By Jakob Harry Hybel
MVRDV Buildings is a brilliant, quietly radical monograph that sums up the work of controversial Dutch architects MVRDV – not by showing their buildings as objects but by portraying life as it’s lived within them.
It is clear from the book’s very first image, which shows the solitary silhouette of a Japanese maintenance worker vacuuming in the Matsudai Cultural Village Center: this is not your dime a dozen architectural monograph. But then again, MVRDV never were your dime a dozen architects.
They stumbled onto the architectural scene with their 1997 design for the headquarters of Dutch media broadcasting company VPRO, and in doing so they were immediately hailed by architects and critics alike as the saviours of modern architecture. And it was indeed a bold and sexy design, both clear and ambiguous in its fluid relation between form and function – a very welcome breath of fresh air for a whole generation of architects plagued by post-structuralist fatigue.
Along with OMA – the studio from which two-thirds of MVRDV’s founders were hatched (both Jacob van Rijs and Wimy Maas were previously employed there) – MVRDV quickly came to embody the so-called Dutch pragmatism. Even though MVRDV started building immediately after starting up – unlike OMA, who struggled to get commissions in their formative years – they always shared Koolhaas’ passion for the polemically theoretical, employing hyperrational argumentation in their projects, often laced with thick irony and societal critique.
Life within – and around – the buildings
In this, their first proper monograph, only MVRDV’s realized buildings are featured. As such, this is not unusual within the genre, but considering the scope and volume of the studio’s theoretical output throughout its more than two decades of existence, it is a striking decision to only include built works.
The thing that truly makes this publication stand out, however, is the manner in which the buildings are represented. It was the expressed wish of the editors to present a fresh perspective on MVRDV’s oevre, and as they state in their introduction, existing photographic imagery “having been published over and over again was not likely to generate a new way of looking at the work of MVRDV.”
Consequently, the book’s chief designer, Joost Grootens, proposed not to rely on the same few architectural photographers that are normally employed to document the built body of work of an architect. Acknowledging that they mostly use the same bag of tricks – standing at the one angle, from which the building is most photogenic, waiting for the light to fall just right – Grootens convinced the architects that it would be much more interesting to get the impressions of the users. So, on multiple social media platforms users were then encouraged to share their private images and as a premise, all submitted images had the potential of being included in the book.
Balancing clutter with consistency
One might think that a project that relies on such a high level of user involvement would end up as one big eccentric clutter of photos selected more or less at random. And that could easily have been the case. Fortunately, though, the editors have chosen to back the images with incredibly detailed and playful drawings as well as poignant essays featuring observations by the writer (Nathalie Janson, for the most part) mixed in with interviews and anecdotes by the users.
The thoroughness of the texts and the meticulousness of the drawing material add an essential layer of consistency to the book, which would otherwise run the risk of appearing scattered and frenzied.
In fact, the book’s unconventional strategy turned out to be truly inspired. For one, the result makes for an utterly surprising and exciting mixture of images ranging from holiday snapshots to private photos taken by residents and staff, all of which showing the enthusiasm MVRDV’s buildings clearly inspires among its users.
More fundamentally, though, it also leads to a general discussion of the need to redefine the hierarchy between social and printed media. By not seeing one as being superior or inferior to the other, it should be possible to draw on each other’s strengths. At least, this seems to be the argument of this book, and for that – as well as its overall willingness to push the limits of the genre – it should be applauded.
Ever the non-conformists
MVRDV have often been faced with the criticism that their data-fixated approach and their pragmatic emphasis on cheap materials and construction methods creates characterless diagrammatic architecture. This book cleverly addresses this critique by muting the rationalizations of the architects and letting the voices of the users ring out instead.
MVRDV sought to redefine modernism by turning it on its head. With this remarkable publication they seek to do the same with the architectural monograph. It is a very recommendable entry point for anyone unfamiliar with their work and it offers a new angle for anyone, who thought they had made up their mind about them.