EG: Your buildings usually have striking materiality, which runs counter to current trends towards lightness and dematerialization. I believe that parallel to this you are doing special research into the use of light.
WJN: Basically we don't like "light" buildings. Constructions are heavy things that obey the laws of gravity. I don't understand why they must look like airplanes or ships! The use of light is another all-important aspect. I don't find transparent buildings very interesting: too much light and an unrelieved view onto the outside.
Architecture is born of the contrast between light and shadow. Just think of the Pantheon in Rome. A little opening creates an extraordinary play of light. We conceive our buildings as completely dark units. Only subsequently do we start making small apertures. We prefer to soften light and sharpen sensory perception by alternating light and shadow.
EG: Living in your buildings always brings surprises. There are the differences in temperature and the unusual use of common materials.
WJN: Architecture should not just be developed for the eyes alone, or planned only for visual perception. It's not just a question of spaces but also sensations. It's essential to consider the tactile aspect, temperature, smells, sounds. We also try to get a different perception of outside noises, again with the idea of creating a wide spectrum of different perceptions.
Another element given much attention is the climatic conditions in our buildings. The College has loggias on every second floor. They serve as places to congregate and a place where you can perceive the outside atmosphere.
EG: The College had a fairly low budget, around €1,200 per square meter [€$110 per square foot]. How did you ensure high building standards and keep costs down?
WJN: Usually we are obliged to have medium-quality finishing and we can hardly ever afford costly materials like stone. Moreover in Holland, construction is heavily industrialized and we are usually forced to use pre-assembled elements. So we try to use prefabricated units creatively, often turning the way conventional materials are used on its head.
EG: Is this unconventional use of materials part of your ironic take on architecture?
WJN: No, that is a basic misconception. We are always asked at every conference whether our buildings are provocations, and we always reply no. We take our profession very seriously. We consider society and the effects that our buildings have very seriously indeed. At the same time, however, we don't take ourselves very seriously!
Unfortunately many architects do the opposite. They take themselves terribly seriously but not the client or society. They are usually more interested in their artistic persona.
Our drawings have nothing that is intentionally flippant. They reflect our thoughts on the role of architecture. We think that architecture should make people happier, and their lives more pleasant, perhaps simpler. We don't want to fall into the area of difficult, at times even dramatic visions.
Emiliano Gandolfi is the Netherlands correspondent for The Plan, an architecture magazine based in Bologna, Italy.
This article is excerpted from New Forms: Plans and Details for Contemporary Architects by The Plan, copyright © 2009, with permission of the publisher, Thames & Hudson.
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