‘NOTHING IS FOR EVER. THE TOUGHEST THINGS PROVE FLUID IN THE END.’
Photo: Iris Duvenkot.
RAAAF interrogates the nature and necessity of architecture. The studio’s mainspring is a subtractive rather than an additive one. “The poetry of absence recurs constantly in our work. We see emptiness as a contrast to a world that is constantly filling up with things.”
The exclusion of material instead of immediately filling the available space with designed matter, leaving what could happen open to later consideration: in these respects the work of RAAAF, the studio founded by Erik and Ronald Rietveld, is cognate with architecture yet differs radically from it. The Rietveld brothers do not regard themselves as architects but as artists who operate on the borderlines between visual art, architecture and philosophy, and take whatever fascinates them as their point of departure. In their studio in Amsterdam, they shed light on how their intriguing projects have come to pass. “We often run into something where our ideas are triggered by a place or a societal challenge, and we conduct experiments to investigate possible, valid alternatives for the living environment of the future. The architectural world seldom offers people the freedom to experiment on the basis of personal fascinations, so they are forced to concede to the client’s requirements and to accept compromises. Unlike architects, we never work with an imposed programme of requirements. We operate, rather, with a programme of possibilities: a free programme that we ourselves formulate. When we do undertake a commissioned project, it has to be an assignment that allows us to conduct our own research into what might happen; in other words, an open-ended project. In the case of large-scale projects that entail a working process extending over several years, we naturally take advantage of the knowledge and skills available from architecture and landscape architecture. Process-based thinking, thinking at multiple scales ranging from the broadest context (e.g. regional or national) to the tiniest detail, is essential to us. That is something that you can learn well through education in landscape architecture.”
THE END OF SITTING, AMSTERDAM, THE NETHERLANDS (2014) Photo: Jan Kempenaers
- Isn’t it often the case that the constraints of a commission can pave the way to a relevant project proposal?
“A limitation in the programme is sometimes capable of triggering the imagination, indeed. But we prefer to impose the limitations on ourselves. A former Government Architect once asked us to think about the office workplace of the future, and we came up with a concept without chairs or tables. Our point of departure was how the occupant of the workplace moves in a space. With the cooperation of the artist Barbara Visser, we constructed an art installation titled The End of Sitting, a work situation in which people are left free to find a suitable location to work in and to collaborate with others. Ingrained conventions have their own material substrate. And the material substrate of sitting is the chair. When asked to think about the future of the office environment, interior architects and industrial designers come up with countless alternatives for chairs. But they never touch the hallowed convention of sitting itself. We are more radical in our approach, in that sitting is no longer essential and people are invited to seek new physical postures. Our installation is meant, as it were, to challenge visitors to start again from scratch and to find new, non-sitting ways of relating to space and to one another. We are asking them to think with their body, not just their brain.”
- But despite your reserves about architecture, you still focus on architecture…
“On the built living environment, yes. Our work often amounts to a commentary on the surroundings in which people live. A good example is our art installation Vacant NL for the 2010 Venice Architecture Biennale, which took place in the middle of a financial crisis. We wanted to draw attention to the tens of thousands of public buildings that stood empty in the Netherlands – buildings that belonged to all of us and were paid for out of our taxes, but where nothing happened. Even the Dutch pavilion in Venice stands vacant for most of the year. In other words, it’s a huge squandering of built space. The aim of our installation was to make that wastage open to discussion by expressing it in a visible, recognizable and tangible form. We operated in the way we always do, by bringing something to the surface that other people fail to see, or, more likely, are inclined to ignore.”
- In what other respects is your approach distinct from that of architects?
“We always conduct a cultural context study, especially the historical background of the project. It can even reach back thousands of years. When thinking about the workspace of the future, we pictured the services available on the market fora of the time of Plato. That’s just an example of how deep we like to dig into cultural history. Another aspect that is special to us is that we don’t feel obliged to add anything to what is already there. When possible, the originality of our intervention consists of subtracting something. We are not really interested in design as such. A physical shape has to be established at some point, of course, but our main aim is to couple meaning with form. That tends to be more successful if you leave something out rather than add something. It’s the best you can expect in an era that is already overcrowded with buildings and products. So we prefer to create an emptiness, thereby questioning things that are taken for granted, especially the ingrained conventions that prevail regarding public space.” “As an example, the idea that historic monuments must necessarily be conserved is one such convention. It implies that a certain moment in history has to be regarded as a touchstone. The building is effectively frozen in time. What is lost in conservation of this kind is the scope for imagination. Art historians trained in architectural conservation may have all kinds of associations with the object of interest, while these associations means little to people in general because they bear no connection to the present day. That is what brought us to the idea of sawing a slice out of a military bunker with the status of a municipal monument. We made this work of art, Bunker 599, together with Atelier de Lyon. A bunker is a seemingly indestructible fortification. By severing it in two – straight through the middle to the nearest centimetre – we undermined its air of indestructibility and its status as a conserved monument. The cramped interior spaces, protected by partitions of massive reinforced concrete, were now exposed to view for one and all. Paradoxically, after our intervention, the sawn -through bunker itself became a national monument. Its invulnerability changed in one blow to something vulnerable, something fragile. Our work makes this vulnerability palpable. Nothing is for ever, and the toughest things prove fluid in the end. If there’s anything we aim to express in our work, then that must surely be it.”
THE END OF SITTING, AMSTERDAM, THE NETHERLANDS (2014) Photo: Frederica Rijkenberg
VACANT NL, DUTCH PAVILION, VENICE BIENNALE 2010 Photos: Rob 't Hart
- Do you see this approach as a fundamentally critical one?
