Past Present Future


about being an architect yesterday, today and beyond

‘Past, Present, Future’ involves 11 internationally renowned Italian and Dutch architects, within a research path based on a video-interview format. The investigation is divided into 3 parts: the ‘Past’, revealing personal memories and interests; the ‘Present’, asking about the secrets behind their successes; and the ‘Future’, raising key issues regarding the future of the profession. ‘Past, Present, Future’ is a project curated by Gianpiero Venturini, founder of Itinerant Office, with the support of the Creative Industries Fund NL and the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in Rome.

The video-interview series was designed with a double objective: firstly, to open a research path based on the analysis of these successful practices, with the aim of understanding their working methods, themes and approaches, in order to learn – through a comparative method – what it means to be an architect in the 21st century. Secondly, ‘Past, Present, Future’ was conceived to be a source of inspiration for the new generations of architects and architecture students, who are currently facing the job market, or who have recently started their working career.


In the ‘PAST’ interviews, we unveil intimate details about the journeys taken to get to their current positions, revealing funny anecdotes about their student days, key moments of inspiration, and the reality of setting up a business.

Kees Christiaanse studied with Rem Koolhaas as his professor and looks back on the time he had spent with Jane Jacobs, whilst Francis Houben recalls her friendship and admiration for Charles and Ray Eames. Simone Sfriso speaks about the importance of making mistakes as a young designer, and how, if it wasn’t for them, he wouldn’t be where he is now. And not everyone started out as architects: Caroline Bos tells she was studying the history of art, and how her architectural talent was only recognised after UNStudio was established. Whilst Cino Zucchi decided to go to architecture school for “the love of a girl”, Jacob van Rijs confesses that he “studied architecture by chance”.


In the ‘PRESENT’ interviews, the architects discuss the ins and outs of their current practices and the foundations upon which they were built.

Stefano Boeri talks about the success of their vertical forest social housing project in Eindhoven. He also admits embracing both the successes and failures as an architect: “I understood that it was very important to elaborate failures, and to make that elaboration public”. Francine Houben compares Mecanoo Architecten to a “symphony orchestra”, stating that “inspiration” comes through having a diverse workforce. Marco Casamonti talks of the present in more abstract terms: “the present does not exist – the present moves”. Meanwhile, Mario Cucinella expresses his concerns for “Starchitecture” overshadowing the true role of the architect, which he believes should improve the quality of life for people living in poor conditions.


In the ‘FUTURE’ interviews, the architects predict the future of both the profession and the urban environment, discussing themes such as smart cities, sustainable approaches and digital infrastructure.

Caroline Bos talks about the need for the urban environment to be adaptive, mentioning the possibility of sensor-based architecture dictating its future: “we could envisage a future where architecture is mostly software”. Nanne de Ru talks about the “incredible speed” that urban living is gaining, and about the ways we can avoid theso-called “London syndrome” to ensure that buildings and facilities accessible for all. Kees Kaan talks about the “redefinition of functionality” in regards to the ever-changing urban climate, envisioning cities that can achieve “higher densities without losing quality”. Cino Zucchi raises the issue of disposable lifestyles:“we cannot throw away the city”, whilst Mario Cucinella stresses that sustainability is the only way forward, reminding young architects not to get carried away with their ego: “don’t forget, architecture is for the others”.

    Date of office foundation



    Rotterdam, Zurich, Shanghai

    Number of employees

    approx. 100






Kees Christiaanse

Founder of KCAP Architects&Planners


GV: I would like to understand the conditions that marked the beginning of your professional practice. Can you summarise some of your most interesting biographical moments, starting with your studies at university, and continuing with the early days of your practice?

KC: I visited the architecture and civil engineering schools in Delft because they were both fields that I was interested in. Finally, I chose architecture, because all of the students had long hair and were walking with Jesus sandals through the sand into the architecture building, which was brand new – designed by Bakema – so you saw a kind of procession of apostles entering the building. As an eighteen year old kid, I was fascinated, so I started to do architecture.

At the end of my studies, Rem Koolhaas became a guest professor, and I became one of his students. At that time, I was just doing my diploma work and I started to help him set up his new office in Rotterdam. The idea was to stay there for three months to do a stage and then finalise my diploma. But the three months became eight years, and after this time, the university demanded me to do my diploma. In 1989 I decided to leave because I realised that I was 35 and I would always remain at number two or three if I stayed at OMA. If I were to determine my own agenda, then I should go, no hard feelings.

Chiel van der Stelt (left) and Kees Christiaanse (right) in the period of their university studies.

Things went quite well with our office in the 90s, and we set up a German firm which was also successful. After, I became a professor of urban design at TU Berlin, and after seven years in Berlin I transferred to the ETH in Zurich, and we moved our German activities to Zurich. So we now have an office in Rotterdam and in Zurich. Meanwhile, we got a lot of work in Russia and in China, and then in 2008 I became the director of the ETH Institute Future Cities Lab in Singapore.

GV: Do you have any anecdotes to describe a significative experience from those years? An experience or a story to resume your ambitions and passions, but also the difficult realities of setting up your own practice?

KC: I have made a lot of relationships with important people who defined my career. One, of course, was Rem Koolhaas. A funny anecdote is that I once dreamt that he came from London by plane, which he did every week. At that time, we were working on the harbour of Rotterdam, and in the dream, I was in a helicopter with a photographer, taking photos of the harbour. And as Rem’s plane started landing, the rotor of the helicopter cut the plane in half, and cut off both of his hands. He fell into the sea, and was picked up by one of our employees in a rubber boat. In the next scene, we were sat around the lunch table in our office and he had bandages around his arms, and we were all crying because he had lost his hands. And he said: “That doesn’t matter, now you will make the drawings. I don’t have to draw!”.

«We have already acknowledged in the early 80s […] that you cannot control a lot, and you have to think where it is desirable to have control, and where it’s not. This is a kind of a principle that goes with me throughout my career»

Another fond memory of mine is of Jane Jacobs. I had met her several times, I was very close to her thinking about the ‘open city’ urban transformation, and the relation between urban form and society. She was very old, and once she said to me: “One day if you call, I will not make an appointment with you anymore because I will think that I’m too old to meet people”. So one day I contacted her and a student picked up, saying that Jane doesn’t want to have contact with people anymore because she thinks she is too old. That was a year or two before she died. She was really very consequent, she kept very active and lively until the end, but in a certain moment she said “Okay, now my energy is gone, I stop”.

GV: I am also interested in understanding which subject areas you chose to investigate at this first stage of your career. As a young practitioner, which were the issues you wanted to solve most?

KC: I wrote a little article in 1989, which was called ‘Creating Conditions For Freedom’. I was already talking about the idea that the urban designer should not control everything, but instead should set certain fixes so the rest would be free. In other words, it was like a kind of legislation or a law book in which society is being regulated, but within the law there is plenty of freedom for individual expression and development. To me, this is very important in urban design, because we have already acknowledged in the early 80s, with competitions like Parc de la Villette, that you cannot control a lot, and you have to think where it is desirable to have control, and where it’s not. This is a kind of a principle that goes with me throughout my career, which I am always referring to – even in the projects, theory and teaching that I am doing now. This is a type of approach that will not changed in our office, because basically we are true liberal social democrats, and consequently we are always looking for ways in which people can be most suitable developing themselves individually within a societal framework, and then translate this into architecture and urbanism.

Kees Christiaanse

Founder of KCAP Architects&Planners


GV: Would you like to tell me about your practice and how it is organised?

KC: We actually have three offices. One is very tiny and in Shanghai, which is more of a coordinating place for projects based in China, and we have around 100 people here in Rotterdam. I would say we have around 50% women, which we do not consciously strive for but it happens like that. I think that our firm is very attractive to women. The reason is that in the beginning, when some of our female employees became pregnant, we were very worried that the productivity of the office would be in danger. But instead, we discovered that after they came back and started to work four days a week instead of five, they were achieving more in those four days than what they were before. The office is also a family affair. Most people who have worked here say that the feeling of family is enormous, in relation to the quite large size of the firm. And I think that is exactly what we want.

We do not specifically focus on being the best at architecture or being kind of like a Machiavelli, having no mercy for anything else. For us, it’s very important that we have pleasure and satisfaction in our work, and that the firm is really functioning and developing as a community.

The organisation of the practice is quite flat, with a lot of decentralised responsibility, however we have a lot of internal dialogue about the most important, key steering parameters in our office. I think you can define our office a bit like a city, where I am the mayor, and the other partners are the counselors. If there is a kind of slum somewhere in the city, I wouldn’t know exactly what happens there, but I would still have an overall steering influence.

GV: Do you think the role of the architect has changed recently?

KC: The holistic role of the architect being somebody who produces the design and working drawings, with control of the cost and supervision of the building site, has been abandoned completely. Most of the time, architects are only doing the design part until the building permit, and then, if they are lucky, they get another role.

«The holistic role of the architect being somebody who produces the design and working drawings, with control of the cost and supervision of the building site, has been abandoned completely»

Since the crisis, project fees have been going down a lot, and therefore we have to be extremely efficient. There is a new demand to draw projects using BIM, and this is a very big strain for architects because it takes a lot of investment, and the people who work with BIM have to be very well educated. We have already experienced on two or three occasions that the contractors have had to come back to us, because they are not able to continue with the BIM drawings that we did. They do not understand the buildings sufficiently as their people are not skilled enough, so they come back to us to get the working drawings. So there is a chance there if the architects take it, then that it is a kind of conquest of a new position vis-à-vis the execution of buildings.

HafenCity, Hamburg, 2000-present. ©Elbe&Flut

GV: Did the financial crisis have a direct impact on the way you develop your practice?

KC: What we have been starting to do is create our own projects, and we do that mostly on quite a large scale. We look for larger sites in need of renewal, and try to bring a consortium together with financial investors and developers that can bring this project to a certain moment of elaboration. In smaller countries, like Switzerland or Austria, a lot of architects have started to buy plots themselves, build a house, sell it, and then buy another plot, and so on, just to make a living. I think that the benefit of the crisis is that people are forced to invent these new kinds of formulas.

GV: What about KCAP? Which kind of projects and themes are you interested in developing as a practice?

KC: We do several urban renewal projects of densification, as well as mixed-use. Many projects contain former industrial buildings where there is a potential of bringing together industrial production, residential function, and lots of small scale enterprises and amenities. This is not so much an adagium, which is being dictated by planners or politicians; but instead, it is happening automatically by the economy. The economy is on the one hand created by small units and enterprises, and on the other hand by very large conglomerates like the IT firms that we all know.

Of course, there is a tendency to develop a clean industry, that doesn’t produce noise or emissions, and this is better when combined with residential functions. We are working in several places on urban configurations and urban blocks where spaces for these functions are being offered. And then, of course, there is a discussion that these urban configurations are breeding grounds for what one calls an ‘ecosystem of related activities’. That also creates a new form of urbanity, because the people who live in these types of places tend to be a one or two person household, who don’t have time to cook or do the laundry, meaning that they are attracted to certain services. With this phenomena, you get a kind of new automated economic condition, which is very communicative, and needs a city that’s in walking distance. This is one of the reasons for urban renaissance, which is not dictated by politicians, cultural gurus or architects – instead, it is the result of economic change.

Kees Christiaanse

Founder of KCAP Architects&Planners


GV: Talking about the present and the future, would you help me to define a couple of key concepts that, in your opinion, are urgent for understanding the future of our profession?

KC: A keyword is ‘urban design framework’, which comes at the very beginning, in which we fix the most important things and leave the rest free. A second keyword is a certain ‘diversity’ of land use and plot sizes, in order for diverse programs and diverse building typologies to be a stimulating breeding ground for economic development and an urban condition.

Mobility and infrastructure will also be very important in the future, and they are developing so rapidly that they are more or less unpredictable. This subject is often being looked at in a very naive way. So people think: now we have kind of a conversion engine period, in 20 years we will have an electric period. This is not true. In 20 years, everything will exist next to each other, so there will be old people driving a Mercedes vintage car next to self driving vehicles. The whole street profile needs to be extremely evolutionary. It needs to be able to change its profile very quickly over time, with different lanes for different types of traffic and different arrangements between pedestrians, cyclists and public transport. There will be a lot of intermediate hybrid forces between public transport and individual transport.

Kees Christiaanse. ©Markus Bertschi.

Another key topic can be called ‘desakota’, which is an Indonesian term. It means town/village and it is about a kind of a non-concentrated urban condition. For example: the island of Java, the whole of Vietnam, along the Ganges river in India and the area around Milano between Venice and Torino. These are urbanised landscapes in which the urbanisation has taken such a heavy toll on the landscape that you need a redefinition of the approach.

«Systems are going to become sick, in the sense that they are being informed with the wrong data and therefore not performing or delivering, or even not being usable anymore […] it’s actually an electronic variant of terrorism»

In my view it’s not possible to say that this is an undesirable condition and that we should focus on the concentrated city. It will not happen unless there are economic reasons for it. Some economic reasons for this phenomena to exist are, for instance, large scale distribution, large scale production or a large scale agricultural industry that you will not be able to cancel. So, it’s very important to work on these areas because they are very sensitive in terms of sustainability, and very dependant on mobility and communication systems. In terms of future urbanisation approaches, let’s not only focus on the compact city, but also on this kind of urbanised landscape.

GV: Being always connected and interconnected through new technologies, digital platforms and networks can represent a great potential for our discipline, and have a strong influence over how we work. In the future, how do you think that these technological innovations will be integrated into our discipline?

KC: You know about hacking and you know about fake news. But I think the biggest threat to an open communication, which also supports an open urbanisation, is that systems are going to become sick, in the sense that they are being informed with the wrong data, and therefore not performing or delivering, or even not being usable anymore. I think that needs a lot of work, and it’s actually an electronic variant of terrorism. It’s better to have a pragmatic view on this – also a non-emotional view on how we manage and operate with this new givens, but we have to prevent ourselves from being naively optimistic or misanthropically pessimistic. This needs a very sober, almost scientific approach of dealing with urban management and urban development.

GV: What would you suggest to the ‘New Generations’ of architects? Do you have any important messages for them?

KC: I think it’s very important to determine from very early on whether you are a top designer or not. If you are not a top designer, change your plans and do not want to be a designer. If you want to continue, take care with what I mentioned about the scientific part. Be able to work with statistics, probabilistic data, and be able to talk to environmental scientists and water management civil engineers – especially mobility engineers. And last but not least, if you can, work in a large firm for a while – for seven years maximum – and then become independent. And even if you are alone and you don’t earn much money, you will be much more happy.

    Date of office foundation



    Number of employees

    approx. 15

Cino Zucchi

Founder of Cino Zucchi Architetti


GV: Hello Cino, after introducing yourself, I would like to understand the conditions that marked the beginning of your professional practice. Can you summarise some of your most interesting biographical aspects, starting with your architectural studies?

CZ: I am Cino Zucchi, I have four kids and when they ask me “what will I be?”, I always respond “Que sera, sera” – “What will be, will be”, like the famous song. I decided to study architecture because I did not know what to do in life. Architecture is a kaleidoscope, where you can see whatever you want to see. It attracts many people because of its crystal reflections of many other disciplines. I was attracted by it not just because I saw it as a challenge, but also because I saw it as a place where many different things are related to each other.

For personal reasons (for the love of a girl) I went to study in America at the MIT – Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where I had a very scientific undergraduate education. When I came back to Milan, Italy was at the peak of a kind of historical obsession. I shifted from science-based studies and the empiricism of Ameri- can culture, to a very deep state of historical research. During that part of my life I was almost a historian, I wrote a scholarly book on Milano’s courtyards: ‘L’architettura dei cortili milanesi 1535- 1706’. I like this double nature of my mind in which I found some cross-facilitation. This allows me not to listen to bullsh** about the world from people who try to oppress you with scientific or mathematical formulas or historical knowledge. I don’t get that, and in a way this gives me some strength in the everyday behavior as an architect.

GV: Besides your educational background, could you tell me more about what you learnt after university?

CZ: When I graduated in Milan, the professor I was working with asked me to become his assistant right away. I always have been a professor alongside being an architect. I did not have that much training. As a young person I worked in some other practices, but I had the occasion to do both things because of my father’s company, so in a way it was luck. But I am also a self-trained person, both academically and professionally. Sometimes I missed some heavier training, but this gave me a lot of freedom. I collaged things, procedures or techniques that I learnt alongside an empirical view of what the profession required. I learnt by doing more than acquiring strong methods from somebody else.

