Kempe and Thill dispel the myth

On Friday October 28 the Rotterdam Maaskant Prize for Young Architects 2005 was presented to Oliver Thill, one of the two architects who head up the Rotterdam-based ‘expat’ office Atelier Kempe Thill. In this interview they dispel the myth that the Netherlands offers a favourable climate for young architects.

‘André was born in 1968, I in 1971 – that’s why.’ This is prize-winner Oliver Thill’s laconic reply to the suggestion that statutory reasons alone meant that the Maaskant Prize was awarded to him personally – winners must be aged 35 years or younger – and not to the office he set up with André Kempe in 2000.

Ever since their student years at Dresden University of Technology (1990-1996), Kempe and Thill have formed an inseparable design duo. They spent half-year stints studying in Paris and Tokyo together, they graduated with an urban plan for Dresden together, and they decided to leave East Germany and head for Rotterdam together.

For the past few years Atelier Kempe Thill has operated out of a former storage unit at the Van Nelle Factory. It’s a long, narrow cluttered space furnished with two huge filing cabinets along the side walls and a long worktable in the middle. It’s warm in the uninsulated shed despite the poor late-summer weather. ‘We’re fans of the building, so we’re prepared to put up with a little discomfort,’ says Thill with a smile.

The answer to the first question typifies the strategic way that Kempe and Thill think and their almost doggedly persistent and serious approach to their profession.

Why did you go to Rotterdam?

‘After graduating we analysed the situation in East Germany. Just after the Wall fell it seemed like an ideal place for a young architect. But we anticipated that, after an optimistic start, development in East Germany would be a lengthy process and, consequently, that there would little for us to do. So we drew up a list of places where the situation was better and with which we had some affinity.

An architect is more or less compelled to set up office in a big city in a densely populated region. After all, commissions are needed, and they’re scarce in rural areas. What’s more, things are easier if there’s a well-established architecture climate, not only because of its stimulating effect but also because there’s a greater chance of working for clients who want more than a building, clients who are also interested in innovative architecture.

We looked for places where things were happening. In the end we had to choose between Berlin, Switzerland (Basel or Zurich) and Rotterdam. We decided to try Rotterdam first because we knew some people there. We’d met Kees Christiaanse and Willem Jan Neutelings, for example, during international study gatherings. Besides, we knew there was a pretty large group of successful ‘expats’ based in Rotterdam. Christian Rapp, for instance, who won the Maaskant Prize in 1998 just after we moved to Rotterdam. Naturally we knew about Rotterdam’s architectural reputation, not to mention its reputation as a city of work. So the absence of cities with a Catholic tradition on our list of possible destinations is no coincidence. The work ethos and Calvanism of Switzerland and the Netherlands obviously suits our mentality better.’

You both came to Rotterdam without work. How were you able to open an office?

‘When we first came we both started working at Frits van Dongen’s office. We thought we’d be able to continue our manner of working together, which had taken on the character of an office even while we were students. But that’s not how it worked out. Obviously we were just too strong a duo for employers to accept. So we then went our separate ways and worked for DKV and Karelse van der Meer. To open an office we needed a commission. We decided to enter Europan – the international design competition for young architects that culminates in a design commission – and to win it.

We did exactly that. In 1999 we took first prize with our Europan design for housing on Kop van Zuid and, with that commission in the bag, were able to set up an office. That design, incidentally, wasn’t realised but we’re working on an alternative commission now. Our first completed building was another winning competition design: the Light Building, a mobile exhibition pavilion made of translucent beer crates that premièred at the 2001 Parade in Rotterdam. This year we’ve completed our first housing scheme – cheap owner-occupied dwellings in Roosendaal with an entirely glazed façade and a void. In addition, a major renovation project for a 1960s flat building is on site in Uithoorn.’

It sounds as if it’s been plain sailing all the way. Have you been able to benefit from the favourable climate for young architects in the Netherlands?

‘Not in the slightest. Over the past number of years our office has had a difficult time and had to work hard to secure commissions that could give us a degree of stability. The favourable climate for young architects in the Netherlands, which everyone keeps going on about, that existed back in the 1980s and ’90s. Most commissions for young architects came from housing associations. And initially we also focused on residential projects. But many of the Dutch housing projects we worked on have been either postponed or ditched. The situation in Dutch housing, once the best way a young office could establish its reputation, has deteriorated in recent years. Now that housing associations have become market-oriented they are suddenly less willing to take risks with a younger architect or an innovative housing scheme. Besides, the market for housing construction has practically ground to a halt in recent years.

So we changed tact and tried to secure commissions for public buildings. As a relatively small office, we’ve a lot of difficulty with the regulations that govern how commissions are obtained, particularly when it comes to European tender rules. The Netherlands is holier than the Pope is this regard. We’re taken much more seriously abroad. There we’re allowed to take part in limited competitions, whereas here we’re excluded. Evidently the regulations are interpreted differently abroad. The conservative way in which preconditions governing turnover and experience are interpreted here means that relatively small offices scarcely get a look-in. And that’s fatal for a lively architecture climate. After all, the smaller newer offices like ours are the ones that generate innovative approaches.

In Rotterdam the situation isn’t much better. Quite the opposite in fact. We’re very critical of the current climate in Rotterdam. Right now there are hardly any positive incentives for younger architects, or older ones for that matter. We notice nothing of the ambition to promote high-quality architecture in the city. Just visit the City Information Centre, where new building schemes are exhibited. It’s one big disaster, and that in a city that calls itself a city of architecture.’

You enter lots of competitions. Is that a conscious choice?

‘We look for commissions in which we think that both the commission and the client radiate a certain cultural awareness and want to take architecture seriously. A young office without a local network or reputation is forced to rely on competitions or the academic circuit. But being foreigners, we’re scarcely involved in the local academic circuit. We do give more and more lectures, but that’s about it. So that’s why we enter lots of competitions, increasingly for public buildings and increasingly abroad. In fact, for us it’s the only way to obtain work. This method of securing commissions means that we didn’t go the usual route of doing home extensions for relatives.

The advantages of securing work through competitions is that the architectural ambition of the client is guaranteed and that the architect has a stronger negotiating position in discussing the unavoidable problems that crop up as the project progresses. After all, the architect and the design were chosen consciously. But taking part in competitions is risky, particularly open competitions. The office spends a lot of time on them, and there’s little or no compensation if you don’t win.

Luckily we do win now and again. Over the past few years we’ve been pretty successful in foreign competitions. The Hedge Building, the Dutch pavilion for a garden exhibition in Rostock in 2003, was a winning competition design. And we preparing construction of two winning competition designs now: the renovation of the kilometres-long youth hostel in Prora (East Germany, 2004), and the construction of a modest concert hall in Raiding (Austria, 2005).

We’ve the feeling that we’ve gradually outgrown the stage of “young start-up firm”. In that sense, winning the Maaskant Prize for Young Architects is a nice way to close a chapter.’