Maaskant prize for young architects 2007

26-10-2007

From the mayor of Rotterdam, Ivo Opsteleten, ZUS received the Maaskantprize for Young Architect 2007. The prize was to make a publication. This evening the first print of the new ZUS book 'Re-public, Towards a New Spatial Politics' was handed over by the mayor. By means of acceptance a speech was held, relating to the content of the book.

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In its search for talented young designers the jury has been struck by the fact that they are no longer as easy to find as in the past two decades. The climate for young architects has changed radically in recent years, as can be read, for example, in de Architect of June 2005.
There are a number of reasons for this. First, the withdrawal of government has meant that the market has become the main source of clients for architects. Many commercially-minded clients are less prepared to take risks, and not surprisingly hesitate to work with young designers. It is also difficult for young firms to acquire work within the European tendering system, as the requirements for financial stability, turnover and experience are too strict. In addition, the number of design competitions, traditionally entered by many young designers, has decreased.

These developments make it more difficult for a young architect to keep a firm going. Not surprisingly many deliberately choose a different strategy, focusing on a particular social problem, conducting research, using the results to formulate the issues themselves, then approaching a developer. For the research they often cooperate with other disciplines. They dissociate themselves from the image culture that had such a powerful influence on architecture in the 1990s. They seem to take a critical stand against the tendency for form and spectacle to prevail over content and ideals. Perhaps this explains why, in its search for talented young designers, the jury came across few designs that gave pride of place to invoking an ‘experience’. It seems that young designers deliberately adopt an attitude concerned less with market demand and more with social developments, something that the jury sees as a favourable development.
The jury asked Mieke Dings to conduct a search for talented young designers and to compile a reader based on their work. Research into participants in various competitions (Archiprix, Europan, Prix de Rome and BNA Jonge Architecten), exhibitions (Groepsportretten, ABC 2005, ARCAM 200 3, Aorta 2006 and VAI 35m2), publications and discussion evenings (Pecha Kucha, Salon and Pitch), showed that their age was relatively high, often even older than 35, the maximum age for consideration for the Maaskant prize.
Thirty young designers or design firms remained, ranging from designers who explicitly choose a sociological approach and often make a deliberate decision against physical intervention, to architects who are mainly concerned with building systems, materialisation and detailing, and to more conceptually and research-minded designers, so that a wide range of design opinions was represented. Given the tendency referred to above it was not surprising that the last group was over-represented. All levels of scale were present, from interior design (one representative) to landscape design.

The jury met three times. In the first round, six firms or individual designers were selected on the basis of the reader and further research on the firms’ websites. Each of those selected used an individual variation on one of the design approaches described above. After some discussion it was decided to drop those taking a purely sociological approach, because the jury thought it important not to neglect the physical side of architectural design. This left a choice between designers mainly concerned with typological research and the materialisation of buildings and those more concerned with theory and concepts. The first category in particular seemed to indicate a renewed interest in the traditional side of the profession, which has been pushed into the background in recent years by the enormous amount of attention paid to design research. Designers in the second category were characterised by their innovative attitude and their willingness not to fight shy of the grand, sometimes provocative, gesture. Ultimately, the jury unanimously chose a firm whose strongly critical view of society could be expected to have an innovative effect on contemporary design practice.
The winning firm was ZUS (Zones Urbaines Sensibles), which comprises Elma van Boxel (1975) and Kristian Koreman (1978). What makes ZUS stand out is that they always take as their starting point an issue which is strongly embedded in the public domain, a domain increasingly bound by rules and in which public and private more and more frequently find themselves in conflict. They give city authorities what they call ‘unsolicited advice’ and then elaborate on it at various levels. Because they take the initiative themselves, they can investigate issues that they personally find important. One such initiative is the periodical Religere, in which they aim to bring together the various spheres of influence which shape a city.
They also write pamphlet-like texts, such as Een preek in de woestijn? Het geweten van een architect na De Cauter (A sermon in the desert? The conscience of an architect after De Cauter) (2005), in which they plead explicitly for a greater moral sense amongst architects when considering the increasing ‘capsular consequences’ of a building.
Van Boxel and Koreman were commissioned by the Architecture Institute Rotterdam (AIR) to act as curators for Laboratorium Rotterdam 2006, a role that involved them in a search for new approaches to public space. They selected three firms to analyse and further articulate the sphere of influence within which public space came into being in three different locations. A year was spent on research into different kinds of public space, how to connect them to form an urban ensemble, and the role that government still can and should play in making public space, on which private concerns are increasingly leaving their mark. The results of this research were published in Laboratorium Rotterdam. Decode Space, which appeared in 2007. For this publication they also interviewed René Boomkens, Lieven de Cauter and Jeanne van Heeswijk.

Their involvement in the implications of the shift from public to private can also be found in their design practice, such as their proposal for the Laurenskerk in Rotterdam. By cutting through the church lengthways, a public route would be created running through the building and providing a connection between the Grote Kerkplein and the Binnenrotte. The Laurenskerk would then no longer form an inaccessible obstacle in the urban fabric, but would once again take its place as part of a system of routes and public (or semi-public) buildings, thereby retuning the church to the public domain.
The same kind of thinking lay behind their entry for the Prix de Rome 2005. Their new design for the Mr. Visserplein entailed transforming the tunnel into a park to create an oasis of tranquillity in the midst of the traffic routes. A subterranean green zone would link together the surrounding buildings and outside space, so that the Mr. Visserplein would once more become a social area – a place for urban contemplation – instead of just a traffic intersection.
This engagement with the public domain also characterises their landscape and urban design projects. In the WiMBY project in Hoogvliet, for example, they located sixteen ‘stamps’ in the public green area, analogous to Lotte Stam-Beese’s ‘stamp plan’. Each ‘stamp’ consisted of a communal housing block on a raised mound, and contained public space, each with a different programme. A route running zigzag through the public green space connected the public spaces and the communal buildings.
In cooperation with the NITA group they designed a park-like setting for the expo grounds in Shanghai to counterbalance the spectacular character of the world fair. The design consists of a green embankment, three kilometres long, acting as a kind of grandstand, offering a view of the river and the city centre on the opposite bank. There are hollows in the raised embankment to serve as rest places. Various routes cut lengthways through the park, which is bordered on the other side by an eight-lane motorway. These routes connect the area lying behind with the park and the river, so that after the fair is over the park can be opened up and become part of the urban fabric.

The jury was impressed by ZUS’s enthusiasm. Besides their many investigations into urban complexity, often at their own initiative, this enthusiasm is expressed in their education. After both graduating in landscape architecture at Larenstein University of Professional Education, Elma van Boxel studied architecture and urban design and Kristian Koreman philosophy. The jury also valued their search for a sound theoretical basis for their work, in which theory never becomes detached from the practical aspects of design. They are prepared to go to extremes to achieve this. To transform a neglected country estate near Brussels into a spring flower exhibition, they approached bulb growers themselves and set out the flowerbeds with lines and pickets.
Whether they are working on an architectural commission or landscape design, their method is a model of great consistency. They always work on the basis of a sense of responsibility for contemporary urban culture, never losing sight of the complexity of the urban setting and the need for coherence. Designing the field of tension between the public and private domains is the constant theme running through all their work. It is this involvement in the city and its culture, an engagement strongly rooted in their design practice that the jury wishes to honour with this award.

The jury for the 2007 Maaskant prize for young architects consisted of Bert Dirrix, Liesbeth Melis and Lucas Verweij.