“Yes, our projects challenge people to look closely and invite reflection. In that sense we attempt to generate an experience that has critical potential. We can give you another example. Following Vacant NL, we were asked to move the installation from Venice to the long-empty Sphinx sanitary porcelain factory in Maastricht. But that’s something we never do, transporting an installation to a different location. Our projects arise from the place, so they are location-specific. As to the Sphinx factory, we realized that many of the empty buildings in The Netherlands were left vacant due to fire hazards. That’s one reason why empty government-owned buildings are often made inaccessible to the public; risk avoidance, in other words. We chose to address the subject of official practices by using fire barrels to create a sea of fire in the building, thereby elevating the hazard level in a controlled, accountable way. Fire was naturally inherent to the factory’s large kilns for firing ceramic toilet pots and similar products. Our Firemen installation was a reference to the factory’s history and a way of questioning the degree of risk avoidance in the official realm. Regulations of this kind impose a rigidity on architecture, whereas learning to live with risk seems more creative in our view. You could compare it to swimming lessons: they help habituate people to the perils of deep water. Our aim is to encourage people to reflect on the habits and conventions of society. It is this radical and autonomous attitude and the way we act as thinkers and makers that situates our practice in the field of the visual arts.”
- As you said earlier, you often allow the empty space to speak for itself. Are you also concerned with the intrinsic quality of emptiness as such?
“Our work has a certain contemplative and meditative quality, indeed. When you are in the space, its very simplicity generates a tranquil mood. But it also has a public dimension. The ‘poetry of absence’ as we call it recurs constantly. Besides, creating a public space is equally important to us. We regard public space as a place where people from different backgrounds and subcultures may meet one another. It’s clear to us that there is nowadays a serious lack of such public spaces. A contrasting situation is illustrated by our After Image project in Groningen. We were invited to create a temporary work of art on the Suikerunieterrein, the site of a demolished sugar refinery near the city centre. We delved into the archives of the factory and unearthed construction drawings of its immense sugar silos. The drawings revealed no less than five hundred, twelve-metre deep piles that previously supported the silo foundations. We excavated the soil surrounding the piles of one of the silos to expose them, thereby automatically defining a space, a potential public space.”
VACANT NL, DUTCH PAVILION, VENICE BIENNALE 2010 Photos: Rob 't Hart
BUNKER 599, CULEMBORG, THE NETHERLANDS (2013) Photos: Allard Bovenberg
FIREMEN , MAASTRICHT, THE NETHERLANDS (2011) Photo: Huub Meijers
Photo: Rob 't Hart
- That not only defines a space, but it sheds light on the history of the location. What does the history of the sugar factory mean to you?
“Exposing the piles is mainly a way of illustrating the way much of the Netherlands is built, visibly and tangibly. And the sugar refinery itself was naturally part of the history of Groningen. Varied though the population of Groningen now is in social and cultural respects, they share a common background, the role the sugar refinery played for their antecedents, and the smell that saturated the air during the sugar-beet harvest. But we don’t want to play at being historians. We tell a story that has to be told right now. We want people to experience what matters in the present time. And we set the imagination in motion through the spatial experience that our intervention brings about.”
“Architecture and landscape architecture are both full of historical elements. Strips of CorTen steel mark the outlines of a long vanished castle or the site of a Roman settlement. But that is not what interests us. We attempt rather to establish as sharply as possible what was happening at a specific time and location, such as a trial layout in the Waterloopbos, a moist woodland that has in the past been used for many experimental mock-ups of hydraulic structures. Works of that kind now take place in laboratories with computer simulations. Following the disastrous floods of 1953, the rallying cry in the Netherlands was ‘never again!’ The country determined henceforth to keep the sea out of its lowlands. An iconic example of those mock-ups is the ‘Deltagoot’, a colossal waterway in which engineers were able to generate waves of many metres in height. It was part of the preparation for the eventual Delta Works that, for decades, have successfully protected a large area of Holland from flooding. But now we live in an era of climate change, and in the long term we cannot win the battle against the rising floodwaters. To demonstrate the vulnerability of our future lowlands, we excavated the 250 meter long Deltagoot and sawed the concrete channel into several pieces. The detached sections were then turned at an angle to the original waterway. You could call it active ruin-making. Ruins are rarely tolerated in the Netherlands: people prefer to demolish them and use the land for newbuild. The Waterloopbos woodlands were already in a state of decay. We chopped the concrete Deltagoot into pieces in collaboration with Atelier de Lyon, and prepared it to become gradually overgrown by ferns and moss. In the long run our Deltawerk // project will express above all vulnerability and serenity.”
AFTER IMAGE, GRONINGEN, THE NETHERLANDS (2018) Images: RAAAF
- You often refer to “affordances” in connection with your work. Can you explain what you mean by the term?
“Affordances are possibilities for action provided to us by the surroundings. Possibilities that are inherent to the living surroundings may be material, natural, social and cultural. They include things like a chair you can sit on, a cup from which you can drink, but also the possibility to have a conversation with someone in your vicinity, possibilities offered by the place where you are at the moment and so on. All these affordances are tightly interwoven. We are interested in the affordances that the surroundings offer to people. Our strategy is to discover unconventional possibilities for each new project. If something familiar is presented to you in a radically different way, even turned upside-down perhaps, you will be wrong-footed and provoked to rethink how you view the world and what position you take in it.”
- What message do you have for architects?
“Architecture is in our view too much focused on production and problem-solving. There is a tendency to think that architecture can solve all the problems. But that is obviously untrue. Something we also miss in contemporary architecture is an experimental outlook, the courage to skate on thin ice. We would love to see new ideas and new spatial concepts for the living environment of the future. By not pretending to offer solutions, we create, at least for ourselves, the space in which we can develop those concepts.”