“When I was at OMA we had a small PR team and today at MVRDV I have editors from big media that work for me. We now pay for photographs, writers and we are doing the journalism of the past in the editing studios. Of course, it is expensive and if you can’t afford to pay for it as a small office or firm, you should still do these things by learning how to communicate, to write and deliver your own creations in a way that attracts people.“
Andreea Robu-Movilă: You worked with OMA and shaped the image of MVRDV and as we all know, you really did a great job! I know you are not an architect, but how did architecture influence your personal development?
Jan Knikker: I should have become an architect, probably. When I was a kid I was always looking at buildings. I wouldn’t do anything but play with LEGO, but I didn’t have any technical talent.
A.R.M.: Maybe you just believed you were that way.
J.K.: I visited some architecture schools and thought it was too technical for me. I took language classes and journalism instead and then I had my first job as a journalist in France where I wrote only about architecture and real estate. I went back to Holland and they didn’t need an editor speaking both German and French, so I became a bit desperate about what I should do. Even though I had no job, I said no to at least forty different offices until there was this offer from an architecture firm, OMA, to become a secretary for Rem Koolhaas. After my first interview, I got a second one with Rem Koolhaas himself and he told me “You’re not a secretary! What are you?” “No I’m not. I’m a journalist”. “Oh, I used to be a journalist!”, he replied. Then he said: “You should do my communication” and hired me. I basically opened the door at OMA: when I arrived there were 45 people, but when I left nine and a half years later there where 260. I think it is very important to communicate within architecture because many architects are highly educated professionals who talk in a way that people cannot grasp. So I had to teach the architects to talk like they would perhaps talk to eight year old children and have more patience and care when explaining their projects. It is very easy to retreat to an intellectual domain and not share what you have learned, but architecture is useless the moment you are not using it. I saw this Prada Shop in New York: we helped developing it for two or three years and then suddenly it was built – but when we entered the shop it was actually quite blunt. The theory was perfectly executed but we felt it was very cold and unreal. By the end of the day the merchandise and the people arrived and suddenly it was fantastic and it made sense. That shows they had actually made really good work of architecture because it interacted with the clothing, with the spirit of the brand and with the people who used it. This is something that you have to communicate to people: the added value of architecture is not so much the cold intellectual idea, but it is the way the idea would knit to a different use.
A.R.M.: What decisions were significant for branding an architectural firm?
J.K.: I think getting it out of the architectural ghetto. Architecture media is very important: we like them a lot and we are good friends with them. But you also need to talk to people outside and that becomes more and more important… For example, in Europe a neighbor can stop your project, which can cost you millions, if you don’t explain him in normal words why the project is a good idea. We have more and more public participation and see that local media is becoming more important. The media landscape is changing too as we suddenly have to look at social media: when I started my career there was no such thing as social media and now we have a social media editor in our office.
A.R.M.: How do you perceive the change in architecture relevance in time?
J.K.: I think the relevance hasn’t changed, but maybe the way that we look at it has. When I was young, architectural relevance was mostly about being recognized for housing and social environments. I think that’s still valid, but in the ‘90s there was this idea that architecture had to be iconic and it became almost like a luxury handbag. However, iconic buildings are really important for the city. Take the Coliseum in Rome: it was not built as a quintessential structure but with a certain function. I think we always have to raise buildings for their function and make it contextual and then the final product could become an iconic building.
A.R.M.: Designing something spectacular shouldn’t be in the philosophy of the project from the beginning.
J.K.: No, it would be very shallow, I believe.
A.R.M.: So you would advise an architectural firm to focus on better communication with the general public.
J.K.: If architects have a great idea they need to also be able to convince others that it is indeed a great idea and do it in the language of the people they meet. If you talk to the neighbor, you will speak the language of the neighbor, if you talk to the mayor, you will try to speak his language and if you discuss with the developer, you will converse about something financial, probably. You always have to find the right argumentation for why the project is good for different groups.
A.R.M.: How would you design the profile of the future architect?
J.K.: First of all, we want them to be idealistic, because we are in a state of emergency as we need to modify the construction industry in order to help ending climate change. Therefore, we need certain idealistic proposals and want our architects not to be engaged with style, but we want them to think about how to protect the planet. On top of that, they need to have an approach that is social, close to the human scale and all these other things. We also want young architects to be critical and to have an opinion. Architecture is teamwork: in our office is not that the founder makes the sketch and the team executes it – no, we have a social process together with the architect, the engineer and the users. This means the entire team is asked to come up with ideas and participate. An intern at our office will not print books or make coffee, he will be part of the team and engage in the process. This component is extremely important.
A.R.M.: What investment should we be doing in us today, for a better tomorrow?
J.K.: I think everyone needs to have the right computer skills.
A.R.M.: Is this for expressing yourself or making your ideas clearer?
J.K.: If you cannot paint, you cannot be a painter. These are the basic skills, so this really needs to work. You can specialize perhaps into something like sustainable technology but for most occasions we want you to be a realistic person who can think at all kinds of different levels. Architecture is such a holistic discipline, you need to talk to all kinds of different people and have all these different things incorporated in your design in a very good way – that’s what we are looking for.
A.R.M.: How did architecture change you?
J.K.: I started to understand buildings that I hated when I was young. Now I walk through Bucharest and I see buildings that people classify as bad, but in fact the architect did his best and the building is not maintained. I think you understand what buildings are about at a certain moment and you develop a taste, and the taste is expensive and that’s bad. [laughs] I also became more idealistic about the city and I can get really angry when I see a shopping centre built on the high street next door to the old town.
A.R.M.: Therefore you developed critical thinking in the sense of analyzing and understanding the context.
J.K.: Yes! You cannot walk through a city in an innocent way anymore, it’s over. [laughs]
A.R.M.: What is your main source of happiness in architecture?
