs to be crazy instead of sensible? You have to try and guess at the nuances.

At the end of your lecture, someone asked about the role of aesthetics in architecture, and do all buildings have to become a “calling card” for a location. What is your mindset? What role do aesthetics play when you plan a project?

Not all buildings have to become landmarks, because then architecture would become a “calling card” business... However, the reality is that when we are invited to work internationally, we are usually asked to create a surprise, to make something that says “wow!”. Something crazy and without precedent. Maybe I'm exaggerating a bit, but mostly, that's the way it really is. Whatever angle you play, architects are ultimately beholden to their clients and their wishes. An architect is not an artist who is free to do whatever he can come up with... actually, it would be interesting if I were allowed to create whatever I wish. Those would be difficult working conditions for an architect. Guidelines are crucial.

Would you work differently with an unlimited budget?

That could be quite complex. Because we've been taught to work within a limited budget. The team's first meeting is always devoted to money issues.

We had two projects in Japan, and one had an almost limitless budget. It was like a dream. Whatever we suggested, we got it. I must admit, it was pretty great.

You're currently working on a project not far from Amsterdam – the private home and storage facility for an art collector. From an aerial view, the name of the collector's wife – “Eva” – will be visible. How did you come to the idea of engraving a name into the earth?

It's a beautiful historical building in which his sister lives in one wing, and he and his family – in the other. He collects art, mostly video works. When he met his wife-to-be, Eva, he was already collecting. As his wife once said: “I've never participated in his collecting, that's his hobby; but I love him anyway.” (Laughs) The location of the building is a protected area, which is why we've designed for the storage space to be underground. At first, the word “art” could be seen from a bird's-eye point-of-view. But then we started thinking about the story. Writing the word “art” is too direct and self-evident. So that's why we suggested – why not write “Eva”? “Great! That's great!” agreed the client. 

So that was your idea?

We just imagined what it would be like. He's a busy businessman, he works in real estate, and when he flies home after a business trip and sees, from above, that “art” awaits him... But now it will be his wife who awaits him! That's something more than just art. (Laughs)

That's practically land art.

Actually, it was the client's wish that the architecture be as unique as a work of art. In short, he's very well off. Which is why he decided to support culture and to invest in acquiring works of art. Compared to the amounts that he spends on art, the architecture in this context is a cheap joy-ride. That's why he wanted something more special. I must add that the project is still in the beginning stages. Planning is still going on, and it's not known when it will be completed.

So, the name could still change...

Yes, there's a risk of that (laughs). But that's exactly why it's a special way to express your love and trust. Just like a tattoo! Architecture that's like a tattoo on the earth...

You are well known as a representative of the density concept in architecture. What are the main arguments in favor of this position?

I think that the source of the idea, first of all, is my context – that is, Holland – a small territory with a large population. It seems that such an approach is in the genes of our office. Of course, the issue is also important on a global scale – how to create compact cities while leaving more untouched landscapes outside of them. In principle, it's the Latvian model – you have a city, and you have the countryside. The contrast is pronounced. When I saw that, I thought “Wow!!!” That's a dream that is near impossible to bring to life in Western Europe. Because in most cases, the city is spread out all over – you can't escape it.

The idea of density also foresees a mixture of functions. Could it be said that you are against the separation of bedroom communities, work zones and relaxation zones?

I'm not exactly against that, but I do believe that it is much more attractive to have a real city and a real wilderness. The reasoning behind this is that in Holland, we don't have this. 

What is it like in Holland, then?

A large portion of construction has gone outside of the cities, and along with that, the country landscape has practically disappeared. Or, you have to go very far away. Most of the population lives in the western part of Holland, and if they want to take a walk in the forest, they have to drive for two hours just to be in a small forest; or, they can go to to the beach.

And your mission, as an architect, is to fix this?

It's not that easy. The projects are of all sorts. The ideas and requirements – diverse. If we have a choice, we will, of course, lean towards a compact city. Making the right choice is imperitive.

Looking back at the Dutch pavilion at the Hanover Expo in 2000, what do you think of it now?

(Sighs) Expo pavilions are created according to the principle: “Live fast, die young.” The pavilion was open for a short period of time, but attracted a huge amount of visitors – possibly, even more than a regular building does in ten years' time. But whatever the project may be, it can't be considered to be ecological, or sustainable, if it's only planned to be around for 100 days. 

But this is the fate of practically all Expo pavilions.

Yes, Expo exhibitions are old-fashioned and completely unsuitable for the spirit of the times. It is important to take into account what happens to the pavilion after the fact. There's a whole story behind the Dutch pavilion in Hanover. Currently, it belongs to a person who inherited it from his father. He would like to bring it back to life, but he doesn't have the money, nor the energy, at this point in time. So, the pavilion just stands there; any sort of relocation costs money, and no one wants to invest in it right now. In principle, it's a ruins.

The father bought it on ebay, isn't that so?

He got it from the state, which payed him half a million euros to do something with the pavilion so that it wouldn't have to be demolished. Later, he put it on ebay, but no one bought it, and the son inherited it. 

Which of your projects are you most proud of?

Even though in every project there's a moment in which you feel a fervor, an excitement, the very first completed project is what remains the most unforgettable to an architect. To experience your idea becoming reality, to see construction begin – it's seems unbelievable! But when everything is done, when the building is finished, then its just “wow...” 

It's just that it's very hard to top that moment when your very first big project has been brought to fruition. To begin everything from anew. After you've done everything to ensure that your debut is great, that the project lands on the cover of a magazine. With time, you understand that not all buildings are like that, and that they will not be like that. You can't be constantly working on projects that will get you into the pages of magazines. That's not what happens. You have to accept that people will say: “Oh, his first piece was so convincing, but the second one... well...” (Laughs

As you age, you understand that that is precisely the beautiful craziness that descirbes the architectural profession...