Above: Cino Zucchi in the period of his university studies.

GV: Do you have any anecdotes of significant moments from the beginning of your career?

CZ: I remember once when I was very young and I was trying to do a good project, I drew a very detailed plan of an office with every single table, each with their exact number of draws. I interviewed every person working there – 20 people or more – and tried to design in a very client responsive way. The office director gave a hand drawn copy of the plan back to me, which looked like it had been drawn by a child, in which he put his desk 45 degrees to the others. I understood in that moment that space is not only the response to a function, but it’s also a social representation. He felt his own of space was not different enough, and by turning this table 45 degrees he was able to represent the power he had. This made me understand the complex inter- relations between physical space and social space in terms of conventions, customs and habits.

Another memory of mine was once when I was on a construction site which was an open space design. The director of works was somebody from the city of Milan and I had the feeling that there was some form of corruption going on, because he was always saying that the construction people were right, even when they were not right. Once, I drew a very clear drawing along with a very clear model of the design, but when I went on-site, what they had done was totally wrong. I started quarreling with them for hours, saying that it was obviously a mistake and that they could not do it. And the guy said: “No, architect Zucchi, you are wrong. Only because I am good hearted I will re-do it, if you admit that you are wrong, but if you keep saying that you are right, I will leave it as it is”. I felt like Galileo Galilei when coming out of the inquisition: I said I was wrong even though I was 100% right. I went home thinking that, to me, being an architect is like playing rumble with a little four year old child on your shoulders. If I would only try to win personally, I would have dignity. In a way, how I humiliated myself to save architecture is similar to a mother prostituting herself to safe her kid. I understood that we are weak because, although the problem is not winning personally, the sacrifice is needed to make the entire object survive. I feel a servant of architecture, and many times I had to personally negotiate and get humiliated for the sake of architecture. This is a lesson of humility for the architect. Saving the baby – which is the architecture.

GV: Do you think architects differ from other professionals? How has the ideology of the ‘Italian Architect’ reformed over the years?

CZ: In a caricatured vision of the old professions, one could say that a doctor or a lawyer 100 years ago would slowly build up his reputation, create a clientele and some kind of trust, and then go about most of his life on this sort of foundation that is his discipline and academics. This was partially true, but not anymore. Every generation is a transition between two others, so every generation has seen the world change, even in the last century. Of course, our generation is in the middle of the digital revolution. This is a very deep, once in a millennium revolution. Both physical things and the relationship with the market were very different when I was young. In the 80s, Italy was very fashionable in intellectual terms. We had a lot of magazines about architecture and culture. We had Aldo Rossi and Giorgio Grassi. We went abroad and would say, “I am an Italian architect, kiss me”. Of course, this has changed. Italy produced a lot of very interesting architectural theories, but they failed because the professional situation got so bad, which was partially due to political issues and corruption. We had beautiful slogans but not the real works that had complexity and soundness to it. Our generation was trained by very strong thinking masters: Vittorio Gregotti, Aldo Rossi, and Giorgio Grassi, who had quite clear visions of what they wanted to do. We found ourselves solving things for a client, like a warehouse, which were totally different from what we talked about in school.

«I hate when people use difficult theories and fashionable words to hide the misery of reality. Even if architecture has a history of having a theoretical approach, it is not a theoretical art like philosophy or many other things»

I felt that there was a division in many people, with a lot of them using theory and academics to refuge themselves from the misery of reality. Even with my students, I always try not to have a total coherence between what I think and what I do. Never use intellectuality to excuse yourself! Karl Kraus used to say: “Education is a crutch, with which the foolish attack the wise to prove that they are not idiots”. Even today when teaching at Politecnico di Milano, I hate when people use difficult theories and fashionable words to hide the misery of reality. Even if architecture has a history of having a theoretical approach, it is not a theoretical art like philosophy or many other things. It is still the art of transforming reality. I am not interested in theories which can not be seen in reality. Today I know a lot of very interesting people who generate self-realising prophecies of theories. Theories are very elegant, but because of their elegance, they are useless. I do not mean that I am just an empirical person – I try to keep the connection between what I would desire and reality. So I think of myself as a realistic person.

GV: Can you recall any significant moments in your career that have affected the way you think and work as an architect?

CZ: The turning point in my profession was the lucky winning of a private competition in Venice, for a housing block in the Junghans former factory, which included both the renovation of a former industrial building, and the design of a new one. I never could have imagined winning this competition, and all of the sudden it presented new possibilities to me. Being on an urban level, it was put together in a way that I was thinking about theorising at the university, which connected the real, urban dimension with the theoretical, architectural one. I learnt a lot about dealing with clients, as the negotiation in architecture has to go through pleasing so many people – not only yourself, but also the entire city. You have many clients: the people of the city, the people around you, and the ones who pay you.

This is a tough profession that teaches you that in the end, architecture is seen as a synthetic form, like the final result of a film. But in reality, the film itself is a result of many hours spent by many people. Can we, as architects, achieve a synthetic and coherent work? In an artistic way, the end product should show the synthesis of objects that we love, but at the same time, in the process, you go through so many compromises that you did not want. But you cannot justify yourself. You cannot say that in your film you wanted Nicole Kidman, but instead you could only have your sister; or that you wanted to shoot in Patagonia, but you had to do it in your room. What is there is there. So, in architecture you shouldn’t excuse yourself. Surely architecture is not an art, because so many people have something to say about it.

Cino Zucchi

Founder of Cino Zucchi Architetti


GV: Let’s talk about Cino Zucchi Architetti, today. How has the company grown to become what it is now?

CZ: Our studio is composed on an average of 20 people in Milan who work mostly on projects in Italy, but we also have a number of international projects. The situation of architecture in Italy is quite tough for many reasons, which creates a kind of frailty. This is felt amongst the young people in Italy, who often have to go abroad to work due to the low wages and the tough conditions. We are the interface between a profession in a difficult situation, and a growing number of young people in the studio who don’t always have efficiency. The history of my studio is a strange one, because often we get very young people around 24 years old, and when they reach their 30s, they say: “Cino, these were very nice years of my life, thank you for what I have learnt here, but now I will go to Berlin”, or “I will go to London”, or “I will marry” or “I will open my new studio”.

Office of Cino Zucchi Architetti, Milan, ©Ivan Sarfatti.

In a way, we do have a quite consolidated, traditional way of doing things, but we are not like a big engineering firm that has very structured procedures. I would say that the main dilemma is: can we use sophisticated instruments to respond to today’s conditions? For example, nowadays, we spend most of the time producing certificates, as people are obsessed with the idea of responsibilities. Can we keep a synthetic quality of the je ne sais pas quoi of the product using this procedure? Contemporary society is in an increasingly difficult position to choose what is good or right. We are not in a classicist state anymore, where there was a collective aesthetics, like Vitruvius. Today, the aesthetics is a romantic one, so it is subjective. We have substituted the concept of results with the concept of procedures. We cannot say that the result is good, but we can say the procedure is correct. Ludwig Wittgenstein used to say: “We don’t have to forget that a game has rules, but also a goal”.

GV: How would you define the role of an architect in today’s society? Has this changed over recent years?

CZ: The architect is undecidedly, as a social role, some kind of a specialist of aesthetics. Like in a cookbook, you have a step-by-step procedure, with the final image being some kind of whipped cream. You are the one who wraps around the aesthetics of a product, which is not completely controlled by you anymore. And many times, companies look at us like we are the ‘packaging people’: we package, and give some kind of pleasantness to a product.

Another way to look at it is as if the architect is still similar to a movie director, who is able to control the dialogue, but cannot completely control every step of his work. Even though this way is complex, it is important, because in order to achieve the final quality, we need to continuously negotiate. Today you have many professional roles which are very specialised, for example: the lead certificate, the project managers, or the acoustic experts. You can run a very specific computer program where you have a procedure, and you do your job – you just do your little piece. But to add up all of these pieces, you need someone who controls the relationships between these small procedures.

GV: What do you try to achieve through architecture? What is architecture, for you?

CZ: I would like my architecture to be as beautiful as a Belle & Sebastian song, or like Toy Story 3. I cried when I saw this film, because Pixar is able to do a marvellous technical product but with many levels of understanding. It can please a four year old kid, but also somebody who is 40 years old, or even someone who is 61 (like me), because in the film, they place the Fisher Price telephone toy with moving eyes, which only people from my generation know. The person who designed that took a glance towards my generation – to the grandfather – whereas the little kids cannot understand these references. This is marvellous.

The old works of architecture, like cathedrals, are kaleidoscopes. They have something for everybody. This is what Victor Hugo used to say in Notre Dame de Paris, with the famous phrase – “The printed books will kill the cathedral”. He saw the cathedral as if it was a big, illustrated book. Can we still create architecture that has the same impact of cathedrals? I think so, because the best work of contemporary architects has relevance, like how the stadium by Herzog and DeMeuron is representing China’s capital. Of course, this is a political matter, but it means that architecture today is able to still be iconic and host the life of many people, and this is a good thing.

GV: Would you like to tell me about any recent projects that you think represent your firm?

CZ: We are completing the Lavazza Headquarters, and recently I was onsite and many people were working there. They have a museum, a restaurant, and you can see that good architecture can be the happy, loved background for the lives of many people, with a balance between being there and disappearing.

«The old works of architecture, like cathedrals, are kaleidoscopes. They have something for everybody»

This is similar to the objects that we like, for example, we feel good in a jacket that we like, but it is a background. Can architecture be both foreground and background? Architecture, which is overly iconic and overly ‘statement’ can be oppressive. We expect architects to make life easier, but also more beautiful. Finding the right character is what architects should achieve. I spend most of the time applying procedures, but in the end the core question remains: does this building or open space that I am designing have the right character?

Cino Zucchi

Founder of Cino Zucchi Architetti


GV: Talking about the present and the future, would you help me to define a couple of key concepts that, in your opinion, are urgent for understanding the future of our profession?

CZ: I do not believe in ‘futurology’. If we look at people’s predictions of the future from the last century, we see that they often project elements of what the present situation is onto the future. The Jetsons are a normal suburban family from America who have a Jet instead of a car. This is also very interesting: how futurology represents your current situation.

I read the book ‘The Limits of Growth’ by MIT, and I was very worried about the environmental problem we have. So I went to study at MIT because it was the first time that people really realised that there was an environmental problem. Instead of thinking about what the future will be, we should look at vectors – something which is a dynamic situation from now. I do not know what the world will be like in 20 years, but I know some things: sensibilities, and of course, problems which are growing now. The one main worry I have now about predicting the future is that all of the functionalist models of designing from the last hundred years were based on a specific function. The architect was like an algorithm: a client had to enter an input, being the function, and the architect elaborated this to create the final output, which was the form. This mode, which is the basis of how we expanded our cities and we built up the Metropolis, was needed, but we are now realising how much flexibility and plasticity there is between form and content. This is true in nature: the way an organism evolves is by adapting existing organisms to new forms. There is a famous book that is called ‘Evoluzione e Bricolage’ (Evolution and Tinkering) by Francois Jacob, who said that organisms are opportunists. We are not perfect machines, we keep on using and deforming ourselves.

Cino Zucchi in his studio. ©Cino Zucchi Architetti.

Our generation is discovering the concept of urbanity in a new way: we first understood the environmental emergency, but we are rediscovering urbanity as something which today is environmental. There was some kind of opposition between city and nature. We realised, for example, that the urban model is much better at energy saving than the suburban one. An inhabitant of the city consumes half of the electricity and one-third of the gallons of gas required to get around. This is because of many reasons, including physical ones. People are going back to the city, and this means they are going back to live in places which are not planned for that function. So, the integral revision of the function as a model of designing is something that’s related to what we are, and picking up something which is the past. It is also projecting the idea that the city is a body that is much bigger than its inhabitants. The fact that the city survives with its inhabitants seems like a very simple thing to say, but in a way, this is why function is forgotten.

GV: Looking towards the next 15-20 years, what is important to keep in mind in regards to designing for the ever-changing circumstances of our modern world? What will this mean for our cities?

CZ: We see the obsolescence of iPhones: every year we have new telephone models, and we just throw away the old ones. We can not throw away the city as a technical artefact. Because when technology is very fast, the city has to be slow. I don’t believe that the city can run at that speed. Some parts of it will evolve very fast but not the city as a whole, otherwise we should destroy and redo the city every thirty years.

We just did a proposal for the Milano Dismissed Railway Yards, and the projection and development of these yards is for at least 20 years. So we had to build scenarios in 20 to 30 years using the elements we have today. The way in which we approached this is not to start on a functional point of view, instead, we were seeing how the open-space design can have some kind of infrastructure which is willing to host things that have not yet been foreseen. In a way, I don’t want to go back to the 1800s grid like Manhattan. But can we design something without all the knowledge of what it is going to host? This is a non-functionalist approach, interlocking with very functionalist parts of the city. I think that the space of the original city was a functional space, in which people did things and protected themselves, and the market place was the place not only to buy vegetables, but also to chat and gossip. This second function is now in another place, which is called social media. It is true that some functions which used to represent physical space have now gone into a non-physical space. This is typical of an office organisation, like mentioned before: the hierarchy of the places at the office was representing the connection between people. When I chat with my daughter who is in another room, my wife asks me why we are on our phones when we are only ten meters away from each other. But it is easier to chat, even with my own family, through WhatsApp. This is very funny.

GV: In your opinion, what does this mean for the future of ‘space’ in physical and digital terms?

CZ: What this will change in the physical space, we don’t know yet. In a way, it’s too early to say what will happen. In terms of the millennial evolution of men, we don’t know. We freed physical space from some of the heaviness it had. The physical space is not fluid, but some of the functions it needed to respond to are not there anymore. Some people saw this as the potential destruction of the public space in its traditional terms, and this is partially true. It is true that some of the physical spaces do not behave in the same way anymore, or their behaviour has changed completely. Let me make an example: when I was eighteen years old, if a big event – like a bomb or something – would happen in Milano, people would go in Piazza del Duomo to hear the news, to be together. Today you see it right away in your iPhone. Piazza del Duomo was the place where the citizens of Milano would gather, but now it is the place where immigrants meet, because it is the first place where they can be. So very few Milanese are there anymore, and all the people from the suburbs – and especially immigrants – are there instead, because it’s an icon which is not representing the community anymore. This is true for many other places.

The Metropolis is also the place where a lot of loneliness occurs. This does not mean that we still don’t go to bars, or places like Starbucks. I strongly believe that in three to five years, every house will have a chaise lounge, like in The Matrix, where you are there but you are somewhere else. When my kids are not there, they are somewhere – they are talking with friends. So when you ask your kid to listen to you, they are not lost, but with somebody else. This means that this new social space is about interaction.

GV: And how will this affect the fabric of the urban environment, on a city scale?

CZ: Should we go towards a more temporary architecture? Should the city become lighter? Even a walking city like Archigram would say? Or should the remaining city become more generic? This is the big question to me. Should the city respond quickly to changes? Or should it be the hardware part of an ever-changing software? The Campsite Shower Theory is a bit of a joke, it says: “When you try to get hot water in a camp site, you turn the valve set but it takes some time for the water to travel through”. So the response to your input is always slow, then you turn it to the other way and it gets too cold, and then too hot, and so on.

«Should the city become lighter? Or should the remaining city become more generic? […] Should the city respond quickly to changes? Or should it be the hardware part of an ever-changing software?»

It means that architecture takes some time, and if you do architecture using a program, once it’s there, it is always a little bit late in respect to your own program. I don’t believe in ‘just-in-time’ architecture. With respect to events, things are different – we designed the ‘Copycat’ exhibition for the Venice Biennale Pavilion in 2012 and things like that – but not the whole structure of the city.

GV: Do you have a final message for the ‘New Generations’ of architects?

CZ: Something that I say to my kids and students is: “If you go from the roots to the leaves, there are many different paths, the tree structure has a lot of choices. If you go from the leaves back to the roots, the path is one. But going up is not a line: it is a branch of many different choices”. How to orient my students and my kids in these choices, I don’t know. Of course, you can’t predict success. What would I say? That today all of the information is on Wikipedia? I give forty dollars a year to Wikipedia because I use it a lot to keep up a critical spirit, to use information and procedures, but also to be intelligent, and to be able to restructure the information. I would define intelligence as the art of using procedures, but if they do not work, be critical about it.

