The new ‘Fabric’ architect

At the invitation of Arcam, Olv Klijn and Eric Frijters of FABRIC spoke about what fascinates them at a presentation held on 11 October. Despite the football game on TV that evening, the conference hall at de Brakke Grond was filled to the rafters. This was no surprise, as FABRIC is a young architectural firm that has been going ahead full steam since 2007, recession or not. What can we learn from them? Visibly at ease, the partners of FABRIC, Eric Frijters and Olv Klijn, spoke about what fascinates them. Seven themes served as a framework for a presentation of the impressive array of projects FABRIC has been working on since its establishment in 2007. Of course, the event turned into the inevitable parade of projects that architects always tend to present, but this time with a broader agenda. Themes that were discussed included: the lack of perspective – about the disappearance of a ‘visionary perspective’ and its replacement by bureaucratic tape; disdain for the facts – on the current demographic reality and that this requires a new approach to spatial planning; depletion of the earth’s resources – which touches on the integral approach to all problems threatening our living environment, and the replacement of social housing by mobility – shifting the focus from social housing to mobility within the context of spatial planning. These themes are consciously ‘more expansive’ than architecture and/or urban development. This is really necessary, if we wish to explore overlaps with other disciplines; a conscious strategy employed by FABRIC in an endeavour to re-embed the profession of architecture into a broader, knowledge-based network, with the aim – now and in the future, and without mention of the recession – of giving architecture and urban development a new position and relevance, two aspects of the profession that are currently facing difficulties. A member of the audience referred to the discussions recently initiated on the web and elsewhere by developer Rudy Stroink by suggesting that the architect, as a professional, is becoming superfluous. This topic immediately brought up an aspect that fascinates FABRIC above all – the quest for relevance in the work of the architect (if you should still call him that), with all the doubts and questions that are an integral part of this. In a passionate plea, FABRIC invited the audience, partly through posing a number of questions, to adopt their position in the quest they embarked on in 2007. To them it is, above all, a quest for suitable and effective working methods in which design and research are the focus areas. These mutually reinforcing methods can build bridges to other disciplines and are currently being applied simultaneously by eleven of the firm’s staff, in which there no distinction is made between designers and researchers. In the projects presented at this event research and design seamlessly converge; often so seamlessly that the boundary between them is blurring. Is the proposal for a new type of skyscraper NATURAL CAPITALISM 2.0 a concrete building design or an architectonic illustration of an experiment captured in a sketch or, in their own words: exploratory research? Is their prize-winning design for the 2010 Prix de Rome a genuine (i.e. intended to be realised in concrete terms) urban development concept for the August Allebeplein (August Allebe Square) in Amsterdam, or a more generic statement regarding a new type of urban architecture captured in an architectural scale model? This approach is vaguely reminiscent of that of OMA/Rem Koolhaas, one of their idols. The origin of FABRIC, a series of independently initiated talks about tomorrow’s challenges in spatial planning, is likewise reminiscent of the ‘journalistic’ origins of Koolhaas’ career. And although they explicitly state at the end of their presentation that they do not see their working method as a response to the recession, could also (almost too easily) draw a parallel to Koolhaas’ career, which also has its origins in a recession period without many concrete assignments. Maaike Behm (Arcam) could not resist the temptation to address this topic and asked after the presentation: “Is the absence of built projects up until now, still the ‘traditional’ discipline of the architect, a logical result of the architect’s way of working, or is it mere coincidence, albeit perhaps prompted by the recession?” Although Eric and Olv made haste to ‘unveil’ the project that was, in fact, to be constructed, they proposed that the aspect of construction is not an integral part of what fascinates them and was, therefore, not addressed in their presentation. They professed in their last slide that they actually prefer not to be ‘architects’, but see themselves as ‘specialists in spatial planning’. Is this a position they are actually defending, or is it merely a convenient semantic label-switching act used to manipulate the ‘tainted’ status of the classical (read: construction-oriented and therefore now ‘failing’) architect? Has the difficult topic of construction not been put on hold (too) easily? The strong linguistic presentation of FABRIC was supported by sharp analytical drawings and diagrams, but when the presentation of analysis and research-related items moved on to design something happened that was actually not named. The plans themselves suggested a highly consistent, unique, purely architectonic language that suggested a specific, individual underlying agenda. An agenda that gives the plans a common denominator despite the considerable variation in programmes, contexts and economies of scale involved. Almost without exception, their designs seek out an almost romantic relationship – and often also an integration – between the building and the landscape. As a result, a substantial portion of the programme has disappeared under ground, under a raised park-like ground level, or the building volume is enshrouded, as it were, in a green jacket. The building masses that remain visible are characterised by abstract non-material volumes, or open, radiant modernist volumes with lots of glass in which the experience of the surrounding greenery is placed on a pedestal. This leads to beautiful, attractive images that will doubtlessly produce powerful and characteristic venues if they were indeed built. Despite the rational, factual and interdisciplinary analyses of which the designs ought to be an architectonic translation, these designs, where they do represent an actual building, apparently also exude ‘softer’ qualities: atmosphere, contextual sensitivity and a sense of place. However, not a word was spoken about this. In response to the local ban on withdrawing water from the surrounding area, the supporting element in the design for an Ecoresort in Thailand is a large water storage and management system. Thus, the design consists of a huge reservoir with a hotel below where the water on top cascades in waterfalls down to a series of patios below. That their designs, despite their conceptual and architectonic strengths have not yet been realised, instils in them a light undertone of frustration and incomprehension: thanks to the power of their imagination, shouldn’t the execution of their projects be only a matter of course? Feasibility should not be the issue: research institutes TNO, Alterra and Delft University of Technology are mentioned repeatedly as the authorities who have tested the accuracy and technical feasibility of their basic principles. The resistance still facing the execution of such projects in this ‘recalcitrant’ practice is brushed away in their presentation a little too easily and naively as red tape that obstructs their visionary plans (also one of their themes) or lack of funding. However, wasn’t that precisely a skill of the ‘old architect’: the ability to guide his vision along, through and across bureaucratic red tape and budgets? And is therefore relevant in the process not only on account of his vision? If there is anything FABRIC has no lack of it is vision; a vision that is developed from a broad, relevant agenda and that can yield clear and self-confident design proposals with inventiveness and conceptual power. This is precisely why I cannot wait to see the project under construction – a villa (how traditional would you like it?) – built.