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C’est l’ouvre qui compte

Text by
Cees Dam

To me, architecture has always been a discipline, a métier. But it is also a way of being, of living, a key to seeing the world and perhaps to understanding it.

Architecture is a discipline because it has a history, because there are traditions and accumulated knowledge to be absorbed. I do not believe that architecture can separate itself from its traditions. I never have believed that, not even at times when the inherited knowledge of the past was radically rejected by many other architects – especially here in the Netherlands – the times when architecture was expected to be new and untethered to the past.

Architecture is memory. Not only for architects or critics, who may recognize certain well-known elements in a design. But above all for the ‘general public’, in everyday situations, in the buildings, the places and non-places, where we try to shape our lives. The very fact that everything around us changes, and we change with it, gives buildings, squares, streets, and the city a more important role than ever. They form the background against which we find a place in the world. And the role of architecture is to make that possible. Nothing more, nothing less.

Just as we could not exist without our history, architecture is inconceivable outside of its own, ‘autonomous’, history. New designs, however brilliant, must be informed by an awareness and knowledge of architectural tradition to be truly meaningful, and not mere fads.

Sometimes a structure’s historical context is obvious. But even when designing buildings that seem at first glance to lack any historical context, the architect must adopt a stance towards traditional views and values.

Context is always there, even though it is sometimes invisible. Even a house in a new suburban community, for instance, bears a relationship to traditions: traditions of home life, traditions of building, traditions of being with others and being alone, and traditions of how we present ourselves to others.

Buildings must have a mémoire, some echo of our accumulated experience, both individual and collective. That is not the same thing as imitating the past, or erecting buildings that appear to be centuries old, or exploiting a historical style for commercial purposes. That would mean turning to tradition for false certainties. But tradition must never become a millstone. It is a line of continuity in our thinking. It is about content, not forms. For me, historical awareness is a wellspring of inspiration, a way of thinking that enables us to come up with new thoughts, and maybe even a new tradition.

Tradition is therefore connected to the power to invent, perhaps to dream, and goes hand in hand with intuition. Designing is impossible if you are afraid of the unknown. The moment always comes when you cannot rely on what you know but must draw on your own imagination and emotion, and on your ability to find a form for sharing that emotion with other people. Such moments may be difficult, but they are also moments of intense pleasure.

Not long ago, for the first time in my life, I was given the opportunity to design a series of glass objects, vases. It was something I had always dreamed of. When you design a vase, all sorts of factors relevant to buildings are suddenly out of the picture. A vase’s function is simple, its form almost unconstrained. So when you design one, you cannot rely on anything beyond yourself and the object. It all comes down to exploring scale and measure, the sense of touch, and the design possibilities that glass presents. For me, it was an investigation of the essential aspects of design, of the discernment of form and composition, and of the meshing of my own design abilities with those of the object’s maker, with the expertise of the master glassblower.

As an architect, you must trust in you powers of observation and analysis and turn those impressions, the shards of experience in your mind, into something new, unhindered  by functional requirements or a theory. That is possible only if you permit yourself to look at the everyday world and at the form, the silhouette, the surface of the things around you – and also at images and objects, at visual art. You can tap into your personal store of images and associations. This way of seeing, unbiased and uninhibited, is not hemmed in by boundary lines between the visual arts, design, furniture and product development, city planning, and architecture. It is analysis and synthesis in one, and it enables you to draw connections between different modes of cultural expression, the arts and architecture, and their rootedness in reality – the kind of rootedness that was present in the early twentieth century and in the Renaissance. I think this is essential to the development of architecture as a discipline. It is in the treatment and analysis of qualities that are in principle abstract – such as space, mass, texture, colour, structure, and so forth – that the various arts and design disciplines discover their kinship. Artists, designers, and architects are all fundamentally in the same profession.

In your mind, a building at which you are looking falls spontaneously into hundreds of pieces, fragments that you combine and compare to images of other situations, or to images of an art work you once saw. The surface of a masonry wall, or the texture of a piece of fabric or a painting by Jan Schoonhoven – these are all autonomous facts that converge in the inner chamber of your mind. The search for connections, and an eye for the surprising or disruptive, are what inspire the designer. The same can be said of looking at art: it fuels and it focuses the imagination. By looking at art often, in an active, open-minded way, you develop a memory bank of images that enriches your everyday experience of urban space.

The kinship of the arts and design disciplines is also illustrated by their shared approach to the world and shared emphasis on solving problems. In today’s society, I believe that an awareness of this kinship is crucially important. We face a deluge of information, and a divergence of personal opinions. That is not good or bad in itself; it is simply a hallmark of our time.

Yet it is also true that individual artists, designers, and architects tend to be more vulnerable in the practice of their discipline. They are becoming increasingly dependent on extrinsic factors such as politics, management, money, the economy, and material efficiency. This obscures their view of the interconnectedness of things. But by trusting in your powers of observation and discernment, and by opening yourself up to the influence of creative thinking in all its forms, you can build up the resistance that is always needed when making any meaningful thing.

