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In conversation

MVRDV’S Winy Maas, Jacob van Rijs and Nathalie de Vries

In a rare interview with all three founders of MVRDV, Magali Robathan hears about how the unexpected success of the Markthal has changed the practice

I’m sitting around a table with Jacob van Rijs, Nathalie de Vries and Winy Maas, the three founders of MVRDV, at their Rotterdam offices. I’ve just come from the Markthal, the monumental food market-cum-apartment block that has propelled the Dutch multidisciplinary firm into the big league. It's a striking, impressive building, and it's been a phenomenal success for the city of Rotterdam, attracting eight million visitors in its first year (more than the Eiffel Tower).

Since the Markthal opened in November 2014, MVRDV has doubled in size, from 60 to 120 people, and is having to move offices to accommodate this sudden growth in the practice.

“The Markthal is both extraordinary and very ordinary,” says Winy Maas. “Normal people, normal food, but there's also something totally outrageous about it. It takes a certain kind of courage to build something like that.”

The practice launched in 1993 and right from the start, Maas, de Vries and van Rijs were determined not to play things safe; to do things differently and come up with new solutions to architectural and urban issues.

MVRDV's first realised housing project, WoZoCo, is a good example of this. The client – a large housing corporation – wanted to build a 100 unit apartment block for elderly people on a particular site in Amsterdam. Due to zoning restrictions and the need to maintain adequate sunlight for the surrounding buildings, only 87 of the units could be fitted onto the site in an acceptable way. MVRDV was called in to help solve the problem, and – half joking – they said, “Why not 'glue' the extra units onto the outside of the building?” The client liked the idea, MVRDV found a way to make it happen, and the seemingly gravity-defying apartments brought the firm to global attention when they opened in 1999.

This 'why not?' approach seems to run through many of the firm's projects. Why not wrap a mixed use building with a printed glass façade that makes it look like a traditional Dutch farm? (The Glass Farm, Schijndel, the Netherlands) Why not flood an ugly, dilapidated shopping mall and turn it into a lush, swimming lagoon that allows visitors to swim around the ruins of the old buildings? (The Tainan Axis, Taiwan) Why not turn the roof of a tennis clubhouse into a piece of street theatre, so that it acts as a viewing gallery and an advert for the club? (the Couch, Amsterdam, the Netherlands).

I'm very fortunate to find all three founders in the office at the same time – I'm told it's been more than a year since they were all there together. Indeed it's becoming rarer and rarer for them to even be in the same country, with a schedule that sees them spend a large part of the year travelling; lecturing, curating exhibitions, taking part in international juries and of course working on projects throughout the world.

The interview starts with a tour of the office, where teams of architects work away quietly, and models and boards shows the variety and scale of projects currently being undertaken by the practice. Downstairs, a long wooden table is being readied for lunch – food is provided for staff, who are encouraged to eat in the office in order to share ideas and foster creativity.

Ragnarock rock museum
The end of April saw the completion of MVRDV's latest major project, the 3,100sq m Ragnarock rock museum in Roskilde, Denmark (right), home of the popular Roskilde rock music festival.

The museum is part of a larger 11,000sq m regeneration of the cement factories on the site, which will see them transformed into a rock music district housing the rock museum, the Roskilde Festival Folk Music School, and the Roskilde Rock Festival HQ. It will also feature housing for artists, musicans, students and creatives.

“The museum is like the frontman in a band,” says van Rijs. “It’s splashy and attention-grabbing, and the intention is to bring the area alive.”

The museum is a brash, showy building, featuring a red carpet leading to the entrance, a golden 'studded' façade, raw concrete and red interiors. “We thought about what comes to mind when you think about rock music,” says Maas. “We thought about the studs on the belt, about high hats, leather jackets, red carpets, velvet-lined music cases, then we thought about how all of these elements could be used in the architecture. The building is quite bold, like the attitude of rock and roll.”

Closer to home, MVRDV designed a giant temporary staircase leading up to the roof of Rotterdam's historic Groot Handelsgebouw building, where a rooftop cinema screened films and hosted performances, and visitors could look over the city from an observation deck. The installation was open from 16 May to 12 June as part of a festival celebrating 75 years of innovative architecture in Rotterdam, since much of the city was destroyed during World War II.

