Architecture is not only a profession but also a window on the world, and it can be deployed as an instrument to effect social change. Itís a message youíve been spreading for years in lectures, though activities such as the RSVP events, and of course in Archis/Volume. Whatís the source of your belief in the potency of architecture?
I increasingly see a connection between my family history and my ideas about architecture. My parents came from cities that were destroyed Ė my mother from Hamburg and my father from Arnhem. Both of them had little choice but to look to the future; through denial they tried to regain their grip on the world. To them, post-war reconstruction and modern architecture were proof that life had started again in a new world. I grew up in 1950s suburbia, visible evidence of a new, better future, and tangible proof that oneís destiny lies in oneís own hands. When I studied art history I came across examples in which architecture turned out to be the most powerful means of shaping not only oneís personal destiny, but also that of oneís people or even of all mankind. No doubt, Iím overly sensitive about that ambition.
Why did you decide to study architectural history?
I discovered architecture as the ideal source of historiography. Architecture turned out to set the agenda; to speak about architecture is to speak about countless subjects. Architectural history is a perfect pretext to delve into just about everything. For me it wasnít about studying the past; rather, it offered the possibility of picking up on threads of thought that I could extend into the future. Up to today, history is a perfect study to weave those threads, and architecture turned out to be the perfect study to extend those threads into the future.
Amidst the daily grind that characterises the profession of architecture such as securing commissions and meeting a clientís needs, what motivates me is a desire to retain something that has sustained the profession of architecture for thousands of years, namely the power to keep the long term in perspective despite all those forms of pressure; to be an agenda of, a proposal to, a podium for.
How did you end up at the faculty of architecture in Delft?
I was never enrolled there. During by studies I got to know Roemer van Toorn, who was studying in Delft. We decided to organise a lecture series for student organisation Stylos. That took up so much time that I was spending more time at the TU than at the institute of art history. Preparations started in 1984, the lecture series was held in 1987/1988, and the resulting publication appeared in 1994. In those ten years I attended lectures and tutorials in Delft, I sat in the library for months, and I must have bought half the books in the bookshop.
The lecture series was divided into two instalments. The autumn series focused on theory. We asked academics to speak about their discipline in relation to architecture. Ernest Mandel, for example, spoke about the economy of construction and, Iíll never forget it, posited a theory about the weak organisational composition of capital in the construction sector. In addition to Mandel, we invited anthropologist Amos Rapoport and cultural historian Jean Leering. The spring lectures were given by top architects. We tried to tempt them to make statements about their profession by using citations from the autumn lectures. The final speaker was Kenneth Frampton, and it was he who suggested gathering all the material into a book. It was eventually published six years later as The Invisible in Architecture.
A number of years after the appearance of The Invisible in Architecture you became editor in chief of Archis. Did one lead to the other?
Even before my appointment I was a so-called contributing editor, but the editors of Archis were certainly familiar with the publication. A number of interviews had been published in Archis even before the book appeared, including one with Denise Scott Brown. At the time Geert Bekaert was editor-in-chief of Archis, which was then closely allied to the NAi. Bekaert was appointed by the NAi director of the time, Ari Duivesteijn, on account of his position as an international critic. Duivesteijn considered Archis to be the (international) antenna of the institute. The relationship between Bekaert and Duivesteijn soured when Bekaert published an article in which he described Coenenís NAi building as the Versailles of Architecture. I became editor-in-chief after the position had been vacant for a long period.
You had your own conflict with the board of the NAi, the upshot of which was that Archis branched off on its own in 2000. (Readers can consult old ArchiNed news items on the subject). After almost ten years as an editor-in-chief youíve opted to become director of the NAi. Archis hasnít yet appointed a new editor-in-chief. Can we take it that the magazine will soon be incorporated into the NAi again?
My tasks at Volume, the successor to Archis, have been taken over by Arjen Oosterman. The opportunities for Volume are countless, and collaboration with the NAi is probably just one of them. Apart from that, I think the NAi needs a strong medium, and such a medium needs to go further than Het Bulletin, the magazine the NAi currently issues mainly for relations and patrons. An institute of this calibre should be more ambitious in the way it tries to reach the public beyond the walls of the building. The question is whether that medium needs to take the form of paper. The possibilities of Web 2.0 seem to be endless, in particular when it comes to interaction.
