Interview prepared with Agata Siemionow as part of the Illinois Institute of Technology Dean's Lecture Series. Photography Credits: Illinois Institute of Technology
Grou Serra In one of your interviews you actually said that your father said he was so fascinated by functionalism that he sent you to the Open Air School in Amsterdam.
Mels Crouwel Yes, that is what I tell people all of the time. But it’s not the whole truth because it’s actually been one of the reasons why he chose this school. It is a very good school in a good neighborhood in the south of Amsterdam and the people that go there and the education was of course the most important. But if you ask my father and if you ask him now he will agree that this was a very important reason for him. He told me that the graphic designer always wants to be an architect. That is not the reason why I became an architect but it has played a role. So yeah, I was raised between architecture and artists and my father knew a lot of them. So this was something he thought about, and Duiker was one of his favorite architects.
Grou Serra The Netherlands always seem to have been incredibly influential in avant-garde movements - in architecture but also design, fashion, to the point where it’s almost become a cliche. So how do you position your work within avant-garde Dutch movements?
Mels Crouwel We are definitely not avant-garde architects, but we are frontrunners when it comes to new developments in the way we build our environments both socially and technically but we don’t have the time to do so much research. That’s also one of the reasons I never got into education as much as I’d have liked to. I have been at the Berlage Institute in the first two years where I met Vedran [Mimica] and when Hermann Hertzberger was there as the dean. But later we chose not to get professors somewhere else and we build all the time. And when you build, you spend all your time with your clients. And maybe don’t spend enough time doing theoretical research, but we like it this way. We like to build and we like to build what is possible now, and we like to build for the future. And so I think we are frontrunners for accessible buildings, but we are not frontrunners in theory or in research. We just had a lecture from Patrick Schumacher and he knows what the world will look like in 30 years. I know I certainly don’t. But I will contribute to it as much as he, so that’s not a problem.
Grou Serra Speaking of your father [Wim Crouwel], did he have a lot of influence on you and even today on your work?
Mels Crouwel No, my education has had a lot of influence on my work. The idea that you have to behave in a good way and have to have a kind of good attitude and have a positive look at society and are interested in the future, are open minded, these are all things that I was not opposed to. You have a lot of children that when they get older like 14 or 15 they get angry with their parents. I did not get angry with him because of what he tried to teach me or because of what his example was. It was not my problem. So I did not have the idea of being against that. So that did influence me a lot and I still consider myself as a functional architect, but I know that the old function is not there so I try to contribute in new ways. But I think my open social attitude, I’m really interested in people and my clients and I’m really interested in making buildings that work. So I’m not an architect-architect. You sometimes have architects that are in all of the magazines but don’t care. I’m a people-architect in the sense that that’s why we make a lot of public buildings and that’s why they really work. So that’s maybe part of what I got from my father. And I still get along with him very well which is very nice.
Grou Serra Speaking of Schiphol, it’s a really interesting project in itself because it’s so hybrid, there’s so many different things happening there, but it doesn’t seem to be driven by economy. Do you think it’s a use of heritage as a cultural place?
Mels Crouwel No, it’s driven by economy, really completely. But as architects we try to - when we started they wanted everything by other people. They wanted new, they wanted all the people that worked there out, and we advised them not to do it. And we were surprised because we were only six or seven people at that time and they came to us. And they wanted to double the airport. They didn’t know how to do it. So in the end, we had almost not been in a plane at that time, it was 35 years ago. So no one knew how to do it. They wanted to double the airport because they wanted to double the capacity. So in the end all we had to do was double everything. So we doubled the roads, we doubled the terminal buildings, we doubled the plaza, we doubled everything. That was a very simple way of approaching it. That would not work now again because you have to be more innovative and inventive now. But that was how we did it in the beginning. And we said, you know, stick to your advisors and consultants and we will guide them. And they said okay. And we also said first, because they wanted us to set up a new office, we said well we are with seven people, and if we get this job from you and you throw us out after three months because we are too small and don’t know anything about flying, we’re not going to do. And so we said three times no. And then they said they still wanted us to do it. And we said we’ll only do it if we can work with the consultants that are here and that have been here the last 20 years, because Schiphol was also a very good airport. There was no reason to kick out everyone. So it was a good idea to get us in, but it wasn’t a good idea to kick everyone else out. So that was how we started.