I would say the difference between a fly and a dog is that if there is a window, the fly keeps on banging against the glass because its brain tells it the light is freedom. A dog sooner or later will go around the glass. Intelligence is the art of reframing. So let’s use computers, prefabricated programs and packages, but you also need to know the principles behind them. Today I know geometry very well, and a rendering specialist knows how to use the program better than me, but he or she does not know the principle behind it. So our generation was based on principles, and this generation is based on empiricism. The way you move through programs is empirical: you try until you get it. The two things should get together sooner or later. I don’t want to say: ‘let’s go back to the fundamentals’, but we should try to see the principles beyond the empirical way to solve things.

    Date of office foundation



    Rotterdam, Shanghai

    Number of employees

    approx. 195

Jacob van Rijs

Co-founder of MVRDV


GV: Can you summarise some of the most interesting biographical aspects of your career, starting with your university studies?

JvR: I didn’t choose to do architecture myself, which is quite strange. I studied architecture by chance, actually because I was not selected for industrial design. There was a lottery for industrial design as there were limited seats to study, and for some reason the rotary didn’t choose my number. My second choice was architecture, so I went into architecture a little bit disappointed for the first weeks. But then I realised that it was actually pretty nice, so I never re-applied for industrial design. It’s interesting how life can take a certain direction by just a coincidental lottery event.

GV: Together with Winy Maas and Nathalie de Vries, you are a co-founder of one of the most successful practices worldwide. How did it all begin?

JvR: After working for a few years for other architects, we started to work together by doing competitions for Europan. At that time, the wall in Berlin had just fallen. It was happening in Germany, so we wanted to see it and decided to choose that site for the competition. We were one of the winners of that location in 1991, with our proposal of a modernist housing block that resembled a Chinese puzzle, with different dimensions within one external envelope. And that’s how it started to roll. We realised that we were working with lots of different personalities. We were quite different as well, but we reinforced each other in the way we worked together.

Winy Maas (right), Jacob van Rijs (centre) and Nathalie de Vries (left).

GV: I am curious to know, do you have any particular stories that describe a significative experience from those years?

JvR: What’s nice to mention about that period is that when we had our first meeting with a client, they wanted to see our office. At that moment, we just had one room in a kind of collective building. These days you would say a ‘shared workspace’, but at the time there were just different rooms with people working there. We asked the other guys next door if they could pick up the phone when somebody called, and they agreed to leave the door open so they could do it. Then we rented another meeting room, so it was unclear for the client to see how big we were. It seemed as though the guys next door were our employees because they were picking up the phone, but they were not. There were no mobile phones, so they had to walk around to pick up the phone. It became a kind of story that we hired these guys to act like employees.

«What was really on our minds at that moment was the density issue relating to Holland as a country, which is very much planned with a lot of low density and open spaces»

Another interesting story of those years was something that opened my eyes when I was doing my studies in Delft. There was an event taking place on a Friday afternoon, it was Aldo van Eyck saying goodbye. Aldo was a very well known architect, of course, and a very important professor in Delft at that time. The whole thing was rescheduled to another room, and it was all a bit unclear. Apparently, Aldo van Eyck said: “Sorry, I cannot do my lecture in the same room and breathe the same air that Rem Koolhaas just breathed”. Apparently Rem Koolhaas had a lecture there on the same day just a few hours before, and he didn’t want to have the same room. I was just a baby architecture student, unaware of who’s who. And I thought: what’s going on? This is an interesting first encounter with different factions, different parties, different opinions – that architects can actually fight and hate each other.

GV: Besides this biographical introduction, I am also interested in understanding which were your main focuses of investigation at the first stage of your career.

JvR: What was really on our minds at that moment was the density issue relating to Holland as a country, which is very much planned with a lot of low density and open spaces. That was our key focus point, and we wanted to make a systematic analysis of these density studies. This led to the ‘Farmax’ book. In a way, the methodology that we developed is somewhat still present in the way we work today, although the density studies are different. Now, there is more intelligence, more systems, more data and more interesting software that can do much more than we did. But the mentality is still there.

Jacob van Rijs

Co-founder of MVRDV


GV: What about MVRDV today? How has the practice been developing throughout the years?

JvR: We have been working together for almost 25 years, so quite a long time. The world has changed a lot, and we too have become different. Of course, you establish a way of working and when new people come to join the office, you try to tell them what’s important for us: how we like to work, how we like to stay open minded, but on the other hand, we do have a certain way of doing things. So there is an interesting balance between the MVRDV recipe, and staying open and going off the beaten track a bit.

GV: It might be a trivial question, but I would like to ask you whether you have a clear idea about the role of the architect within contemporary society. Has it changed from how it was in the past?

JvR: Architecture is a very old profession – one of the oldest some people say – especially in relation to Italy, of course. There is this kind of enormous tradition and history where architects have always been. That means we could say that architecture is not the fastest changing profession in the world, but it combines its traditions with new developments, new technologies and society. The role of the architect in society is changing pretty fast in comparison to the centuries before, so it is important that the next generations are aware of the fact that in the world they’ve entered, their profession might be slightly different to how it was when they started their studies. Maybe their studies are not completely up to date with the reality.

«The general public still seems to think that the architect is some sort of God, the all creator, the guy who is taking care of everything»

The general public still seems to think that the architect is some sort of God, the all-creator, the guy who is taking care of everything. In reality this is not the case. You can see that there are other powers taking shape, and that the construction industry is changing. People don’t need architects anymore, you could say. There is a lot happening without architects. It used to be like that before, as well, but now it is becoming more and more visible.

GV: Through the work of Itinerant Office, and especially during the last edition of the New Generations Festival, we have focused our attention on three main themes, which I believe to be quite important to provide an overview of the changes that are shaping our profession. ‘Public Space’, ‘New Economies’ and ‘Digital Infrastructure’: are these topics central to your architectural practice?

JvR: I think that these topics that you mentioned are quite well connected to one another, especially in regards to bottom-up initiatives versus the end of the public space, and the fact that more of these things are being done through networks than before. An architect can specialise in this area, just as they can distinguish themselves in other ways: whether you are a participation architect, or somebody who is involved with networks, or producing components or new building technologies, or interested in reusing materials. There are a lot of different types of architects, and to do everything is almost impossible. You could say that ‘The Architect’ does not exist anymore. This means that if someone says: “Well, I really like participation, it’s my cup of tea”, and then they decide to work with somebody else, who specialises in something different, they can create something more interesting than what they would be able to do on their own. This means that working together is always an option for architects, and depending on the type of project, we might be able to compose teams out of the experts.

Seoullo 7017 Skygarden, Seoul, 2015-2017. ©Ossip.

GV: How does MVRDV come up with design solutions for the projects you propose? Do you ever have any setbacks?

JvR: Depending on the type of project, the location, the client and everybody involved, we try to find the most exciting solution – sometimes it works, and sometimes it fails. This can be because of all kind of reasons. Every time, we try to do the best that is possible: sometimes it is fantastic, sometimes it is exciting, and sometimes it is just okay, because the dream never happened. Let’s be fair, not every project is a success.

We’ve just finished the ‘Skygarden’ project in Seoul where one of the first highways in Korea was transformed into a park for pedestrians. That is a typical part of the ‘High Line’ effect (projects resembling the High Line park in New York City which opened in 2009), but this one is slightly different, as it used to be a highway rather than a railway. But now, a few months after the opening, 4 million people have already walked over it. That is quite an exciting number, and nobody really expected it. The expected amount was 500,000, meaning that the intensity of use is much higher than expected. I think they realised that they should maybe invest more in these kind of things.

Jacob van Rijs

Co-founder of MVRDV


GV: I tend to summarise some of today’s urgencies with a series of keywords: reuse, new ecologies, metabolism, inclusion, participation, economies, etc. Which keywords will we be talking about in the next 15-20 years?

JvR: For the future, I think there are very interesting developments taking place at the moment, especially when the city is in a data driven economy. What would be the effect for architecture? Will things become so smart that a lot of things are taken care of? That architects are not needed anymore because other people are using this data, so the designer becomes irrelevant? It is an interesting thing to talk about and imagine.

Then, of course, there is the whole production of customised elements by using new technologies similar to 3D printing, which is developing fast. Things such as reusing and recycling can also be connected. And the role of the architect, in the sense of questioning how essential it is to still hire an architect today. Will we have so many simple projects that architects are almost not needed any more? Or will there be projects that are so complicated that there is still a role for architects, but it is very difficult to act as the ‘old school architect’?

There are a lot of different parties and specialists, and you can see things becoming much too complicated. I have recently read this article on the new Berlin Brandenburg Airport, which, although originally scheduled to open in 2011, is now forecasted to open in 2020. This is an example of when things become so complicated due to all kind of regulations and responsibilities that they get out of control, and nobody can handle them anymore. That is the danger. It is interesting to read about what went wrong, and there is this kind of monster building that nobody can handle. It’s too complicated for people to imagine – it’s like we need artificial intelligence to solve these kind of things that we are not able to handle anymore. Or we have to change our way of working.

«On the one hand, you have these super monster projects, but on the other hand you have the small beautiful material, the sweet stuff, which is also very nice»

On the one hand, you have these super monster projects, but on the other hand you have the small beautiful material, the sweet stuff, which is also very nice. There is a lot of attention on these kinds of cute projects in architecture magazines, fairs, websites, etc. They are like the cats of architecture: people like them a lot. But in reality, you have these monster projects as well that nobody likes, yet there is much more money involved.I am quite fascinated by this contrast, this bigness and ugliness versus the smallness and the cute stuff. It’s nice to do cute stuff, but it is also interesting to do rough stuff, so hopefully we can combine it.

GV: Do you have a piece of advice for the ‘New Generations’ of architects?

JvR: I think that it would be very pedantic of me to give a message to future architects, because who am I to just say what others should do? I think it is very important to decide for yourself what kind of architect you would like to be. There are many different possibilities to distinguish yourself from others, so try to find the key focus and the love that you would like to dedicate your time to.

Markthal, Rotterdam, 2004-2014. ©MVRDV.

    Date of office foundation




    Number of employees

    appox. 75

Mario Cucinella

Founder of Mario Cucinella Architects


GV: I would like to understand the conditions that marked the beginning of your professional practice. Can you tell us about those years, starting by your university studies, and the beginning of your practice?

MC: I don’t really remember the moment that I said “I want to be an architect”, but I had a cousin who had an office in Genoa, where I grew up, and I found that environment very exciting. I was a little student from an art high school and to me, drawings and colours seemed exciting. When at school, I found that space and buildings were the two things that made me feel the most emotion. I always get some sort of feeling when I see a beautiful space. I designed a Kindergarten in Guastalla a few years ago, and when designing it, memories came back to me from when I was four years old in my own kindergarten. There are not many memories from that time when you are so small because it seems too far away. But I had a flashback in my mind and I remembered my kindergarten – it was in Piacenza (which is close to Milan). And I thought: ‘why am I remembering this school?’. Then I remembered the school had a little garden, a small wall and a classroom with a lot of sunlight. Fifty years later I discover that building was designed by Giuseppe Vaccaro, one of the modernists in Italy in the 1960s. I am not sure if this is really why I am an architect, but I would say that buildings don’t move, but they travel in memory. It is very strange that in my memory of that time, there was only that space. I don’t know exactly why but something remains. I like the idea that maybe I am an architect because I was a little boy in the kindergarten and I was impressed by the quality of the space. Maybe that was the beginning.

Mario Cucinella in the period of his university studies.

GV: I am fascinated by your biography, and by those that might be defined as your ‘masters’. How have you and your work been influenced by them and by the environment in which you spent the first years of your career?

MC: I studied architecture at the University of Genoa, which was a very interesting university. It was very pragmatic, it wasn’t a university with ‘star’ architects, it was very technical. In the last few years Giancarlo de Carlo – one of the masters of Italian architecture – went there to teach. For me, it was amazing because I was studying very technical things and an intellectual person was opening my mind. At that time I felt that it was what I wanted to do: to be in some ways very practical, and in other ways very open. That is what the university is to me.

I grew up in the same city where Giancarlo de Carlo was teaching at the same time as Renzo Piano. So as a student, I spent a lot of time helping out in the studio. I lost my summers working at the office for a few years because I was very excited – the place seemed magical to me. After graduating university on the 17th of December, I was in the office by the 8th of January, and I worked for Renzo for five years non-stop. You can have talent and desire to do things, but on the other hand you need to learn, and it’s better to learn from good people, one surely being Renzo Piano. So I was stealing his knowledge, and after five years I thought it was time to start my practice. You do that because you don’t know how difficult it is, I did it because following Renzo’s work, everything looked so easy. Then when you start alone, things are very complicated. I always say that I was in a very fast train, and after I jumped out of the train, everything became very slow.

GV: After qualifying as an architect, you spent some time in Paris, where you worked for a while. Do you recall any interesting anecdotes from that time?

MC: I have a story from when I first started out in Paris. It was Easter time in 1992, and a friend told me there was a free space to open a small office. I went to look at the office which was in Maison Planeix of Le Corbusier, and my French wasn’t very good. I said that I had been in Maison Planeix and that I was interested, but the guy had a very difficult French accent. We didn’t understand each other, and in the end he gave me the key to this space in the house of Le Corbusier. I remember opening the door and looking at the beautiful space and thinking: wow, this is my office. Renzo was moving and he gave me some of his furniture, so the next day I had three tables and chairs, but there was nobody there. The beginning was very exciting. I worked for three years with no clients, only competitions. In France during that period there were a lot of competitions, it was a great opportunity for a young architect to excel. I just got little money by just getting second, third and first prizes.

«You can have talent and desire to do things, but on the other hand you need to learn, and it’s better to learn from good people»

The first thing I did was a competition design for a school in Gaza, for the United Nations. It had 600 people participating in it, and I was just moving to my new office, so I had to work during the nights because I really wanted to do the competition. I remember that a few months later I received a call, and I could not understand what they were saying on the phone, and in the end they told me that I had won that competition. I think at that moment I realised that I had started to work alone on a competition, and of course I won it, so I got a lot of adrenaline. It was a very exciting moment, because the most interesting thing about this work is that you don’t know what is going to happen in the future. You need to be strong enough to accept the challenge. This work is a challenge, it is like jumping in a hole and without knowing what you are going to find in the end.

GV: Did you learn any important lessons from all these competitions in which you participated at the beginning of your career?

MC: I did a competition for a master plan in Cyprus, where I got through to the second stage along with two other architects, with the prize being 70,000 dollars. I had never seen so much money in my life in one shot. I found that exciting, but in the end I only came second place. It is always nice to win a competition, but I lost a lot of competitions too. I think that this is the life of an architect: you can win one or two in every ten you enter. But you need to do a lot of competitions, and sometimes it’s hard to start again after losing, but you have to believe in it. This is what I tell my students: maybe you didn’t win a competition, but you always gain something from it, because you did an exercise, you created a design, you created a project, you investigated yourself, you investigated an opportunity. I did that for many years, which was very exhausting, but from it I created a ‘reservoir of ideas’. I was always gaining something from these competitions, it was patrimonio (heritage) – something that remains in your history, which is very important.

GV: Through being involved with architectural competitions, have you been able to invest more time in focusing your research on specific areas of interest? Would you be able to summarise these?

MC: At that time, I was always interested in the relation between building and performance, because I didn’t study the history of architecture in a traditional way. I was very interested in understanding why buildings work well, especially in difficult areas like the Middle East or Africa. You can always connect the shape of a building with its performance. Many years later, I called that ‘creative empathy’: there is always an empathy between the design, the place and the building. In the 1990s the ‘starchitecture’ system started, and then everybody was very globalised. We did every kind of building everywhere, and it didn’t matter. I found it very strange that after a thousand years of the history of beautiful buildings, we don’t consider the place as an element anymore. I was always focused on this relation between performance, building, and energy, because there is a connection in the way you design the shape and the language of the building.

GV: Mario Cucinella Architects has been recognised as one of the most innovative practices in relation to ‘sustainability’ – a term that has been overused in the past few years, and has partially lost its meaning. How does sustainability relate to your work?

MC: For me, the history of sustainability is one of the fundamentals of architecture, and I think many people talk about this without knowing anything about it. I work with English and German engineers, and there is a long tradition in Germany and England about sustainability, energy and performance. In Italy we are not involved in this, even today, so my roots are coming from this relation between building and environment, because it is a fundamental now and it will be in the future. We are working with these ideas in many buildings. Sometimes you can realise 100% of your ambitions, sometimes less because I am not the client of myself. I work with somebody else who asks me to design a building, so I need to negotiate all of the time about how much we can push sustainability in buildings. In a few of our buildings, we did a lot of work on this.

