AUT Innsbruck 2019
“Architecture Speaks - The language of MVRDV”
by Nathalie de Vries, Miruna Dunu, and Christine Sohar
Introduction: The language of MVRDV
At MVRDV, our interest transcends architectural style, residing more in architectural design methodology. Our methods allow us to research the questions surrounding our projects, in terms of programme, context, and typology. As part of our office’s working model, over the years we have developed a vocabulary to discuss our approach, both in words and images. This is not a fixed language. As in any language, the meaning of our words describing design-related methods and operations can slowly change over time, or become outdated or obsolete, all while new words and methods are being constantly introduced. To be clear, these words are not completely new (with some some exceptions such as ‘farmax’) but they are mainly used for a specific operation or design method within our office. The terms’ meanings are crystal clear to us, since they are used frequently and across multiple projects. We also introduce them to our clients as names for variants and ‘options’ (another frequently used word) when presenting the design studies and models developed for their commissions.
In the MVRDV language, most words representing design methods derive from verbs. They reveal our strategies for creating and organising volumes, voids, and building elements, which ultimately become the containers of life, spaces for action, surfaces of representation and production. They are often accompanied by other words like ‘diversity’, ‘density’, or ‘new collectivity’ that represent our goals and mission.
Reflecting on our work, we notice how some projects introduced new words. A project in Saint Petersburg created the word ‘activator’, which judging by its sound could have just as easily been proposed by a Russian Constructivist, though they would likely have written it as ‘aktivator’. Another example is the word ‘stack’, probably first used when we proposed a (lost) competition design for the Oslo Opera. Years later, next to that very site, we realized one of the first ‘barcode’ urban plans, where the term itself inspired the project’s first unofficial name.
Generally, these operations are about creating more space, very seldom less. Words that immediately come to mind are ‘rotate’, ‘stack’, ‘pixel’, and ‘village’, to name a few. They describe ways of constructing volumes, buildings, places, villages, cities, and ultimately a certain society with ever-more spaces that generate a healthy and prosperous densification. Indeed, as architects and urbanists, we believe it is our mission to deal with the notion of ‘ever-more’ and find optimal solutions for implementing it, since the human population is steadily increasing and so are the demands for individual space. Moreover, we believe we are in need of ever-more productive and better performing buildings. It is our goal to find satisfactory and durable solutions to this design challenge.
This has been at the core of our processes in the past 25 years of MVRDV’s existence. In our methodology language, we tend to replace the term ‘doing’ with ‘testing’. Thus, each project becomes a pilot, a prototype, or a ‘typical’ variation of our perpetual experiments. Over the years, we realised that we are dealing with questions of space that are emerging everywhere, be it the Netherlands, Austria, or any other location, as such reinforcing their global relevance. Our language has become a powerful tool that enables us to explain to others and to ourselves what we do, why we do it, and how our projects act as vehicles of thought and drivers of change.
Exhibition Innsbruck: The Towers
In this exhibition for the aut, we are translating some of our most-used design methodologies into towers. Why towers? Because we believe that sites are valuable and should be used as intensively as possible. Sustainable design begins with an appreciation of the value of space itself. Moreover, building towers against a backdrop of the Alps and the city of Innsbruck is, not by coincidence, a slight provocation. In Austria, as in many other countries, discussions about density are ongoing, alongside those addressing the quality of life in places where both urbanisation and the shrinkage of rural areas are taking place. Words like ‘Zersiedlung’ refer to this. When asked to represent our practice’s work, we believe installations are a suitable medium, as both condensed representations of our spatial production and as vehicles for our messages. Nevertheless, an exhibition is inevitably a reduction. In this particular case, the size, shape, volume, and views of the Brauerei allowed us to give four representations of the MVRDV vocabulary, but we could have built a whole city just as well. Each of our four towers represents a way of thinking and working that we deem necessary in shaping our future.
There is no density without stacking. There is hardly any other way of dealing with our hunger for more floors, more buildings, and increasing urbanisation without thinking about how we can combine functions vertically. Therefore, we need to investigate the preconditions for creating publicly accessible upper levels in vertical volumes. How should we design shared spaces inside high-rise buildings alongside new outdoor spaces on terraces, in order to create a three-dimensional city – a city that frees the street level from its responsibility to absorb the consequences of densification? Can we shift and move the stacked floors and volumes, allowing for connections between different levels, creating platforms in-between, multiplying the available public spaces, and thus generating a truly three-dimensional world? In our publications, we call these design proposals 'densification strategies'. Our very first project, Berlin Voids, was addressing these very issues. Instead of merely filling the empty void with more of the same, we saw a new opportunity to deal with densification differently and consequently strived to create a new condition. Stacking is the counterpart to creating voids.
