A Doubting Claus

Doubt was the theme of the evening. ‘Doubt is an important aspect of our work as architects and designers of public space,’ said Felix Claus on September 13 at the Brakke Grond in Amsterdam.

Felix Claus (Claus en Kaan Architecten, Amsterdam) shared his doubts candidly. When is a building good? Are you even doing it all right? Does it fit into the logic of the project? To him, doubt means having to choose, for there are tempting sirens ready to send you off on false trails. The architect even doubted whether he lay awake from doubt or simply from good ideas.

Claus admitted he felt uneasy in the decor. Indeed, he looked like a DJ about to serve up a heavy session. All the same, he knew he had a good set sure to thrill his audience. We were moved by ‘how it all started with Claus en Kaan’, swayed by the razor-sharp images of the municipal archives in Buitenveldert and the fire station in Leidsche Rijn. He let us snigger at marzipan kohlhasen. We were provoked and/or perplexed by his disapproval of the assertiveness of Dutch architects in China. And in the end we were reassured, for Felix Claus too entertains doubts.

But there was no evidence of doubt in the projects he showed. He even came out with a very self-assured comment about the fire station in Leidsche Rijn: ‘The building is what it wanted to be.’ Only to add disappointingly: ‘The tough firemen wanted light-blue flooring.’ Did Claus do well here? Who or what determines whether the building is what it wanted to be? The architect, the occupant, the context, the time?

From behind his turntable the architect pulled out three books, the first of which was ‘New French Cuisine’ by Paul Bocuse. He confided to us that he would actually rather talk about food. Like architecture, it’s something you must experience. Later on Claus quoted Herman Hertzberger: ‘Architecture is just like cooking; you can only make what you’ve bought.’ This sounded like an excuse, but he’d already explained that an architect must ensure he knows everything since he has to use this rational knowledge to make emotional decisions.

Gibraltar photo: Christian Richters

Gibraltar photo: Roemer van Toorn

On the table next to Paul Bocuse was the little red book by the great leader, as a silent witness to the suffering of China. Even though it seems that there’s so much going on in China you’ll never achieve anything there, argued Claus. The architecture hype and the stories from the mostly young visitors make his stomach turn. But even the architect of the biggest propaganda bastion in China, whom Claus clearly didn’t want to mention by name, got blasted. For the buildings in the new China are rising from the ground in 24-hour shifts, details are irrelevant, there are no preconditions. Greasy multimillionaires and ex-generals are controlling affairs. They are creating a super-capitalism in which public space as a binding agent will disappear. This worries him. Public space must be designed very carefully to safeguard ties with the neighbourhood. Buildings don’t have to be beautiful but should be interesting and positioned correctly. That’s why we should keep faith in the street, for it gives architecture a footing, according to Claus.

This connected nicely with the third and oldest book, the ‘Amsterdam Yearbook’, which stood for things that will never change. And that’s good. It’s always about money, poor weather, shoddy builders and so on. Just like cooking, architecture is always about the same things: gravity, comfort and shelter.

Showing his designs for the extension to the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna in Rome, the exhibition building at Camp Vught, and the extension to the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, Felix Claus explained how discoveries and studies that take place during earlier projects are developed further and completed in later projects.

The Gibraltar social-housing building on Oostelijke Handelskade in Amsterdam was discussed at length. Suddenly the fact that Claus was once a student of Russian literature in Amsterdam seemed so fitting. The building is dear to him. It is explicit. Through the application of severe repetition, even during construction, something unintended is revealed, the epiphenomenon. Asked what he really thought of the building he replied: ‘I can only distance myself, not detach myself.’