As mentioned before, we designed the school on the Gaza strip. For me, it was a great experience, because I realised for the first time how important the work of an architect is. It is always important, however, in that specific context, that the quality of my design can make a difference in people’s lives. It demonstrated how much architecture can have a positive effect on a student, and also the relation between the ‘curve of learning’ and the ‘curve of comfort’. The better the comfort condition, the better the learning process. That specific context is where there is not another option on the table, and the only option is to build a bridge with your past, because for a thousand years architects have dealt with the climate, as there was no energy.

Mario Cucinella

Founder of Mario Cucinella Architects


GV: Mario Cucinella Architects has grown fast in recent years, both within Italy and abroad. How is your firm structured and organised?

MC: The practice is evolving because we grow – I started alone, and now there are 60 people. In the last twenty years, I have always had people working on environmental strategies because I think that it is good to have someone in the office who is not an architect, who thinks about strategies and climate analysis. Now there are four people working on this who inform us about the place and conditions. Sometimes engineers don’t know that they are able to tell you something very interesting – you can really pick ideas based on the indications of climate. We always have a model maker to make models – of course this comes from my experience making models with Renzo. The young people in the office, who tend to be focused on digital tools, are sometimes surprised when asked to work with real materials. I think it’s very important to keep these in contact. I always ask the architects in the office to design and draw things, and to make a physical model from the beginning, something sketchy, because when you design something that is not very precise, you can often discover something else, like when you do a quick, intuitive sketch and you come up with something that was in your brain.

That’s the way we work: with senior partners, model makers, and people who do simulations. We are not engineers, but we like to sit in the table with engineers and discuss things and suggest things to them, and to have that dialogue. It is not only about designing something and then getting the engineer try to make it work. Performance and analysis are always a part of the design: they are not outside the process.

GV: Have you noticed a difference between the role that the architect played when you first qualified, and the role that the new generation of architects now adhere to?

MC: After 25 years of having this very strange idea of what an architect is, I think that young architects understand the social impact of an architect much better than before. Maybe the crisis doesn’t give you many choices, but especially in Italy, which I know a little better than other countries, young architects have started to collaborate with each other, and now there are no architects working on their own. They associate and create groups, and understand that there is not a market to make so many buildings anymore. They are not waiting for the public administrations to promote work, such as a public square. I think that young architects are really taking things into their own hands, knowing that the role of an architect is not to be a superstar, but somebody who also works on smaller things. Maybe they don’t have many other choices, but I find that this idea of working on little details is more interesting, because if you always think big, you lose the small scale, and maybe the building looks great, but not the square or the street. I think that you can see that there is a lot of social involvement in the small Italian architecture firms.

GV: The fact that the new generation of architects is required to discover new ways to approach our field is a concept that I can personally relate to. Is your practice proposing something in this respect?

MC: We are creating a school within the office called SOS – School of Sustainability to help young architects increase their level of knowledge for practice. One of these area works is called ‘Architecture as a Social Business’. Not only can architects create businesses, but also social impact with that business. I think this is very interesting, and it is creating a lot of design areas to work on: building, social, and participation. It is becoming more complex and open, with more ecological biodiversity.

I think they play a new role, because the public administration has great difficulties: there is no money, they don’t have projects. Politics nowadays is very poor in terms of creativity and vision. So the young architects are promoting and provoking, they are proposing to work on this or increase that. The position of the architect is becoming more interesting because they don’t wait, they promote. That is the social role of an architect: to not just ask a question, but to put the question on the table. I think that is the most interesting part of our work.

GV: Despite the crisis having a drastic impact on our profession, do you agree that a lot of people still tend to regard architecture in utopist terms, as if the architect is some sort of God? Do you think that architects still have influence on society, and are they able to change the world?

MC: 90% of the buildings, maybe more, are not designed by architects, but by developers. I sometimes look to this group of architects (the famous ones) who push for a lot but in the end, their influence on the lives of people is very small. But I think that the influence of an architect can be very important, too.

«The position of the architect is becoming more interesting because they don’t wait, they promote. That is the social role of an architect: to not just ask a question, but to put the question on the table»

This contrast between the architects closed inside of a bubble and the world outside makes me feel very frustrated. We do a very important profession which is about the life of people, it influences the life of people. Why are architects, in this period of time, not having a very big impact in the lives of people? I am not thinking about beautiful buildings, which are always needed, but I am thinking about cities. People live in very bad conditions. I like to think that in the future, maybe the society will understand how important is the role of an architect for the social impact and the quality of life.

The history of sustainability is about how we are able to build a bridge with our past, because the modernists tried to cut this bridge, and the result is over there. Architecture is a continuous process, you cannot cut put your past – you can go forward, of course – but you need to learn from the past so that you can make better buildings. I feel that during the last 25 years, architects have lost this idea completely, and looked for extravaganza, eccentric and very provocative architecture, which is okay. But architecture is very solid, people live there so you have to be very careful.

Kindergarten, Guastalla, 2014-2015. ©Mario Cucinella Architects.

Mario Cucinella

Founder of Mario Cucinella Architects


GV: When it comes to predictions, what is your vision of the future of architecture?

MC: I always say that the future will arrive in any case – that’s the challenge. Whether you want to design or not, you can decide to wait or you can decide to design for the future. I think that it is time to look to the future. Sometimes I need to come out of my own bubble and work on the public space like the young architects are doing, to be more present in real life, because if you don’t do that, you remain in the little bubble.

«There is a Hemingway text that says: “In the most important crossroad of your life, there are no sign posts”. You need to make your choice if you are facing two roads: you need to decide right or left. But now, there are no longer two roads, there is only one direction which is sustainability. It is about how can we change the relation between men, buildings and nature»

You can read talks in congresses in beautiful magazines, but when you look out of the window, you ask yourself: “why is this all happening outside the windows?” There is a Hemingway text that says: “In the most important crossroad of your life, there are no sign posts”. You need to make your choice if you are facing two roads: you need to decide right or left. But now, there are no longer two roads, there is only one direction which is sustainability. It is about how we can change the relation between men, buildings and nature. There is no choice. What is about to happen in the following 20 years will be very important, because there will be more regulations, policies, governments and a bigger demand for quality of life. The architects of today will be leading that period of time in 25 years, so it’s time for young architects to think about where they will be in 25 years. We will be facing a lot of problems relating climate change. How can we design better buildings? How can we design buildings without energy? How can we improve the quality of life in cities? And I think this is a very exciting moment.

GV: In this new digital era – in which everything seems to be influenced by new technologies and innovations – do you think there will still be a place for architects?

MC: Even if you are able to design a more complex form, remember that it is a physical space, not a digital one. You need to get the feeling, the lighting – it is not something abstract. I think that sometimes we get fascinated about these opportunities, because they extend your capacity to design something. Of course, if you have a powerful brain, then you can make better things. But you need to be careful not to lose the control of these tools, because in the end, it is always a question of material, quality of space and emotion. If the digital world makes things easier, it is a good thing, but I don’t like it when I see architects talking about the digital world as if everything is done. Architecture is not only about connecting cables: it’s still a problem of personal feelings and emotions. Don’t forget that.

GV: And how are these new technologies affecting the way people experience space?

MC: As you get to a certain age, buildings become some of the most significant things in your memories, as they are the places that you associate important emotions with. I don’t know if we really understand the impact this use of technology can have on our behaviours, and maybe as things are progressing so fast, we are not able to explore the consequences in real time.

«Don’t forget that architecture is not for you, is for the others. Of course, you need to push your talents and your work, but don’t forget that you do buildings for the others»

As with many things, there are always positive and negative side effects. I feel that people like to be together – especially young people, but this world of communicating through digital means can create a big distance between them and reality. I am not sure whether this is a good or a bad thing – I am not to judge that – but I think that something has changed. It is like the modernist dream of modern cities, nobody knew that the consequences would be so dramatic. If you look at cities nowadays, you can see that the modernist dream was very different, and we were not able to follow that dream. We need to investigate the consequences of these technologies, because in the end we are talking about people, and the importance of places for people. Then, of course, you have an easier life if you can tap your phone and it tells you everything about the building. It is fantastic, but it is not enough.

GV: What would you say to the ‘New Generations’ of architects? Would you like to share a final message with them?

MC: This is very difficult work, being an architect is very complex. Because you need to deal with the ideas of space and vision, and the reality of buildings, which is about regulations, materials and technologies. You put together something immaterial with something material, and always say how nice it would be to be an artist, as they are free people, they can do anything they like without answering too many questions. Architects have big ideas, and they then need to transform them through a set of rules, which are very complicated. The process is very difficult, and it can be dangerous because you can lose your ideas.

I would advise young architects to be careful because it is a very difficult work, and to learn this work from people who know it. Get time to learn this work – work with architects, steal experiences, and then start your own practice. In the same way many other professionals do. If you finish university and decide to open your office straight away, maybe you are full of talent, but talent is not enough – you need to know what you are doing. Young architects who spend ten years of their life working for others, stealing their secrets and then starting their own practice make better work. Architects are very dangerous people, they can make beautiful things but also terrible things. Don’t forget that architecture is not for you, is for the others. Of course, you need to push your talents and your work, but don’t forget that you do buildings for the others.

    Date of office foundation



    Delft, Washington DC, Manchester, Kaohsiung

    Number of employees

    approx. 100

Francine Houben

Founder of Mecanoo Architecten


GV: Hello Francine, I would like to start this conversation from the very beginning. Do you remember the reason why you decided to study architecture? And why years later, you decided to establish your own practice, Mecanoo?

FH: I decided to study architecture when my brother, who was studying architecture, took me with him to the big model making room in the faculty of architecture at the Technical University in Delft. I came in that space and I thought: this is it. At that moment – and I still remember that very second – passion went into my body. It is still there. To be honest, I never had the ambition to start an office. We had to do our final thesis, and everybody was doing many different things during their studies, and I said: “Let’s be part of a competition”. There were hardly any competitions in Delft at that time, but there was one that was a type of flexible social housing scheme (Kruisplein) with a site in Rotterdam. We decided to participate, and we won. So we had to start an office, which means that we started being officially architects and having our own practice whilst we were still students, with no time even to finish school. We first did this building, and that had a rather big commission. Afterwards, we finished university and officially became architects. To be honest, it was never in my dream to have my own office and we did not even have time to have these dreams: we just did it, and it just happened.

GV: Do you recall any important encounters that, in a way, has influenced your view on architecture?

FH: I always loved traveling, so I went to visit architects all over the world. I went to Japan, and at that time nobody went to Japan, and to the United States. In 1976, I went to the office of Charles and Ray Eames for the first time, and after that, I visited Ray Eames every two years, because Charles passed away that year. For me, being an architect is an attitude, how do you deal with issues. And the whole attitude of Charles and Ray Eames was extremely inspirational for me. They found the pleasure in working, being innovative, and experimenting with materials. For me, the whole attitude of not being dogmatic is essential. Combining the technical with the human stuff, the comfort with the materials, whilst being innovative and enjoying it. Making timeless work with timeless values. This was one of the most important encounters I have had in my life.

Francine Houben (second right) with Kazuyo Sejima (third right) in Japan, 1985.

GV: Mecanoo started almost by chance, but you have grown quickly to become one of the most relevant practices in the Netherlands and abroad. Which topics of interest were you most drawn towards over the years?

FH: It may be good to show you these year rings of Mecanoo: my own way of reflecting on what kind of projects we were doing or what kind of focus I had. When I started as a student, I thought that affordable housing looked horrible and did not get enough attention. We started to say: “Affordable housing should also look good, should also be beautiful, should also be more innovative”. We won several competitions, and we thought that the housing was looking better but the public spaces were still horrible, so we started becoming interested in public space. And then we thought: educational buildings? They are not that good. So we started becoming interested in educational buildings, and we wanted to change them. We got many commissions for that – educational buildings is a big thing, of course. I then thought: mobility? There is no vision for mobility. Because mobility is not taught at the faculties of architecture, and it is about a scale that is even bigger than urban planning. I wanted to do a lot of research on mobility, which was extremely interesting.

«Affordable housing should also look good, should also be beautiful, should also be more innovative»

I was also very well connected with the theatre world. It is extremely interesting how they think about light and colour. We started to do theatre and music buildings, and then libraries and public buildings. I think that libraries are important because it is not just a place to buy books – every library is different. It was very interesting that after doing all of the research on mobility, we got a commission with the Delft Train Station and Municipal Offices. That was the crown jewel of my mobility research. I am now a little bit more in the circle of public buildings, libraries, educational buildings, theatres, schools, etc. We still do affordable housing which you can see all over the world, and it remains important. For me, it’s funny because when I look back at all my year rings, it is what we said at the start that is still necessary: “Affordable housing should also need a lot of attention”. Housing in the Netherlands is very good, in comparison to a lot of places, but it still requires a lot of attention.

Francine Houben

Founder of Mecanoo Architecten


GV: Since the beginning of Mecanoo, it seems as though you have found the recipe to keep the practice at the highest level. How do you maintain this, when your company is constantly growing?

FH: Mecanoo is what I call a ‘symphony orchestra’, being the size of a symphony orchestra, too. I think that it’s extremely important to have different skills in the office. We have architecture, urbanism, interiors, graphics, movie making and technical architects. People come from all over the world – of course most of them are Dutch, because we are still a Dutch office. Some people are playing the first violin, others are making loud sounds, and other ones are just doing the wind. But all of it together makes harmonious music. We do quite a lot of international work, and we always work with local partners. It is important to find the right ones, and in my experience, you have to share the same values. Working together with other disciplines really brings inspiration and knowledge, and it is extremely important to work with them both inside and outside of the office. This combination is very inspirational.

Mecanoo Architecten office, Delft. ©Harry Cock.

GV: One of the greatest achievements of your career can be seen by your involvement with the 2002 Rotterdam Biennale of Architecture. Which topics did you choose to investigate, and what were the results?

FH: I started an international research on mobility because I thought that there was no vision in mobility. It’s part of people’s daily life, yet it is not taught at architecture schools.

«Working together with other disciplines really brings inspiration and knowledge, and it is extremely important to work with them both inside and outside of the office. This combination is very inspirational»

I became director of the Architecture Biennale of Rotterdam in 2002 – ‘Mobility, A Room with a View’, and it was an extremely interesting period of my life. When I did this research and they asked me what the conclusion was, I always said: “It’s the bike”. That was more than 15 years ago, and now it is really happening all over the world. It’s about bikes and the innovation of bikes, like the E-bikes, and everything to do with bikes. It is healthy, it is more democratic: it is for everybody. If everybody moves to cities, as what is happening now all over the world, there is no space for all of these cars, so again, the answer is the bike. This, combined with how car mobility is changing, is extremely interesting. And even in United States, in Los Angeles – where nobody expected it – it’s happening. I am extremely proud that I predicted it, but I also think that it really make sense, and it really makes a better world.

Francine Houben

Founder of Mecanoo Architecten


GV: Looking towards the next 15-20 years, what is important to keep in mind when designing for the ever-changing circumstances of our modern world?

FH: Be prepared for both predictable and unpredictable changes, I would say. At the same time, a lot of things are changing in a very fast way. But one thing that is not really changing is the human body and our senses. I always say that architecture must appeal all the senses: for me it is still about space, acoustics, light, daylight and materials. That will not change. But to create, to design, to provide space for unpredictable change – it is extremely interesting. And then, at the same time, beauty should be part of that.

GV: In terms of architecture, media and communication, how can we adapt old buildings to accommodate new technologies and trends? Have any of the buildings that you’ve designed in the past had to go through this process of adaptation?

FH: We designed the Technical University of Delft Library in 1995, and the librarian was really predicting: he knew that the library would change. So we were prepared for changes. He said he knew what would happen in one part of the library, so we designed it like that; but in another part, he did not know what would happen. We keep updating the library during the last few years because we are still very well connected to the client.

«Architecture must appeal all the senses: for me it is still about space, acoustics, light, daylight and materials. That will not change. To create, to design, to provide space for unpredictable change – it is extremely interesting»

When we designed that library, everybody said that in the future you will not need libraries anymore, because everybody will have his/her laptop or computer, and will stay at home. That building is open from 8 in the morning to 2 at night, and it is busy every day of the year: it’s always fully booked. In the end, human beings are social. They like a space where they can be an individual, connected with Apple laptops or whatever, but they also want to see and meet other people. That feeling is for me something that I can build on.

Francine Houben at a construction site. ©Harry Cock.

GV: Would you like to share any thoughts with the ‘New Generations’ of architects?