In our desire to stimulate healthy densification, proximity, and land-use maximisation, we piled-up functions. We did so even with programmes typically associated with horizontality. Our design for the Expo 2000 presented a then-untested typology of stacked functions and thus acted as a laboratory for densification; an exploratory landscape. We experimented with stacking various housing types into one compact volume, which we called “The Silodam”, and 15 years later, a close-knit and diverse community still calls it their home. Our experiments took us to a possible redefinition of high-rise typology with our designs for the Taipei Twin Towers and Vanke Headquarters in Shenzhen, where we replaced the traditional single-volume skyscraper with vertically stacked, dynamic, and diverse spatial elements.
There is space and there is the beginning of space. The smallest unit. What is the smallest unit we work with – the one that can contain the ideal and construct the base? In our language evolution, what started as a measurement tool for data developed into flexible functional units that can host a variety of programmes, driving our approach to the creation of mixed-use buildings and environments with the help of a software we developed called Function Mixer. Providing both individual privacy and social permeability, the pixel grew into an enabler of diversity catering for different occupants and their individual necessities. It expands and contracts to contain just the right amount of space for its user, ensuring distinctiveness while remaining recognisable. At the same time, it represents flexibility, as exemplified by projects such as the Rodovre Sky Village, in which pixels could be converted from office to residential spaces, or vice-versa, in response to an unstable and unpredictable market. We thoroughly explored its meaning and operational purpose, applying it in various contexts to achieve diversity. In the case of DNB Oslo Headquarters, it offers a flexible working space suitable for the present-day transparent banking service, whereas with KoolKiel, a mixed-use complex that will redevelop a post-industrial site in Kiel, Germany, we employed the pixel as a resourceful unit that is able, through multiplication, to cater to the broad diversity of functions. As such, the pixel reinvents the individual space for working, playing, resting, and living.
The ‘village’ is a metaphor for our belief in the necessity of developing the next scale when designing housing projects, regardless of size and setting. In a village, houses are grouped in clusters and share facilities, thus preserving variation and the sense of togetherness. A collection of dreams, ideal homes, and individually shaped living places together form ‘new collectivities’, where people share a way of living, different functionalities, the construction of their homes, an identity, an ideal. The new collectivity is what helps us navigate the ever-growing built mass; it is the entity that drives quality of life.
As such, is architecture a tool for stimulating healthy community growth? How can we design buildings and neighbourhoods that cater for the dream of happy living and togetherness? In response to these issues, over time we have explored various options and processes that would generate equitable, affordable, and diversified housing, always seeking to adapt to the local culture and context. We experimented with archetypical forms and contemporary technology in our desire to knit together the new and the old, the innovative and the relatable, in vibrant places that people would call ‘home’. From the Masterplan in Ypenburg to Nieuw Leyden and Traumhaus Funari, we sought to integrate in our designs the notion of the sub-urban dream and the ‘village’ as an ideal basis for healthy community-making, acknowledging the innate need for socialisation while providing contemporary and tailored responses.
We witness the environment changing around us, along with our building technology. We believe the building industry should become more innovative and buildings should become more productive. Every surface, interior or exterior, should become more effective. Bringing together a strong social agenda with the core features of the sustainable building paradigm is what we define as an ‘activator’. Productivity entails creating more spaces, more uses, more meanings, more context, and more environmentally-minded structures. Projects like the Book Mountain Library in Spijkenisse, The Couch Tennis Club in Amsterdam, or the Stairs to Kriterion act as catalysts for spatial activation by triggering social engagement.
'Activators’ generate inhabitable surfaces that interact with their environment and stimulate activities. They operate on a broad range of scales, from small elements such as balconies, to temporary interventions and actual buildings. These explorations have been an ongoing process from the foundation of MVRDV to today. The results became ever-more complex: from the green cantilevers of Boom Hengelo (1997) offering its elderly inhabitants a personal garden in a vertical context, to The Why Factory Tribune facilitating a dynamic educational process through its powerful social function and multi-purpose volume, the Bałtyk Tower with its versatile design that reflects the surrounding urban tissue, and the structurally ingenious Turm-mit-Taille that reduces to a minimum the shadow it casts onto its neighbouring buildings. While the term ‘activator’ applies to all of these projects, its usage is not prescriptive, because it defines a process driven by a compelling socio-environmental dimension, rather than a formalistic outcome.
Speaking of the Future
Language is in a process of perpetual evolution, and so is the built environment. At MVRDV, we witnessed the progressive change of meaning of our words as a reflection of our own growth within the world around us. We look ahead enthusiastically and while there is hardly a way to determine what the future holds, we believe it is through conversations that new meanings are born and language is driven forward. We regard our exhibition at the AUT as a compelling medium to start a thought-provoking dialogue about our future together, where visions, aspirations, ambitions, and attitudes blend to create new meanings.
This article was first published on Archdaily.