The work of Marlies Rohmer Architects & Urbanists (MR A&U) is realistic and diverse, and has a distinct, characteristic style. We see the architect as a visionary who is a service provider and thus fulfils a societal role. In a reflective search mode, we actively anticipate developments in society. Only by looking ahead and promptly detecting incipient change is it possible to make architecture that is relevant and does justice to its surroundings. We generally approach commissioned projects from a sociological, sociocultural or philosophical angle. “Total engineering” serves us as the guiding principle here, because it enhances control over the budget, process duration and quality.
Clients and users
Our pursuit of integrality is manifest in the way we are keen to cooperate with clients and users. The contribution of these participants is essential to enable MR A&U to attune the design and the process to the wishes that motivate them. In practice, this means initiating an open dialogue, preferably in the early stages of a project.
Specific and generic
MR A&U designs multi-faceted buildings which always form a specific answer to a given task or question. We choose generic structures which have a capacity for change and adaption, and which are also capable of undergoing multiple transformations until they are sufficiently specific to the situation concerned. In so doing we continually traverse the border territory between the generic and specific.
Research is central to our working style. An above-average interest in the wider societal context of the work plays a part here. Background research has the function of elucidating the complex issues surrounding a project, and so assuring the success of the ensuing design. We consciously take our lead from a combination of analysis and intuition.
MR A&U has the designing of sustainable buildings in its DNA. The awareness that highly desirable aims are more than the sum of their parts is one of our guiding principles. One cannot speak of real sustainability unless all parts are properly integrated into the whole design. We profit by initially taking a low-tech approach, because not only technical systems but also purely architectural choices contribute to sustainability. A hallmark of our style is our concern for well-chosen materials and the detailing of the design.
At MR A&U we have proved ourselves capable of delivering spatially interesting, meticulous and multi-layered architecture, both in the Netherlands and abroad, and we have built up a substantial body of routine skills, know-how and experience on wide-ranging projects. We are therefore well versed in our regular procedures and in the critical analysis of processes, followed where possible by innovation. Understanding the culture is crucial to the desired anchoring of the project into its context.
MR A&U is a stable, experienced firm which has built up a varied portfolio of commissioned projects since 1986. The projects range from housing and schools to urban development projects. We have a high profile in the areas of school, care and sociocultural projects. The practice has won several significant awards over the years.
How important is the recognizability of a design?
After nearly thirty years of design practice, it is no more than natural for a designer to have a mature, well-defined style which has certain recurrent features. Elements like these are bound to appear when an oeuvre is examined and analysed. Significant features which typify the designs of MR A&U include a penchant for playing with architectural expectations, for designing the unexpected and, especially, for introducing apparent contradictions. But a project-specific approach to detail, detail which amplifies the concept of a building, is another a hallmark of MR A&U’s output. The details alternate between the conspicuous and the subtle, but they always contribute an essential richness to the design.
Despite these and other characteristic facets, the accumulated routine and ample experience does not tempt the practice into anything like complacency. These are not the times for that, and it is moreover not in the character of MR A&U. The way we continually set ourselves higher standards is illustrated by among other things an unflagging determination to hold up our own designs to critical scrutiny. So MR A&U’s image and style reside not only in the results achieved and the detailing of the designs, but also in working procedures and in the critical analysis of processes, followed where possible by innovation.
What else makes MR A&U stand out as an architecture practice?
The role of an architect has changed considerably in recent years, and the end of this development is not yet in sight. Neither does the transformation of the architect’s profession show signs of coming to a stillstand. MR A&U eagerly faces up to the radical and ongoing changes with interest and with an open attitude. This outlook is based on our firm conviction that a good architect always looks to the future, and can thus respond alertly to the new developments in an ever more complex society. Only this way is it possible to arrive relevant, appropriate designs. The construction of a building is in fact merely the final outcome of a much longer process, one in which the commissioned project is also examined from societal, cultural and philosophical angles. This substantive research is a fundamental ingredient of the MR A&U modus operandi, and it arises from our determination not only to develop our relation to the design and to sharpen our perception of the functional requirements, but also to contribute to the discussion and renewal of our professional field.
Are there tasks and typologies that enjoy a special preference?
Over the years, MR A&U has built up a particular reputation for designing projects such as schools and social or private-sector housing. We have also amply demonstrated our capacity to create spatially interesting, meticulously detailed architecture – sometimes on uncomfortably tight budgets and within relatively short planning deadlines. But the know-how and approach are equally applicable to other tasks and typologies. Our willingness to tackle diverse projects through the approach known as total engineering has stood us in good stead here. When we undertake a total project, which involves guiding and coordinating a variety of disciplines and specialists, it greatly enhances our control over the budget, the process duration and the quality of the end product. An integrated approach makes the control of significant components such as cost control more realistic – as long as it is related to the integral quality of all the disciplines: the architecture, construction, building services and building physics. This benefits the practice because it enables us to assess the likely risks and opportunities at an early stage, besides facilitating better coordination with the clients. And it is also in the interest of clients because it gives them greater certainty.
