In conversation: Willem Jan Neutelings
The Dutch architect speaks with Lyn Rice and members of the public after his Current Work lecture.
After his 2013 Current Work lecture, Dutch architect Neutelings had a lively discussion with moderator Lyn Rice, as well as a brief Q&A session with the audience. Edited transcripts of both exchanges are published below.
Lyn Rice: Thank you for your presentation. It’s an incredible body of work. You have said that one of the premises of your studio is to make what your client wishes, but not what they expect. Yet you’ve also said that you reject the notion of innovation as a goal in your work. Could you talk about the problem of innovation as a goal and perhaps include your thinking on the idea of “surplus value?”
Willem Jan Neutelings: We don’t see newness as a goal. There is often a misunderstanding that if something is new then it is somehow better. I think the idea of newness is very dangerous because it can make you forget what has already come before. The sciences have the right approach, where newness is always based on the old inventions. If you’re a doctor, you aren’t going to invent something new out of the blue. You are first going to read what doctors before you have done, and you are going to develop that further.
Rice: You don’t really want to find an innovative way of fixing your broken arm.
In Dutch, we have an expression: “What’s new today, is tomorrow’s kitty litter.” —Willem Jan Neutelings
Neutelings: No, exactly, that could be quite dangerous. Architecture is a 5,000-year-old profession. Things that have been done can be reused or adapted; we can get knowledge from those ideas. So whether it’s a typology or a method of making, it’s interesting to use the old tools and instruments. At the same time, we also try to reshape those tools slightly, try to see if we can make a next step with them—not necessarily to achieve something new, but something better. We call this “surplus value.” For instance, we try, even with an inexpensive, simple building, to give the community something more by changing a little bit the typology or the material in order to introduce an element of surprise. We like to think more in the direction of surprise than newness. In Dutch, we have an expression: “What’s new today, is tomorrow’s kitty litter.”
Rice: Also, claims to innovation can be a bit vainglorious, no?
Neutelings: I don’t think it is about vanity, per se. Innovation is a good thing, of course. We want to make progress, to make better things for people, but we don’t feel that is always dependent on newness, as such. It’s a newness that should also bring progress and quality. That’s important.
Rice: One of the most salient features of your work that you described tonight is the rupture you illustrate between the logics of the interior and the exterior. That’s been very productive territory in your practice. As I understand it, the ornament and the skin give the project another layer of meaning and an opportunity to resonate with a local setting; in other words, to make it one with the specific place and not transportable to another site. Are you ever tempted to blur or synthesize this dichotomy, or would doing so somehow defeat the potential of the projects to expand and localize meaning?
Neutelings: You might compare it to a body. We feel there’s a strong distinction between inside and outside because the skin has to perform certain functions, for instance, of expression, of mediating the climate, and so forth. A building’s skin is no different really. Mies exploded the boundaries between interior and exterior spaces with continuity. But we like to think of space as an enclosure rather than an endless expansion. At the same time, we see a profound difference between making the street go into a building and merely seeing the building from the street. We don’t like everything transparent and open. We like the enclosure.
Rice: Is the logic of your building’s cladding necessarily related to its internal organization?
Neutelings: No, not at all. It’s not an expression of the internal organization. It could be an expression of the function; it could be an expression of the, let’s say, structural needs; or of the community, but certainly not pure functionalism. It’s an expression through a metaphor, or a symbol, or something else. That’s why you read the interior and exterior as completely separated.
Rice: Speaking of functionalism, in the Antwerp museum or in the Institute for Sound and Vision, you said that the envelope for those buildings could have gone taller if you had occupied the whole site, but that you self-imposed a constraint. What would you say is the role of constraint, either self-imposed or inherited, in your work?
Neutelings: It is very important because if everything is possible, then nothing is possible. That is always the case. The more difficult a problem gets, the closer you get to the solution.
[Ornament] is something that we discover slowly from working with the material, not from an aesthetic position. —Willem Jan Neutelings
In the case of the Institute for Sound and Vision, obviously we decided early on that a significant portion of that building would be underground, which presented challenges, but also opportunities. It allowed us to create a big plaza, a big green surface, but also at the same time resolve all of the air conditioning issues, because the soil temperature in Holland is ideal for archives. You don’t have to expend any money or energy, or much space in the program for managing the climate of the building. Things come together and by imposing these constraints, in a way you gain new qualities that you wouldn’t have gained if you were taking too much freedom in the design.
Questions were opened to the audience.
Audience member: Thanks for your talk. I thought one of the most striking things you were talking about was this dichotomy you see between the form/volume and the cladding. I suspect a lot of people would disagree with that and say those elements should be more integrated, but my question is whether you have an order of operations? As in, do you always sculpt the form first and then think about the material systems? Or does sometimes an idea for cladding come first and inform the exploration of form?
Neutelings: Usually the cladding comes fairly late in the process. It might be one or two years before we know it, actually. First we work on the functional organization and the volumetric, the sculpture of the building. The dressing of the building is much later. The selection of the material is also a very iterative process. In many cases we will go through many types of material, colors, textures, and ways of producing it, before we find the final one. We try to work with the industry producing the material. It is a long process, a process that is not related to the process of making the volumetric. But it’s never a pre-conceived idea; it’s always something that we discover slowly from working with the material, not from an aesthetic position.
Rice: When you work with artists on façades, do you give them the parameters and then they go off and work, or is it more conversational?
Neutelings: Both. It depends on the nature of the project. Sometimes we develop the idea closely with the artist, and sometimes they will work much more independently. It changes.
Audience member 2: I was wondering if you could talk about how you conceive the project at the beginning and how you develop it—whether you draw by hand, work with models then, or with computers. Can you talk about what you favor at each stage and why?
Neutelings: You might say we have a fairly old-fashioned approach. We only have computers in the office for typing letters and for production. We think of the computer not as a design tool, but as a production tool. That’s an important element. It means that most of the design is done by hand drawings or physical models made by hand from foam, cardboard, or something of that nature. And, of course, many, many sketches. We think designing is a very physical thing to do—that there is still a brain/hand connection that’s extremely important for the composition, for the feeling of it—and we do it standing up. For us it’s very important not to sit while designing. We hang everything on the walls. When you’re standing with your paper on the wall, there’s a sort of interaction that’s different, with the work and also with the collaborators exchanging ideas. We even do it with the client. We never have the clients sitting; they’re always in front of the wall or in front of a model, and we walk around and talk about it. It’s more visceral and active that way. I think that is an important aspect. If you are making a three-dimensional object that is a building, you should make three-dimensional prototypes; if you’re making a big object, I think you should start with a small one.
Willem Jan Neutelings is a founding principal of the Rotterdam-based firm Neutelings Riedijk. From its inception, the firm has been noted, in the words of curator and critic Aaron Betsky, for its ability to shape its designs “to create a figure, or sculpted object, in the landscape.” Beginning with early projects such as the Minnaert University Building, Utrecht, and a number of housing developments throughout the Netherlands, the firm has continued to synthesize complex programming to create educational, civic, and residential projects that are recognized for their “iconic and expressive capacity.”
Lyn Rice is a principal of Rice+Lipka Architects and is a member of the League’s Board of Directors.