Azara Blog: Winy Maas of MVRDV gives a talk in Cambridge

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Date published: 2008/03/06

The Cambridge University Arcsoc society is running a series of lectures by Dutch architects this term, with sponsorship by the Dutch Embassy. The third lecture was by Winy Maas of MVRDV.

Maas is evidently very bright and very confident, and on top of that he could have been a stand-up comedian. He makes lots of parenthetical remarks when he's speaking and you are never really quite sure what to take seriously and what not. When he was introduced as being a speaker in the series he immediately had to downplay his Dutchness (since "90% of [ MVRDV ] buildings are not in Holland ... I feel less Dutch than ever").

He then went on to complain that architects "have to make everything beautiful" but later admitted that more "beautiful" buildings tended to last longer. And although his buildings are not beautiful in any classic sense, they are obviously aesthetic enough. So he was not serious about this point.

Many of the projects he discussed have not been built. The first was one of the annual temporary pavilions at the Serpentine Gallery in London. In 2005 MVRDV proposed to cover the gallery buildings in a mound (of steel and glass, covered to look like a mound of earth except in various openings). More joking. Not surprisingly, the cost of this would have been ridiculous, and when the budget was attempted to be cut, the health and safety regulations allegedly stopped the project.

He made light of this, except to be scathing of the health and safety nutters. He said that "all" the money in architecture these days goes into health and safety and "sustainability". Again, not totally serious. Now one of the problems with the annual Serpentine Gallery pavilions is that they are indeed temporary, so get demolished at the end of the few-month summer season. And Maas' take on his failed project was that in some ways it was more significant than the Serpentine pavilions that had been built (by other architects), because this one "existed without existing" (the kind of phrase one expects from an architect).

In post-Katrina New Orleans, MVRDV have designed a school (Maas called it the Martin Luther King School but it seems to be called the Newer Orleans project on the MVRDV website). Maas showed a picture drawn by some kid with a mound and flood waters lapping at the bottom, and so has resuscitated the Serpentine Gallery mound proposal in a different guise. So the idea is to take some Katrina rubble and build up a mound, and stick class rooms into the mound (at various angles of course, and just sticking out), with grass covering the rest. Again, this sounds unbelievably expensive, so who knows if it will ever be built.

One thing Maas does seem to believe in (not just jokingly) is that we should be building super-high density cities, by building upwards. His strapline for this is that he is a "Spacefighter". He seems to have done some back-of-a-fag-packet calculation where he claimed that you could stuff a million people in a 5 km x 5 km x 5km box, including all the volume needed for food and energy production. Yes, the Corbusian nightmare has not gone away, architects just love it.

In 2005 Maas published a book called "KM3: Excursions on Capacity" where he concentrated on this density issue. This book runs to 1400 (!) pages, and the blurb you get on the MVRDV website is just typical architect babble:

KM3 is a story about a world that is densifying. Very dense. KM3 is a city that is continuously under construction, with space for limitless populations and possibilities. A city that continues to serve all desires, that enlarges our capacities. Beyond scarcity. Beyond separation. Beyond pessimism and protectionism. A city that will lead to a new programmatic "skin" around the globe, swelling beyond the horizontal, surging vertically. The 3D City. A free fall in endless space. Pure depth. Without escape. Yet. KM3 is a hypothesis, a theoretical city, and a possible urban theory. Three dimensionality can be seen as architecture's fundamental existence, the profession's acclaimed domain. In times of globalization and scale enlargement, an update of this definition seems needed: meters turn into kilometers, M3 becomes KM3.

Along this line, one of the recent MVRDV proposals is for a SkyPark in Pittsburgh. This consists of four fairly standard box towers, but with a park surrounding all four towers suspended halfway up the building, with the towers being residential above the park, and offices below. And allegedly the park should be able to be moved up and down in case more or less of the tower becomes residential. Now this has got to be unbelievably expensive to build. So just another Maas joke?

A slightly less fanciful version of that is a residential tower block in Madrid called Celosia, which has been built. This has a large open patio area in the centre of the building. The patio area is pretty bland (just a wide expanse with a few seating areas) and you have to wonder if people will actually use it much (unless they are allowed to break out barbecues). And the rest of the surrounding area is low-rise horribleness, so this modern tower does not sit comfortably in its environment (even though it looks cute enough).

And in Rotterdam there was realised a smaller scale densification project called the Didden Dorp. This consisted of adding a storey on top of an existing building. Well, that is not exactly that novel a concept. But MVRDV made the extension purposefully not fit in with the existing Dutch brick, and painted it all stark blue, so it sticks out like a sore thumb (but is actually not that offensive). Maas claimed that the district was now a UNESCO heritage site so nobody could change the extension (in particular the blue).

MVRDV also seemed to be involved with some housing reconstruction in New Orleans, in a project backed by Brad Pitt (amongst others). Now apparently the levees are not all back in place so there is still a chance of flooding so Maas proposes (sensibly) to lift at least some of the house off the ground. But how he does that is a bit silly. So his favoured proposal seems to be to have the center of the house be on the ground and both ends raised up perhaps 3 or 5 meters (and the house is long and thin so that much is sensible). But that still leaves the house subject to being wrecked by a flood, and is not exactly very practical. So seemingly another Maas joke.

Maas claimed that if all the pig farms that were in Holland were converted to an "eco" standard then 85% of the area of Holland would be running pigs. So it seems that the way the Dutch are actually dealing with this is to export pig production elsewhere (e.g. to Poland). But Maas instead thinks we should have a Pig City, which would consist of skyscrapers full of pigs (and an abattoir to boot). More fancifulness, but a low-rise version of this seems to be being designed for a corner of Amsterdam.

Maas said that the big MVRDV breakthrough was a building for the Hannover Expo in 2000. And the building looks reasonably interesting, complete with a "forest" in the middle floors. Maas claimed that all the other buildings for the Expo have been demolished except for this one, but that this one was now derelict (with squatters), in particular the "forest" was decimated. As Maas put it, "from utopia to distopia" in a few short years.

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