The lessons of the crisis: the architect as a stoic

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 fundamentally changed for architects? What is their playing field? What roles do they intuitively or strategically assume? And what opportunities does this open up for the future? Part 4 of this series is an interview with Lilith Ronner van Hooijdonk’s Lilith van Assem, Elsbeth Ronner and Madeleine Mans.

Lilith Ronner van Hooijdonk office / photo Petra van der Ree

A rectangular work table, lots of books and a wooden bench integrated into the wall: that’s the material side of the Lilith Ronner van Hooijdonk office. Snatches of conversation and the zoom of mopeds – everyday neighbourhood sounds – filter in through the open skylights of the building in Rotterdam-Delfshaven’s historical Voorhaven. The architects share the renovated national monument with 20 other businesses. In contrast to their former accommodations in the Schieblock, this one is a private space. ‘When you’re on the road all day, like me, you need a quiet space to withdraw,’ says Elsbeth Ronner (1984). It seems the quietude is relative: when I walk in for my appointment, two of the three architects are in the midst of engaged telephone conversations.

Lilith Ronner van Hooijdonk opened in 2010. For the first nine months, things ran smoothly: small commissions for projects in the public space and participation in the ‘Studio for Unsolicited Architecture’ – an initiative by the former NAi (currently HNI) and Fonds BKVB (currently the Mondriaan Fund) to get designers to rethink the public space and self-initiate projects as work practices. Asking Lilith van Assem (1980) and Elsbeth Ronner how they managed to keep their starting business afloat during the crisis earns me some mild surprise. ‘The crisis was nothing new to us, really. We weren’t used to the booming 1990s,’ says Van Assem. Ronner: ‘We never expected phones to ring and clients to call every day. We’ve had to peddle our ideas. To keep that up, you need a stoic attitude. You can’t let the situation bother you.’ So far, they haven’t substantially changed their approach. The architects initiate their own projects in the public space. In management terms: theirs is a supply-oriented approach to the profession.

Architecture as a Cultural Project
This approach is also known as learning-by-doing. The Herbergen project, a series of temporary pavilions, clearly illustrates how this method works. The project started in Bergen (North Holland) and spread to the countryside of the Noordoostpolder. When the architects disassembled the first pavilion in 2010, they realized how much waste that generated. They built the next edition from reusable materials, but the pavilion itself met with opposition from the local population. Ever since, they build pavilions together with local residents: constructing and using the public space as a joint venture. Today, their activities are differentiated: they take on new construction and renovation projects for private clients, publish reflective articles and accessible radio podcasts and give guest lectures. The architects acquire their commissions via open and invited competitions in the Netherlands and Belgium as well as via subsidized Open Calls. Private clients often hear about the office by word of mouth.

Lilith Ronner van Hooijdonk office / photo Petra van der Ree

What role do these different activities play in their earning model? ‘Teaching is a side-line, not a means to finance the office,’ says Van Assem. After eight years, the variety of activities ensures a stable basis. More focus on demand would probably increase trade, explains Van Assem, but that is not a priority. ‘We want the interesting commissions and this sometimes means shooting ourselves in the foot financially,’ says Ronner.

‘Ever since the crisis, architecture in the Netherlands is expected to provide answers to major issues such as climate change and social problems. The expectation is shared from high to low, from policymakers to the designers themselves,’ says Ronner. The architects consider this a reduction of design culture. Yes, architecture has to address these issues, but for Lilith Ronner van Hooijdonk, architecture is primarily a cultural product, including aspects such as the sociocultural context of a project, the tactility of materials and a theoretical framework. Ronner: ‘We’re interested in the cultural content of buildings.’

The office gradually developed a division of roles on the basis of personal fascinations and the honing of specific knowledge and skills. Ronner, for example, focuses mainly on theory and reflection and Van Assem on materialization and construction. The original third board member, Lieke van Hooijdonk, is a product designer and architect. Madeleine Mans (1990) graduated as a Cultural Scientist before enrolling at the Rotterdam Academy of Architecture. Van Assem: ‘It seems we attract broadly-trained people.’ The office doesn’t have a management structure; it’s too small for that anyway. Van Assem and Ronner are the substantive and financial planners. The three board members take design decisions jointly. Mans says she also has an understanding of the financial state of affairs. As I know from personal experience, such transparency towards employees is not a matter of course.

Lilith Ronner van Hooijdonk office / photo Petra van der Ree

Story and Experiment
The button under which projects are listed on the Lilith Ronner van Hooijdonk website is marked ‘Stories’. What is the role of the story in their practice? The architects want to appeal to people in different ways: intellectually, informatively and emotionally, to laymen as well as colleagues. Stories have to be understandable, but not shallow. Words thus occupy a decisive position, complementary to the seductive images on which architectural practice focuses.

Experimentation is a deliberately used work method, not an end in itself. Examples of this experimental practice are buildings such as the Herbergen pavilions, podcasts and theory development. According to Mans, they are ‘self-invented exercises’ that ensure ongoing reflection on one’s own practice with the aim of achieving the ultimate goal: making ‘layered’ architecture. With this concept, the Lilith Ronner van Hooijdonk architects react against current architectural practice as they experience it. They want to bring about a change in the perception of users and – by their work method – also of themselves.

Because the architects initiate their own projects, their practice is varied. Now, this diversity ensures stability, but there is also danger in too much diversity, explains Van Assem. That is why in the future, the office wants to focus more on building and, simultaneously, on upscaling. The architects are considering project-based housing construction, fed by the experiences they have gained with the realization of a three-generation house. But the most important thing is to go your own way unperturbedly. Van Assem: ‘Constantly questioning your own work and developing yourself. This is something that never stops.’

Lilith Ronner van Hooijdonk office / photo Petra van der Ree

Lilith Ronner van Hooijdonk, the facts:
2010: opening office

Employees in 2010: –
Employees in 2018: 1

Number of directors 2010: 3
Number of directors 2018: 2

Main focus in 2010:
Starting point: the belief that architecture is diminished by the focus on image and the orientation towards solutions; no pre-planned office strategy.
Main focus in 2018:
The layering of architectural experience: addressing people on an intellectual and emotional level.