Why did you apply to become director of the NAi if Volume is undergoing development?
Apart from the human motivation of seeking new challenges and that sort of talk, which are essentially true for that matter, thereís the issue of achieving ambitions that are not connected to a medium but belong to a certain type of belief in what your profession can signify, what architecture can be in this culture. I believe that architecture can be an instrument to effect change. If architecture was simply a profession, it would be difficult to justify the existence of the institute and the collection. But architecture is more; it is an expression of the human desire to express something in space, an intelligent organisation of space and, hence, a fantastic medium. The profession has enough resilience to redefine itself systematically and to draw up an agenda for shaping the future. Architecture is of cultural value as long as itís creative and innovative, as long as it goes beyond the brief. Another point is that architects would be better able to read the conditions of reality and find creative inspiration in it.
What is the role of the NAi in this regard?
With the NAi I want to raise issues that safeguard the relevance and legitimacy of architecture. To put it more clearly: by highlighting social challenges and displaying the most interesting answers, you can make a connection between top priority and top quality, between what is really needed and what is really possible. In that way you can present architecture as the response of a profession to major issues and with apparently the capacity to do that in different ways all the time.
A second way is to analyse the collection not only biographically and chronologically but also thematically. To look, for example, at how two hundred years of architecture in the Netherlands have provided answers to the big challenges of the past. That would turn the archives into a source of cultural history and reactivate them.
Can the NAi be more than a location in Rotterdam with three public functions: activities, exhibitions and collection? Could you also interpret the NAi as a certain force that undertakes activities in the spirit of the ambition of connecting top priority and top quality to each other? Not like the Guggenheim with a branch but as a centre of knowledge, a moderator, an organiser, a matchmaker Ė organising things elsewhere, making things happen and setting things in motion. Maybe it sounds like forced optimism now, but it must be possible to harnass the surplus available at the NAi in breeching certain stalemates elsewhere in the world. So I see a fourth role for the NAi: as a laboratory that poses new questions for the profession of architecture.
Doesn't that mean the NAi goes beyond the limits of its mandate?
The government views architecture as the intelligent form of space, so the mandate of the NAi is broad enough. But the perception and perhaps also the programme of the NAi are not that advanced yet. The archives of landscape architects are not collected here yet, just to mention one small example. So thereís plenty of progress to be made. If that effort succeeds then we could present ourselves with much more confidence as the podium for discussing all those issues that cut through all scales. I would like all the many parties involved in physical planning, besides the design community, to view the NAi as the place where they can find inspiration.
If you are able to convey the fact that this institute not only deals with architecture but also tries, through the lens of architecture, to raise a number of issues, that the architectural perspective in particular can help us see things more clearly and help us to venture further or aspire to more, then we will achieve a lot more than we would simply by recycling the profession. And I think we can achieve that here.
So everything will change tomorrow?
Certainly, but itís not as simple as turning a switch at the NAi. Thatís not even possible. Whatís more, I donít determine everything. Many activities such as exhibition subjects are planned a year or two in advance. But what I will try to achieve in such cases is to shift the emphasis. So speaking of tomorrow: on September 10 we staged a debate about the urban model of Dubai, where the tourist has defeated Allah. Then on the 22nd we open an exhibition about Cuypers, the 19th century architect of the Amsterdam Central Station and the Rijksmuseum, who would have liked to have turned every building into a church. It starts to get really interesting when you know what the motivations were behind the built designs.
I see my contribution as a matter of setting out a number of lines for the long term, developing these, and ensuring that they come to fruition, and creating scope for good ideas within the framework of those main lines. For those ideas we will look beyond the regular staff meetings; those ideas might lie beyond the walls of the institute, and sometimes even outside the immediate profession. That is why we will hold an event next year called To Do in which we want to show just how many spatial ambitions this country actually has. Not only the official ambitions of governments and professional areas but also the informal ones of individuals and lobbies. The NAi will be the place where the capacity to make something beautiful will be connected to the capacity to want something beautiful. For the first, we have a profession, for the second we need everybody.