The lessons of the crisis: the designer as anti-cyclic thinker

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, landscape architects and urban designers? What roles do they assume? And what opportunities does this open up for the future? The second conversation in this series on the future position of the designer takes place at LOLA Landscape Architects.

LOLA office – photo Petra van der Ree

Three friends who graduated as landscape architects shortly after one another from the University of Wageningen founded LOLA in 2006. Twelve years and a severe economic recession later, their three-man outfit has grown into a business with over twenty employees. There are five of us involved in the conversation: Eric-Jan Pleijster (1977), Cees van der Veeken (1978), myself, and their two laptops. That in no way affects Pleijster’s and Van der Veeken’s concentration. They stare at their screens, typing away and taking turns to answer me – clearly a duo well used to working in tandem.

“We’ve had to move office four times already because we were growing,” says Pleijster. LOLA is now housed in the restored Industriegebouw in Rotterdam, a complex arranged around a courtyard, built after the war as a multi-tenant commercial building by the architects Maaskant and Van Tijen. Born out of scarcity and a lack of resources among businessmen, this concept is a perfect match for today’s informal world of New Work. From the second-floor access gallery I can see into the inner courtyard, where young people are working beneath miniature palm trees. LOLA’s entrance door is wide open. Everybody works in one bright studio space, with a separate room behind glass reserved for meetings only. The studio has already become too cramped, however. The wall to the adjoining unit will soon be removed to create more workspace.

Growth in times of crisis
The Lost Generation. That was the name sometimes given to architects who graduated around 2005 and who had little chance of gaining work experience because of the crisis. That was not the case with the three co-founders of LOLA. Their studio actually grew during the crisis years. How did they manage that? “At the start we concentrated on developing a distinctive profile,” says Pleijster. “We wanted to distance ourselves from the tree-hugging type of gardener obsessed only with rolling out a green carpet.” The three partners searched for innovative solutions, or ‘inventions’ as they call them, that support a sustainable living environment. In one of their first projects the high-voltage pylon in the plan area became a structure for climbing plants. They turned a limitation – the pylon – into a design feature. More significantly, their solution points to another way of dealing with the problematic space beneath electricity pylons. They interpreted a specific solution within a broader research theme. Projects by LOLA want to be more than simply translations of the design brief.

LOLA office – photo Petra van der Ree

In its research work, LOLA consciously profiles itself as a designer of ‘landscape spectacles’: the projects hold the promise of informal recreation in romanticized landscapes. An example is Dwaalster Park in Vijversburg Estate, a star-shaped labyrinth in which visitors can lose their way in playful fashion. Another example of an invention is the so-called ‘beast tree’ in the Poelzone project in Monster, a vertical sculpture in the landscape that allows a variety of animals to nest. “People sit in front of the beast tree with their camera — so nice to watch,” says Pleijster.

Van der Veeken and Pleijster reflect on the chronological development of their work. In the pre-crisis period, the landscape architect was allocated some leftover budget within a larger project. This changed during the crisis: landscape projects (albeit trimmed down) were suddenly the only projects being realized, so architects wanted to work with landscape architects. The attitude of architects changed from one of arrogance to modesty. Now the situation has changed again: green has become the unique selling point of many architecture and urban design schemes. “We can now really make the things we explored during the crisis. Our profile and inventions gave us a decisive head start. That’s how we profited from the crisis,” says Pleijster. LOLA summarized its vision and way of working in the book Lost Landscapes, made with the prizemoney from the Young Maaskant Prize. The publication appeared in late 2013, which turned out to be perfect timing, as the economy was slowly starting to pick up again. The book received attention at home and abroad.

Reason and intuition
Now LOLA is scaling up, with more and larger projects, some of them abroad, and more staff. Project managers operate independently, thus reducing the burden on the three partners, who can focus on representation, strategy, staff matters and design. Working with employees was and is a learning process. How do employees feel in their position? One strategy is to offer possibilities for growth, which explains the recent introduction of project managers as a middle layer. This step seems simple and logical, but from my time as a project architect I know the tension that arises between the necessity to delegate and the handing over of control. LOLA strives for gradual growth so that financial risks remain manageable and the partners can grow into their new roles. In the process, they discovered which employees were willing and able to take responsibility for projects, thus ensuring the innovative quality of work without the constant supervision of one of the partners. Asked if they are good at delegating responsibility, Pleijster answers with a decisive “Yes!” Van der Veeken laughs: “You’re not asking the right people.”

LOLA office – photo Petra van der Ree

Most landscape commissions are smaller than the average architecture commission, of shorter duration and with smaller fees. To keep a medium-sized firm like LOLA running, you need a lot of projects, stresses Pleijster. In addition, the partners are constantly trying to secure larger commissions. With each new acquisition they carefully consider what they need to invest in advance. The three of them discuss acquisitions every week. What are the benefits of a project, both financially and for their portfolio? What are the risks? “But we certainly don’t work with a matrix, you know,” says Pleijster. Ambition and emotion are far more decisive, especially with clients or colleagues who are friends. In such cases the pre-investment can be a little higher. Van der Veeken: “We make informed irrational choices.”

Beating the next crisis
Perhaps this is what best characterizes the LOLA approach: anti-cyclic thinking. Pleijster, Van der Veeken and their third partner Peter Veenstra opened an office at a time when many other offices were going out of business. During the crisis they managed to grow steadily, while in today’s prosperous times they are resisting the temptation to grow steeply. And the future? What will prove their trump card? LOLA wants to diversify in terms of themes and clients. Besides public authorities, they increasingly include property developers and well-known companies. One example is a project for Adidas near Nuremberg. LOLA is working on a campus landscape that reflects the Adidas identity, a mediagenic testing ground for sports products and a place of relaxation for staff. Part of the park will be open to the public. Stars as design elements reappear as colourful connections between buildings instead of a dreamy labyrinth.

Themes that require a long-term approach are now the focus of political discussions, Pleijster and Van der Veeken point out. They mention the problem of air particulates, the competitiveness of attractive living environments, water management and redeveloping outdoor space instead of squandering it. All of these themes are closely linked to innovative landscape design and offer potential for inventions. LOLA concentrates on landscape architecture. They find architecture too limiting as a design discipline because of all the regulations that a building must comply with. They remain attached to what they call “the free space as field of experimentation”. If they hit a rough patch, Van der Veeken and Pleijster are not afraid of shrinking. After all, they have already shown how even a small office can adopt a clear position. “What’s most important is that we hold onto our main theme: inventions that support sustainability,” says Pleijster. “Our first book forced us to formulate our ideas and hold onto them. Now it’s time for a second!” As I leave, I hear Steve Miller’s The Joker from beneath the palm trees.

LOLA office – photo Petra van der Ree

LOLA Landscape Architects, the facts:
2006: design studio founded

Employees in 2008: 0
Employees in 2018: 24
Number of directors 2008: 3
Number of directors 2018: 3

Main focus in 2008:
Carving out a distinctive position within the field of landscape architecture and discovering research themes in projects designed for implementation.

Main focus in 2018:
Ensuring that visions and inventions are translated into built projects, and that projects explicitly amount to more than a translation of the design brief.