Graduating into the post-starchitect era, Civic’s principals have an innate humility that pervades their approach to every project
Should it come as a surprise that the partners of Dutch practice Civic, even via the limitations of a Teams chat, come across as incredibly…well, civil? Talking to them (above, from left, Ingrid van der Heijden, Rick ten Doeschate, Jan Lebbink and Gert Kwekkeboom) a day before the Netherlands entered a month-long lockdown at the end of 2020, they all seem relaxed, sanguine, even jovial about things. Perhaps the trio present are vicariously looking forward to the imminent arrival of absent partner Jan Lebbink’s first child, but I get the impression they’re always that way. It doesn’t seem like the office behind them is being worked any harder before closure. Someone sauntered into view at one point, but their six staff are otherwise keeping a low profile.
That phrase sums up the nature of the Amsterdam practice – at least it did until its LocHal public library project opened in 2018, repurposing an abandoned train shed near the station in the Dutch city of Tilburg. The domestic and international acclaim it met with has thrust the young firm into the spotlight. It has certainly put big-scale projects on its books, like a new faculty building at the University of Twente and a museum in the city of Waalwijk. But success hasn’t affected the architects’ innate humility, born out of the time that they studied in 2002, when the SuperDutch phase and its cult of personality was ending, and before the 2007 financial crash that proved a reckoning for everyone.
‘Certainly there were great things about that time,’ says partner Rick ten Doeschate, ‘but we just felt the idea of co-operation across disciplines was undervalued. We graduated thinking a collaborative approach would generate more interesting and diverse projects.’ Partner Gert Kwekkeboom segues into the comment: ‘We believe in complementary ways of working. There’s only 10 of us here, four of whom are partners, so two of us will be working on any one project in the office, bringing joint perspectives to anything we design. We hope that radiates to our clients and those we collaborate with.’ Their practice is a natural extension of the friendships they made while students at TU Eindhoven.
Partner Ingrid van der Heijden offers the back story on the practice’s organic development. All four graduated with distinctions and, while all working, set up Cloud Collective – a loose, multidisciplinary group of 20 or so other graduate architects and designers.
‘We began by designing installations, public interventions and competitions in our spare time during the financial crisis, but after a while we polarised into three entities,’ she explains. ‘Each wanted to specialise, and with the four of us obviously drawn to buildings and their relation to the public space, it’s how we ended up together.’ Cloud Collective still exists, though in a more formalised way. Civic sticks to architecture, while elsewhere in Amsterdam urban design consultancy Bright is making its own sense of the world. Matters, a graphic design and scenography firm, works out of Paris.
So, do they think of themselves as a reaction to that past culture of big personalities? Not really, says Kwekkeboom. ‘It’s just not about big theories on modern culture like it was then. Focus has shifted back to local communities rather than big picture stuff. It’s still important to know what’s going on in the world to make a good building but there’s more emphasis on locality.’ It might have influenced their work in 2013 on repurposing an Amsterdam school into the Mevlana mosque, a small, local, municipality-backed regeneration project, done at a time when the Muslim community was under particular scrutiny by wider Dutch society. ‘It was more edgy and on the fringes – and I think that’s where we feel naturally at home,’ says ten Doeschate. ‘We’re not the kind of people who do private villas. We’re drawn to projects with physical or historical complexity.’
Which, in its post-industrial context, LocHal had in spades. When quizzed about how they made the jump from informal group to a firm landing a big job like this, ten Doeschate sees Civic’s trajectory as meeting their aspiration of working small but dreaming big. LocHal library was not just a lucky break, he points out. ‘The early DIY stuff Cloud Collective did for Tilburg led to an invited competition for the 2014 Willem II passage, which we won knowing that the tender for the library was coming up. It was two years away, but in that time we engaged with more experienced firms (like Petra Blaisse’s Inside Outside, heritage architect Braaksma & Roos and Mecanoo), that we knew could help us win it.’ All the while the ambitious little firm was seeking big collaborators to work with.
