At work

It seems as if the silence of architectural criticism, awaiting some new inspiration (where is architectural criticism still carried out more or less independently?), is urging architects to take matters into their own hands. They praise their wares in bulky monographs or, for the sake of decency, arrange to have them praised by hired copywriters. Critical opinions would of course be out of line. The book is part of their marketing effort. Even the publisher is degraded into a technical producer. Neutelings and Riedijk’s book fits in perfectly with this trend. It did not even require copywriters.

But as in their architectural practice, here too Neutelings and Riedijk manage not only to embrace the dominant trends, but also to achieve a radical breakthrough by adjusting them in a surprising way to create an instrument which uses their own practice to reflect architecture in general, and today’s architectural practice in particular. As they say themselves, the trick is to turn disadvantages into advantages. Like old-fashioned treatise writers they set out their doctrine clearly and compellingly in a number of thematic chapters, devoted to concepts, more or less architectural, which they explain by reference to their own work. Nowhere do they mention style or convention. They act as if the contemporary debate did not exist. They speak of architecture as a noble and inspiring craft that has retained its right to exist even in our time. They simply say: ‘Building is an ancient craft in a remarkable branch of industry where literally all the bits and pieces are fitted together’. By this statement they automatically associate themselves with and revive a centuries-old tradition. There is something almost suspicious about the way in which architecture once more seems self-evident.

Aan het werk is a title which accurately reflects the content and approach of the book: get to work, and stop moaning! Neutelings and Riedijk have been enthusiastically at work for a good 10 years. In the book they report on the methods of thinking and working they have developed and their possible applications in very concrete terms, in a witty but surprisingly direct and down-to-earth manner, much as in a recipe book. They even literally provide recipes with each chapter. The originality of the recipes lies in the relaxed and inventive treatment of the natural ingredients provided. Chronology plays no role in this arrangement, nor indeed does the fact that the subject is sometimes a built project, sometimes a project that was never built. The book is not concerned with the way in which the firm has evolved in the decades since its foundation or the place it occupies in the contemporary architectural scene, but with an attitude, a set of general insights which have developed over time and the conclusions which can be drawn from those insights. Sometimes they are even quite explicit. For example, for the clothing designer Joop they drew up a compact booklet along the lines of ‘not like that, like this!’.

On the same occasion, incidentally, they gave away another of their secrets: ‘You can only think of new things by questioning the old ones.’ Thus, it is possible to read a whole series of pieces of archetypal wisdom from occasional remarks, both from the pieces which introduce the various chapters and from the notes which accompany the various projects. The authors are not afraid to show the enthusiasm with which they go to work, though always in passing. At one point they speak of the rapture of actual building, ‘the heroic adventure of labouring in the mud, balancing in wind and weather on shaky scaffolding’. The rigour of the craft does not prevent it from being an epic experience.

The short introduction, in which designing is portrayed as a synthesis of knowledge, skill and evocation, immediately sets the epic tone of the entire book. Designing is conceived as an adventurous journey on the high seas: ‘The first two, knowledge and skill, are essential qualities on the journey, knowledge of the weather and the stars, skill to keep the vessel on course. Evocation, however, allows us to visualize travelling west to reach India without falling off the edge of the world’. After this introduction the approach is expounded by reference to sixteen topics. The order in which these topics are presented appears to be random. They are not even always presented in the book in the same order. But like a screenplay they certainly manage to tell a story. It seems no accident that the open series is unashamedly launched by the topic ‘Sculpture’, acting like a powerful overture. ‘Architecture is the expression of great weight using sculpture as a tool.’ This statement is followed by a number of black-and-white illustrations of various projects selected from their own work, each accompanied by explanatory notes. The series concludes with an extensive report, in colour, of a single project appropriate to the particular topic, in this case ‘A hinge in the IJ’, a group of residential tower blocks in Amsterdam, dating from 1994. The same arrangement is repeated systematically for each topic. Under the heading ‘Weight’, towards the end of the work, a further look is taken at ‘the violence of gravity with a dramatic beauty’. There are paradoxes aplenty, but each is treated with an appropriate lightness of touch. ‘The trick is not to take these associations literally but to use them to generate possible materials and ambiences,’ as the authors observe in relation to the Walter Bos complex in Apeldoorn, dubbed by them ‘James Bond in an underground temple’. Surprisingly enough, the last topic, ‘Texture’, presents the five ‘sphinxes’ in Huizen, volumes dating from 1995, whose strength makes one almost completely forget their texture. The topic ‘Use’ shows us ducks playing in the reservoir at the fire station in Breda, an unexpected event: ‘Life has made unexpected inroads into the daily use of this fire station, where the tough-guy image of leather jackets mixes with the fluffiness of white down…’.

Thus, the whole composition of the book is refined. The architect/authors are present in the last details, but invisibly, remotely. The reader becomes involved in the making of the work, and this keeps everyone spellbound. At no time does the book suggest a standard book of photographs. Here architecture is not reduced to a photographic contingency. The issue, in the way the book is put together as much as in the book itself, is clearly the experience of a building, its existence in its most concrete form, its physical manifestation, where manifestation is used in the sense of bringing forth an intrinsic reality. That is probably also the reason why the authors make such sparing use of abstract aids like floor plans or cross-sections, whose importance the book emphasises quite clearly, though in other ways.

The book’s approach seems to be the right one to explain the work and to get inside it. But the book is also slightly misleading. In the end, the quality of the dish depends not just on its composition, but on the way in which ingredients are used. Neutelings and Riedijk prove to be evocative cooks. Jamie Oliver’s bravura pales by comparison.

Geert Bekaert