Studio Visit: Mecanoo

John Hill
29. March 2019
Photo: John Hill/World-Architects

Last November, World-Architects editor John Hill, in the Netherlands for the 2018 World Architecture Festival (WAF), stopped by the office of Mecanoo in Delft for a Studio Visit. Below are some impressions from the visit and highlights of a few in-progress projects by the Dutch firm.

In the three and a half decades since it was founded in 1984, Mecanoo has grown into a large multidisciplinary team of more than 120 architects, engineers, interior designers, urban planners, landscape architects and architectural technicians from 25 countries, with built works on three continents. Yet despite this growth the firm has remained in Delft, the Dutch city of 100,000 people known more for its blue pottery than its contemporary architecture. Delft is where Mecanoo started, but the city is also home to one of their most lasting successes: the Library Delft University of Technology (TU Delft), which the firm completed in 1997 (the firm upgraded the library as recently as 2016) after a decade focused on social housing. Over the years, as Mecanoo built upon this commission to become one of the go-to architecture firms for designing libraries and other public institutions around the world, they expanded from a one-room office to a sprawling network of rooms occupying multiple adjacent buildings in the heart of Delft.

At top is the front of Mecanoo's office at Oude Delft 203, and here is the corridor extending from the entrance to the courtyard in the middle of the block. (Photo: John Hill/World-Architects)

Outside of the reception area, the first room I encountered on a tour through Mecanoo's office with Associate Partner Nuno Fontarra and Marketing Communications Manager Eliano Felício was the kitchen, which in a previous life served as a surgery. Well before Francine Houben founded Mecanoo at Oude Delft 203, the building served as a city hospital, and the room where meals are now prepared is where people were once operated on. This past, visible in equipment retained from the building's years as a hospital, is indicative of the whole office: a collage of old, new, and blue — Mecanoo blue.

A vitrine with a model of Hilton Amsterdam Airport Schiphol sitting on a Mecanoo-blue pedestal (Photo: John Hill/World-Architects)

Fontarra explained to me that it is typical for landlords in Delft to buy a room or rooms in a building rather than the whole building or block. This situation means, for one, that inside and outside don't always coincide; what looks like one entity on the facade may be multiple entities inside. It also means that Mecanoo's various studio spaces sit above, under, and beside spaces occupied by other offices. Doors inserted into the party walls shared by buildings link them together. Likewise, some doors visible on the tour actually lead to spaces occupied by other tenants. 

The small studio with landscape architects overlooks the courtyard. (Photo: John Hill/World-Architects)
The courtyard that sits between three of the buildings that Mecanoo occupies in whole or in part. (Photo: John Hill/World-Architects)

One of the most appealing aspects of Mecanoo's labyrinthine arrangement at Oude Delft 203 is the quality of the spaces, which vary according to location, exposure, and character of construction. There are studio spaces overlooking the courtyard, rooms with historical details, light-filled loft-like spaces with mezzanines, and vaulted spaces that harken to the chapel that was once part of the hospital.

The original Mecanoo office space, now a conference room, complete with historical plaster details. (Photo: John Hill/World-Architects)

Just as there exists a disconnect between the exterior and interior of buildings in Delft, Mecanoo proves that traditional settings do not necessarily breed traditional designs; modern architects, likewise, need not occupy buildings designed by, for instance, Mies van der Rohe. Nevertheless I can't help but try to find a relationship between the urban and architectural settings of Mecanoo's office and the buildings designed by Houben, Fontarra, Dick van Gameren, and others in the office. Perhaps the in-between spaces of the Palace of Justice in Córdoba, Spain, which Fontarra presented at WAF in the Civic and Community category, arose from an appreciation of historic city centers like Delft and the desire to capture their intimacy in an otherwise grand project. Or maybe renovation projects such as Mies's Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library in Washington, DC, and the Mid-Manhattan Library (originally a department store from 1914) in New York City reflect the way Mecanoo appreciates historical buildings regardless of style and injects them with new life for future generations. And I like to think that Houben's design of National Kaohsiung Center for the Arts, which celebrated its opening one month before my visit, was inspired as much by Holland's nautical past as it was by the Banyan trees in Taiwan.

