Restore the Beauty
Last month NL Architects and XVW Architectuur were named the winners of the European Union Prize for Contemporary Architecture – Mies van der Rohe Award for DeFlat Kleiburg. World-Architects interviewed the firms when they received the award.
DeFlat Kleiburg is a renovation of one of the largest apartment buildings in the Netherlands: Amsterdam's Kleiburg, a 400-meter-long block with 500 apartments across 10 + 1 floors. The DeFlat consortium rescued the building from the ruin, turning it into an innovative project where the inhabitants finish the interior of their apartments by themselves.
The intervention by NL Architects and XVW architectuur focused on revealing and emphasizing the original beauty of the building. The elevators added in the 1980s were removed and placed inside the core; the facade cladding was replaced by double-pane glass to improve the sense of security and to humanize the passageways; the paint was removed from the handrails to reveal the softness of the prefabricated concrete; the storage spaces on the ground floor were moved to transform them into living spaces and to improve the control of the common areas by the neighbors themselves.
The basic idea of the project was to renovate the main structure and leave the apartments unfinished and unfurnished, in order to minimize the risk of the consortium and their up-front investments. Incidentally, a new business model for housing was created in the Netherlands.
World-Architects' Miriam Giordano spoke with Kamiel Klaasse of NL Architects and Xander Vermeulen Windsant of XVW architectuur during the EU Mies Award Talks that were held in Barcelona last month.
W-A: This project seems more about “cleaning” and recovering than building. Did you perceive the process as a different way to do architecture?
KK: It’s very different from what we’re used to doing, although we started out doing renovations for individuals like friends and family, as many architects start with. So that is a little similar to what we did in this case: there is already a structure, we just try to fit it for other wishes or desires. Renovations are in this sense similar. In this case there was quite a lot of pressure, psychologically but also in other ways, to alter the building, because the preconceived idea was that it was not good. So the main thing was to discover that it actually was pretty, that it was beautiful. That was the epiphany: that it’s not necessary to add or extract, take away, cut out or remove parts; but try to restore its original beauty that was latent or dormant and just bring it to life. That was the crucial moment because any of the other operations would cost money. If you make a beautiful addition, where you could put a tree on or you would make a beautiful double height balcony to create more space by removing one, all of these things in principle cost more than preserving what’s there. So there was the coincidence that not changing that much, and the fact that the building needed to be cheap, that worked together very well, coincided with the same goal.
W-A: In 2005 NL architects won the Mies van der Rohe prize for Emerging Architect. How did the studio change in this time until today’s big Prize recognition?
KK: The Mies Award is incredibly important so it cannot be underestimated – it is a very prestigious prize. Still, a lot of your work depends on some sort of certain trust; your clients have to somehow believe in you, so any support to the idea that you are trustworthy is an incredible contribution to the future of your practice. Of course, prizes play a very important role, but the general economic situation is much more effective; there are large movements and you have to deal with them, and this Prize produced an opportunity because everything [at DeFlat Kleiburg] had to be reconsidered, we could not do any standard solution.
W-A: How did the role of the architect change in this project, where the users participate in the architecture?
XVW: I think you’re always looking for a kind of specificity in a project, to make it resonate with the ambitions of the project. I think by allowing future habitants to become a co-architect of their own apartment, this kind of resonance was multiplied by 500 for this project, and we got a very nice kind of layering of general architectural attitude toward the entire building. Together with the micro variations inside the apartments and allowing them to be expressed in the façade, it required from us to step back from designing everything; this added layers of variation and differentiation to project and supported the idea that we can show the building in its entirety as one urban gesture. So it gave us room, naturally, to look at the entire project.
Question: In your opinion, what are the ingredients that made this rehabilitation project one that deserves the award of "best building of Europe"?
KK: In our opinion, perhaps any of the buildings in Barcelona here could also qualify as the winner; if you walk in Barcelona, the atmosphere is so pleasant and overwhelmingly inviting, urban, and friendly that it makes you very humble. It was a great honor to be part of the final selection of 40, from there on it became insane. But it is basically a statement from the Jury.
XVW: For a supportive statement, I think it’s important to bring the spotlight on this issue of housing and urban regeneration; these two themes are both present in Kleiburg. But the 5 finalists and 40 nominees are in their own sense special projects. I am not able to say that there is a specific reason why we would should win.
W-A: Do you think this process – with attention on the social and its participatory feature – is the future of architecture in Europe?
KK: We used to have, at least in the Netherlands, this idea that you can do everything standard. We built houses that have a relatively good shell, so the façade is relatively pretty. Of course the floor plans and layouts are relatively good, but the material used to shape it or to build it – the doors are made out of cardboard or the kitchens are worth 5,000 Euros – means a lot of people that acquire a place like this will transform it, so we should really consider not building even on that level and let people do this. So this is a slow revolution that is going on: to build an empty shell for people to either leave it completely bare and cheap, or to use golden taps or marble finish – or some sort of combination of these two. So the freedom for the customers of residential houses, the freedom for these people in old projects, in principle would increase or should increase, because otherwise you would produce stuff that is not completely appreciated or is not very sustainable because either you’re not satisfied but you leave it, or you’re so unsatisfied that you remove it, and then it is a waste of material and energy.
Interview by Miriam Giordano on 26 May 2017 in Barcelona.