“A little bit more?” – The proverbial ‘extra mile’ is an integral part of the work of Amsterdam-based studio NL Architects, which demonstrates an unwavering clear idea of what it wants to achieve. Yet that is not ‘more’ in the sense of volume, but more content, more system, more function. The architects initiated a new trend in the late 1990s with their design for the façade of a heat exchanger station in the Netherlands: To prevent vandalism, they transformed the shell of the small, functional building into a climbing wall made of polyurethane, which was originally developed as a road surface coating for parking decks. Thus the black monolith with the integrated climbing holds became a surprising hybrid of functional building and climbing wall, which is a vivid expression of the studio’s approach.
NL Architects, not an entirely unpatriotic name, conceive their ideas and buildings in an open-plan office that was presumably once a warehouse. The studio on Van Hallstraat is located directly on one of the many small canals in central Amsterdam. The architects occupy the rear section of a two-story 1930s commercial building. Unfortunately the windows are a little high – you have to stand on your tiptoes to see the water.
They share the building with neighbors who could hardly better reflect the typical Amsterdam blend of Rembrandt and red light: a wholesaler for art supplies, a PR agency and a tattoo studio. This is where the architects work. Like silent witnesses, the countless models stacked on the shelves recount the studio’s history over the past 15 years. Outside the seagulls glide past.
NL Architects was founded in 1997, in the “SuperDutch” era, by Pieter Bannenberg, Walter van Dijk, Kamiel Klaasse and Mark Linnemann, who had met and started collaborating at Delft University of Technology. “Kamiel joined a little later. Mark and I were the first of the group to graduate – we worked on our first project with Pieter: the interior design of a movie theater in central Amsterdam,” recalls Walter van Dijk. Mark Linnemann only recently started working as an architect in Germany (Molter-Linnemann Architekten). Today NL Architects is headed by Bannenberg, van Dijk and Klaasse. With 21 employees, astonishingly few of whom are Dutch, they are today a medium-sized company.
The three words “Wow! What? Wow!” embody NL Architects’ corporate philosophy, a reference to architectural theorist Robert Somol. He splits architecture into two categories. One can be described as “Wow! What?”, the other as “What? Wow!” “The first functions via the visual effect, the second via its content. In addition, we seek to create in our work a feeling of ‘Wow! What? Wow!’”, explain the architects. They don’t like architecture that misses its chance.
After having garnered international attention with their first project “WOS8” in 1998, NL Architects received the Netherlands Architecture Institute (NAi) Award (Rotterdam) in 2004 for “BasketBar” at Utrecht University. The jury was impressed by the casual architecture and “inventiveness with which the architects had approached the very banal remit”. In 2005 NL Architects won the Emerging Architect award of the Mies van der Rohe Award for its unusual hybrid of coffee house and sports ground.
Following the first few successful years, things gradually slowed somewhat for NL Architects. The construction industry stagnated, many of their experimental projects were halted. In 2007 NL won first prize in the competition to design the Groninger Forum by popular vote. Their proposal, which envisages a multi-use building that opens up vertically to form an atrium, saw off competition from international studios including UN Studio, Zaha Hadid, FOA Foreign Office Architects and Wiel Arets. In 2008 the quartet once again caused a stir and established its name with “Sound Shower” at the Venice Architecture Biennial.
The studio has recently completed an apartment block in the east of Amsterdam with an extraordinary roof, namely “Funen Blok K”. Two diagonally opposite corners of the structure rise up, creating a hill-like landscape. And while in Vredenburg near Utrecht work is well underway on the construction of the new concert hall “Crossoverzaal”, an extension of Hermann Hertzberger’s music hall, the media-savvy architects can boast several ongoing projects this year: 2012 is projected to see the completion of, among others, two residential complexes in Rotterdam, a new entrance pavilion for an industrial park in Arnhem and “Port Transformer” in Amsterdam. Groninger Forum, their largest and most intricate project to date is currently on hold again. “They want to start work on the underground carpark section next summer, and on the Forum itself in 2014”, reports Kamiel Klaasse. Architects certainly need a good deal of patience.
After 15 years NL Architects are able to present an extensive portfolio. Their works are difficult to describe in few words, be they wild, humorous, experimental or radical. The crucial factor is always what can arise beyond the required design parameters and what unexpected potential it offers. They themselves describe their architecture as a “remix of reality”. In the interview Walter van Dijk and Kamiel Klaasse talk about their expectations of architecture, sports facilities, and why all good stories begin in a car.