The lessons of the crisis: the architect as omnivore

The lean years seem to be a thing of the past. Design and construction activity are in full swing again. But is it business as usual or has the field of force in architecture fundamentally changed? What is the playing field occupied by architects? What roles do they assume, intuitively or strategically? And what opportunities does this open up for the future? At the office of Powerhouse Company I speak to director – or main shareholder, as he calls himself – Nanne de Ru.

The office of Powerhouse Company, photo Petra van der Ree

Powerhouse Company is based in Rotterdam, in the renovated Westerlaantoren building, which is splendidly located beside the Maas and Het Park. From the street, the only sign of a renowned architecture office here is an unremarkable plate on the letterbox. In the lobby I receive an electronic visitor pass that permits me to take the lift to the seventh floor. Exiting the lift, I  find myself in front of the reception desk. Exuding a business-like elegance, the office boasts views of the city on all four sides. Staff walk around wearing sweatshirts or ties. I am guided to the office of the director. The PR officer utters two sentences: who I am and what I’m here for. The door closes. I have 45 minutes.

The spectre of vulnerability
Design, engineering, building management and service: wide-ranging areas of expertise are a hallmark of Powerhouse Company. This runs counter to today’s trend towards specialization. Before the crisis, explains Nanne de Ru (1976), architects could afford to offer just concept and design phases. They competed on expertise, not on price, since fees were standardized – just like the situation with family doctors. But all this changed after 2000. New European regulations thrust an essentially protected profession into a harsh reality. The regulation that determined that an architect’s fee amounted to a percentage of the building costs was abolished. De Ru drew two conclusions: the survival of the architect is largely dependent on the funding of clients, and the profession ignores this reality. De Ru therefore decided to focus on the financial aspects of the architectural profession and on how to earn money. “A sound understanding of the world of money is absolutely essential. Otherwise you haven’t a chance.”

This observation prompted him to investigate the position of the architect in the real estate process. He presented his findings in the exhibition Rien ne va Plus (Bureau Europa, 2009), which examined the legitimacy of architecture in times of economic crisis, and in the publication Shifts: Architecture after the 20th Century (2012). Not entirely coincidentally, that study finds an echo in Four Walls and a Roof, the recently published compilation of essays by Reinier de Graaf. Before founding Powerhouse, De Ru worked with De Graaf at AMO. In his book, De Graaf identifies very clearly how architects inhabit a self-created world full of illusions. One such illusion is the myth of independence from external forces.

The office of Powerhouse Company, photo Petra van der Ree

We speak briefly about Four Walls. I recall that in one chapter De Graaf explains how OMA was mercilessly outclassed by an English consortium of developers. Very recognizable, I think, even though I encountered the same in much smaller projects. De Ru agrees with De Graaf’s analysis but draws another conclusion. The mutual prejudices are too easy. Both architects and developers are generalists and operate across many professional areas such as urban design, architecture and finance. The biggest concern of a developer is risk management. That determines his earnings model. The architect can become either a strategic partner or an obstacle. According to De Ru, the prerequisite for mutually productive collaboration is a desire to understand the intrinsic interests of the other party. Both property developer and architect therefore benefit from a strategic alliance.

An exceptional ally
A consequence of this conclusion was that De Ru set up the development firm RED Company with developer Niels Jansen. RED Company and Powerhouse Company are two legally separate entities, with De Ru as the link between them. Jansen and De Ru assess the risks together and elaborate the business plans. As I recall from my business studies, in management jargon this is termed a growth strategy aimed at broadening the range of services on offer.

The projects are costly and the buildings striking, for a reason. The company combines the above-mentioned broadening of services with a focus on one target group: exclusive and wealthy (international) investors who see financial and strategic profit in high-quality property and who combine a long-term vision with spectacular architecture. “The world of finance is crazy about architecture.” This strategic vision appears to work: RED Company and Powerhouse Company are currently working on the head offices of Asics and Danone.

The essence of being an architect
Powerhouse Company is not working exclusively with RED Company. “We distinguish three types of client,” says De Ru, “each of which expects something totally different from the architect.” The first type of client, the wealthy individual, wants an architect with a strong personality, somebody who, if necessary, can revise the whole concept and come up with something that offers an even better answer to a specific question. The second client is a commercial one who prefers a smooth path through the municipal planning procedure and an efficient design and construction process. “No nonsense, no discussions about Architecture.” Constant contact with the director is counter-productive. Instead, to-the-point discussions with technical designers prove much more effective, says De Ru. Another striking standpoint. I have always tried to generate enthusiasm for ‘the concept’ among commercial clients. Not always successfully.

The office of Powerhouse Company, photo Petra van der Ree

Public clients, the third category,  says De Ru, are looking for someone with vision who can highlight the potential of the site and its surroundings. Inherent in this is often an extended decision-making procedure. Powerhouse Company now aims to acquire public commissions. Extended decision-making procedures demand of the architect a way of working that feels less natural to De Ru. “I’m too impatient.” But that’s precisely why he now wants to work on more public commissions: “You learn most from things you cannot do.” This attitude and the courage it reflects are no doubt one of the reasons why the office has grown from three employees in 2008 to ninety today.

The next challenge
How does he see his role as an architect? ”I spend half of my time as a developer and the other half as an architect.” The third half of his time he still designs uncommon details, just like in the early Powerhouse days. The projects are elaborated in detail by PCCE, the firm’s own engineering and consultancy office.

“I’m an omnivore.” That’s how De Ru describes himself. His role models are Hugh Maaskant and Eero Saarinen, architects who he says succeeded in reconciling various interests. They could make designs that were authentic, or functional, or seductive, and they had a flawless knack of knowing what role was demanded of them in any given situation. “Mastering this skill is the essence of being an architect.”

“Look at the really remarkable buildings in a city, and you see that they marry these three aspects: an inspired client; a good architect; and a client who remained owner of the building.” The next step could therefore be to manage a building designed and developed by himself, in order to understand how an ageing building impacts on the property cycle. Building management as future growth strategy: the next holding. Powerhouse Company – what’s in a name?

The office of Powerhouse Company, photo Petra van der Ree

Powerhouse Company, the facts:

2005: architecture office founded
2013: engineering office PCCE founded
2015: developer RED Company founded

Employees in 2008: 3
Employees in 2018: 90

Directors in 2008: 1
Directors in 2018: 1 major shareholder, 7 partners and associates

Main areas of focus in 2008:
Analysis of the vulnerable and dependent position of the architect. Result: unsolicited and customized designs that were presented directly to potential clients (not through competitions).

Main area of focus in 2018:
Development of exceptional details, initially for ‘high-end’ villas, and then developed further for office buildings and stations.