CHRIS VAN DUIJN Interview

In the year 1975, OMA – Office for Metropolitan Architecture was established by the Dutch student-architect Rem Koolhaas and Greek architect-instructor Elia Zenghelis along with Madelon Vriesendorp and Zoe Zenghelis. In the last 47 years, the Dutch based firm has spread across four continents with offices in Rotterdam, New York, Hong Kong, Doha and Australia. It is one of the best architectural firms in the world with an outstanding body of works spread all across the globe.   

Led by Rem Koolhaas, Ellen van Loon, Reinier de Graf, Shohei Shigematsu, Iyad Alsaka, Chris van Duijn, Jason Long and Managing Partner David Gianotten – OMA’s magnificent design creations has contributed significantly and prominently a great deal towards Modern Architecture. Over the years, OMA has extended its visionary approach by opening a research and design studio AMO, which applies architectural thinking to domains beyond. AMO’s role is to fructify architecture with intelligence and works in parallel with the firm’s clients.

Breathtaking View

Chris van Duijn has an outstanding body of works spread across large-scale and small-scale structures, interiors, private houses and product design. He has led the design of excellent buildings like ‘Bibliothèque Alexis de Tocqueville’ in Caen, France – 2017; ‘MEETT Toulouse Exhibition and Convention Centre’ and ‘Galleria Department Store’ in Gwanggyo, South Korea – 2020. He has also worked on prominent projects like the ‘Universal Studios’ in Los Angeles, the ‘Prada Stores’ in New York and Los Angeles – 2001; ‘Casa da Musica’ in Porto – 2005; the ‘CCTV Headquarters’ in Beijing – 2012; the ‘Garage Museum of Contemporary Art’ in Moscow and ‘Fondazione Prada’ in Milan – 2015.

The interesting fact about Chris van Duijn is that he joined OMA in the year 1996, while he was still in college. After his Masters from the Technische Universiteit Delft, he continued his architectural journey with Rem Koolhaas. His true commitment towards architecture and OMA is truly rare to find in the architectural world. He has seen OMA growing into a force to reckon with in the designing world. August 2014, Chris van Duijn was rewarded for his dedication and commitment by OMA as one of the Partners.  

Distinctive Working Zones

Currently, Chris van Duijn heads all the works in Asia. ‘Hangzhou Prism’ and the ‘CMG Qianhai Global Trade Centre’ in Shenzhen are two major projects under his leadership. Simultaneously, he is also leading the design team of the ‘Simone Veil Bridge’ project in Bordeaux.

Chris van Duijn comes across as a truly committed individual, who will go out of the way to spread the beauty of architecture in the most admirable manner. It has been a delight to talk to Chris van Duijn, who shares his childhood passion with great fondness and the recently completed ‘Axel Springer Campus’ project in Berlin, Germany.

Schöne Stadtlandschaft von Berlin

When you look back at your childhood ambition, did you always wanted to be an architect?

When I was 15, there was one specific moment, which I discovered what I found really interesting. We had this art project in school, where we were supposed to build a model of our dream house. During those weeks, I used to return from school in anticipation to be in the workshop space to complete my dream house model, until the time was up (smiles). It was a model of a post-modern villa with mirror glass half-buried in a mountain. I have no clue what my inspiration was at that time. However, I enjoyed playing around with the materials and creating 1:50-scale people for the model, making trees and cars to make it look perfect.

Floor Plan

How would you describe your journey from joining OMA in 1996 as an intern architect to being a Partner in 2014 to leading the Asia branch?

When I started at OMA, the company was very different from what OMA is today. The office was a single studio with about 40 people, not too organized and without any support staff. The teams were autarkic: team leaders were responsible not only for the design, but also running a part of the studio. They were hiring their own staff and also had to manage the finances of a project.

We were still working with drafting tables and there were only four computers in the office. It was very chaotic and competitive, but also a very creative environment in which people sometimes stayed for multiple days without going home. The whole office had a smell of sweat and adrenaline. It sounds very romantic and that is actually also how it felt (smiles).

It was also the period, in which OMA completed its first major projects like the ‘Kunsthal’, the ‘Educatorium’, ‘Euralille’ and the ‘Villa in Bordeaux’. Gradually, the office became more successful in winning competitions and securing more prestigious projects. That being said, the responsibilities of the office also grew tremendously. The office needed to become more professional, in order to demonstrate that we were not just paper architects, but also able to build real buildings.

Side Elevation

The biggest growth happened between 2000 and 2005, when projects like the ‘Dutch Embassy’ in Berlin, ‘Casa da Musica’ in Porto, the ‘Prada Epicenters’ and the ‘Seattle Public Library’ were built, when we opened an office in New York, and when we started to be engaged in the Middle East. We also won the ‘CCTV Competition’ in Beijing.

During the last 25 plus years, I have witnessed the transformation of a compact, chaotic and unstable studio into its current form. Today, we have design offices located in four continents with over 300 employees working on so many projects. We still have the best designers from all over the world. We still start every project trying the most innovative and relevant solution.

Design-Pracht

What is the most significant professional trait you learned from Rem Koolhaas at each different stage of your quest?

I never had a job outside OMA. I started working at OMA during my studies, so I must be very much formed by working with Rem Koolhaas. As Rem was the only person leading the projects at that time and all of the teams worked closely with him. Working with Rem was exciting and also extremely intense! However, within the teams, the spirit was very open and energetic. We all felt that we were able to contribute to the design, no matter whether you were an intern, a modelmaker or the project leader.