LocHal’s success comes from the way it weaves together all the strands of Civic’s thinking in terms of how they realised it and how it functions as public space. The municipality had asked for a new library appended to a heritage structure, leaving the latter almost ‘as found’. But in merging the two buildings, not only did Civic create a 10,000m2 facility but a novel approach to the library typology. Van der Heijden says their aim was to create immersive public space within its huge hall – which meant taking on Arup’s ‘zonal’ approach as to how such a vast space could be heated. ‘While internal “labs” are conditioned, the main hall has a lower ambient temperature. But once you find your book you’ll sit on a warmed seat,’ she explains. ‘It was a bold concept, but we chose to heat the people, not the building.’
This use of technology to give it specific humanity also applies to Petra Blaisse’s huge moving textile screens, which reconfigure the massive space in minutes. ‘We wanted public and ‘quiet’ zones to be interwoven too,’ says van der Heijden. ‘What the city was missing was a public gathering space for up to 1,000 people – driving our monumental stair event space idea.’ And stacks relate subject-wise and spatially to interior designer Mecanoo’s specialist ‘making’ labs as a foil to the Dewey Decimal way of configuring knowledge.
‘Like any good public space, you don’t predict what’s going to happen in it, you create the conditions for things to happen,’ says ten Doeschate. In other words, creating new relationships between the building type and the people it is meant to serve. Before lockdown hit, it had become the go-to destination for the city’s residents.
Iterations between the big picture and the detail, like those at LocHal, seem to suffuse their work. As much as Willem II passage in Tilburg was about facilitating connectivity to a run-down area (van der Heijden says people used to walk 1km around to avoid using the underpass), with its cast recycled glass brick walls it was also about creating a safe route that interacted with users as well as being tactile; what ten Doeschate terms ‘ambitions for craft as well as connectivity’. This was generated by working with glass artists in much the same way as deep engagement with the steel fabricators for Civic’s 2017 Puishaven pavilion, also in Tilburg, brought about the engineering of the similarly deep C section perimeter beam that defines its structure.
To argue over whether this pier pavilion looks more like Rotterdam Kunsthal (my view) or Mies’ Neue Nationalgalerie (theirs) is missing the point. They were motivated by the politics of connecting the ‘rich/developed’ north side of the harbour with the ‘poor/ undeveloped’ south. A popular spot for impromptu cultural events, the firm took on board the municipality’s wish to monetise the site with a restaurant but also addressed its civic potential, with a perimeter beam framing a public platform raising people above the pier level. ‘Performative architecture with a public aspect,’ says ten Doeschate. ‘This is the territory where we like to operate…whether or not you’re buying a drink, the public can still enjoy the space fully,’ adds Kwekkeboom.
And with its penchant for adaptive reuse exemplified at LocHal, the firm has been charged with other projects – notably at Twente University in the city of Enschede, where a 1970s chemistry block is being reconfigured as part of the new International Institute for Geo-Information Sciences (ITC), a 13,500m2 postdoctoral research facility for sustainable technologies. Presented with a 220x38m concrete and steel structure, the firm looked to the act of removal rather than addition to meet the brief. Here, structure is being carved out to introduce four 24x12m open atria running the length of the building, separating the various research, lab and office areas. This gives the previously heavily conditioned building given four new lungs, consigning service intensive functions to the lower level and public ones, like library, lecture spaces and restaurant, to the generous upper. ‘By subtracting space we’re able to add light, fresh air and green to the building,’ explains ten Doeschate. ‘In the atria we’re creating biodiverse environments that allow for natural ventilation and contribute to its social function.’ With the old brutalist structure consciously re-revealed in the process, it’s a kind of extreme retrofit that fits the building’s new purpose.
Public, municipality, architects, contractor, Civic is looking to work with them all, seeing it as a formalisation of the mindset its partners have always had, creating ‘pure architecture’ in their terms, which is representative of those who use it and accepted by the wider community. At the end I ask if they think they do what it says on the tin and Kwekkeboom answers without hesitation: ‘The firm’s name is a statement of our values – and you’re right; if you’ve called it Civic then you have a duty to live up to it.’
But ten Doeschate interprets that duty in wider, social terms. ‘This last year has taught us the importance of meeting, of going places, of being together; of touch. If we can’t understand the value of public space now, when will we?’