What form of relationship develops with clients and users?
Background research which delves into the complex issues around a project, and the desire for project integration, come together in the way MR A&U is eager to cooperate with clients and users. Client and user contributions are of great importance to MR A&U; indeed, they are essential for attuning the design and the process to the wishes that motivate them. In practice this means that an open dialogue occurs, preferably from an early stage onwards, thereby offering the clients, users and in some cases neighbourhood residents an opportunity to share their outlook and ideas with the architects. An open dialogue of this kind has a clarifying effect and leads to mutual understanding; but it also calls for a touch of audacity. As a designer, you narrow the distance between yourself and these participants, perhaps literally, with the result that you may have to come up with strong arguments to defend a design or a process. But the advantages of this open, direct relationship weigh up well against the need for self-justification. In most cases the design benefits directly from the external input; design starting points are reformulated, details are refined, and the solution is customized to accommodate specific wishes. In our view, an interactive process and a candid, open relationship with the clients and users are preferable above a hermetic, preconceived model or design.
How does MR A&U respond to the call for sustainability?
Nowadays an architect must take care when the topic of sustainability is raised, because the term tends to be used too often and too loosely. Merely tagging a label of sustainability onto a design creates more confusion than clarity. MR A&U upholds above all the credo that a building which people are proud of, where they feel at home and which they can adapt to their needs, is a sustainable building. A building is sustainable when it excites and energizes its users.
There are technical means for making a design ecologically sustainable or “green”. MR A&U holds to the guideline that the desired objectives in this area are more than a mere sum of parts, and more than a simple stacking-up of solutions. One can scarcely speak of real sustainability unless the various parts of the design or building enter into a certain synergy.
Furthermore, MR A&U prefers to take a low-tech approach, at least at the outset. This entails that not only technical solutions but also architectural modifications can boost sustainability. These two aspects function in practice rather like communicating vessels: more or less emphasis on the one leads to a corresponding reaction in the other. But from this viewpoint technical solutions are also useful for the further optimization of the sustainability arising from the architecture. As an aid to achieving a satisfactory balance, MR A&U has drawn up a guideline with a matrix of architectural and building service options.
In what ways can architecture respond to a location?
MR A&U aims to devise a specific answer to a specific question in all its projects. That is in itself enough to assure that practically every design will respond to its context; although it does not mean unquestioningly adapting to the surroundings. Locations are too complex, too haphazard and even too changeable (as regards interested persons) to allow for that. The result is that the building has the best possible anchorage in its urban and social context, while remaining distinctly recognizable. Implicit in this we find, again, the underlying, general wish for sustainable design.
MR A&U is keen to use generic structures which offer room for change and adaption, and which are amenable to successive remodelling to match the specific needs of each situation. In so doing, we continually traverse the borderline area between the generic and the specific. In this exploration, we willingly allow ourselves to be led by analysis and intuition. MR A&U‘s above-average interest in the wider social context plays a part here; an interest that also implies consultation and involvement with users and neighbourhood residents.
These investments in this area made earlier, moreover entail a commitment to following this approach. By abandoning or marginalizing the spatial and societal coupling of a process or design, a leading designer quickly loses credibility – not least because a location must often be filled and coloured in with people and not merely with buildings. Inflexible standpoints, headstrong individuals, and lobbying organizations not infrequently play a greater than average role here. Besides, intentions of this kind are somewhat easier to profess on paper than in practice. Here too, MR A&U’s extensive experience, including experience with “difficult” projects, often proves of value.
Aren’t skill and craftsmanship outdated concepts?
The making process is a matter of interest to MR A&U, both in its most general sense and in the multiple forms the process takes. This is evident in the wish to work on an integrated project together with clients and users, and also in the aspiration to have the design respond as fully as possible to an existing context. Attention to the making process reappears, and in no small way, in the meticulous choice of materials and detailing of designs. It is an area of attention that is cherished and developed within the practice, but without a tendency to dogmatism. The same careful attention gives rise to buildings which generally age well and which are recognized and appreciated by residents and users. Skill and craftsmanship are old ideas to which some people look back with nostalgic regret. MR A&U prefers to breathe new life into these notions through knowledge and attention to detail, based on research and analysis. They are ingredients that are capable of contributing to an architecture which is meaningful, lucid and cogent, while never wallowing in its autonomy or losing contact with the place, context or process that precedes the building itself.