Feature —

Diary Prix de Rome

Alessandra Covini

Today the 2018 Prix de Rome Architecture will be awarded. The four nominated candidates were asked to come up with a proposal for the Sixhaven area in Amsterdam. Whereas the open call of the first round addressed issues for a Low Pressure area, the final round focused on High Pressure; an assignment in a popular urban area, a place where many want to live. We asked one of the nominated candidates, Alessandra Covini, to write a diary on the process of her project.

Testing different configurations / Alessandra Covini

April 10
In early April 2018, I receive an unexpected phone call during a brainstorm session with graphic designers. I’m told I’ve passed the first round of the Prix de Rome, and I can’t wait for the announcement of the second round.

At the beginning of the process, given the complexity of assignment, I decide to avail of the opportunity offered by the Mondriaan Fund to consult various advisors. I contact Michiel Riedijk, my former professor, to advise me on the architectural statement; and artist Barbara Visser, whom I met during a residency at the Jan Van Eyck Academy, to give feedback on the conceptual and artistic component. I also set up a ‘technical support’ team for archival research and model-making, which could help in the different phases of the process. Noortje Weenink joins at the beginning of the research phase; Arthur Schoonenberg and Lauren Boots at the beginning of the model phase; Regina Makhmutova, Sze Wing Chan, Matthew Cook and Kevin Westerveld help during the final phase. Giovanni Bellotti, my working partner and boyfriend, joins halfway, and Filippo Garuglieri joins in from time to time, helping out, making everybody laugh, supplying coca cola and nachos.

April 22
I visit Sixhaven (Amsterdam), the location for our fictional assignment. I spend the whole day absorbing the atmosphere of the place, sitting on the shores of the IJ, looking at the barges filled with heaps of sand and coal, and at the imposing cruise ships, obscuring the view of the railway station entirely. Visiting the site, I have the feeling of entering a garden of which the key had been lost for a long time: a secret place. It looks like the Waterland, with its houses and gardens on water, and plants and flowers everywhere, at times submerged by wild vegetation. The land to the north of Sixhaven is fenced with signs warning that the land is polluted, a physical memory of its industrial past. In the centre is a small marina situated where people maintain their boats, or sit and eat in the sun. The whole area seems to me like a place made of different worlds. To enter, you have to slow down, pass the 19th-century lock that marks the entrance to a different territory. At the same time, the entire site reminds the visitor that it is essentially a mechanical infrastructure, a lock separating waters. Beneath it passes the North-South metro line, and next to it is the IJtunnel. The urban transformation not only surrounds the site, but is beneath, above, and within it.

Reading and thinking (May)

May 2
With the support of Noortje, I start reading a series of books and documents about Amsterdam’s past, present and future, among them Millennium of Amsterdam, a collection of stories on the spatial history of Amsterdam. Here we discover that Amsterdam had hills in the past, peat domes reclaimed for agriculture that dried out, shrinking and collapsing below water level, the city’s lost architectures: places that many loved but that disappeared, like the Obelt bathhouse or the Palace of Industry. I visit the History Museum, where Amsterdam appeared through history as a market for materials, spices, metals, etc. They all arrived in the city by water, were collected and stored within the city walls. A city of wealth and wonders, where wooden portals concealed treasures from other worlds.

May 9
I have meetings with the municipality to get acquainted with visions for the city’s future planning: from plans for densification on the North shores of the IJ, to the ‘city on the IJ’, and  bridges over the river. Together with Noortje and Arthur, we research how different architects in the past two centuries reimagined Sixhaven, like the project of Piet Blom, a mountain of buildings facing the IJ, the new ‘grand canal of Amsterdam’.

Through this research I begin to understand the transformations taking place in the city. For centuries Amsterdam has been a city on the Amstel. Today, the city is looking north, and Amsterdam is becoming a city on the IJ. In this situation the river will become the new centre, it will become a point of encounter for different natures of the city, a flow of many things: the history of the ‘golden age’, the shipyards of Amsterdam north, with their blue-collar workers; and its contemporary decadence, the tourists, the sex shops, the clubs. Sixhaven is at the very centre of this transformation. It is, in a way, the geographical centre of the future city. Within this moment of change, I see a chance for the city to reimagine its identity, and think of new forms and spaces that represent this transformation. The city now has the possibility to look for a new physical vocabulary for its public domain. An opportunity to reflect on a new type of public space and nature that could represent this new city on the IJ, not just Amsterdam North or Amsterdam South, but Amsterdam as a whole, a city of different characters, natures, rituals.

Visit Durgerdam (May 27)

May 25
Another summer day. I cycle with Noortje through the garden cities of North, the reconverted naval industry docks, and the OMA-designed social housing project. We reach the Nieuwendammerdijk, which once was an old village on the shores of the IJ, before the reclamation of land into polders and naval docks.

May 27
I return to capture the soul of the villages on the IJ, and visit Durgerdam with Filippo and Noortje. I imagine Sixhaven to be like the polder landscape around this village, back in time, a humid land of plants, inhabited by birds. I’m so hypnotized by the birds at sunset that we arrive too late at the restaurant we had booked. The kitchen is closed (Filippo will never forgive me for that) and we end the day with wine and cakes, looking at the water in the darkness.

