Sam: What is your view on the way that ‘politics’ is approached in this university?
Daniel: That’s a difficult question for me as I don’t live here and so I operate outside of day-to-day life in the Netherlands. My attitude, more specifically in relation to architecture, is that the subject is, by its very nature, political. The things we design and construct engage with people, places and culture. Through what we do as architects we contribute to the very structure of things and in my view this means that we need to understand and have an attitude to the political climate within which we operate. As a profession we are inevitably often working in the service of the privileged and the powerful and, in response, we need to aspire to and contribute to the social, economic, and political conditions which we consider to be appropriate.
I DON’T THINK ONE CAN BE AN ARCHITECT AND NOT BE POLITICAL, EVEN IF IT ISN’T AN OVERT INTENTION. I TRY TO MAKE THAT PART OF WHAT AND HOW I TEACH AND DISCUSS ARCHITECTURE, WITH STUDENTS AND COLLEAGUES.
If what we do is inherently political then I have experienced two extremes. I was studying in Barcelona while the independence referendum was happening and the faculty there was massively political. Students were going crazy about the whole thing, but here, in Delft, it seems that there’s nothing. What is your view on student participation in politics in this faculty?
I haven’t noticed much student participation in politics beyond the very creditable support for the two women who used to run the espresso bar, but actually, of course, beyond a human issue, that change was itself a microcosm of a much wider and more pervasive issue – the transfer of services, within a public institution, into the private sector for profit.
Personally, I would be very happy to see students actively engaging with the world at a time when politics, across Europe and the World, is in flux and seems to be heading in an unpleasant, divisive and dangerous direction. In the face of this, people have to start taking ethical and political positions. I would like to see students taking an active stance, but I am also interested in them engaging with such issues through the work that they make. One of the really nice things about the graduation studios I have been teaching in the last couple of years [Interiors, Buildings, Cities MSc 3/4 projects: Beyond the White Cube 2016/17 and House of Music 2017/18] was that many of the students were really focused on considering what the role of public architecture might be in response to contemporary society and culture: seeking to address the complex and particular social and political questions that the projects encompassed, their relation to broader questions of modernity, the city and the heterogeneous communities who inhabit it. The generosity and optimism with which they tackled these questions was very encouraging to see and I was also pleased that they felt able to make them manifest in the physicality of architecture. I can also see this trajectory emerging in more personal ways within the work of our Independent Group students.
Within the chair, we have been working with other disciplines, such as anthropology, to explore such matters for many years, because we consider them to be central to our own. I think, that individual students are keen to address the diverse challenges faced by contemporary society, but it would be encouraging to see this expressed on a more collective level.
Do you think the faculty is at all responsible for hindering or helping that collective expression?
No, it seems to me that the faculty and the department are a product of the times that they are in. I am concerned though that the apparent consensus we operate within doesn’t really exist if one looks beyond the educational institution and out into the world. Perhaps this is something we need to think about together. If one looks at the history of architectural institutions you can see that, when they needed to be they were often highly politically engaged - the Architectural Association in the 1970s and early 80s is one well known example, but there are many other instances across Europe and the world, where architecture faculties have been at the vanguard of thinking about what society might be and how its built fabric could propose a positive contribution. The Netherlands subsumed modernity as an intrinsic part of its character but here as elsewhere, modernist architecture has been severed from the ethical roots from which it grew and exists now largely at the service of a globalised and at best morally neutral market. Together, as staff and students, we need to be much more concerned with the actual conditions of society, both in terms of their fragility and their opportunities, and how we might positively contribute to them. The best means we have at our disposal to do this is by mastering the tools of our own discipline.
Would you say that our faculty is not at the vanguard of political discussion?
