The lessons of the crisis: the architect as global player

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 have the balance of forces in architecture changed fundamentally? What is the playing field occupied by architects? What roles do they assume, intuitively or strategically? And what opportunities do they open up for the future? The fifth instalment in this series is a conversation with Jan Knikker, partner and head of Public Relations and Business Development at MVRDV.

MVRDV office / photo Petra van der Ree

The Rotterdam office of MVRDV is housed in a low volume at the rear of the Industriegebouw, a multi-tenant building constructed after the war in the Stadsdriehoek district. In the bright hall, furnished with long tables, dozens of employees are working at screens or walking around. Emblazoned across the full-height glass partition between the reception area and workspace is ‘The Architecture Atelier’. The interior reveals that the architects have a liking for lettering. On the other side of the reception area are the meeting rooms, bearing names like ‘The Workshop Room’, The Magnet Room’ and ‘The Lounge Room’. Each room features a unique colour to reflect the desired mood of a scheduled meeting. One room is dark blue, another orange, and another bright red. Walls, furniture and carpets are in the same RAL colour. Some rooms contain cabinets with the letters M V R D V cut out of the doors in an endless loop. For our conversation, Jan Knikker (1972) has selected a latte brown room containing lounge chairs and a glass table. The mood: personal and informal.

Since this architecture firm has far more employees than any of the other offices in this series, I’m especially interested in the management and internal organization, and the underlying philosophy. How do you manage such a large organization? Knikker contradicts me politely. The organization does all it can not to be ‘big’ but to be ‘familiar’. The office is divided into eight design departments, each with between 12 and 35 employees, a manageable size that allows people to get to know one another well. The departments operate fairly independently, almost like ‘Mini MVRDVs’. “We think back nostalgically to when we were small,” says Knikker. (The firm currently employs 225 people and the office covers an area of 2,400 square metres.)

Strategic development
In 2008, before the crisis, MVRDV employed 60 people and had the ambition to grow to 100. At the time, the office structure was similar to that of other big offices. The director-architects headed the organization together with project managers. Even back then, the strategic development of the firm was taking shape. “The crisis hit us fast and hard. Our Dutch portfolio, which accounted for 34% of the workload, disappeared within a few months,” recalls Knikker. “Our aim was to keep our staffing level at 60, no matter what. An office with MVRDV’s ambitions simply couldn’t operate with fewer employees.” Those were tough times. Acquisition strategy changed repeatedly in response to economic forecasts from around the world and the related opportunities. The firm didn’t focus on specialization but on the widest possible spread. A clear difference with firms like Powerhouse Company and their deliberate targeting of high-end clients.

MVRDV office / photo Petra van der Ree

The pragmatic ‘follow the projects’ strategy reinforced the strong international orientation. We took part in competitions, even those that paid poorly, explains director and co-founder Jacob van Rijs during the Studio Visit a few days before my conversation. Knikker adds that director and co-founder Nathalie de Vries became chairwoman of the Royal Institute of Dutch Architects (BNA) and joined other parties in efforts to improve Dutch regulations for European tenders. Up to that point, these regulations specified that offices needed to have a high turnover and could only tender for projects if they had already completed a number of buildings of the same typology. The BNA and De Vries wanted to ensure that ‘comparable complexity’ would also be accepted as a criterion. The regulations were amended in Rotterdam and they are now regarded as a model for the whole country. An example of a tender that the office was able to compete for as a result of the new rules is the Boijmans Van Beuningen Depot. According to Knikker, the changes to the regulations not only prevented the office from shrinking further but also ensured that young architects enjoy greater opportunities to compete for tenders.

Around the year 2014, MVRDV outgrew the typical structure of an architecture firm, which is based on centralized management made up of directors and project managers. A new structure more suited to a complex and changing portfolio was needed. So MVRDV opted for a matrix. The directors still comprise the top layer. Below them are the eight design departments. These are regionally defined (e.g. Asia, France, the Netherlands) or thematically defined (public buildings, extreme commercial property). The horizontal layers within the matrix cover issues that are vital to the smooth running of the entire organization (e.g. finance and contracts, personnel, business development, sustainability and Building Information Modelling, or BIM). These layers cut across all ‘Mini MVRDVs’, ensuring that an overview of the whole organization can be maintained, says Knikker. The horizontal layers are managed by associates who head a number of projects at the same time. The associates therefore play an important connecting and communicating role within the entire organization. Incidentally, besides acquisition strategy, PR, contracts and communication, the horizontal Strategy & Development department is responsible for visualization. In other words, MVRDV does not view renderings as an extension of design but as an aspect of strategic business development. Sounds logical, but I’ve never before encountered this so explicitly within an architecture office.

MVRDV office / photo Petra van der Ree

Working for the ‘Mini MVRDVs’
As generalist as the office is as a whole, the departments and staff within them are specialist. Employees on higher salaries must apply if they want to switch to another department. The ratio of permanent to temporary employees is currently 40 to 60 and fluctuates in accordance with the number of long-term projects. People have two years “to make themselves indispensable”. That’s very short, acknowledges Knikker, but it’s dictated by Dutch labour legislation.

The large workspace was still packed with staff when the Studio Visit began at six on a Friday evening. The hall contains twelve rows of tables, each with seven workstations. People who work together prefer to sit close together. The long table-tops have no supporting legs, so people can easily roll back and forth to one another on their chairs. Besides the big workspace, there are three neutral-white design spaces, which in terms of size are not euphemisms for the word ‘studio’. Staff from the horizontal departments don’t sit with the project employees but in separate spaces. Support staff make up 17 percent of the workforce. The mini MVRDV’s are not only specialized in terms of expertise but also independent when it comes to funding for lectures, training, excursions, dinners and parties.

The next crisis is sure to come
By far most staff work in Rotterdam. The offices in Shanghai and Paris focus on detailing projects. “Design is so essential to us that we want to control this aspect of all projects in Rotterdam at all times, no matter where the projects are located in the world,” Knikker explains. For projects in the Netherlands and France, the firm offers full services, from preliminary studies to management supervision. For projects in other countries — MVRDV also hopes to open a German office within the foreseeable future — the organization acts as an ‘ideas factory’: projects are elaborated up to planning application. After that, MVRDV acts as an aesthetic supervisor up to completion.

During MVRDV’s 25-year existence, the office has survived the Asian crisis of 1997 and the most recent economic downturn, but the following setback is sure to come. Of that we are in agreement. How can you prepare? Knikker’s answer can be summarized as ‘diversification, risk spread and analysis’. Where will the next bubble appear? Where is debt a problem? Where is corruption widespread? Where are there safety issues? The office has already completed projects in 45 countries. A special team within the office charts the risks with a country matrix. That’s how the office decides whether or not to work in a particular country or with a particular client.

After our conversation and an extensive tour of the office, I take my leave. Behind me, right above the entrance, five letters light up confidently.

MVRDV office / photo Petra van der Ree

MVRDV, the facts:
1993 office founded
2010 Shanghai branch opened
2018 Paris branch opened

Employees in 2008/9: 60
Employees in 2018: 225 (of whom 200 in Rotterdam)

Number of directors 2010: 3
Number of directors 2018: 7 partners and 6 department heads

Main focus in 2008/9:
No specialization in terms of building function, typology, clients and users.
Main focus in 2018:
Likewise, with a clear strategic focus on the Netherlands, France and China, and beyond those the rest of the world.