The co-founder of Rotterdam-based MVRDV, Winy Maas believes that teaching goes hand-in-hand with disrupting urban environments. By Rebecca Lo
It is no coincidence that Winy Maas has been in Hong Kong twice in recent months at the invitation of the city's two leading architecture schools. He first challenged students and fellow architects at the Chinese University of Hong Kong in late January to tackle the topic 'What's Next?' as the speaker at the 2019 Kinoshita Lecture in Architecture. He returned at the end of March to City Gallery as part of the University of Hong Kong's public lecture series. That talk was on the topic of non-uniform housing, coinciding with the exhibition 100 Towers: 100 Architects (at Hong Kong Heritage Discovery Centre, until June 23). Curated by HKU professor Wang Weijen, with Thomas Chung and Thomas Tsang, the exhibition was Hong Kong's response to the 16th Venice Biennale International Architecture Exhibition. It demonstrated through models by local and international architects that skyscrapers celebrate the aesthetic of density. A sensitive approach to urbanism has long been a cause that Maas champions, both in his practise at MVRDV and throughout his many years of teaching.Born in Schijndel, in the south of the Netherlands, Maas graduated from the landscape architecture programme at RHSTL Boskoop in 1983. He went on to study architecture, graduating in 1990 from the Delft University of Technology (TU Delft), where he is currently a professor in architecture and urban design. In 1993, Maas founded MVRDV with architects Jacob van Rijs and Nathalie de Vries in Rotterdam. Since its inception, the firm has concentrated on architecture, landscape architecture and urban design along with research in these fields. Today, MVRDV employs 270 people in Rotterdam, Paris and Shenzhen, with the latter two studios growing rapidly as the firm's work shifts eastwards.
As population grows, people move. Urban clusters become more layered. Buildings need to adapt and change. As we become more global, infrastructure will drive change
"It is our ambition to experiment," Maas explains. "We push the edge. Over the years, as we have grown, we look to bigger opportunities in different places. The world has changed in the past 25 years. A lot of buildings are not up to date. Maintenance is a driving force for architecture in China and India. Approximately 40 per cent of the planet wants to become middle class – that's a big demand for architecture. As population grows, people move. Urban clusters become more layered. Buildings need to adapt and change. As we become more global, infrastructure will drive change."In 2008, Maas established The Why Factory at TU Delft as a thinktank and research institute for the future city. Director Maas and his students explore every aspect of a city's components, always questioning as the city continues to evolve. "We should have an apolitical agenda," he argues. "Be responsible, open and curious. Everything is urbanism." Pushing his students to re-evaluate traditional forms, many of their projects appear to defy gravity and common sense. Yet no one would ever consider them boring.
MVRDV employs 270 people in Rotterdam, Paris and Shenzhen, with the latter two studios growing rapidly as the firm's work shifts eastwards
Maas's passion for urbanism underlies his fascination with China. "The country's evolution has been tremendous," he says. "China's GDP went from one of the world's lowest, two decades ago, to one of its highest today. Its economy is a threat to some. Architects are needed in China to sculpt. We are happy to contribute. There are a lot of opportunities in southern China and we would like to contribute to that variety. We celebrate choice. As a person born and raised in the Netherlands, I am a mix of rationality and optimism. I believe in transparency and openness. We are part of the generation with answers to the theoretical questions of the French and Americans. We combine pragmatism and idealism with irony. Our melange means we are not just an intellectual company. We believe in collaborations. People in Asia have the same need for clarity."Completed in 2017, Tianjin Binhai Library (pictured above), east of the city's historic core, is a striking homage to learning and literature. The ambitious 33,700sqm (360,000sqf) project boasts an i l luminated white spherical auditorium; above the sphere hovers a skylight that funnels natural lighting down a well onto the space below. Cascading down around the sphere are terraced bookshelves that resemble the undulating walls of a canyon, wrapping around to envelop the exterior of the building. Users can access the lower and middle shelves of the five-storey structure via staircases; the lowest level with the widest, most accessible platforms are intended for children and the elderly. On the first and second floors, openings dotted throughout reveal reading and study rooms.
"Binhai received a lot of attention since its opening," says the architect. "One unexpected outcome is the library's popularity for marriages. I have seen celebrations with 40 brides and grooms taking place. The other outcome was embarrassing – books were painted on the ceiling, which I didn't know about until I was asked. We hope to revisit the project to make all the bookshelves functional. I am hesitant to predict the future for libraries: whether they will remain a physical place people can enjoy or whether they will be entirely online. Binhai has become a meeting place for people to hang out, demonstrating a desire for physical interaction."Vanke 3D City in Shenzhen (pictured above) will begin construction in mid 2019. Along with office space for the Chinese developer's head office, the 250m-high tower will also house leasable offices, retail, F&B outlets, a hotel, and abundant outdoor areas, each area developed as its own box stacked together.
"Vanke 3D can be seen as a new type of skyscraper," Maas says. "By stacking the required programmatic entities, initially proposed for two separate plots, on top of each other, the two individual Vanke Group Headquarters buildings are turned into a Vanke City. They turn the ordinary into the extraordinary."
Opened in 2017, Seoul Skygarden revamped an existing 17m-high vehicular overpass that weaves from Namdaemun Market to the main train station and various parks, transforming it into a nearly kilometre-long pedestrian path. Along with lush greenery, the path features cafes and shops, with a series of escalators and staircases branching off the main trunk that snakes through the city centre.
"Seoul Skygarden had 12 million visitors – it is busier than Disneyland," Maas says. "There are more people on the bridge at 2am than during the day. People go there to kiss, as it is a romantic environment. Expectations for the bridge keep changing over time. More stairs were built by locals to access it. The line between Pyongyang and Seoul will eventually stop there, so the bridge is symbolic of a window to North Korea that will continue to Russia."
Maas has set his sights on working in Sao Paulo, in Brazil, and Lagos, in Nigeria, where he feels disruption to the urban fabric is warranted. "I am interested in exploring what's missing," he says.