In my work and in the process of design and construction, such interrelationships play a central role. Buildings and spaces are experienced through the senses. What matters is what you see and feel, the atmosphere of the place or the structure. You find yourself surrounded in space by surfaces and objects, each with their own texture, material, size, colour, and meaning; in combination, these elements determine the spaces and transitions between them, and therefore the spatial experience. The surfaces are like skins, each requiring a certain treatment and reflecting light in a certain way; in conjunction with light, they determine the atmosphere; light and darkness determine the space. This process depends on the precise use of architectural methods to make the essence of the design visible and to create the atmosphere that is intended – to realize, or at least visualize, the dream.

In essence, it is a cinematic, collage-like approach, perhaps comparable to set design. There too, the planes and objects in the space are always more than simply present. They relate to each other and contrast with each other. They are approached form the inside out and from the outside in. They represent a collage of images that is constantly changed by the movement of users and spectators. A form of freedom and equality emerges between the users and the elements that surround them. A buildings does not stand alone; after all, our experience does not end at the building front, and the area around the building must not become mere leftover space.

At the same time, my working method has a great deal to do with the questions, ‘How do you construct it? And how do you approach each material? What form, kind, and colour do you choose? Do you use the material in the conventional place, or somehwerhe else entirely? How does each detail relate to the whole?’ This is what I believe to be the substance of the architect’s discipline: an integrated approach to building, seeing the uninterrupted line from the first draft, from the initial request, through to the end point: the opening of the building, when the people for whom it was designed and built begin to use and experience it.

Buildings form a background in which people find a place for their everyday lives. materials determine the nature of such places and make it possible to estimate distances. Materials create order and establish which elements are important and which are not: the handrail of a banister is more important than the uprights, and the material of a doorknob is more likely to draw attention than that of a baseboard. You might say that the material indicates the hierarchy of elements, if not for the fact that a building’s strengths lie precisely in how it confounds expectations, in the element of surprise. This sharpens your attention.

Then too, there is the difference between dark and light, which is also essential to the architectural experience. Without light there can be no space. The effect of spatial forms and materials depends on the influence of light. Contrasts in illumination make the experience of the building richer: low, dark spaces open out onto high, well-it halls; materials with glossy surfaces reflect light, while in other parts of the building the light is absorbed completely.

These are all, unquestionably, aspects of architecture as a discipline, and at the same time, it is by inviting sense perception that buildings lodge themselves in human memory.

Architecture emerges from the interplay of factors that require both a rational and an emotional approach, both analysis and dialogue. It is a conversation with everyone involved in the building process and everyone who influences the result of construction. But architecture is also enriched through dialogue with more abstract elements, such as craft and tradition, and through the exchange of ideas with the sciences and arts, in the context of the society, the city, and the landscape, and drawing on the architect’s own personal experience.

Architecture is a shackled art and a soiled art. Like the other arts, architecture is driven by a creative impulse. Architecture is the result of an intuitive and individual creative process. But by the time a design has been completed and is ready to be built, the creative impulse has had to submit itself to the requirements and constraints of the real world. Those are not obstacles; no, they are the materials with which we work. They are essential to our discipline. Architecture is not only nourished by society but also creatively disrupted by it, by daily use and by human emotion. That contradiction is the discipline’s fertile soil.

In my decades of life and work as an architect, society has undergone profound changes, and the discipline of architecture has changed with it. I have described architecture as a soiled and shackled art, and contended that the requirements of society, of users, and of clients are a central part of design and of architectural thinking. Architecture has its own rules, but those rules acquire their meaning in relationship to society and culture. That has been the constant factor in my work, despite all the changes – and whether I was working on a large or a small scale, on a house or on a major urban structure.

And that implies that architects must be alert to the expectations of other parties, of clients and the public. We must have confidence in the people we need and  we must have confidence in ourselves – in our ability to read a situation, our judgement, and our creativity. None of this comes automatically; it takes time to develop. You have to take that time. But you also have to be given the time you need, so that you can consider your choices carefully – choices you will make in the service of others. That time is now lacking, in most cases, and the result is short-term thinking and shoddy workmanship.

We know that economic trends are fast moving; not much can be done about that. But building – making the environments in which we live, work, or simply pass our time – makes different demands on us. Buildings still have a longer lifespan than the other objects with which we surround ourselves; they typically outlast at least one generation. That makes them sustainable by definition, and sustainability is one of the most important things we can give ourselves in this fast-moving age. So we must take the time to think carefully about them, as architects and as a society.

Architects must, above all, have confidence in themselves. Architects must have confidence in the people they work with, but they must also receive their confidence in return. I am talking about the confidence of clients who take their responsibility to work tougher very very closely with the architect. More and more often, such confidence is absent. This is partly the fault of the discipline itself: if you keep giving up areas of expertise to others, such as construction managers and specialists, confidence in the architect’s abilities will inevitably decline.

I myself have always opposed the division of the architectural field into specialisms and, accordingly, have always attended to both the concept and the details, the thinking and the doing, the city and the interior. An architect must cover the whole field, and that requires knowledge, insight, and, once again, confidence. That sometimes runs against the current of a culture increasingly bent on the short-term pursuit of profit, despite the tremendous waste of society’s energy that this pursuit entails. The nature of our discipline leads us to think in the long term, and to adopt a perspective wider than the interval between two shareholders’  meetings. We must take constant pains to communicate that perspective, in the interest not merely of our discipline, but of the future of our society. That is our contribution; that is our mission; that is my mission.

Photo by Ilco Louis

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