FH: I would love to say to the young generation that there is not one way of being a good architect. There are many different kinds of architects, and different ways you can deal with architecture. But for me, the most important thing is to observe. Observe society and what is needed in society. Don’t always sit behind your computer or laptop or your iPhone. Travel the world, observe what is needed on the street. Talk to people – talk to people from other disciplines. Go international – travel. You can learn so much by observing. And find your own passion.

    Date of office foundation



    Venice, Bologna, Trieste, Paris

    Number of employees

    approx. 10

Simone Sfriso

Co-founder of TAMassociati


GV: Hello Simone, would you like to introduce your practice, TAMassociati, and tell me something about how the firm first formed?

SS: I am Simone Sfriso, I am one of the founding partners of TAMassociati, with my two partners Raul Pantaleo and Massimo Lepore. Our office is based here in Venice, but we also have two offices in Trieste and Bologna. We all started to work together in the late 90s, after studying here in Venice at the IUAV University of Architecture. Raul and Massimo are a little bit older than me, and they started to already collaborate when they were students.

«A young designer should not be afraid to fail or to make mistakes, but instead, they have to push the limits further in their work»

They founded an international association called TOPICA, which was an international network connecting architecture students coming from different parts of Europe. This was before 1989, so before the fall of the Berlin wall – it really was a different world. They then founded an architectural review called UTOPICA, with the idea being to investigate topics of international architecture through connecting and finding the opinions of students. It was a really interesting experience, and these international connections may have been the basis of our interest to work abroad. We have tried to overlap our profession as architects with our personal ethical aspirations. This is why we have decided to work with pro-bono associations, volunteer organisations, and in the later years with foundations and NGOs in cooperative projects in the Southern world.

GV: Do you have an important memory that has stuck with you from the first years of your practice?

SS: The first competition we won was for a public space in Torino, Piazza Guala. We won that competition with a good project, but it also had some terrible mistakes, such as some red cubic boxes that were a reminiscence of Bernard Tschumi Parc de la Villette. During the winning ceremony, the jurors didn’t talk about the good ideas, but only about the mistakes, which seemed very strange to me. When they finished, they said: “Okay, it doesn’t matter, you seem to be clever, and it is correct to fail. You just have to take away the mistake and go on with the good ideas”. I think that is what a young designer has to do. A young designer should not be afraid to fail or to make mistakes, but instead, they have to push the limits further in their work.

Banca Etica headquarters, Padua, 2007-2011. ©TAMassociati.

GV: How would you define the approach that lies at the origin of your practice?

SS: I think an architect cannot choose their client, because the client chooses the architect. What an architect can do is choose the area in which they want to work and do their profession. We started with this simple idea of being a sort of creative agency, which would give services to the whole galaxy of associations, for volunteer organisations who have good and necessary ideas, but most of the time don’t have big budgets. We decided to do this, and we had great opportunities to grow with these associations. We have grown up as architects, but I think also as people.

Simone Sfriso

Co-founder of TAMassociati


GV: In regards to TAMassociati, which kind of topics do you try to develop through your work?

SS: We are still working on the social issues in architecture. Now when you talk about ‘social architecture’, maybe it is on the first step of every agenda, but 20 years ago it was a bizarre idea. But we are moving in this direction, and I think it is important to be pragmatic, but also to be coherent in the way you choose both your profession and your life. We properly started our practice in 2005, and in the last ten years we have worked a lot in the Southern world, throughout Africa and the Middle East with NGOs such as Emergency. We have done healthcare projects in places such as Sudan, Central African Republic and Uganda. Working in these places has changed our mindsets, and we have a different approach now, even when we work here, in our world. What seemed to be important and interesting for us 25 years ago was sustainability, and this meant creating architecture which uses the best technology with the most innovative solutions. Now, it is to have the simplest and most economic solution, as we have learnt to work in places where the organisation, budget and maintenance of a building are very important. The building has to be simple to build, maintain and run.

Salam cardiac surgery center for Emergency, Sudan, 2007. ©TAMassociati.

GV: Do you already see technological innovations having a direct influence in the way that you work?

SS: Our technology has changed: when we started working, we were using a telephone and a fax machine. Now we are working with Skype where we can talk with engineers and manage building sites daily. But architecture does not change – the change is in the technology which helps you to make faster decisions. Our profession itself hasn’t really changed, and I don’t think it is going to change.

«The change is in the technology which helps you to make faster decisions»

So, I don’t really think that the technological innovation is changing architecture. If I think of architects such as Hans Scharoun or Otto Wagner, they didn’t work with computers yet they realised incredible spaces. I think that CAD can help you and make your decisions faster, but it does not change the meaning and the potentiality of architecture

Simone Sfriso

Co-founder of TAMassociati


GV: In your opinion, which aspects will remain the same and which will change in regards to the future work of an architect?

SS: I think that the new economy is a transitory condition, and the new infrastructures are instruments that are going to develop and change. What will remain is the public space. When I talk about public space I mean physical public space, the spaces where people can do activities and where they can meet. Spaces of dignity, legality and inclusion. These are the spaces where architects have to work.

GV: Through your curatorial experience at the Architectural Biennale of 2016 in Venice, you have been working on a series of urgent issues that might be seen as key topics for the future of our profession. How did you find that experience, and what did you take from it?

SS: I don’t know if we have learnt to do the job of a curator, because we are architects and this is our job and this is what we are able to do. But a curator has a really complicated job. For one year, we took off our architect dresses and put on the dress of a curator, learning about what curating an exhibition means.

«What will remain is the public space. When I talk about public space I mean physical public space, the spaces where people can do activities and where they can meet. Spaces of dignity, legality and inclusion»

Curating the Italian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, titled ‘Taking Care: Designing for the Common Good’, was an amazing experience. The Venice Biennale is still the most important architecture exhibition in the world, and for us it was a privilege to be part of it. The artistic director was Alejandro Aravena, and we investigated the potentiality and possibility of developing the common goods, and their relevance in our society. We chose ten possible declinations for the concept of the common goods: legality, participatory processes, housing, and more. For every topic, we invited two Italian firms, most being young firms under their 40s. Some of the projects were built in the Biennale like an opera prima. I think that these same topics are important now, and will become more important in the next 10 to 15 years.

GV: Do you have a final message for the “New Generations” of architects?

SS: I can answer this by quoting Samuel Beckett: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better”. And moreover, as Oscar Niemeyer said: “Architecture is a pretext, the important is human being, the important is life”.

‘Taking Care’, Italian Pavilion, 2016 Venice Biennale. ©TAMassociati.

    Date of office foundation



    Rotterdam, Oslo, Munich, Beijing

    Number of employees

    approx. 75

Nanne de Ru

Founder of Powerhouse Company


GV: Hello Nanne, I would like to start this interview by understanding more about the beginning part of your career. First of all, why did you decide to be an architect? And when did you decide to found your own practice?

NdR: I started from a very young age knowing I wanted to be an architect. I think I was maybe twelve or thirteen. So when I was studying, I always had an idea that I wanted to make my own practice at some point. But I guess it was only when I was studying at the Berlage Institute, here in Rotterdam, that I really started to imagine how it could work. At that time I was very good friends with Alexander Sverdlov and Charles Bessard, and we wanted to make a kind of international practice that would not necessarily be Dutch, French or Russian, because Charles is French and Alexander is Russian. We wanted to make it more international.

Nanne de Ru. ©Milan Vermeulen.

As we finished our degrees we also realised that we didn’t have enough experience yet, so we all started working in different places. I worked for three years at AMO, and then in 2005 I thought it was time to create my own practice with Charles and Alexander. Alexander dropped out quite fast, and Charles actually dropped out about a year ago. The idea was always to create a company which would be multinational, and have different branches in different countries. One which would have relative independence in the way it would run, but would have this common idea of creating what we want to call a ‘Powerhouse Company’, meaning a group of people who were really ambitious about what we wanted to achieve in terms of architecture. But also very ambitious in trying to break open the mold of architecture. To go beyond only designing buildings, but maybe also doing advertising or designing products. That was our initial ambition: to really make it quite broad – from research, to interior design, to urban planning and architecture.

It was ironic that we wanted to create a pretty large company from the beginning, but had a hard time finding these large clients. We ended up doing a couple of houses at the start, which were things we could find from clients who were friends, family, or friends of family. We could easily convince them that they could try working with us, and that we could do different things for them. It led to an interesting start, where we had these kind of houses in the beginning and a lot of time to work on them. We spent a lot of time, effort and energy on them, and at the same time these were the kind of clients you really need to take along with you. So you were on quite a personal journey with all of these clients about what architecture is, how you can live in architecture and how far you can push your ambition as an architect.

GV: Villa1 represents one of the most successful projects from the early days of the Powerhouse Company. Why was it such a success?

NdR: Villa1 was a very personal project in a way, also because I developed a very special friendship with the client. I guess it kind of covered the entire spectrum of architecture in one building, so it was about detailing, architectural references, designing with nature and designing with daylight. It’s about how you materialise things but also how you detail it, how you build it, and how you convince the builders to build it in the right way. It was a big moment in terms of publicity and prizes. We won a lot of prizes with that first project. But funnily enough, it was very hard to get work because there was no work due to the crisis. The beginning years were characterized by, on the one hand this clear ambition, and then also by finding out how we then achieved this kind of scale and width. Everybody thought we were Villa architects: “Powerhouse – the Villa1”. So a lot of people came to us for houses, but we wanted to do different things as well, such as offices or schools. It was funny that we found it harder to do social housing than villas, because the villas just kept coming in.

«Everybody thought we were Villa architects: “Powerhouse – the Villa1”. So a lot of people came to us for houses, but we wanted to do different things as well, such as offices or schools»

GV: Do you recall any funny anecdotes related to that period of time?

NdR: Villa1 project that was about 500 square metres, and the cost of the building was quite significant in our eyes. It was a big responsibility that we finished in time and within budget. I thought at that point that I would never do a house which is bigger than 500 square metres. But then, a client who wanted a house of 1400 square metres came to me, and the budget was even larger, so it was quite an empowering moment. At the same time there was a client who wanted to do an office building, which was maybe the same cost as the Villa 1, but a larger building of course. And he was really quite rude, asking me: “Have you ever worked with budgets? Do you know how to do detailing?” And he was just a contractor kind of client who did not care about architecture. I really wanted to do this office building, but it was very hard for me to swallow my pride, because you are working on a such refined, precise architecture, and then at the same time, you have this brutal guy who obviously doesn’t give a f*** about architecture and is being really rude to you, questioning you, saying “What can you do?”

We had a big commission for a competition for a renovation of a train station in Amsterdam. Very prestigious. We were shortlisted along with a lot of big offices, and in the end, we were left with only one other party. We made a very well-designed scheme, and the briefing from the client, who were the Dutch railways and the commercial developer of the Dutch railways, was very ambitious. This was going to be a shopping area with only the best shops, it was going to be very expensive and very high end, so the design needed to reflect this. We had to present it to the board, so I was really thinking, oh my God, I am going to talk to the directors of the railway company, this is a very important moment. Then we came to present it to the board, and it was obvious that it was at the end of the very long meeting. Architecture was, I guess, the final dessert. They were all quite distracted, and I remember that the first question after the presentation was: “It is a good design, but does it also suit a Burger King?” And I was so shocked, thinking how can you ask that? But it was, again, a moment when you realise when you do commercial architecture, how important it is to be flexible whilst maintaining quite a high standard.

GV: What did you learn from these experiences?

NdR: So for the beginning years, these experiences were very important in terms of learning the mechanisms of how architecture operates in reality and of how projects get realised, rather than what you learn in school, which is way more of a filtered reality. There were a lot of these kind of learning moments where you learn how to work with clients, how to really match their ambitions, and how to understand the real ambition behind the client.

Nanne de Ru

Founder of Powerhouse Company


GV: Let’s now talk about the present day. Can you tell us how Powerhouse Company has developed into what it represents today?

NdR: We started in 2005 with three people and now we have about 75. I think that in the last year we have grown from 50 to 75. How to organise this growth, and how to structure it has been our main challenge in the last few months. At the same time, I have already prepared the office to grow in the last years by basically creating a structure where we have four partners: Stefan Prins, Stijn Kemper, Paul Stavert, and myself. We have a number of associates, and their different personalities are all rather complementary to each other. The thing we spend a lot of time on is this idea of ‘team building’ – not in the sense of trying to sit together and be happy – but rather, to create moments when we can have a lot of critical reflection together. Our main purpose is to create leadership that is about critical reflection and diversity, so that our employees have their own different personalities, rather than being copies of the founder.

«Every exceptional building that you know is not only designed by an exceptional architect, but it is also commissioned by an exceptional client»

GV: You grew very quickly in the last few years. What kind of projects do you normally carry out?

NdR: As an office, Powerhouse Company also serves quite a wide range of design and products. So we are designing door handles, boats, interiors; but then, of course, we are also designing houses and buildings, city quarters, and we are also doing a lot of engineering and detailing. We also do site supervision, which is super practical. That whole spectrum requires a lot of different types of people.

Powerhouse Company office, Rotterdam, ©Anna Ciolina.

GV: Would you like to mention any other aspects of Powerhouse Company and its internal organisation?

NdR: About four years ago, we began asking for the advice of a business psychologist four times per year. He holds consultancy and analysis sessions within the office to contemplate with us how the company is growing, how the different characters are working together, and what kind of potential conflicts there could be. I really wanted to take on this kind of element of psychology, because as you grow beyond 30 people, the machine becomes like an organism in itself.

GV: It is known that today the economic crisis has marked the new generations of architects. Moreover, the conditions which define the world we live differ a lot from the past (socially, geographically, politically, digitally, etc.). Do you think that, compared with the situation prior the economic crisis, today’s architects have different roles, ambitions, and needs?

NdR: We have always been interested in the mechanisms behind architecture: not only cultural mechanisms, but also economic mechanisms. What is on the other side of the mirror? When we study architecture, we mainly learn about how the design is conceived and how the architects created the design. But what we don’t really learn is what kinds of clients there are, for instance.
From which economic reality do the clients ask this question? From which social and cultural ideas do they project this demand to an architect? Because in a way, when you think about it, almost every exceptional building that you know is not only designed by an exceptional architect, but it is also commissioned by an exceptional client. Like the Salk Institute, or the Mies van der Rohe Seagram building. We never fully realise that the profession of architecture is actually an extremely economical activity, and I would even argue that nowadays, it is almost entirely related to finance. There is only a very, very small part of architecture which is not commoditised at this particular point.

GV: What is the most important factor that has continued to shape your practice today?

NdR: When I look at our practice today, it’s shaped in a way that we actually analyse our clients’ demands: we always try to understand what their motivation is from social, economic and cultural perspectives. But we also think about how can we make sure that the investment on the building is going to be maximised through the value we create with it – that creates a very different kind of awareness that the role that architecture plays. I think that it is evident in the way in which we grow as an office, because we combine those two things: architecture and design on the one hand; and the other, being able to counsel our clients on what the real values that they can create with architecture are.

GV: Through the work of Itinerant Office, and especially during the last edition of the New Generations Festival, we have focused our attention on three main aspects which I believe to be quite important to define and provide an overview of the changes that are characterising our profession. ‘Public Space’, ‘New Economies’ and ‘Digital Infrastructure’: are these topics central to your architectural practices?

NdR: I think that a real big difference between 50 years ago and now is that because of the crisis, things have become more difficult for creatives. And that is very paradoxical as I think there are fields, especially in the internet world, where creatives have actually got it a lot easier. A lot of online companies have taken over the opportunities that architects had in the ‘built’ domain through the ‘unbuilt’ domain. That’s one layer. The other layer which is important to mention is that 15 years ago, there was still a pretty strong nation state in Europe, which was already in decline, already under pressure, already being liberalized. I think now, 15 years later, it’s like there is almost nothing left of the public domain, especially in The Netherlands. Here, there is still a strong state, which still carries some values for culture and its dissemination. But when you really look at it, when we build schools, it is done through market parties, contractors and developers. It’s not by the government anymore. When they build museums or libraries they outsource to what they call ‘the market’. I think the real challenge is that the three topics you mention are, by themselves, a link to a decent public infrastructure. But when we don’t really have it anymore, as an architect it’s very hard to experiment within those layers.

Nanne de Ru

Founder of Powerhouse Company


GV: Through the analysis of our present conditions, we might be able to anticipate relevant concept in the future. Do you have any key issues in mind which you think could become increasingly more relevant in the architectural debate in the upcoming years?