Unfortunately, I don’t think education in general is in the vanguard of political discussion. However, I don’t think it’s a problem with this faculty
specifically. I would regard it as a much wider, cultural problem. The faculty is a resultant, not a catalyst. It reflects the aspirations and attitudes and, one might say, the complacencies of wider society. Of course, there are many people here who think that we have a responsibility to do more than that and this is reflected in projects and work being produced across the university. However, I would enjoy and encourage more debate about the big questions and issues we collectively face.
What do you see as the implications of not doing this?
The implications are pretty apparent if you look at the extremities of climatic and the environmental change, the threats to democracy and increasing divergence in terms of wealth and social justice for example. Those threats are not existential.
To return to the original point, architecture is political. It is intrinsically part of a wider cultural discourse and shapes the physical fabric of the society we collectively create. I believe that architecture is both a mirror and a driver of that conversation and importantly, that it can have agency. We should all feel positive that we can make a difference, both individually and as a profession.
One of the big political matters that has had a direct impact on many of the people in this faculty is Brexit.
What are the main things about Brexit that will affect how you go about your work?
For me, personally, Brexit means many things. It threatens my position as a European architect, working in an international context, and even more immediately, it concerns my family. It may ultimately affect my position here, I really don’t know. I think it’s a culturally disastrous. It will diminish my own country dramatically and it threatens Europe’s wider integrity at a moment when it feels like cooperation and dialogue is more necessary than ever.
IN PRACTICAL TERMS, IT IS CHAOTIC AND DIFFICULT TO PLAN FOR BUT IT IS ALSO BECOMING VERY REAL. FOR EXAMPLE, THE EU HAS ANNOUNCED THAT, IN THE EVENT OF A NO DEAL BREXIT, ARCHITECTS FROM THE UK WILL NO LONGER HAVE AN AUTOMATIC RIGHT TO OPERATE WITHIN EUROPE.
This obviously has an immediate and significant impact for me and my practice but will also change the opportunities for future generations of architects, like yourself. I feel a lot of empathy with the many British students at the TU. Brexit might well have an impact on their ability to complete their studies and to continue to operate in a context that’s outward looking. Of course, it is also likely to result in a significantly diminished future for every other young British person who might be thinking about studying or working abroad, which I find extremely sad.
More broadly, in relation to the things that I’ve just spoken about, it seems to me that the idea of Europe offers the opportunity to counter some of the alarming tendencies that are currently emerging and which I believe Brexit to be part of. Brexit is symptomatic of an introverted, nationalistic perspective, which seeks to blame ‘the other’. In reality, many of the problems that those who supported it want their politicians to address have far more to do with what we have recently learnt to call the neo-liberal policies of successive UK governments over a generation, rather than the European Union.
You’ve taught and continue to live and work in the UK. What kind of impact do you think Brexit will have with regards to the European citizens in the UK, both for them as individuals but also in their contribution to the UK?
A very significant percentage of the architects who work in the UK are European and they are working on projects internationally. The diminishing of international opportunities will have a huge impact on the profession in the UK but the inevitable loss of much of that highly talented workforce will be equally damaging. I am certain it will diminish architectural culture as a whole and that should be regretted by everyone who believes in what architecture can do.
Speaking of international culture, you have number of projects in Europe and beyond. What are the direct implications Brexit will have on your practice (DRDH) on a day to day basis?
We are working across Europe and most of our work at DRDH comes through the OJEU system of public notices, which as European architects we are automatically entitled to apply for. We think of ourselves as a European practice as well as a British one – in that order - and many of our friends and families are European.
For us it means a huge cultural change. Potentially, Brexit is a threat to our identity and perhaps our very existence. Let’s hope that out of all the political chaos in which Britain is submerged at the moment, a solution emerges which minimises these impacts or, I still dare to hope, means that we finally remain part of the European Community.
Here in Delft, has there been any advice given from the university regarding your position in this currently uncertain political position?
No, there has not been any advice and that’s not any reflection on the university. I’m in quite a particular position as a UK architect working in Holland. If even my own government can’t tell me what any of this means then why should anybody else be able to do so?