Vicarious Pride

At yesterday’s Architecture in the Netherlands yearbook meeting, it was announced that the Kunstwerf by Ard de Vries and Donna van Milligen Bielke will be on the cover of the 2022-2023 edition. Last week, this project also won the Building of the Year 2023 award in the Stimulating Environments category –a wonderful and well-deserved accolade.

At both ceremonies, the city of Groningen and its former city architect were praised for their courage and vision in entrusting young architects with a project of this size and importance. De Zwarte Hond supplied the city architect at the time, and it will come as no surprise that we are proud of Donna and Ard’s success. Of course, it is mainly their achievement that such a good project has come about, although this was unfortunately not discussed much during the yearbook presentation.

There was, however, a discussion about how young architects should and can find work, and the conclusion was quickly reached: we lack good clients who give young talent a chance. In our opinion, too little attention has been paid to what we, as architects, can do to increase diversity in the architectural landscape and support talent. We know from experience that there are plenty of opportunities.

When Lebbeus Woods was asked at a symposium at Delft University of Technology in December 1993 why, at 53, he had achieved so little, he replied: “Because architecture is a job for older men.” The students present at the time, all in their mid-20s, were surprised and slightly offended. In the Netherlands at that time, if you were in your 30s and had not yet realized a major project, you could assume that it would never happen. Ben van Berkel was 33 when he was commissioned to design the Erasmus Bridge in 1990, Adriaan Geuze was 33 when he was commissioned to design Borneo Sporenburg, and Christian Rapp was only 32 when he completed the Pireus in Amsterdam. In the 1990s, the young Maaskant seemed more like a working prize than an incentive prize, as the Maaskant Foundation itself states on its website. Of course, that period was exceptional, and it was an anomaly for young architects to receive such large and prestigious commissions so early in their careers. This is not to downplay the special talent of that generation.

Nowadays, it is very difficult for young architects to break into the Dutch architecture scene. This is, of course, partly due to European tenders, which, in the Netherlands at least, seem to have completely missed their mark in terms of making the market transparent and open; to the effects of the financial crisis on our industry and, conversely, to the incredible prosperity we experienced in the 1990s; and to the demise of the housing associations, which were often the more daring clients to begin with. And perhaps there is another material reason. In the 1990s, when supermodernism reigned supreme, the concept was often more important than the execution of a design – and, with  an extreme concept, experience can even get in the way.

The fact that it takes a little longer is not a bad thing in itself, as it gives everyone the time to learn a lot and develop their own craft. And it separates the wheat from the chaff. Fortunately, many young architects now take their time. There is a lot of practice, drawing and discussion. Fortunately, the process and the context of the commission are now at least as important as the idea.

 Nevertheless, we believe that De Zwarte Hond, as an established agency, can help talents to make faster progress. In recent years, the agency has therefore regularly developed projects together with younger and smaller, but promising, agencies. In these collaborations, there is no predetermined division of roles, we just agree to do a project together. The collaboration is almost always fun. Young agencies often have surprising knowledge, design skills and fascinations.

 But we are also rigorous and make sure that the quality of the process and the final plan is no less than what our clients have come to expect from us. These collaborations have resulted in a number of special projects in which the signatures of the various designers have merged into one, and just as many friendships have been formed. In recent years, De Zwarte Hond has worked with Powerhouse, Monadnock, Studio Nauta, Studio RAP and Loer Architects. We hope to contribute to the European architectural climate, and in particular to the diversity and quality of our industry.

 Of course, we don’t only work on developing talent outside our own agency. We (naturally) keep the best talent that is most most suited to De Zwarte Hond close to us. Since our company was founded in 1985, there have always been opportunities for young talent to develop. Not only professionally, by gaining experience in the design of special and complex projects, but also – with proven aptitude as a project architect – in the realization of a project and as the face of the De Zwarte Hond to the outside world.

 The very best will be given the opportunity to become proficient in storytelling, acquisition and involvement in the direction and content of the agency at a young age. First as an associate and then perhaps as a partner. We do the latter because we believe that the agency should not depend on the genius of one person. We also believe that with more and different people and disciplines in the partner team, we can innovate more easily and quickly, tackle more complex issues and respond better to the wishes and interests of our clients.

Finally, and this is not an unimportant point, in the larger agencies there is another important way to help younger colleagues get ahead, and that is through awards. To get on lists, to be included in networks and to find good (project) partners. Because, as we all know, sharing is caring!