The sequel to the story of architecture. It’s not the strongest who survive, or the most intelligent, but the most adaptable to change.
I have been making buildings for a good 25 years. The office has a highly varied portfolio of commissioned projects, most of them in the Netherlands but some elsewhere in Europe. Years of thinking, designing, conferring, model building, sketching, refining, comparing, freely associating, focussing, stepping back, restarting, organizing, reorganizing, consulting with clients, doing deals, training, slogging through mud, choosing materials, constructing, installing services and coping with contract variations have gone into these projects; and then, often after several years, the project is ready. Architecture is a slow business and it always will be.
Then the focus shifts to new, challenging projects. What’s next? The inevitable thrills and spills have to be seen in context. How did things go in earlier projects? The ongoing debate about sustainability makes it all the more interesting to see how well our old work has stood the test of time.
Once you have completed a building project, you close the door behind you and the users move in. I have often gone back to see how a project is functioning in real life, and I still do. Sometimes I go the company of a journalist or a prospective client, sometimes even with a TV crew; but usually I go alone, simply out of concern and curiosity. It’s a bit like visiting your own children who you haven’t seen for ages. How well are they doing? How well are they behaving?
After 25 years, I feel an irresistible need to revisit the buildings, especially the earliest ones. I hope to strike up a conversation with the present residents and users, who may often be several generations removed from the first occupants. My aim is to compare the ideals, dreams and knowledge that went into the design with the reality. How well have the original ideas stood up? Has the design proved timeless, or is it outmoded, a child of its times? Do I still think about it in the same way? Has our office developed an architectural signature, or have we just built a succession of unrelated designs? What experiences do the users have of the building? Is it pleasant to live with? Does it function as it should? Is it practical? How satisfactory is the indoor climate? Can the users adapt the building to their needs without undermining the concept? Or is the building a prisoner of its own concept? Is the design robust enough to stand up to changes? Does it transform effortlessly to satisfy new needs, or have the first conspicuous alterations already taken place? Do the changes actually make the building more beautiful, or is the original concept teetering on the point of collapse? In other words, how sustainable and flexible is it? Are the materials ageing beautifully, or is extra maintenance work needed? Is the building well maintained? Does it integrate enduringly with its surroundings? How good is the relation between the building and the surrounding public space?
But the main question is actually: what can I learn from all this? What aspects will be on my agenda for the next 25 years? What must I focus on? Have I proved capable of building sustainable buildings that are well integrated into their context?
Now I am going to hit the road in my campervan, and take time out for more contemplations of this kind.
Marlies Rohmer, 2012-2016