A mezzanine in the old vaulted chapel, now used for offices. (Photo: John Hill/World-Architects)

Earlier in the day, before I arrived at Mecanoo's office and was shown around by Fontarra and Felício, I explored Delft on foot. From the train station to the TU Delft to the historic center, the city is punctuated by Mecanoo buildings. People arriving in Delft by train encounter a historic map across the ceiling of the Delft City Hall and Train Station, a building that layers infrastructure, public space, and offices. Students at TU Delft frequent the library, but they also traverse the campus's main spine (Mekel Park) designed by Mecanoo and maybe even live in Student Housing DUWO on the edge of campus. Lastly, not far from Mecanoo's office is the Delfland Water Authority, which combines a historical building and new construction around a newly landscaped courtyard. These four buildings, all within easy cycling distance of the Oude Delft 203, clearly capture the diversity and attention to detail that pervades Mecanoo's output.

In-Progress Projects

Mecanoo is a very busy office, with close to twenty buildings under construction and more than that number in the planning stages, many of which I noticed while touring the office. Below are a few in-progress projects, with text and images courtesy of Mecanoo.
Futian Civic Culture Center, Shenzhen, China (Visualization: Mecanoo)

Futian Civic Culture Center, Shenzhen, China (competition, 1st place)

Futian is one of the oldest and densest districts of Shenzhen. Recent urban regeneration efforts aim to breathe new life into this urban centre, which lacks urban quality and is crowded with residential and commercial high-rises.

The new Civic Cultural Centre plays a major role in this effort and will house cultural program and social spaces for stimulating urban activity. Public life in Shenzhen, as in other subtropical cities, thrives in semi-open spaces. Our proposal is therefore a building that breathes: open to daylight and natural cooling breezes, and filled with greenery.

Futian Civic Culture Center, Shenzhen, China (Visualization: Mecanoo)

To serve Futian’s high population density, a large amount of cultural program was to be built on the tight 10,610 m2 plot: 62,000 m2 of above-ground functional spaces in total, including three theaters, a library and exhibition halls. The brief also included a kindergarten on a separate sub-plot. This spatial puzzle was solved by arranging the various functions within a 150m tower sitting on an L-shaped base.

The Cultural Centre draws ground floor public activity to the top of the 150m tower via efficient elevators and long escalators that connect a series of green atria and terraces. Large, openable planted atria include a roof cafe and open exhibition space above the theater, an exhibition garden lobby and a library garden.

They also provide a transition space between indoor and outdoor, public and private functions. The network of atria acts as blood vessels that pump life into the building, making the journey of moving vertically into a lively urban experience.

Futian Civic Culture Center, Shenzhen, China (Visualization: Mecanoo)
Frankfurt Grand Central, Frankfurt, Germany (Visualization: Mecanoo)

Frankfurt Grand Central, Frankfurt, Germany (competition, 1st place)

Frankfurt am Main is the fifth largest city in Germany, with more than 700,000 inhabitants. It is a high-rise city with about thirty towers reaching above a hundred meters in and around the centre. The population is growing, bringing an increase in housing demand in all market segments. Within walking distance of the Central Station, where the former station post office once stood, a multifunctional residential tower is being developed by Phoenix and Gross & Partner.

The tower, with its glass and copper-colored metal façade, was inspired by the industrial atmosphere of the location. As the train approaches the station, passengers are welcomed by this iconic tower. The design consists of an ensemble of two volumes on a plinth. The 140-meter-high tower contains social housing up to the seventh floor and owner-occupied units and penthouses on the higher levels. The lower volume consists of social housing.

Frankfurt Grand Central, Frankfurt, Germany (Visualization: Mecanoo)
Mid-Manhattan Library, New York, NY, USA (Visualization: Mecanoo)

Mid-Manhattan Library, New York, NY, USA (under construction, expected to open early 2020)

Mid-Manhattan Library – the Library’s most heavily used circulating branch – is set to undergo a transformation that will create a new, state-of-the-art library that will serve as both a model and catalyst for a rejuvenated library system.The team of Mecanoo and Beyer Blinder Belle worked for over a year analyzing library usage data, interviewing staff, surveying the public, and meeting with community stakeholders to ensure that the new branch will best meet the needs of library patrons.

The renovated branch will have a dramatic, multi-story wall of bookshelves – the Long Room; an employment skills centre occupying a full floor as well as an adjacent floor providing job-search help and small-business support; a full-floor dedicated to a library for children and a separate library for teens; additional seating; and one of the only free public roof terraces in Midtown.

Mid-Manhattan Library, New York, NY, USA. Left: construction progress as of March 28, 2019 (Photo: John Hill/World-Architects; Right: construction of copper roof addition, which will include a public roof terrace. (Photo: Mecanoo)

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