NdR: I think one of the things that is very common already but will become increasingly dominant, is the whole concept of hospitality. I think you see it in workplaces: all the offices are designed almost like living rooms or hotels. Even design are, of course, very much about welcoming people to share space and moments together. I think the border between living (including temporary living, like hotels) and working is becoming increasingly diffused. I think that is a really strong trend.

«The real paradox of today is that informality in itself is no longer a tool for subversion. It has become almost entirely commoditised»

Another trend we will see, especially in Europe, is the whole idea of urban living. This is picking up an incredible speed, and of course, is not necessarily about how many people live in cities, but more about how many people live in an within those cities. And that means that they want to have more programs around them and to be able to experience different types of culture within their living area. I think that the big challenge is also the affordability: how do we keep it all accessible and affordable? How do we avoid the kind of ‘London syndrome’, where cities become more urban, yet extremely inaccessible for most of the people living in them?

I also believe there is a huge challenge in tourism. It is extremely prominent in many Italian cities like Rome, Florence and Venice, but also in places like Amsterdam and Barcelona. These are cities which are simply overflown with tourists, and where you really feel the pressure point is beyond the maximum. There is a real strong sense of conflict between the local culture and this continuous flood wave of visitors. This brings back the topic of identity in architecture really strongly. How can we create new buildings that reinforce the sense of place and really connect with the local identity? That’s also what I mean with urban living: it’s more and more important to create distinct forms of urban living that relate to a particular city, feel authentic, and create a sense of belonging.

GV: Looking towards the future, what are the largest obstacles we face as a profession?

NdR: The biggest challenge we have as architects at the moment is how we are going to confront this new capital that is going to be pumped into real estate. The European real estate market is growing a lot, with a lot of transactions going on and a lot of people wanting to invest in architecture. How are we going to answer that question? How are we going to make sure that the buildings we create are good buildings for the city? Berlin is a good example. For a long time, Berlin has been a sleeping beauty. Everybody was in love with it because it was such a cool place to go: spacious, urban, diverse and genius. And everybody was aware of how incredibly cheap it was. You didn’t have to be an architect to be in love with the city. I think that in the last few years, it has seen a flip, when all of a sudden the international investor has started to discover this potential. Berlin is booming at the moment, but you can feel that the local identity starts to slip. As an architect, how do you give an answer to that particular paradox? How do you avoid destroying the kind of spirit that you want to keep when you add new things? I think that is an extremely complicated topic in architecture.

Render of Assen station, 2014. ©MIR.

GV: In terms of the relation between the present and the future, I think that big companies are playing an important role. They are part of a new infrastructure which has a direct influence in our daily lives, both as architects and users. What are your opinions on this matter?

NdR: Big companies like Google tend to communicate extremely informally with you, even though they are extremely large and powerful. The real paradox of today is that informality in itself is no longer a tool for subversion. It has become almost entirely commoditised. That is also what you see with the whole idea of the ‘disruptive startup’, and the fact that this could be worth one billion dollars – like Snapchat – which in itself it is the extreme idea of the ‘informal mediator’, if you wish.
However, it is no longer a part of the subdomain or the independent domain. It’s entirely swallowed by global capital. And that is why I think that one of the biggest challenges for architects is to operate within global capital whilst being independant, and to work with this, whilst understanding how to use it for your own good.

GV: What would you like to advise to the ‘New Generations’ of architects?

NdR: I guess that the best advice I would give to young architects who want to start their own practice is actually quite simple, it’s basically three things. You have to be prepared to work really, really hard – it is really, really hard work. Then you have to force yourself to be both curious and critical. Try to explore things that you don’t know about, and to understand things that you don’t understand. And I think thirdly – this is something that a lot of architects forget – you should have a lot of fun. It’s very important that you party and have fun whilst working so hard.

    Date of office foundation



    Florence, Rome, Milan, Beijing, Dubai, Sãu Paulo

    Number of employees

    approx. 80

Marco Casamonti

Co-founder of Archea Associatti


GV: Hello Marco, I would like to start this interview by talking about the beginning conditions that characterised your career. When and why did you decide to study architecture, and how did you then continue to practice the discipline as a professional?

MC: I began studying architecture because I was in love with my wife, Laura Andreini. At that time she was my girlfriend and she loved architecture a lot, while I wanted to be a lawyer, which is totally different. But in the end, after highschool I decided to follow her and study architecture. In our third year of university we met Adolfo Natalini, one of the best professors of Florence University. In that moment I understood that architecture was my life. Towards the end of university, me and Laura met Giovanni Polazzi, and immediately before the graduation we decided to open an office together. But we didn’t start working, as we didn’t have work at that time. Instead, we decided to participate in competitions. I followed my professor, Aurelio Cortesi, who is a fantastic architect that was part of Casabella Magazine during the 50s and 60s. He pushed me to study more. I took my masters and studied for three years, and during this time we won some competitions, even though our office was so small, starting with only three architects.

«It is important firstly to have a dream, an idea, a desire in order to realise something. If you start to study and organise yourself, you can find a client who becomes interested in your study and asks you to realise a project for them»

Our practice had a special approach, especially in the beginning. Each time before we realised a project, we started to study and open a research. In the past, I tried to study what it means to build a winery: in what way is it possible to think of and renovate this typology? I wrote a book about that. After two or three years, we found a client who asked us to do a winery. This is how a lot of projects come about. It is very important to open a research and a view in one direction, and from that, you can realise your dream. It is important firstly to have a dream, an idea, a desire in order to realise something. If you start to study and organize yourself, you can find a client who becomes interested in your study and asks you to realise a project for them. We have a nice history of doing this, and at the moment we have a project of a stadium through these means. I am a professor at Genoa University, and five years ago at the university I started to study what it means to build a stadium today. After these five years, we got an appointment to design a stadium. This is exactly how things happen to us.

GV: What does it mean to be an Italian architect practicing in Florence, one of the most relevant cities in terms of cultural heritage? Does this have a direct effect on the way you understand architecture?

MC: We are interested in understanding what it means to be an Italian architect. What are the rules that we can have as Italian architects? We think that the best period for Italian architecture was during the 50s and 60s after the Second World War. The country was completely destroyed, we were almost out of the debate, because the debate of architecture was in another countries: Germany, France, USA, etc. But we had a fantastic period in cinema. Can you imagine what meant to have Visconti or Rossellini, or artists like Renato Guttuso, or writers like Vasco Pratolini, all in Italy? New realism was a fantastic, incredible idea of what it means to be poor, as after this period the Italian people were very poor. What did it mean to think for ourselves, and to have energy for the future? To reflect on the history, on the past and your identity is the power for the future. That period can be considered as the integration between cinema, art and architecture. It is so important because it was created out of modernism, and at this time, modernism meant fascism, as the architecture of this period was completely connected with the political condition, and architects don’t have any idea that they reflect on themselves. One of the first movies during the Second World War was ‘Roma, città aperta’, where Rossellini reflects on the conditions during the war, and the disruption that it caused after the war.

It is important to understand that the knowledge of past knowledge is the foundation of new knowledge. If you know your culture and conditions very well, you can hope to move forwards and create something of use. Sometimes journalists ask me: “What is the best period of architecture?” I think that all of the periods of architecture are fantastic – but I was born in Florence, so the best period was the Renaissance, and its secret is to share tradition with innovation. This is the history of Michelangelo, who studied classic sculptures from the Greek and Roman periods before realising David, which the citizens in Florence did not like because it seemed too modern for them. But before Michelangelo, there was an incredible classical culture, meaning that Michelangelo had the capacity to share tradition and innovation. This is the line of Italian culture: if you were born in Italy, you can’t delete your past, but you can think towards the future.

Marco Casamonti

Co-founder of Archea Associati


GV: Archea Associati is one of the Italian practices that has been growing constantly in the past few years, with offices in Italy and abroad. Could you please tell me more about your firm?

MC: Now, we have around 120 architects working with us, depending on the projects. I won’t increase the size of the office any more, because it is too big for me. It is impossible for us to control it. There are four associates today: Me, Laura, Giovanni and Silvia Fabi, who was one of my first students in the university. We have different offices: one in Florence (which is the historical one), one in Milan, one in Beijing, one in Sãu Paulo, and one in Dubai. Our experience takes the energy from different countries. For example, we don’t have any built work in Brazil, but because our office is there, it is important for us to take a lot from Brazilian culture, ambition and art. For this reason, I don’t consider that we are a company that have a lot of offices: we have one office in which we work together, and fortunately technology gives us the opportunity to share a lot of information at the same time. I am very curious – I love to learn and study – so for this reason, this idea of separating the offices in different countries is the best condition for learning, and learning is the best activity for an architect.

GV: The title of this project is ‘Past, Present, Future’. How do you interpret these three concepts, and how can you relate it with your personal interest in history?

MC: Past, present and future are three moments that are very important, and you can only find the present if you think in the future and you have the knowledge of the past. In my opinion the present moves, as each day is the present. You can think to the future and have a dream, but you can only do so with knowledge of past. If you only think in the past, you will live in nostalgia. I believe we should both live and build in the present – this is exactly the secret of Renaissance.

«We need to feel this responsibility and to realise that when we build, we change a piece of Earth for many years»

Filippo Brunelleschi was a fantastic architect, intellect, artist, engineer and mathematician, who built incredible buildings like Santa Maria del Fiore. He discovered the secret of perspective – a vision which is very important. We have lost the understanding that an architect is an artist that has a big vision; instead, we think that an architect is a person who design facades for buildings, and that’s all. We need to look at the past to understand that an architect is a person who can change the world. We might think that this is an exaggeration, but our discipline modifies the Earth. We need to feel this responsibility and to realise that when we build, we change a piece of Earth for many years. Having knowledge of engineering, architecture, art and literature is important, like Vitruvio taught us. The knowledge of today is totally vertical, for example, people can be engineers, lawyers or doctors. Our discipline is different: it is completely horizontal. We need to have a little bit of knowledge of a lot of fields. As an architect, you need to understand economics, as if you spend too much money, your client will not pay your commission. You need to know how to interpret law, because everyday we fight with the law. But you also need to be an artist, because in the end, architecture is one of the best arts. I consider architecture one of the best disciplines, so I am proud to be an architect.

Facade of Udine stadium, 2014-2016. ©Pietro Savorelli.

Marco Casamonti

Co-founder of Archea Associati


GV: If you had to find a single keyword for the future of this discipline, what would it be?

MC: Architecture is the discipline of respect. Respect nature, other people, differences, knowledge, citizens, life. If we lose the meaning of this important word, we lose the energy of architecture. It is very clear that after the industrial revolution we started to destroy an incredibly beautiful world, we destroyed everything. We use oil everywhere, but it creates incredible problems in terms of climate change. We have hurricanes, typhoons, it’s cold in the summer and warm in the winter. I don’t know what has happened, but we now have this responsibility, and this world is not so big. There are over seven billion people in the world. But what will happen when there are fifteen billion? We need to respect people, life and their relations. This is the only keyword: respect.

Archea Associati team at Antinori winery. ©Archea Associati.

GV: What do you think about other ‘trendy’ terms such as ‘bio-architecture’?

MC: Today a lot of people speak about bio-architecture. I don’t like this term, as all architecture needs to be bio. Why would you create architecture that consumes a lot of energy and destroys the Earth? I love to talk about architecture, not bio-architecture. For this reason, if you work as architect, you work to make the people’s lives better. When I was young, my approach was to think about myself, my architecture, my design. This was totally wrong. We need to think in the other people: we don’t work for us, we work for others.

GV: In what ways is technology changing the architectural discipline? Is it a positive or negative thing?

MC: If we consider technology as a digital opportunity – like a tool – we have a good approach. If we think that the digital condition is able to change our mind, we are completely wrong. Fortunately, we live in a digital period, and we have technology, such as Skype, with which I can share my screen and directly control what is happening in our Beijing office. We use this technology like tools, but when I go to my desk I take only my pencil, then I think: “architecture”.

GV: What advice would you give to the “New Generations”of designers?

MC: In each age of your life, don’t forget to learn. Because that is the secret to create something different, to think differently, to have a good idea for the future. If you learn, you need to study, and you will have the knowledge of the past. So you can cross from past to future, and share tradition with innovation. Never stop learning. I suggest that you should be curious. If you are not curious, it is impossible to learn.

    Date of office foundation



    Amsterdam, Hong Kong, Shanghai

    Number of employees

    approx. 185

Caroline Bos

Co-founder of UNStudio


GV: Hello Caroline – you and Ben van Berkel are the co-founders of UNStudio, a renowned architectural practice based in Amsterdam, with a series of satellite offices in other countries around the globe. How did it all start?

CB: We went to London in the 1980s from Amsterdam because Ben, who was a graphic designer at the time, wanted to study at the AA – Architectural Association which he always said was ‘The Mecca’ of architecture education. It was incredibly formative, and we were not just studying. Ben was studying architecture, and myself, history of art and architecture, but we were very quickly asked to write about architecture, and review art exhibitions that were happening there in London, also for Dutch newspapers and magazines. And quickly we used this to introduce to the Netherlands all the architects that we strongly believed in at that time, like Zaha Hadid, who we wrote at least two major, full page articles about in a big Dutch newspaper. But also Daniel Libeskind, and Coop Himmelb(l)au. This meant that for us, architecture was very much a cultural effort from the beginning, and was completely linked to culture in a broader sense.

When we then came back to Amsterdam to start our own practice, it was a complete extension of that. Learning to be an architect only started once we had become an architectural practice in many ways. The many lessons you learn are very diverse. Firstly, how you get a project is sometimes really difficult. At that time, there wasn’t yet the system of the European regulations and all these things, so anyone could just ask you to design something, which was very lucky. Also, people were more happy to take a risk with an unknown architect. For instance, the Erasmus Bridge was really an incredible opportunity for an architect who had hardly built anything – maybe even nothing at all yet. And it just came about because Ben had a small job as a guest teacher at the TU Delft, and a very important professor there of civil engineering, Arie Krijgsman, was advisor to the urban planner of Rotterdam at that time, Riek Bakker. She asked him to nominate two architects to advise her on this new city bridge that she was planning, and so he advised one of the best known, most experienced architects of that time, Wim Quist, and a young unknown who he just met and thought might be interested, and that was Ben. From that series of meetings, Ben produced a sketch that was selected by everyone – they believed in it. So that was a complete fluke to happen, nothing that you could plan or strategise or think about how you want your career to develop. That was the beginning. After came a long process where you were hanging on by your fingernails to try to keep that project, to keep your stamp, and to keep everyone believing in it and involved in it.

Sketch of Erasmus bridge. ©UNStudio.

GV: Do you have any particular anecdote that you would like to share from this time in your career?

CB: I also have a memory of another time. I used to be in the office at all times because it was also our home, until we had to move out later because our living space became smaller and smaller. Very late on a Friday afternoon, the phone rang and someone said, “I need someone to design the skin around an electrical appliance”. I had a vivid image of an electric hand mixer at that point, so I said smoothly “do you need an architect for that?” But that turned out to be our first major commission: the Electricity substation in Amersfoort. I completely misunderstood and almost dismissed this client, but luckily not quite. I think that project had already been rejected by two or three other architects, so we were never at the front of the list at that time. We clawed our way up.

GV: I am also interested in understanding what your main focus of investigation was at the first stage of your career. Which were the most urgent issues you sought to solve, as a young practitioner?

CB: When we came back to the Netherlands, we were on the one hand in a very strong position, because in some ways we had a name already, as we had published so much and we were part of that culture circuit. But on the other hand, we were strongly disadvantaged because we hadn’t studied at Delft, so we had no network there. And maybe more importantly, we couldn’t do social housing (which is what Dutch architecture was all about) because everyone else was much better at it than us. They had trained for those five years in Delft, and they knew how to get the most out of every single centimeter of the apartment and of the house.

«We did not want to talk about form or style: it was about the organisation»

Out of necessity, we had to find completely different topics of interest and specialisation. I think that it became an enduring fascination to always look beyond typology, and to always want to break out of that box – which we still do. We had to find an interest in mixed-use, which we still do strongly believe in. We had to redefine the architecture project for ourselves. Because of this interest, along with a need to not follow the predefined typology, and instead becoming an expert in a well-known niche, we were always interested in where architecture can be innovative. In the way it is used, in the way it is positioned, in the way it also sees itself as an art.