Grou Serra So you mentioned cultural heritage and in your work, restoration is, as we’ve seen, quite important. This raises the question of what should be preserved today and what should not. How do you deal with that, the dialogue between the old and new?
Mels Crouwel Well I think in a good normal discussion people agree quite fast on what’s worth keeping and what you shouldn’t. And then you have architect’s discussions, which are more or less, architect’s discussions or neighborhood discussions. And I think that when you do your work in a proper way you can convince people what’s right or wrong. You have to be able to explain it, you have to be able to tell them what you do. But I did not have too many problems in this discussion. For instance, the Stedelijk Museum in comparison to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. For the Rijksmuseum there was a lot of discussion about what could and could not happen. But with the Stedelijk Museum we agreed in about five minutes that we would not restore the museum back to the old times when it was built, but we would restore it to the most important period of the museum and that was in the time when the museum was painted white for the Museum of Modern Art. Which was a very simple discussion. So all of the people who had anything to do with it from heritage on, agreed upon it immediately. So I don’t think when you have serious people on the table that you don’t need to have many discussions. And it’s quite obvious what is important enough. Because non professionals will say almost everything is important to preserve and that is of course no true because we have enough of some examples. And you can convince those people. For instance, in Rotterdam, I will show you the station. People were very much opposed to. Tearing down the old station. Luckily in the end, 80 percent of them now they say that discussion wasn’t influential anyway. But in doing good work you can convince people of the right thing. But you also have to know that you are not alone. You can always find a few people that also are serious about what they are talking about. So that’s also not our biggest problem. And also if you do new as a kind of counterpart to old that really depends every time on the job.
Grou Serra So in regarding this, when you’re doing a public building in an institution you always have a certain responsibility. What’s your difference between approaching a public commission versus a private one.
Mels Crouwel Obviously, because the client is different and the public commission is almost never one person in public or commercial jobs, it’s more simple. I don’t think we handle those projects in a much different way. We always try to do those jobs not always in the way that they’re asked or in what the client wants, we always look at the public side of buildings. This is why we’re asked for a lot of public buildings. A lot of people are coming in and out, because it doesn’t work if a lot of people are not going in and out. And of course we always do what they want, and a bit more I hope. And a bit more which is not in the wrong direction . But also with public buildings we always try to go a little further and give them a bit more, because sometimes the question is not integrated enough. And then you try to convince your client that we could go a little further. And for instance in Rotterdam, for the station again, you have the coverings of the tracks and they say that we don’t have the money to make a complete covering over it. And they said I don’t want you to think about it because we don’t have the money. And if we let you design it, then we have to pay for it. And then we did it and we convinced them. So and now it’s a station that everyone loves and you’re not in the rain or in the wind anymore. So why not do it? Sometimes it requires a lot of convincing of the people. We have a kind of social agenda because it’s normal to us. And as I explained in the beginning, it was how I was raised, so I don’t know anything else. You cannot reach everything you want, every job is different, but sometimes you can make something that really works. When we first started we didn’t think that Rotterdam would be such a success. But it was first a job like all other jobs. But then everything came together and it got prizes and well, you never know before. So you always try to get as far as possible.
Wiel Arets I don’t want to ask what your favorite architect is. But you mentioned Rietveld, and Rietveld as a figure, you lived with a Rietveld, and so on…
Mels Crouwel Yes, I lived with a son of Rietveld . So Jan Rietveld , the son of Gerrit Rietveld, was my teacher in Delft, and I loved the purity and simplicity of Rietveld. And his son made a little house very much under the influence of his father, and that was the house I bought. And I later extended the house. So I like some of that attitude of Rietveld in that he is open and he makes things that you can understand very easily and always work like on a simple grid. And that’s changing. The more experience you get, the more you dare to do something different. Whereas in the beginning you’re more cautious. We only made work that we could completely from the smallest part to the largest building part to the big result that we could completely understand ourselves. That was completely not good, but on the other side it made us make some very nice buildings in the beginning of the career that were strong and later you think why not do it again? That’s why I end today with the first house in the lecture. I’ll start with a big station and I’ll end with a small house. But that’s the kind of attitude. And Rietveld was also doing with these simple tiers of wood, very simple things. But also in the house again a couple of months ago I had some friends. And in the corner there is this window that is a very simple yet great idea. But the problem is that at that time you couldn’t build that. So you have to restore it every ten years. It always gets we inside. It’s hot inside. But on the other hand if you appreciate what it brings, those are minor problems. And that’s the same thing with this building. You can talk for hours about this building. I love this building. But you have to realize what it gives you and not start complaining about what it’s not. Then you go much further. I live myself in a house that gets hot. You live with nature that way. And I like that. You can complain about a lot of other things, but yeah.