The Seoul Skygarden
Meanwhile, work has begun on the Seoul Skygarden (below), an elevated park that aims to bring greenery to this dense, polluted city.

“It's in the very heart of Seoul, which has no real recent green development,” says Maas. “Seoul is a city where you hardly ever see any parks. It's got a real toughness to it.”

The project sees a 45-year-old overpass transformed into a 938m-long pedestrian walkway and public space, which will feature cafés, markets, libraries and greenhouses, alongside more than 250 species of Korean trees, shrubs and flowers.

It's a fantastic looking project, using a section of overpass that was deemed unsafe for heavy traffic and earmarked for demolition. New York's High Line is an obvious reference point, but the MVRDV founders point out that the comparison is not entirely accurate.

“It's very different to the High Line; much more Asian, much rougher,” says Maas.

“It's being conceived as a green library for the whole area,” he continues, explaining that the Skygarden will act as an arboretum of local species to be cultivated for other parks across Seoul.

A test garden is underway and the project is due to complete in 2017.

The China Town Mall, Tainan
In November 2015, MVRDV – along with local firms The Urbanist Collaborative and LLJ Architects – won the competition to transform an old shopping centre in Tainan, Taiwan, into a lush swimming lagoon as part of a wider regeneration project by the Tainan City Government

The China Town Mall was built next to the New Tainan Canal in 1983, explains Maas, effectively cutting the city off from its waterfront. Never an attractive building to begin with, the shopping centre fell into a decline, becoming, according to the MVRDV founders, “the rotten tooth of downdown Tainan.” “The Tainan City Government has this huge 60s monster, which it wanted to destroy and turn into a park,” says Maas. “We proposed bringing the jungle back to the streets. Our second proposal was to carve out the old department store and flood it so it turns into a lagoon where you swim between the ruins of the old building.”

MVRDV's plans involve dismantling the old shopping centre, but using parts of the structure as the base for a new public square. The car park under the mall will be flooded to form the swimming lagoons, which will be surrounded by dunes, playgrounds and commercial units such as kiosks, teahouses and a gallery. Haian Road, which runs perpendicular to the mall, will be planted with trees and shrubs to form a green corridor, and will be pedestrianised during the evening, allowing it to become a lively public space.

Museum Boijmans van Beuningen
Last autumn, Rotterdam City Council gave the green light for the construction of a E50m Public Art Depot for the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen in Rotterdam. This intriguing project will see the construction of a bowl-shaped art depot which will allow visitors access to the museum's entire collection for the first time.

Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen is one of the Netherlands' oldest museums, and owns a collection of 140,000 artworks which includes works by Van Gogh and Rembrandt. At the moment, there is only space to display a fraction of the collection, with most of it in storage facilties that are full and threatened by flooding. Around 10 years ago, the museum began to look for ideas for how better to look after and show its collection, and the idea of a public art depot was born.

MVRDV won the competition in 2014 with their proposal for what is being billed as the world's first art storage facility that is fully accessible to the public. The 14,000sq m facility, which will be located within the OMA-designed Museumpark in Rotterdam, will allow visitors a view of activities that are vital to the care of museum collections, but which normally take place behind closed doors – the storage, art handling and restoration.

MVRDV have designed a cylindrical building featuring an ascending route around a central atrium, which ends on the roof, home to a sculpture garden and restaurant. The walls of the central atrium will be lined with artworks, and staircases will cross the void, allowing visitors to view the paintings. Guided tours will allow access to the conservation facilities, and visitors will have the chance to speak to specialists about their work.

“We wanted to make the footprint of the building as small as possible,” says Maas. ”We designed a round building, and decided to turn it into a mirror, so that despite its size it seems to dissolve into the park around it. The trees and greenery that will be taken away to house the building will then be replanted on the roof.”

The funding model is another interesting aspect of the scheme. It's a public private initiative which raises funds by allowing private collectors to rent space in the building and pay to use the expertise of the Museum Boijmans van Beunigen to help maintain their collections.

“Instead of having just a publicly or privately funded museum, you can have a kind of hybrid,” says de Vries. “It's a very interesting idea.”