We did not want to talk about form or style: it is about the organisation. And I think this idea is still very important for us. This debate and discourse, partly academic and theoretical, flows from the people, because we talk about diagrams and design models. All of the theory comes after that, in many ways, which is interesting, because then in turn, it begins to enrich and inform what you can actually do. It all begins from a real need of yourself – but that own need actually reflects a society with a much broader need for a change.

Caroline Bos

Co-founder of UNStudio


GV: Let’s now talk about UNStudio, today. How has the company grown to become what it is now?

CB: UNStudio has grown according to these early patterns: extremely diverse, innovative, and always finding opportunities to change. Because we are not really a Dutch practice per se, we have had to find projects in other places and look beyond our own borders. That means that we now have offices in Shanghai and Hong Kong, and we work in dozens of other countries around the world, with over 200 employees worldwide. Most of them are architects, but there are also industrial and interior designers, and we have an urban unit with urban designers and urban planners.

«We have always been very weary of seeing the economy as the most important parameter. We have always promoted a, what we call, ‘relational approach’»

We primarily specialise in architecture and the built environment. We have always been very weary of seeing the economy as the most important parameter. We have always promoted a, what we call, ‘relational approach’. We have had some theoretical projects aiming to warn against trying to maximize one parameter at the cost of others, especially with the economic parameter, as it has always been so predominant and it is becoming more and more narrowly framed. We try to experiment with other models of defining architecture in relation to economy. I think it’s a really interesting field.

Caroline Bos, UNStudio office, Amsterdam. ©Eva Bloem.

GV: How does the work of architects vary in our present day circumstances? Is our profession timeless, or is it changing continuously in response to our immediate environments?

CB: I think the vision of the architect as the archetypal figure has not changed too much. There are probably several different ways in which some architects are masters of a craft, and work on one building from start to finish; whilst others, like ours, are extremely active, and do many different things simultaneously. The field around you changes a lot, so you adapt to it in a Darwinian way – we are very interested in this. For us, it is incredibly fascinating to see architecture as something that is very much of its own time and place. A lot of our special theories have been about studying what architecture is in this context, and what the role of the architect is. We have written about this several times, and in our most recent book ‘Knowledge Matters’, where we try to give out some tools and ideas about how the profession is expanding. We see, in a way, a dematerialisation of the profession, where it’s no longer so much about the end product at all. We can now define architecture more broadly in time: where does it begin? And when does it end? We think this is a very interesting challenge of our time, and something for architects to really get into now.

Caroline Bos

Co-founder of UNStudio


GV: Digital infrastructure and new medias represent an interesting field in which UNStudio has been doing a lot of research. In what ways is the architectural discipline being expanded due to the use of new technologies?

CB: I predict that the profession will expand through knowledge, sensor-based design and adaptivity. Adaptivity is clearly a very important issue for architecture in the future. Then, of course, there is also technology: changing technologies and new technologies which have been always at the cornerstone of everything we have done. These new digital practices have never been completely about how we can look at design in a new way – they are much more than that alone. They open up collaboration, new productivity, and now we are at a point where we are moving towards seriously studying all of the consequences that are possible as a result of adapting to these new technologies.

Render of South Sea Pearl Eco-Island, Hainan, 2016. ©UNStudio.

One example is using more sensor-based architecture: we could envisage a future where architecture is mostly software, and that’s incredibly interesting to explore. Knowledge development is completely related to that, where the architectural project becomes more and more diverse, and incorporates studies that are done through working increasingly with academic institutions, manufacturers and so on. These projects are being found in places other than the most obvious. This is hopeful and promising: it is not always the old path of someone else, but new ways. It becomes more and more important to ask ourselves: Why? What does it bring in terms of health to people and to the planet?

GV: Are there any aspects of these new technological concepts that UNStudio has been experimenting with recently?

CB: Our ideas have to evolve through practice, as well. You can call it ‘envisioning practices’. We can only speculate on the future by incrementally reaching it. In that sense, we are so lucky that in this profession we are doing exactly this: we are envisioning the future. In some ways, we are always living in the future – at least four years ahead. UNStudio has been lucky enough to work on urban plans that are proposing new realities. Most recently we did a competition in Korea for an island, and before that we did a speculative vision for a Haikou Island of the coast of South China. Thinking with these digital layers about how people can use and live with them, we can gradually work towards a final image. I don’t believe in saying some bold words, and that being enough – I don’t think that’s architecture. No, not for us.

GV: Do you have a final message for the ‘New Generations’ of designers?

CB: What’s the message in the bottle? It’s very difficult because you don’t know who will find it, or how the message will arrive. I don’t want to put myself in the position of someone who gives advice. Our history shows that we had to learn by doing, and there also had to be some opposition taking place. With any message I would send to someone, they would have to tear up and say: “No! I would never do it that way”. And that’s it.

    Date of office foundation



    Milan, Shanghai, Eindhoven, Tirana

    Number of employees

    approx. 30

Stefano Boeri

Founder of Stefano Boeri Architetti


GV: Hello Stefano, in this first part of the interview, I would like to understand some of the key aspects that have characterised your career, starting from the beginning. What influenced your decision to study architecture?

SB: The beginning of your career is always strongly influenced by your private, familiar relations. In my case, I was influenced by my mother who is an architect and a furniture designer. When I was 17 we were together in California to visit the Salk Institute of Louis Kahn. This was the one crucial moment when I seriously thought about becoming an architect, as the experience was amazing. I saw this artificial landscape that was implying the idea of the ocean without physically representing it, as it was a public space where groups of students, researchers and professors were moving in an unpredictable way, within this very fixed landscape. That was the beginning of everything for me.

«My life as an architect was always a kind of a mediation between two main directions. One is about research and inclusion: the capacity to absorb suggestions, ideas and information. And the other is about design, which means a selection of opportunities and a necessity to arrive at the unique, physical configuration»

At the same time, the presence of my mother was constant and not so easy to deal with, so from the beginning I decided that it was not convenient for us to work together. When I finished secondary school I honestly tried to find other alternatives, but it was like a spiral. I explored all the possibilities – I was quite attracted by oceanographic studies and marine biology. But in the end I returned to architecture. It is not a coincidence that my first orientation was towards urbanism and planning theories, as this is because at that very moment, my mother was involved in interiors and architecture and furniture. But my unique focus was architecture, so I had approached architecture from different perspectives.

GV: How did you then take your first steps in the professional field?

SB: In 1986 I won a three year PhD at the University of Venice for urban planning. My focus was on the reinterpretation of three texts from the 60s, written by the architects Aymonino, Gregotti and Rossi, which I had reinterpreted and developed from an urban planning perspective. This hybrid condition was very peculiar from the beginning, and characterised the entire first period of my career.

My first steps as an architect included doing competitions as well as some interiors for friends. In 1992 I won ex aequo – the second prize – of the Europan Competition in Pavia for an enlargement of an university campus. It was funny because Cino Zucchi won the same prize in another city, and we met in Rotterdam. At the same time, I was studying the phenomena connected with what we used to call ‘the diffused city’ and the ‘European declination of sprawl’. I was also involved in the production of an atlas called ‘Il territorio che cambia’, (The Changing Territory) together with the urban planner and geographer Arturo Lanzani, and the architect and photographer Edoardo Marini. That experience was very important because it was probably one of the first atlases in Europe that was based on contemporary urban environments. We didn’t translate it from Italian, but part of it was translated in Holland by a very important magazine, which allowed me to get into a more international field. So, as an architect I was just starting out, but as a researcher I had a lot of interesting connections.

GV: During these first years, did you develop a specific approach towards architecture?

SB: I remember that the first conference I had was in Wien Architekturzentrum. I was invited to present this work alongside Richard Sennett, who was presenting one of his first books, ‘Conscience of the Eyes’. In a way, my life as an architect was always a kind of a mediation between two main directions. One is about research and inclusion: the capacity to absorb suggestions, ideas and information. And the other is about design, which means a selection of opportunities and a necessity to arrive at the unique, physical configuration. The scale doesn’t matter – it could be an object, a room, a house or a city. These two lines are parallel, because what is about research is also about inclusion, and what is about design is also about exclusion. The methodologies and approaches to develop these two lines are totally different. Urban analysis is a necessary condition to develop any kind of design approach or architectural proposal. An idea would be to imagine a linear sequence and temporal sequence: with first the analysis, followed by the design proposal.

GV: Around this period of time, you built many important relationships with interesting personalities, which have presumably had a direct influence on the way you approach architecture. I would like you to talk about some of them.

SB: Some years after that, I met Giancarlo De Carlo, and found that the way in which he completely reversed this relation was both astonishing and fantastic. He said that we first have to provoke an environment with the proposal, and then the environment will give us the information. This was a very smart way to reverse. Honestly, I think that both of these ways which try to impose a temporal sequence on design research are insufficient – not wrong, but poor. I prefer to think, and this comes from my experience, that these two lines are parallel, and they need to have very exclusive and different approaches, which need to be kept together inside us.

In terms of connections with the real maestri, the first was Bernardo Secchi, for sure. It was unique how he ordered the logic of thoughts, and he is still a model for that. Giancarlo was completely different. He was more about passion than the construction of logic, and was not following a rational order but had more intuition, inspiration, capacity and sensitivity with the physical world and the behaviour of people. It was a completely different thing, but also very strong. Another person was Rem Koolhaas who was more of a friend to me than Bernardo and Giancarlo, as he was closer to me in age. When I invited him to Genoa in 1994, I remembered that Gregotti said that I was inviting a traitor – someone who was abandoning the rigor of real architecture. Of course, he was joking, as then there was this rhetoric of constructivism, which was actually completely different from Rem’s line, but as we know well, Rem was involved with it and identified as one of the most important representatives of that line. We met Jean-François Chevrier, an art historian and a very sophisticated French artist, at Documenta X in 1997, which was organised by himself and Catherine David. Jean-François had to transform the concept that I had developed through my work in ‘Il territorio che cambia’ into an ‘Eclectic Atlas’ – a concept which I was using a lot since I started my career as a teacher, researcher and architect. It is the idea that if you want to describe an environment, you have to use many perspectives, not only one.

GV: Let’s focus on the 90s. It seems that you have been building a great network of interesting collaborators, through a series of different projects, both in Italy and internationally. Can you tell me more about your personal experience?

SB: Whilst publishing a book in 1992, I started to develop the Multiplicity Group together with John Palmesino, Francesco Jodice, Maddalena Bregani and Francisca Insulza. That was a very important part of my life as an architect. Multiplicity, at the beginning, was a way to translate a little bit what we had been studying with ‘Il territorio che cambia’ onto a larger scale. We were working on hybrid buildings or a new typology of buildings which reflected the mutations of contemporary cities.

In 1998 I was asked by Rem Koolhaas to run a team of designers to develop the master plans of the Port of Genoa. I invited Marcel Smets, Bernardo Secchi and Manuel de Solá-Morales to develop part of the port. A few months after, Rem asked me to be part of ‘Mutations’, which was a very big exhibition held in 2000. It was a way to make the Multiplicity group not only bigger as a network, but also more oriented to the activity of sampling, which was the starting point of Multiplicity: sampling in contemporary environments. We used this network containing different research groups to observe and compare these biopsies that we were doing on different parts of European territory through using the same gaze and methodology. In 2002, we received an invitation by Documenta 11 in Kassel, Germany, to exhibit our research on ‘Solid Sea’ and on the mutations of the Mediterranean context. This was extremely important, as they were milestones in the evolution of Multiplicity.

In 1986, I was starting my PhD and working with Bernardo Secchi who was really important to me in terms of the construction of a logical and ordered discourse. Bernardo was running a competition for the new Bicocca settlement and he invited me to be jury alongside Reyner Banham, Manfredo Tafuri, and Francesco Infussi. The jury was amazing, I remember well Tafuri saying: “All of these projects are mediocre, except the one of Gabetti e Isola”. So we had only one painter in a context full of ‘whitewashers’. A few months before, Banham was doing a public lecture at Statale (Università degli Studi di Milano), and at the end of the lecture I had the courage to meet him. I told him that I was part of the editorial team for ‘Urbanistica’ magazine, which was directed by Bernardo Secchi, and that I would love to visit him when we travelled to California. Secchi asked me to talk a little bit about Silicon Valley, as the lecture by Banham was a very interesting way to show the historical exchange of architectural styles between the US and Europe. It demonstrated how Silicon Valley was following a kind of new way of European modernism at that time, with minimalism and a use of very simple materials. In his opinion, this was one of the stylistics codes of the new settlement that was going to be built. When I went to California to meet him in Santa Cruz, he gave me a large map with all the buildings that he had selected as examples of this theory. It was a fantastic experience that I did alone, taking pictures which I put into an ‘Urbanistica’ publication. When I met him again in Milan as a member of jury, I gave him the map, and he told me I was the first person to give it back to him. He was so generous, so open, so curious – a really great person.

Stefano Boeri

Founder of Stefano Boeri Architetti


GV: After a few year working for the Municipality of Milan and other Italian public administrations, you returned to work full time in your practice, Stefano Boeri Architetti. How is the firm structured, today?

SB: We have two branches, one is in Milan and the other one is in Shanghai. We are probably going to open a very small office in Holland because we have now won a competition in Utrecht and just signed a contract for doing a vertical forest for social housing in Eindhoven.

The office in Milan is mirroring what we are: a bit of a mess. But I like this combination of different people coming from all over the world. We do everything connected with the future of the physical environment: master plans, large urban designs, and research projects. My mother has a space in this building, and she has a powerful influence over my imagination. We started to deal with interiors and furniture, and last year I designed the first furniture office for the Salone del Mobile: Mettitutto – a funny, and I hope also very interesting, device. I have four main very skilled and super smart senior architects who are working with me. Then we have four separate islands of production, which are directed by Giada Testa, who is helping us to organise this complex biological organism. I would define myself as an editor-in-chief, meaning I would never be able to do anything without the help of other people. I am quite capable of selecting talented people and making an environment for them in which they can do their best. That’s what I do when we design a building, write a text for a magazine, develop a research, or design an installation or an exhibition.

GV: In recent years, you have been focusing on a series of topics, such as the relation between nature and the urban environment. Are these some of your main focuses as an architect?

SB: I think that obsessions are much more than stylistic marks. They help you to be coherent and rigorous in your life as an architect. So I did my best to cultivate obsessions and failures. My career was full of mistakes, at a certain point I understood that it was very important to elaborate failures, and to make that elaboration public. And that is what I tried to do with the Villa Méditerranée that was constructed in Marseille to host the G8 events, which was probably the biggest failure. What I try to do with architecture is to never escape, or immediately remove failures. We work a lot, and when we make a mistake, we go over it, try to discuss it, and then extract something from it. That, for me, is amazing.In terms of these obsessions, I was always interested in exploring how we are using our thoughts and transforming them into something that is a type of metaphor in an external, physical environment. I call this thing ‘interior city’. I use this concept in many ways.

«I think that obsessions are much more than stylistic marks. They help you to be coherent and rigorous in your life as an architect»

Another obsession of mine is this concept of human nature in comparison to wild nature, and the relation between these two crazy, hybrid phenomena. There is still an open question, and I try to work with nature, and to never use what we consider as being ‘nature’ – something that is outside of our culture – like a material that can help you to edulcorate your architecture, simply in an ornamental way. What we did with the sea and the water in La Maddalena is not so different from what we have done with trees in Bosco Verticale in Milan or Vertical Forest in Utrecht. I prefer to establish a relation which has a very direct and simple superimposition and cohabitation, instead of trying to work on a metaphorical line, where architecture wants to use nature’s aesthetics in order to imitate it and follow its morphology. I like the idea that we can imagine buildings that are very simple, and in a way quite strong, ones that are being designed to host trees from the beginning.

Stefano Boeri

Founder of Stefano Boeri Architetti


GV: Talking about the present and the future, would you help me to define a couple of key issues that, in your opinion, are shaping the future of our profession?

SB: There are definitely some global issues, like the ones connected with climate change. I am now working as a consultant with Commonwealth on the project of Regenerative Development to Reverse Climate Change – it’s a very intriguing issue, and urban forestation is very important in that regard. The cities are producing 75% of the CO2 present in the atmosphere, and the forests are absorbing 30% of that. To move the forest inside the city is a way to fight the enemy in its field, but also to make the trees in the condition to use CO2, which is an amazing fertiliser for them. This is a serious point and it is not only about aesthetics or simply going back to nature.

