Dutch architect and urban planner, Nathalie de Vries, is creating a new approach to architecture and urbanism that envisions a limitless, circular future. It starts with an in-depth understanding of the buildings and spaces we already have and using these more efficiently and in multiple, different ways.
The Design with Multiplicity approach champions for buildings to be less singular in function. Tell us more about this approach.
Nathalie: For our cities to be more sustainable in the long run, we can no longer just keep demolishing our buildings and re-building new ones whenever our needs change. In trying to find more efficient and effective ways to use all our available resources, we need to design our environments to be more productive, multi-functional and adaptable.
For example, the facades of our buildings can be designed to serve multiple functions like collecting energy with integrated solar panels or contributing towards lusher greenery with planting on its exteriors. The structures of buildings should be more ready for future changes in function. And by making more hybrid spaces, our developments can house multiple uses.
Valley, a mixed-use building in Amsterdam with extensive planting for a richer green cover. Image credit: Ossip van Duivenbode.
Valley, a mixed-use building in Amsterdam with three towers up to 100 metres tall is a great example; it is not just a residential and office building, it also combines these uses with shops, public spaces, and cultural facilities. Beyond these multiple uses, there is also an added layer of greenery, with extensive planting of about 13,500 plants, shrubs, and trees, which will give the development a richer green cover, contributing to the biodiversity of the area.
What this means is that we need to be more careful about the way we design our buildings by imagining how they can be flexibly adapted or reused in different ways, whether it’s to layer on more functionalities or to change uses, where needed.
The buildings that we are now demolishing or transforming the most are the ones that we built in the 70s and 80s when we thought we were being very economical by being scarce with materials, with spaces. Those are the first to go, nowadays.
Is this efficient? Is it economical? The counter to this is multiplicity: thinking about how your designs can perform in more than one way, which we hope will extend buildings’ lifespans.
You have comprehensively documented the materials used to construct Matrix ONE, a laboratory and office building in Amsterdam’s Science Park, so that 90 per cent of its materials can be reused later. Why is this important?
Nathalie: You can’t design a sustainable, circular building if you don’t know what went into its construction.
Matrix ONE, the laboratory and office building in Amsterdam’s Science Park designed for majority of its materials to be reused. Image credit: Daria Scagliola.
With Matrix ONE, we went one step further to work circularity into its design. Matrix ONE’s structure was designed without any fixed connections. For example, the floor of a typical steel-frame building would typically be made with poured-in-place concrete, but in Matrix ONE this is replaced with prefabricated hollow core slabs that are connected with thin steel bracing underneath. That means that one day, these pieces can be removed without needing to destroy them.
We ensured that less durable components like furnishings could be upgraded without impacting those with a longer lifespan, and simple connections such as screws and bolts ensure over 90 per cent of the materials can be detached and replaced or recycled.
This approach makes it easy for the building to be ‘taken apart’ – allowing for finite resources and materials, that would have been otherwise demolished, to be reused or adapted for other purposes in the future.
All the individual components that were used in the building – over 120,000 of them – are registered with Madaster, a platform developed by a Dutch company that provides ‘material passports’ to record detailed information about building elements and track them throughout their lives, hopefully across multiple uses.
Beyond documenting buildings’ materials, you have also worked with photographers to document the interiors of some the housing projects you’ve worked on. What is the purpose?
Nathalie: We’ve always been interested in what happens within the interior spaces of the building after we’ve designed it. It’s only when people move in and make the spaces their own that the life of the building really begins. Yet it is not always easy for architects to enter houses after they have been built.
Photographing the interior spaces of buildings that we have designed serves to test our own theories: we can investigate whether spaces are used to their full extent, or if people behave in ways that we didn’t think about, or maybe they wished they had things we didn’t include.
To some degree, it’s a way to learn as a designer. As architects, we have to think about our users but we often don’t know them. We have to imagine them. Documenting the results afterwards gives us insight, so we can learn from our past. It’s a more scientific approach.
Silodam, the mixed-use project in Amsterdam. Image credit: Rob ‘t Hart.
An interesting outcome from the Silodam, the mixed-use project in Amsterdam, was the realisation by the residents that each of them had varied apartment layouts and different spatial experiences. This encouraged the residents to meet and visit each other’s apartments.
You have shared that you want to create a new approach to architecture and urbanism that can support an unknown yet limitless future. What does this mean?
Nathalie: Today we have to find solutions for problems that I didn’t even know existed 30 years ago. Also, our buildings have to stand for the next 50 years, hopefully more. So that means we also have to imagine possible futures. Our architecture is often described as “bold”, but I think that a lot of things we might call “bold” or “unimaginable” now will be completely normal in years to come.
The pavilion designed by MVRDV at the 2000 World Expo. Image credit: Joop van Reeken.
I sometimes think back to our pavilion at the 2000 World Expo. Imagine that, piling up landscapes! Putting windmills on a building! We designed the building to have multiple functions and layers.
People called that a “built render”. In a way, it was an experiment in creating a built image of the future. Thousands of people lined up to look at that spectacle, but today, you can round the corner of a street and see many such multi-functional buildings. So, what looks bold today might be mainstream tomorrow, because it probably solves something that you didn’t yet know was an issue.
MVRDV was founded in 1993 by Nathalie de Vries, Winy Maas and Jacob van Rijs. Based in Rotterdam, Shanghai, Paris, Berlin, and New York, the firm has a global scope, providing solutions to contemporary architectural and urban issues in all regions of the world. More than 300 architects, designers and urbanists develop projects in a multi-disciplinary, collaborative design process that involves rigorous technical and creative investigation. The firm has a reputation for designing innovative, unexpected, and joyful mixed-use buildings.