J.K.: Buildings are places that can make you extremely happy. I’ve never had a day I went into our office thinking it would be a bad one. We made ourselves a wonderful office, we have meeting rooms that are monochrome orange or light blue, depending on your mood you can move into the orange room or the blue one and it’s really a place that makes you happy. Architecture really has the power to make you happy and change your day: it is a very influential discipline, it can change people’s lives for the better.
A.R.M.: Does MVRDV have a secret utopia for the future?
J.K.: It’s not secret [laughs]. Of course, we want to address the climate change, we want to have a society where everybody is happy and we know architects are only a small part of it, but we can at least provide the spaces for these happy communities.
A.R.M.: Do you perceive a shift in the paradigm regarding the role of the architect in society?
J.K.: Yes! Architecture changed from being an engineering discipline into a genius discipline where God would make his sketch and then it would have been built while today it’s more like a communication discipline in which the architect comes up with the design, in our case it is a teamwork, and it goes through all the stakeholders in an endless stream of communication. It has also become a more feminine discipline: in Delft University the majority of students are women, and this is a technical university, architecture is not really the most feminine discipline. People are trying to find out why architecture is more appealing to women and the belief is that it becomes a more communicative discipline these days.
Moreover, at MVRDV we make concepts. We are an idea factory, so concept making is our core business and we are talking about concepts all the time, but they are always influenced by all the disciplines that you mentioned.
A.R.M.: Do you think artificial intelligence will shape the field in any way?
J.K.: Yes! And I hope it will be fantastic. You can see it in a negative way, but we like to remain positive. We made a design for a building in Amsterdam and we “packed” it with software which optimized it. Therefore, it became more feasible and it would not have been possible without the help of artificial intelligence. We already have three or four buildings that we couldn’t have realized in the old way, but only by using this new technology. Probably everything that Zaha Hadid Architects does also falls into this category.
A.R.M.: What has greatly influenced your evolution?
J.K.: Being told to pursue communication was a really good advice because it changed my life. I think I admire Thomas Heatherwick a lot because he is a designer who became an architect, although he is heavily criticized for his latest work in New York. I think his architecture makes people dream and very happy: this is a very strong quality!
When I started working in architecture communication we had very powerful magazines. Domus is one of the latest that still has a big editing team, but many of the large architecture magazines have died.
A.R.M.: This happened because of social media.
J.K.: Yes, it is, because social media as means of advertisement makes money go to the largest companies like Google. For example, the architecture critic from The New York Times was flown in first class to Bilbao to write 6,000 words for the newspaper, whereas today we have them all for free on Dezeen at a lower quality. When I was at OMA we had a small PR team and today at MVRDV I have editors from big media that work for me. We now pay for photographs, writers and we are doing the journalism of the past in the editing studios. Of course, it is expensive and if you cannot afford to pay for it as a small office or firm, you should still do these things by learning how to communicate, to write and deliver your own creations in a way that attracts people.
A.R.M.: Are you still working with Domus?
J.K.: Yes, we are doing the editing. They still have a large editing team and are somehow comfortable because they have a lot of subscribers. However, during the economic crisis many magazines went bankrupt because people stopped buying them and the advertisers stopped advertising.
A.R.M.: Are you still writing as a journalist?
J.K.: Yes, of course! I think it is really important to keep doing what you do and discuss your own work even if nobody else is interested in discussing about it. [laughs]
A.R.M.: Le Corbusier wouldn’t have been Le Corbusier if he hadn’t put his words on the paper and made people understand his vision.
J.K.: Le Corbusier was a marketing genius, Mies van der Rohe as well! There is a wonderful piece of research by Beatriz Colomina in which she wrote about how the early architects were actually doing their own marketing in a very good way. That is why they are so recognized, basically. It’s no point in being great and not telling anybody!
A.R.M.: Do you still analyze other buildings or raise some critical points referring to other individuals?
J.K.: I think it is crucial to be critical about all the mediocre and bad architecture that is built all the time and never discussed about, because there are new good buildings which are not featured into architecture magazines and nobody cares. But then a few “starchitects” are at the centre of attention because they compete against each other in this crazy system and say nasty things about each other’s work.
A.R.M.: This is also a form of publicity – even if it is in a good or a bad way. [laughs]
J.K.: Of course! That is true, but I think we should be nicer to each other and show more respect.
A.R.M.: So do you encourage young people to write?
J.K.: They should also learn how to make films because people are reading less nowadays.
A.R.M.: Thank you for this amazing talk!
Architect Jan KNIKKER is Partner of MVRDV – The Netherlands
Jan Knikker joined MVRDV in 2008. Before this, he started his career as a journalist, and then shaped the public image of OMA for nearly a decade. As Partner at MVRDV, Jan leads the Contracts, Business Development and Public Relations efforts, forming a client-oriented, fast, and strategic studio that includes a strong visualisation team and the practice’s sustainability team. He leads MVRDV’s branding efforts and has overseen the practice’s rapid expansion into new markets, focusing on solutions for global issues through its architecture and urbanism. He has worked on many publications and exhibitions, including the book MVRDV Buildings. Jan regularly lectures internationally, at commercial and academic venues in Germany (Polis Convention, Stiftung Baukultur), the UK (RIBA), Israel (CTBUH), Colombia (Universidad Nacional, Utadeo), Australia (RMIT), Kuala Lumpur (UCSI), and elsewhere. He writes for various publications and is Deputy Editor of Domus 2019. He is a member of the HNI Heritage Network, led the online design magazine Dafne, and from 2007 to 2011 was a member of the International Projects commission of the Netherlands Architecture Funds.
You can find out more about Jan Knikker and his office at https://www.mvrdv.nl/