«To move the forest inside the city is a way to fight the enemy in its field»

In 2013, I was asked by the municipality in Sao Paulo to develop a research on favelas, and I invited a research group who were studying slums, barracks and informal settlements in other cities like Medellin, Nairobi, Baghdad, Roma or Mumbai. It was amazing because we were trying to seriously work on this 33% of the population who are still in a condition of total poverty. I think that point is so important: we cannot forget this dimension of poverty. If we think of the land on Earth, cities are only representing the 2%. If we imagine a kind of super city, then this is the issue: the 33% of that unique city is made by informal settlements like favelas, barracks, and so on. We have to learn a lot from these kinds of settlements, because we cannot avoid taking care of them, nor can we think that it is possible to mitigate or transform them with a deterministic approach.

Because this kind of city – it is a city inside a city – has an amazing capacity to regenerate itself. It is dynamic, and sometimes it’s also capable of being extremely strong in producing local economic developments, so it’s an amazing process of superimposition of interior space without an external architecture. At the same time, it’s a very important phenomenon, and varies a lot from South America to Asia, and from Africa to Europe, but there is a common characteristic present everywhere. So those are the two main issues of the future: poverty and climate change.

GV: What advice would you give to the ‘New Generations’ of architects?

SB: Never abandon curiosity and the strive for inclusion by opening new windows in different parts of the world. At the same time, never abandon taking care of your capacity to design something which is heavy and physically super determinant. The best way to act as an architect is to accept schizophrenia as a necessity. We need to be schizophrenic if we want to be inclusive and exclusive at the same time, if we want to follow contemporary design research, and if we want to act as real architects.

    Date of office foundation:



    Rotterdam, São Paulo

    Number of employees:

    approx. 80

Kees Kaan

Co-founder of KAAN Architecten


GV: Starting with the final years of your studies, can you summarise some of the most interesting biographical aspects of your architectural career?

KK: When I was young I was spending a lot of time in the South West of the Netherlands, especially in the summers. I was totally fascinated by all the infrastructural works that went on there because of the floods that happened in 1953. Huge infrastructure was built to keep the land safe from the sea, which made me aware of designing in response to these extreme elements. I discovered that this type of design happened at the Technical University of Delft, and I thought that it was interesting. I wanted to be part of it. It was a very boyish notion, a very romantic idea of a profession. I began studying civil engineering – it was not architecture at all. Once I started, I discovered that all of the design happened in the architecture building next to me, whereas I was studying in the building where only the calculations were done. So after two months, I decided to move myself to the other faculty. And that is how I started architecture.

Kees Kaan in the period of his university studies.

On my first day, I met another student – Felix Claus – who started the course late, like me. We stayed in touch, and six years later we started the office Claus en Kaan. A few years after meeting, we both went on a trip with the architecture department to Vienna, and spent a lot of time together and talked a lot. I had a small commission that I wanted to do with somebody, and as Claus was already working in an architectural practice alongside his studies, I said: “You bring me into that practice, and then we do the commission together”. We made a deal, and that is how it started. On the year of my graduation I had two projects running simultaneously: one being my graduation, and the other being my first project in practice for the kick off of Claus en Kaan. Two months after our graduation, the construction of that first project began. From there, we started getting small commissions for small buildings, hoping that one day we would get a big housing commission, because that is what every Dutch architect wants to be part of. In our profession in the Netherlands, housing is a very important part. It is also a part in which you can develop as an architect and contribute in making the city.

GV: What was it like to start the practice so soon after school?

KK: We started our practice, we first had to find a space. We had no money, so we rented a garage. We had a name, we needed a postbox. We didn’t have email at that time as we were not digitalised, so we were still making hand drawings and all of the letters came by post. Then we decided to cut a hole in the door and we put a letterbox in it. Two days after that, a letter arrived from the neighbourhood organisation asking for an architectural consultancy. Maybe it sounds weird, but this is typical in the Netherlands. In the neighbourhoods, people get organised and gather money from the city to hire consultants to help them have debates with the city on changes made in the neighbourhood. That was the period of urban renewal, and this is how we became immediately involved with these types of activities in the area where our office was.

«Competitions mean promising a lot, and having very high ambitions. And I believe that what you promise, you have to deliver. That dilemma is very fascinating in our profession»

GV: Do you recall any particular story that, in a way, has influenced the first part of your career?

KK: We had this ability to make small projects – and I mean really small – like 200 or 300 square metre buildings. But one of those projects actually became a nominee for the Palladio Award, an important Italian prize at that time, and I remember sitting there in the room in Vicenza, hoping that our name would come out of the envelope – but it was David Chipperfield who won. However, through that event we met the editing house Gustavo Gili, who asked us if we were interested in doing a booklet for their ‘2G’ series.

For the introduction of the publication, we were interviewed by Carlos Ferrater, who put questions in front of us that made us aware of our way of thinking and working. We realised that it was normal, and there was something typical to it. What seemed normal for us, what we thought was simply the way we do things, was considered typically Dutch in the eyes of somebody from another area, country or culture. These kind of moments force you to reflect and make you aware of what you are doing intuitively.

GV: The first part of your career has been clearly characterised by the collaboration with Felix Claus. I am interested in understanding your main focuses of research in your practice at the time. Which were the most urgent issues you had to solve, as a young practitioner?

KK: From the very beginning, we were really interested in ‘making the city’. We wanted to be part of housing development and do these generic projects in which the architecture serves a purpose, which is housing people, but also making a city, making a neighborhood, making a place. Additionally, we were on a search to re-invent modernist architecture in a clearer, more simplified and free way – so without the dogmatic ideology behind it. Our first little buildings were experiments with the language of modernism without the constraints.

At that time, I hated competitions. I did not think that it was the best way to start a project, as you should always talk with the client and create a dialogue from which you can develop a project based on what they want. Not just following your own agenda all of the time, because that is a purely artistic way of working. But gradually, by doing more and more competitions, I discovered that it actually was a very good way to start a project if the brief is very well done and there is a very clear ambition in it.

GV: Could you summarise in which ways KAAN Architecten has grown over the past few years into a practice which abides by its current values?

KK: You could define different phases. First phase: small projects – very specific programs in neighbourhoods. Second phase: housing – more and more housing. Urban plans, larger schemes with 200 or 300 houses, with more urban planning. Third phase: competitions for larger buildings, like a laboratory building or a town hall, where we gradually became a bit more international.

Throughout the years we have been involved in more and more competitions, and for these we have a completely different approach. You build the narrative and the story, and out of that you build a project. You have to be able to communicate it in a very strong way, and afterwards, you have to go through with building it. And then it comes down to the things that you already know: developing a design, making it in a very nice, precise way, and being able to construct that without losing any quality.

From the first idea to the actual construction, the design should become better and better along the way, rather than worse and worse. Not like a big promise that ends in a pile of s***, but as a small promise that ends in a beautiful diamond. The dilemma is that this small promise has to be strong enough to win the competition. Competitions mean promising a lot, and having very high ambitions. And I believe that what you promise, you have to deliver. That dilemma is very fascinating in our profession.

Kees Kaan

Co-founder of KAAN Architecten


GV: After working with Felix Claus for many years under the name of ‘Claus and Kaan Architecten’, you co-founded a new office called ‘KAAN Architecten’. Could you describe the practice and how it is structured?

KK: At the moment, the practice is hovering around 75 people. We have a very broad portfolio – in the office, there are still housing projects, renovations, and restoration projects – but these have a spark, always with a new program and something demanding in it. There are public buildings, like the New Amsterdam Courthouse, The Royal Museum of Fine Arts or the Amsterdam Schiphol Airport Terminal. There are also some commercial projects, but not so many anymore, as they have sort of disappeared with the crisis, which, I must say, was not such a bad thing. How we are organised is actually super simple. There are three architect partners in the office, and we more or less divide the projects to work together in tandems. The teams are developed around projects – we are project-oriented. This notion is getting stronger and stronger, especially in the last few years. This is because one of the new ways we do projects is through integrated design, where you are no longer hired as an architect and later find a contractor; but from the beginning, you work in a big consortium, which includes the contractor and the bank. It is a DBFMO (Design Building Finance Maintenance Operate) construction, and this integral design asks for very strong conceptual qualities, and it’s immediately combined with technical skills and how to built and how to do it.

KMSKA, Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp, 2003-present. ©KAAN Architecten.

GV: Would you mind explaining these concepts in more detail?

KK: In our office, a person can be a director of one project, and a draftsman on another. Because we don’t organise the projects around the people; we organise the people around the projects. This is required because everybody has to be able to take different roles in the different projects. When someone makes a drawing, the process of creating that drawing is also the process of thinking about the project. What we try not to do is make the distinction between the ‘thinkers’ and the ‘makers’; but instead, have these activities running simultaneously. There are a more than a hundred ways to practice this profession today. We try to find the ways that feature both character and ideas, combined with what you like.

«In our office, a person can be a director of one project, and a draftsman on another. Because we don’t organize the projects around the people; we organize the people around the projects»

Because our office is shaped around the way we like to work, and the way we are allowed to work within the boundaries of commission. This is something that we can have a big influence over. So everybody is shaping our work according to their own character and preferences.

GV: How would you define the role of an architect in today’s society? Has this changed over recent years?

KK: If you ask people outside: “What is an architect?”, you get many different answers, with most of them being very inaccurate, as people are unaware of what an architect is really doing. I personally believe in ‘full service approach. This means having the know-how and the capacity to do the full scope of architectural tasks on every project, so that you have to have this ability to do both things simultaneously: to do and win competitions, and at the same time, to do the follow up that needs to be done when the project comes in. It is a very complex, rich profession with many, many aspects to it, which is something that I like very much about it. If you are more interested in design but not in many of the other aspects, such as the technical or business parts, then you will shape your practice in another way, and define the role of the architect in another way. I think that we define the role of the architect according to our own mirror image: the way we perceive it ourselves.

There are all kind of developments in society, and I think that the way that we practice changes, in terms of who our clients are and the ways in which we have to obtain new projects and finance these projects. We have to have empathy for our clients: we have to understand what their interests are, and why they ask for certain things in certain ways. In general, people and institutions are not always capable of asking you the complete question, meaning that sometimes you get a very crippled version of a question. You have to think about it and rephrase it, and then translate it into a question that can be answered with architectural means.

GV: Architecture, public space and new economic conditions are seemingly interconnected to each other. What are your views on this?

KK: Architecture is about public space: it is simply a profession in which you mediate between individual, private and public interests. When we design a building, we also design a part of the city. When we work for a client, we represent their interests, we try to design in their interests whilst adding value to the larger context. There is no architecture without public space: there is no necessity for architecture if there is not a notion of public space.

Because of the crisis, now there are all kinds of new ways of financing everything. But there is also still the old way, it hasn’t disappeared. There is still a lot of money, there are still big projects, and there are still bankers and investment companies that want to find safe places for the money in real estate, which needs to be designed or renovated. There are cities all over the world that are still to be built in the near future to facilitate the wishes of billions of people so they can live in a nice way, in a nice city.

Kees Kaan

Co-founder of KAAN Architecten


GV: First of all, would you help me to define a couple of key concepts that, in your opinion, are urgent for understanding the future of our profession?

KK: I would say purpose and comfort: functionality in a more elaborate and intelligent way – so a re-definition of functionality. And then all of the questions around sustainability, and those around managing the climate inside buildings. We are demanding higher levels of comfort than the 20th century ones, and we are creating new buildings according to all of these requirements, but also transforming a lot of the existing 20th century stuff so that it can perform in a more contemporary way to meet the contemporary needs and uses.

The question on the black and the white remains: is the building purely space and material? Are technical installations all hidden inside the materials or does it become part of the space? Is it a hybrid in that sense? Spaces will be more and more used in a more multipurpose way, and that is very interesting. One could almost say that the modernist way was to make specific functionality, buildings were designed for unique purposes. In the 20th century we specialised: we made buildings with a special purpose so the building could only be a school, a hospital, or an office. Maybe in the future we are returning to buildings that can serve many purposes. Design is not just about the spaces and the materials, but also about equipment that makes it fit for different purpose.

GV: In regards to the influence that new technologies have on our discipline, how do you predict these innovations will be integrated into our daily lives, and how could they change the ways in which we perceive architecture?

KK: Imagine, for instance, that there are no traffic lights or signs anymore. They are all disappearing because all means we use to move is so intelligent, it communicates with each other so effectively that we do not need them anymore. I am also asking my students in Delft to think about this. We are running a studio that we call the ‘Urban Makeover of Amsterdam’, where we are trying to think about what is going to change in the existing cities as a result of rapidly developing new technologies. We know it’s not going to change cities in a futuristic way like in the Jetson cartoons. Amsterdam will always be Amsterdam, Rotterdam will always be Rotterdam, Milan will be Milan, and so on. But public space will be used in completely different ways from now, because we are able to plan the use of space more precisely, so we can reach higher densities without losing quality. Maybe the density of cities in terms of numbers of users can become even higher, through using buildings and the public space in a kind of time-sharing kind of way. I am interested in digital infrastructure, and how it can clean up the space to allow us to have higher quality spaces combined with a more intense use of these spaces.

«We don’t want to pay for the ownership anymore, but rather, for the use. We want to pay for the light, and not the lamp. But in the end, somewhere there is somebody that has to own the car and make sure that it runs and gets maintained. This ‘new economy’ […] will make the non-owners even more enslaved than the 20th century lower class was»

Street profiles of Paris or Milan that have existed for hundreds of years, and over this time they have constantly been adapted for the use of the city in that period, for instance, with horses, trams, cars and pedestrians. Now, we are at the eve of a big again, but not as physically. I am very interested in the question of the permanent and the changing. What parts and elements of our cities and buildings stay the same and which ones change and why? I am not endlessly fascinated by the formal aspects of change; but much more by the relation between what stays and what changes, and figuring out what is permanent and what is flexible – what is hard and what is soft. That is the main question for us designers to think about.

GV: And what about technological innovation in relation to the built environment?

KK: Years ago, buildings were just stone or wood and space: we made space and we had material. It was black and white. When you saw a floor plan or section, the black was material and the white was space. Then we started to integrate technology into the black parts, and we put little pipes and electricity wires, or we made even bigger cavities to put air ducts in them. We increasingly integrated mechanical installations, which take up space. This has been a bit the struggle of the 20th century, because we wanted to hold on to the architectural typology of the black and white whilst hiding away all of the technology. But some architects said that we shouldn’t do that anymore, and that we have to show it. It even became a concept for certain architects that said the expression “the technology is the architecture”. It is very old-fashioned and boring to do that, of course it’s a whim. It is funny because something that is modern today becomes super old-fashioned years later. Now do we as architects have to stick to the classical concept of the black and the white – the space and the material, keeping all of the technics hiding within the black? Or should we introduce the grey areas? That is an important question.

GV: Since the beginning of the financial crisis, many professions have been looking for new economic models, to acquire commissions through exploring alternative solutions. This has been happening on many levels. In which ways do you think this new economic approach is affecting our society and the way we live our cities?

KK: It is assumed that in the new economy, people don’t want to have cars anymore: they want to be able to get one when they need it. We don’t want to pay for the ownership anymore, but rather, for the use. Whether that is with cars or with light. We don’t want lamps anymore – we want light. We want to pay for the light, and not the lamp. But in the end, somewhere there is somebody that has to own the car and make sure that it runs and gets maintained. In a way it is a good thing to share stuff and to be aware of the lifecycle of our equipments. It is more sustainable but this ‘new economy’ thing, where people do not own anything anymore, but only pay for it when they use it, could turn out to be a sort of conspiracy, a new kind of capitalism that is against people who own nothing. It will create a world where people own, and others don’t own. It will erode the middleclass. It will make the non-owners even more enslaved than the 20th century lower class was. I am just critical about simply saying that if people don’t want to own anything anymore, it is very sustainable and very good because we all share, because it might define a world in which companies own everything, and people have nothing.

Render of Airport Schiphol Terminal, Amsterdam, 2017. ©Filippo Bolognese.

GV: Would you like to send a message to the ‘New Generations’ of architects?

KK: As architects we have to try to be invisible in the work we produce, but not in society. Invisible in the work, for me, means being less focused on formal aspects and more on performance aspects. Being socially visible means taking an active part in society sharing our points of view. We have to have more empathy, to look and to listen better. We have to avoid beingprophets and have all of the answers ready, control our urge to make architectural things. Often it is better to first really get an understanding of a question, rather than thinking immediately in terms of solutions. This, of course, is a difficult thing, because clients, politicians and the people that invest always like to see us doing tricks, like monkeys jumping over sticks and through hoops. They think that with one big architectural idea the world can be saved. I don’t believe that, of course.