It was not only the collaboration with Rem which was inspiring, but also it was very much the creative environment he had established in the office, with so many great designers from all over the world. The endless production of more and more ideas, concepts and models, making the office feel like a laboratory crowded with models, real scale mock-ups and material samples are unmatched and so rewarding.  

A View to a Kill

What are the various projects under your leadership OMA Asia is currently busy with, in various cities and countries?

We have some large-scale projects under construction in China, among which the ‘Prism’, a mixed-use building designed for the innovation district in Hangzhou. It will be completed around the end of this year. In addition, we have some ongoing projects in Shenzhen and Xiamen, which will need more time until completion. Most of the projects, we worked on from our Hong Kong office in the past years are in China, but we are also becoming more and more active in other countries in Asia like Korea, Indonesia and Vietnam.

Floor Plan – Level 2

When the client states the brief to you in the first meeting, what really goes in your mind?

We try to understand what possible challenges are for the project, besides providing the technical program the client is asking for. This can include the local context, the culture of a country or the type of industry. We like to relate to all these multiple levels, because they provide additional relevance to the project.

What was the brief of ‘Axel Springer Campus’ project?

When we started working on project, Axel Springer was still an old-fashioned media company, like in the times when cigar smoking journalists would spend their day behind a typewriter. At the same time, Axel Springer’s new media and tech startups were making the majority of the turnover and were therefore becoming the future of the company. The challenge of the project was to make these companies feel welcome by creating a working environment, which provides the energy they need and which broadcasts this energy to its surroundings. 

Workstations

What major challenges did you anticipated on the real grounds before the construction of the project began?

Our interaction with the client consisted of daily meetings with various heads of the traditional company. While their CEO was clear about his ambition, the client team’s point of reference was the traditional workspace, with the traditional way of working, the traditional norms and the traditional secretary. What we designed was simply different, as it was supposed to be different. 

How did the team overcome them creatively as the project progressed?

It has taken endless meetings, presentations, tests and simulations in order to convince them gradually on each design item. This was everything from façade maintenance, the control of glare, the introduction of color, working in an atrium space, space acoustics and a long list of other things. It also took a significant effort to understand the reality of their daily business from our side. Overall, it had been a process, in which all parties had to convince each other that the building could actually work.

Leisure Zone

How would you describe the ‘Elegance of Design’ of the project ‘Axel Springer’ from an architect’s perspective?

The project has many narratives to tell and show related to Berlin’s incredible history as an historical capital, its monolithic architecture and the fact that the Wall was running right through the center of our site, but also how these massive volumes we designed are adjusted to the surroundings streets with subtle and less subtle details. However, the main feature of the design is the central atrium, which connects the surrounding streets, and which hosts flexible working spaces for all companies of Axel Springer.

Blending to Perfection

Please mention five major ‘Sustainability’ features you incorporated in the project.

The façade and the atrium are keys to the way the building functions. The main office façade is a compact, double-skin façade which controls the amount of sunlight in the building through silk-screened black glass panels. Meanwhile, the inner façade includes operable panels to ensure natural ventilation. The combination of the two façades allows the building to take maximum advantage of daylight, while having a very good energy performance. The double-skin also allows the building’s users to extend the period, during which they can make use of natural ventilation throughout the year as the open airflow travels to the central atrium from all offices. The building’s energy consumption is thus optimized, while providing a good comfort for its users.

Axonometry Bridge

What is the total area of the project and design-to-finish time period of the project?

The total surface area of the Axel Springer building is around 80,000 sq. m. The entire process took about seven years. The first round of the competition was in 2013 and the building was handed over during the early Covid-19 period in 2020.

How much significance would you attribute to the conscientious efforts of the civil / structural engineers in this massive project?

We always try to design innovative projects together with the engineers firms we collaborate. We come up with solutions that push the boundaries of what is considered possible in the construction industry. For this project, we worked with an amazing group of specialists, some local, others international. The great thing is that all of us wanted this project to succeed and without great consultants, this would not have been possible.

Harmony in Motion

How can or will architects of the present times overcome the ‘Climatic Catastrophes’ to safeguard the community at large for the safe future for the generations to come?

I do not think that architects per se are the key to the solution. I believe that most architects consider sustainable design a natural part of the design, similar to the need to integrate a building’s structure in their design. The entire industry needs to set new priorities together with governments, local authorities, developers and planners. We should be more critical, whether we really need to build more buildings everywhere, need to urbanize more and whether we should expand cities or revitalize their existing parts. We should think on the largest possible scale before asking architects to drop trees on the roof.

Spacious Circulation

How would you describe Chris van Duijn as a leader and a person?

There is still nostalgia about the architect as a single-handed genius creator, especially in a company as OMA. I totally do not believe in this image. Good designs are always the results of good collaborations, a lot of work, often extra-time work, and most importantly, a great team of motivated architects. I try to create an environment, a scene if you like, in which that can take place.

What significant aspects of the global platform www.zerobeyond.com did you liked the most, and why?

I like the broad interest in the different aspects and disciplines within design and the selection of projects from both developed and developing parts of the world, which is what many platforms miss.

Axel Springer Campus, Berlin

Please state 5 recent awards won by OMA.

2021: Yuanye Awards for International Architecture Projects – ‘Potato Head Studio’;

2021: ArchDaily Building of the Year Award Interior Design – ‘Off-White Flagship Store Miami’;

2021: Driven x Design Berlin Design Awards Commercial Architecture – ‘Axel Springer Campus’;

2020: International Highrise Award – ‘Norra Tornen’;

2020: Driven x Design Shanghai Design Awards Proposed Architecture – ‘Hangzhou Prism’.

Image Courtesy: OMA; Photographer: Laurian Ghinitoiu

Feature Photo: Marko Seifert

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