Wiel Arets When you mentioned before the social agenda, you then mentioned of course the Dutch agenda.
Mels Crouwel Yes, partly very Dutch, yes.
Wiel Arets And your father was of course known for his influence on graphics of course how Holland was known outside. I think there is a question of how a graphic agenda can produce social ideas and bring about an importance of social meaning.
Mels Crouwel I think that is because of our background in Holland. Holland is one of the only countries in the world that is completely man made. So all of the nature we have in our country is man made nature. So not like here in the States where you have vast areas of real old-world nature. We have a completely different background in The Netherlands. So everything is designed. So also design is in every system in The Netherlands. So I think that’s also why graphic design, fashion, and other areas of design are much more common for us and are much more integrated and more accepted by us that in other countries, maybe. Maybe it’s because of our background that everything is designed anyway. And when I think about my father of course, his heroes were the Swiss school and their graphic designers of course. And they were about clarity, simpleness, readability, giving the information in the right level of importance. So that’s what he carried on. He did that very well and he was very influential. It had to do with a social attitude but it also had to do with this kind of preciseness and that you want to make things clear to people.
Wiel Arets Maybe the last point I’ll make is about the world where you were brought up was one of a really Dutch architect. With all of the experiences you have now in the Dutch landscape, and Holland has so many landscapes, a city landscape, a social landscape, and it’s developing. So with all of the five-year plans we have, so planning is gone and urban design in the way we knew it is gone. How do you see the perspective in that way?
Mels Crouwel On one hand I think it’s a pity that we don’t continue with this tradition that we have in the Netherlands. But also our background is that we’ve planned and designed everything that people in and outside Holland like. You can say that that’s not a good idea. On the other hand in the early days you could predict things for about 20 years, or you could envision what the world will look like in 20 years. I think 5 years is quite long nowadays. I understand that this old way of doing it, of planning it, is not the right thing anymore. But I do regret it on the side of the government there’s so much less consideration about what’s important what’s not. So I think it’s a pity but I think we should do it in a different way that we did it before. But I think that we should do it in a way that all of the CGA that were involved, did it in changes that did it in a different way. So I think we have to find a new way that’s much more adaptive to change. And again that’s what I missed in the story of Patrick Schumacher this morning. He knows what’s going to happen and he knows what the world will look like in 20 years or in 25 years. I think he doesn’t. But he’s trying and he has a good story and a good answer to old traditions and he does it in a new way. I think we should be like the whole society, much more flexible and much more adaptive. And we should find new ways of doing this and maybe discovering a kind of pilot project or an example project like we also had in the Netherlands, like some others do too. And Biennials are also a good example of setting some points, or maybe a better way of doing it than making big schemes or big plans for the coming years. But we have to be very innovative in our thinking so we should not lose the tradition but do it in a way that’s fit for today.
Wiel Arets So you know that we write a small book called Nowness, and Rethinking the Metropolis is what we are working on. My last question is that when we consider Holland as a country which for a long time was looking at how, within the rest of Europe, we could reorganize our social agenda and our metropolises. So how do you think we could have a global look in five, ten or twenty years, how would you describe rethinking metropolis in terms of the Dutch agenda?
Mels Crouwel I think you start with everything you have. So you should know your past and you should know your possibilities in house and how fast you can change things and how fast you can adapt. And I think that if you stick to those two principles and you know what you have and you know what you want. The biggest problem is that we don’t know what we want in the future. So if we stick to what we know, we can start step-by-step like in Formula One racing. They do everything step by step as they go forward and they get better and better and better because they continue on what they have, but they incorporate innovations in a fast way. So in a social way that’s getting more and more difficult to handle. In a technical way we can handle everything now. So now the problem is how we handle the social cohesion in the society. And that’s not what architects are first for, but on the other hand more than before, architects are one of the few people that are covering more than just their one thing. So as architects we have to cover more than just one thing. So I really believe in the role of the architect as a kind of social figure that can be imported still. It’s not only about form and technique. The social agenda is very… but again there are examples from the past that haven’t been so positively reviewed. We have to be very polite and careful. We have to know our position in the world.