The Joy of Making

Benthem Crouwel Architekten is thirty years old. For the founders of one of the most consistent and productive offices in the Netherlands, this was the pretext for the publication of BCAD; a bulky cross section, compiled with obvious pleasure, of projects from the period 1979-2009, interspersed with observations from colleagues, photographers, residents and friends.

That Mels Crouwel — son of a hardcore functionalist and graphic designer from Amsterdam — and Jan Benthem — son of an aeronautical engineer from the Noordoostpolder — would start an office together seems so natural in hindsight. Yet the two architecture students only got to know one another at the end of their studies in Delft when their graduation tutor recognised two kindred spirits and introduced them to each other. They obviously hit it off, because they started an office together straight after graduating, initially with Albert Wiersma too, though he left some years later. After a period surviving on designing bathrooms and kitchen extensions for friends and family, the office soon got a chance to do more: a free-standing house in The Hague for De Jager family (client for one of the earlier conversions), a small experimental house made of steel and glass in Almere (after winning a competition called De Fantasie) and a number of small customs buildings commissioned by the state. Benthem and Crouwel were also appointed to design a number of small structures at Schiphol, including bike sheds and storage spaces — not exactly the type of things you can make a name for yourself in architecture. Yet in 1988 these modest interventions prompted the Schiphol management to ask the very young and very small office to ‘think’ about the necessary large-scale extension of Schiphol. In the true tradition of adventure stories the office dismissed the earlier extension proposals and came up with a totally new plan that would be constructed over the next twenty years. Not a bad track record, and one achieved in a crisis period. What’s more, the men then managed to obtain key roles in the redevelopment of the big station complexes (Amsterdam, Rotterdam, The Hague and Utrecht) and then worked on a large number of cultural buildings. All in all, a body of work that those blokes from Delft can rightly be proud of.

Together with architects like Jan Pesman and Michiel Cohen (Cepezed), Jan Brouwer, and Hubert-Jan Henket, Benthem and Crouwel represent the technical-functionalist tradition within Dutch architecture. True, in recent decades there has been enough general appreciation for these architects who, averse to post-modern frivolity and conceptual beating of the big drum, emphasised the pleasure in making designs that function smoothly. No shortage of prizes from professional colleagues and selections for important design commissions. But this group, and the sort of architecture they produce, constitutes a conspicuous blind spot on the retina of architectural criticism. Many occasions have presented themselves. It was these technical-functionalist offices, for example, who completed the first successful examples of re-use, long before the critics took it seriously. That is true of Cepezed, half of whose commissions now deal with the re-use of buildings, and for Benthem and Crouwel too. One of the first achievements of the office was the remarkable conceptual competition entry for the extension to Usquert town hall by Berlage and one of the most perfect conversions of an old factory building for De Pont museum of contemporary art in Tilburg. A second reason for placing the work of Benthem Crouwel in a broader context is, of course, their expertise in unravelling complex works of infrastructure. It was a delight to hear how during a recent lecture at the NAi, Jan Benthem was able to elucidate the solutions for three such transport interchanges (Schiphol, CS Amsterdam, CS Rotterdam) in under an hour with the greatest of ease, and do it in a way that everybody could understand (and thus accept). Anyone looking for counter-arguments for the persistent moaning of architects that ‘the profession’ is now too complex to arrive at simple, workable solutions will find plenty of them in the work of Benthem and Crouwel. ‘Accommodating chaos’, as Jan Benthem called it, is about offering logistic and spatial clarity and is the antithesis of the more usual search for spatial complexity for complex programmes.

So plenty of reason to theorise about the work of architects like Benthem and Crouwel. We shouldn’t expect it from the architects themselves, however. Nor will we find it in BCAD, the jubilee book designed by Dirk Laucke and recently published by 010, the office’s ‘regular publisher’. This is essentially a celebratory book, and why not. It is a thick catalogue containing almost all projects, even the smaller and lesser-known ones. More than 500 pages full of building pleasure, garnished with a number of extra contributions. Among them is a beautiful series of photographs of Madurodam by Edwin Zwakman, who captured images of those works by Benthem and Crouwel featured in the Madurodam miniature theme park. There is a poignant fragility to the photographs taken by Johannes Schartz of tiny collapsed models set against a sunset backdrop. The section ‘BC Auto’ is hilarious, not only because it conveys a mentality of pursuing a once-chosen solution for decades, but also because it reveals a friendship that goes beyond mere collegiality. Since the start of their careers, Benthem and Crouwel have bought the same cars with contiguous number plates. So we can see the prosperity of the office grow with the successive cars: twice a white Fiat Panda, a Fiat Uno, a Golf GTi, a Range Rover, and the current silver-grey Porsche Carrera S. The adventure-story feeling is there, too, in the way the two men have created homes for themselves. Jan Benthem in particular still seems to celebrate a form of elevated camping with his family as the most ideal living situation; from the minimal glass box in Almere, to the converted garage in Amsterdam where the family lived among shiny vintage cars, to the recent relocation to a self-built houseboat in IJburg. It’s all of a disarming simplicity, which is a lot easier to preach about than practice.

A fine book therefore, compiled and design with care. Not that it’s perfect, though. The decision to arrange the projects alphabetically is irritating, especially in a book that has AD in the title; a typical example of increasing the chaos without any objective or purpose in terms of content — exactly the sort of thing the architects never do in their built work. Or the strange decision to pour a peculiar yellow ink over the pages, including the photographs, featuring all the Schiphol projects. Here the graphic designer values his contribution more highly than that of the photograph (the work, for the most part, of regular photographer Jannes Linders). But those are exceptions.
No theory it must be said, but we probably have to read that between the lines and, especially, search for it in the joy of making that clearly lies at the heart of this book and entire body of work.