NEXT Architects: searching to balance city and countryside

The ten projects that Marijn Schenk of NEXT Architects raced through during his lecture at the Groningen Academy of Architecture covered the various areas in which the office is active: design and research projects in the field of interior, architecture, urbanism and infrastructure alternated with one another. If a common thread could be discerned, it was an interest in mobility and urban development.

At the start of his lecture Schenk quoted the British architect and writer Cedric Price (1934-2003). Price described the changing morphology of the city in terms of ways to prepare an egg. In the pre-industrial era the city was a recognisably defined entity set in a natural landscape. Price called this a boiled egg. With the industrial revolution, cities swelled with suburbs and infrastructure. For this he used the metaphor of a fried egg. After World War II the increased mobility signalled the end of the sharp line drawn between urban and rural areas. Functions had grown intertwined. The city had become, in Price’s words, a scrambled egg.

The Netherlands is increasingly becoming a scrambled egg in which pieces of city mix with countryside. NEXT Architects has carried out a number of studies on the subject of mobility and urban development. In 1999, for example, Marijn Schenk and Bart Reuser, co-founder of NEXT, worked on a study entitled Holland Layer by Layer. They observed that the Netherlands was changing into a ‘space of passage’ owing to the heavy emphasis on mobility. To prevent the entire country from getting jumbled up too much, they called for variation in conditions of speed and standstill. In other words, areas with a lot of traffic movements should alternate with calm areas.

Their appeal for more calm is also shown in a design product developed for Droog Design in 2004. During the Salon del Mobile in Milan, Droog held a presentation entitled ‘Go Slow’ that focused on slow experiences as a counterpart to the speed in our consumer society. Together with Aura Luz Melis, NEXT Architects developed a slow product called the Slow Glow lamp: a glass ball filled with fat that slowly melts and becomes transparent as it warms up. When the lamp is switched on, the light gradually gets brighter over a period of two hours.

With Holland Layer by Layer, NEXT Architects took part right from its foundation in the national debate on how the distinction between urban and rural areas should be accentuated. Since then, borders and blurred boundaries have become continually recurring subjects in their work. In the design commission ‘Me, myself and you’ the office demonstrated in humorous fashion that blurring boundaries does not have to be negative, but can also be interpreted positively. In 2000, again in collaboration with Droog Design, the architecture firm chose a number of study objects with the boundary as theme. One of the studies concerned the fence. This object forms the dividing line between two gardens. But they asked themselves if the fence could connect instead. This question led to the idea of the fence as a receptacle for garden tools. The forms of the drill and hammer are stencilled into the wood and can be pressed out at will. The tools are clasped in the opening and can be accessed from both sides. If there are a lot of tools, the fence will fall down because it loses its structure. This wonderfully depicts how a boundary disappears if neighbours share a lot with each other.

In various urban projects the office comes up with solutions for blurring boundaries between city and countryside. For example, they took part in the housing campaign ‘Intense Low-Rise’ organised by the municipality of Groningen. This project started in 2008 as a sequel to the Intense City event held in 2004. Both campaigns aimed at preserving the existing countryside and building within the city boundaries. NEXT Architects is currently completing a compact low-rise scheme on Oosterhamrikkanaal. The project is located on a former industrial site on the edge of the city. The commission is to build 178 dwellings with small floor plans and also to create outdoor space for the residents. Instead of designing a tall block of flats, NEXT Architects came up with a composition of housing typologies, including patio dwellings.

Projects such as Intense Low-Rise are important in preventing the Netherlands from clogging up totally. It makes a gesture towards the pre-industrial city, but it is impossible to return to the boiled-egg city. After all, it is impossible to imagine life without today’s infrastructure. However, in the Glanerbeek project NEXT Architects demonstrates a way in which infrastructure can be combined with the natural surroundings in an honest manner. In 2006 the office completed a bridge through an ecological zone near Enschede. The starting point was to give space to the existing flora and fauna. Lanes for busses, cyclists and pedestrians were arranged next to one another with enough space in between them to allow daylight to reach beneath the bridges. Culture and nature could thus coexist harmoniously and, at the same time, maintain their own identity. To stick with the terminology of the egg: the new ideal is a lightly scrambled egg in which the white and the yolk are still distinguishable.