May 29
Among our research discoveries were the ‘lusthoven’, pleasure gardens along the River Vecht and in the Beemster polder. Lusthoven were places of retreat where wealthy Amsterdam merchants could escape the city and find fresh water and air, qualities missing in the city centre. They were places of both pleasure and production, where the Dutch polders were transformed into islands of different shapes, hosting a collection of curiosity gardens, with the most extravagant botanical and mineral discoveries, brought from travels around the world.

Research discoveries (May)

June 11
I have been diving into the genealogy of the name Sixhaven, and eventually decide to meet Baron Jan Six. I visit his house, and get a tour through the Six collection. The place feels in total continuity with the Golden Age, like the lusthoven. Every room features objects from all over the world: the Italian garden room, the Orangerie with plants collected over centuries, the Japanese room, which features a painting of Hendrik Six wearing a camellia, a flower that he brought to the Netherlands. The Baron tells me stories of his family and his relative Willem Six, the sailor after whom the harbour is named. Back then, he won prizes and travelled the world on his sailing boat.

June 12
Giovanni arrives from Boston. It’s such a relief to have him by my side at this moment. Besides the recurrent fights, and his critical mind, brilliant sparks open up new paths for the project. He’s brought with him a book of his MIT graduation thesis ‘Between Birds and Humans’, which becomes a great inspiration for the project, and an attraction for friends and professionals who pass by the studio. Printer Pro, where I usually print my materials in Rotterdam, even asks for a copy of the book to show its clients, which never happened to me, even though I spent a great deal of time there.

June 15
Every time I’m on the shores of the IJ in Amsterdam, I can’t stop looking at the barges laden with material. To understand the ‘city around the IJ’, I go with Giovanni on a boat trip on the IJ through the Port of Amsterdam, an extremely inspiring trip. I can finally see the large part of the city, so close to the centre but yet so detached from it. In this part of the city, the smell of fermenting cereals mixes with the fumes from chimneys; heaps of black coal mountains invite us to imagine new forms of the sublime; hills of metal scraps and sand create exciting silhouettes. We are completely fascinated by this world of materials and smells that are stored within the city but move across different landscapes.

Boat trip on the IJ through the Port of Amsterdam (June 15)

June 21
During and after these trips, all the suggestions, stories, forms and typologies are translated into a repertoire of expressive and material architectures and public spaces for the city. This translation happens by working with models and narratives. From the end of June on, we start working on an almost seven-metre-long triangular scale model at 1:100 of Sixhaven. The model itself is not intended as a representation of the project, but it becomes, literally, our working table where objects are created, placed, made again, tested. First attempts remain and can be revised. We work from the very beginning with gypsum models and tactile objects. In previous projects, I worked with objects that can be touched, ‘speak’ to us and have a relation with the human body. In this phase, we work intensely on shapes, colours, textures, forms, different types and methods of casting. Our workspace becomes a laboratory where many attempts are made. It is filled with gypsum, pigments, boxes with sand and earth to cast in. To others, the studio looks like a bakery or a ‘pasticceria’, a pastry shop, where every now and then new colourful creations are presented.

After long debates, brainstorming and a crisis within the team, we decide to replace the black reflective surface initially used as a table to simulate water with an aluminium plate that reflects colours like water.

During the phase of model-making at the end of June, I move from Post Office, which is becoming quite crowded, to the floor above, a large, sunny studio, big enough to install the seven-metre-long model and have space to create the rest of the models. This space soon becomes a second home, and in the last weeks, our primary home.

Phase of model-making (June)

July 8
While the Biergarten is full, and people are shouting during FIFA World Cup games, we are taking photos of the objects inside pools of water and plants on the rooftop of the Post Office (which looks directly into the Biergarten). Because of the sun and wind, it seems a mission impossible to find a spot, with the right natural lighting conditions and interesting reflections on the water. After one hour, we finally reach the right composition of plants, water, light and model. The photos look great. However, a few minutes later, the police at the Biergarten see us on a nearby rooftop and kick us off. I don’t speak Dutch so I don’t understand the situation, and I imagine myself in prison two days before the submission of the Prix de Rome. Fortunately, nothing happens, we only have to leave the roof. But we have to create the set again.

July 11
On my 30th birthday I receive the best gift ever: with just five days’ notice, the Korean artist and photographer Kyoungtae Kim arrives from Seoul to take photos of each object. We are friends and we worked together on the photos of my previous project, Petrified Carpets. At first, everybody is speechless about this pretty crazy move, and shocked by his arrival. But everybody understands as soon as he starts shooting and the first photos come out. Tae is an expert at taking photos of objects, textures and architecture, with a touch that is both suspended and very material at the same time. This approach is exactly what I try to achieve in my projects. It’s a perfect match.

Making photos (July 8)

July 15
Last minute stress, Simone Trum, graphic designer at Team Thursday, volunteers to help assemble the booklet. Lauren patiently and rationally takes care of carefully packing the table and every single object, including sand, plants and minerals. Thanks to him and Matthew, the boxes are a masterpiece of logistics.

July 16, 10 am
In the chaos of the packing, between foam, sand, earth, dry flowers, I bump into the landlord (at the worst possible moment), embarrassed, after days without sleep. I try to excuse myself by saying that ‘the deadline for the Prix is today’. To which he sarcastically replies that I have a second deadline tonight: ‘to clean up the space’. I will remember this forever.

July 16, 6 pm
We submit the project! Then the team relaxes with prosecco in the sun at the Post Office. We look back at the work and we love it. It’s incredible how everything magically came together at the last moment. We order pizza. Noortje and I fall asleep together on the floor, under the safety cloth used to carry around the aluminium plates.