Crystal Talk
Text: Friederike MeyerPhotos: Allard van der Hoek, Ulrich Schwarz, Bastiaan IngenHousz


profil Atelier Kempe Thill
Atelier Kempe Thill

When André Kempe and Oliver Thill talk about their work the words just gush out. They spend no time on long deliberation on the impact they are having. “And why” is a phrase they use repeatedly with a slightly defiant undertone. They do stand out among their employees – Germans, Dutch and interns from all over the world – with whom they sit at a long desk in the Van Nelle Factory. They still use the Styrocut themselves, build models and make renderings for the next presentation. Their love of doing things themselves was kindled early on. They come from Saxony and have a broad accent to prove it. André Kempe was born in 1968 in Freiberg, Oliver Thill in 1971, in what was then Karl-Marx-Stadt and is now Chemnitz. They met as students at the Technical University in Dresden, since when their career has evolved jointly. After six years of joint study and stints in Paris, Tokyo and Vienna they moved to the Netherlands, where they have lived and worked for 14 years.

They initially acquired insights into the construction of residential properties, working at Frits van Dongen, DKV and Karelse van der Meer. In 1999, their design for 300 residential units on Kop van Zuid in Rotterdam won 1st Prize in the Europan 5 competition, and it was then they established Atelier Kempe Thill. It was not a particularly good time to set up shop on their own. Though Dutch architecture still has a reputation of being one of the most exciting in Europe, there was a recession crippling the economy and as such the conditions for architecture emerging in the country. Their design was actually never built, but André Kempe and Oliver Thill persisted all the same.

Not even two years later they won the “Living in the 21st Century” competition and the recently established studio landed the contract to construct terraced housing in the town of Roosendaal. For the 17 two-storey townhouses they got the maximum out of the limited budget. By doubling the height of the living space they attempted to reveal alternatives to the standard uniform footprint and succeeded in there being lots of light on the inside. The developers praised them, saying “nothing is standard, Kempe Thill see everything as a challenge.” In the Netherlands, where the construction of accommodation is to a large extent standardized and the building industry is extremely inflexible in its response to special solutions, this can be regarded as a great compliment. And indeed since then Kempe Thill have produced a number of special solutions, primarily for sliding glass elements in facades, which with each new project they refine still further in order to realize extraordinary solutions in other places. This is the credo with which they go about their work.

As early as 2002, they compiled their experience in a manifesto for the construction of accommodation as a whole entitled “Specific Neutrality”. In it they described the change from the construction of subsidized housing to consumer-oriented, individual architecture and came to realize: We no longer know who we are building for. For this reason accommodation needs to be flexible, not only when it is in use, but as early as the planning stage.

Just how they see “private landscapes for a contemporary style of living” can now be seen in their buildings in Amsterdam-Osdorp and Zwolle, each of which embodies one of the two preferred basic types: The load-bearing concrete cross walls and generous glass facades used in the construction of the 23 terraced houses in Osdorp mean the residents can design the footprint individually and provide the rooms with maximum natural lighting. In the case of the residential building in Zwolle in Holland, which was completed in 2009, they went against the developers’ wishes for a clinker façade, and won them over with a glass façade, packing 64 students’ and municipal apartments in a compact eight-unit structure – for EUR 869 per square meter. The future tenants are intended to be able to enjoy the benefits of a loft: floor-to-ceiling windows, a spacious entrance area and a restrained but elegant appearance.

Nowadays residential construction is one of Kempe Thill’s most important fields of activity, though they have also drawn attention to themselves on several occasions with public buildings. In the Austrian village of Raiding they are building a concert hall in the garden of the house where Franz Liszt was born, with a façade made of insulating panels sprayed with polyurethane and perforated by 18-meter long windows made of welded acrylic glass elements. They paneled the auditorium spruce wood. Kempe Thill are well known for conducting endless discussions with the developers about the use of materials. So as to get round restricted budgets these are sometimes processed using unconventional methods. For the Dutch pavilion at the 2003 International Horticultural Exhibition in Rostock they covered a 10-meter high steel framework with the sort of mobile ivy hedge elements normally used to separate the gardens of terraced houses. For the mobile art museum in Rotterdam, for which, among other things, they won the Bauwelt-Preis (world of construction prize), they stacked white, slightly translucent plastic beer crates on top of one another and, invisible to the observer, connected them using threaded rods. And for the curtain for the elongated concrete stage, which is intended to breathe new life into previously neglected Grotekerkplein in downtown Rotterdam, they used a fabric normally employed in animal husbandry. If you look closely you can see how precisely the detailing is for the way in which it disappears into the side stage.

When a jury awarded Kempe Thill the Maaskant Prize for Young Architects in 2005 one of the things on which they based their decision was the fact that: “They have a keen eye for the topicality of social questions and for the relevance these have for architecture.”
André Kempe and Oliver Thill do not play golf to land contracts, preferring to champion architects’ causes and discuss the future of the profession with politicians. Two years ago they published a study of competition in Holland and made it as far as the Dutch parliament with their call for lower participation hurdles in contract award procedures.

Trying things out, sounding out limits, getting going. Who dares, wins. This attitude seems to run through their career like a red thread. And why not.