Construction is slated to begin this autumn, with the depot due to open at the end of 2018.

United in their variety
From a small tennis centre to large-scale urban masterplans, MVRDV's projects are extremely varied, so what unites them?

“Biodiversity is important to us,” says van Rijs. “We've been interested in that since the beginning. We're intrigued by greeness, and by density.”

“Often our projects fulfil an extra task and help catalyse or turn around their environment,” adds de Vries. “That's the way it should be, particularly when there is public money involved.”

And then of course, it's an attitude that runs through their work; a desire to keep things fresh.

“As you become more experienced, there’s a danger that you can lose your edge,” says van Rijs.

“To prevent this happening, we invent new things, so that each project contains a twist. Every one of our projects is a new adventure.”


MVRDV was founded in Rotterdam, the Netherlands in 1993 by Nathalie de Vries, Winy Maas and Jacob van Rijs, who met when studying architecture at TU Delft.

MVRDV pursues a deeply collaborative, research-based approach to design, which involves working closely with clients, stakeholders and experts from an early stage. The practice currently employs 120 people, with offices in Rotterdam and Shanghai.

Recent projects include the Markthal market hall and housing complex in Rotterdam, the Netherlands; the Couch tennis club in Amsterdam, the Netherlands; and the Ragnarock rock museum in Roskilde, Denmark.

Ongoing projects include a public art depot in Rotterdam, the Netherlands; the Seoul Skygarden in South Korea; a cultural 'cluster' in Zaanstad, the Netherlands; large scale urban masterplans in Bordeaux and Caen, France; and a research masterplan into the future for greater Paris.

Together with Delft University of Technology,  MVRDV leads The Why Factory, an independent postgraduate research institute and think tank for the future city, founded by Winy Maas in 2008.

MVRDV recently added five new partners as part of a management reshuffle intended to support the practice's recent growth and nurture its “intellectual and creative continuity.”

The Zaanstad Cultural Cluster has
recently been given the green light
The Zaanstad Cultural Cluster has recently been given the green light

In their own words

Winy Maas, Nathalie de Vries & Jacob van Rijs

NdV: We started at a time when there was an abundance of buildings being made, and interest in architecture, but it somehow didn't feel quite right. It felt as though everything was going in the same direction. We needed a bit more intelligence, information and methodological working.

WM: We found that the architecture scene at that moment was quite introverted, very self occupied. We wanted to be more open. Our work was more communicative; more understandable.

NdV: It's much harder for young architects starting out now, because of the current economic conditions. They have to think much more about their business models – we could just dive in and start making things.

WM: “Leisure is an economy of itself, and an opener for further development. Architects discuss the digital economy a lot, but we dismiss the leisure economy a little bit, placing it in tourist zones only. That’s stupid. Bigger companies, like Apple and Google, are hyper aware of the importance of leisure. Developers creating new cityscapes should be aware of it too.

JvR: People are now realising that specific spaces not normally on the leisure agenda can actually play a role in this area. Shopping malls are including more leisure aspects, and this means more design quality and architect involvement is needed. People are not interested in seeing the same design solutions. They want new ideas.

NdV: We have to deal with the fact that the timespan that things are interesting to people can be incredibly short. This is a worrisome aspect of leisure projects. People go there for a couple of years, then everything has to be reinvented. The level of entertainment has to rise and rise.

It's a bit of a paradox when you make buildings; on the one hand you want to make things to last, on the other hand you have to make designs that can change fast to accommodate new trends and keep things attractive.

WM: More than ever, our generation believes in transformation because it recognises history and combines it with the future.

JvR: It ties in with the idea of recycling and reusing. People are more aware of the importance of keeping things.

Frans de Witte, Fokke Moerel, Jeroen Zuidgeest, Wenchian Shi and Jan Knikker were recently made partners of MVRDV
Frans de Witte, Fokke Moerel, Jeroen Zuidgeest, Wenchian Shi and Jan Knikker were recently made partners of MVRDV
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The company’s core business is the provision of facility development and support for local authorities, educational establishments and leisure trusts that want to improve or expand the leisure products and services they offer.
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