Van Winden is a soft spoken, 65-year-old man. When he opens the door of his office, the first thing I notice is his shirt. It is black, with a silver floral embroidery on the chest. “He is as decorated as his buildings,” I think, “that makes him a very coherent architect.” Later in the interview, when I ask him about the tension between historical continuity and disruption in his work, he reveals that this connection isn’t only in my mind: “I remember [that] when I was in primary school, I could always choose my own clothing. And then [other children] laughed at how I looked. But I supposed that they were very jealous, it didn’t make me think I had to do something else. I didn’t mind. It is not a goal to be disruptive, but I don’t mind if it happens.”
When we sit at his large, black wooden table, I first ask him about his years at BK. He tells me how he enrolled in 1976 and opened his own studio together with Joris Molenaar in 1985. New responsibilities came with work, and at a certain point he was not sure about finishing his studies. Then, different personal and professional reasons made him reconsider this decision, and he finally graduated in 1987. At the time, he tells me, BK was faculty with a clear preference for modern architecture. Despite this, there was some room for dissidence. For instance, together with other students and teachers, they would have informal meetings for discussing architects and preoccupations that were outside the mainstream canon. Their interests were broad and included in the Catalan architect Josep Jujol and the Italian Villas of the XV and XVI centuries. The latter theme earned a special place in van Winden’s heart after an excursion to Rome with teachers Rein Saariste and Vincent Ligtelijn, in which he also me Joris Molenaar.
This idea of broadening their field of interest was, perhaps, the main thing that stayed with them from BK: “it started during our studies […] and it became part of our work.” This way of proceeding, taking things from different times and cultures in order to produce something new, was eventually given a name: First, it was Radical Eclecticism, following Charles’ Jenks short essay for the 1980 Venice Biennale. Later, after van Winden started his own practice in 2009, it became “a more positive and inclusive notion named Fusion”. In WAM architects’ website, Fusion is defined as “a mindset rather than a style, a strategy that stands for an inventive way of mixing and interconnecting present and past, East and West, tradition and innovation, and high and low culture.” Following this definition, van Winden has allowed himself to playfully switch and mix styles and influences without any architectural shame. I must admit this is something I admire. After years of hearing my teachers and colleagues constantly legitimising their ideas for how monolithic and “non-temporal” they were, it was intriguing to finally find someone who could fly by those nets.
When I ask him to explain Fusion to me, he explains that this idea has always been in continuous transformation. To illustrate this, he uses the Essalam Mosque as an example. It is located in the South of Rotterdam, next to the train tracks and in front of a park. The project was originally promoted by a politician who wanted to give a proper space in the city for the Muslim community. It was 1999. After a few discussions and a failed first design proposal, there was consensus among everyone involved that the building should be built in a traditional Islamic style. Then came September 11th 2001, and something in the political environment radically changed “when the populist party Leefbaar Rotterdam came into power.” There was “a kind of oppressive thinking from the white point of view: ‘What we do is good, and it is good for everybody.’ And this was also what happened in the mosque. The ruling political party, which was very much against the mosque, said ‘ok, it will be better if you take off the minarets and chop-off the cupola, make it a bit smaller, and make it look like a box.’ It was a very interesting point because, in fact, it was a very traditional [Dutch], kind of nationalistic, view, but they linked very much to the modern architecture. And they wanted to strip those iconic [features] of this mosque, so you wouldn’t recognise it as such anymore. Then it would have been like a hidden or clandestine mosque. On the other hand, it was hardly surprising, because modernists strive after homogeneity, and the mindset of homogeneity excludes and prefers dirigisme [i.e. state-led control].”
This whole process made van Winden reconsider some of his views. “Until then, there was a strong idea that architecture was a kind of autonomous thing. And then there came a kind of notion that it might be bit different […] That it is part of politics.” This is an obvious realisation, but also a very revealing one. With architects such as van Winden, it is often assumed that the design is a product of a whimsical and impulsive design process. But truth be told, even the most unconventional building must undergo a long and exhausting conventional bureaucratic process where countless negotiations and compromises challenge the architect’s supposed freedom. This requires of a degree of patience that leaves no space for ephemeral tantrums. Somehow, in architecture you must always take it seriously.
This is emphasised by van Winden when discussing the Zaandam hotel. When asked about the role of humour in the building and in his work, he quickly clarifies that: “It is funny, I don’t mind if you call it funny. But of course, it is not only funny, it was in fact quite serious.” This is something he repeats several times during our dialogue: Although he does not deny the possibility of fun, he also clarifies that it has never been his intent to be funny. In fact, just like with the mosque, this building also had to fulfil the needs of all the parties involved. When recalling the moment in which the scaffolding was removed and the façade of the hotel was finally revealed, he recalls how “That was amazing. Like, you [would] get a smile on your face. But in the meantime, it is just a hotel. It is a successful hotel, by the way. In the beginning, when we were designing, the existing hotel had 70 rooms, and then the programme for the new one was 120 rooms. And then, because we made some improvement of the plan, we could put more rooms, so we had 160 rooms. It was better for the clients.”
The hotel is perhaps the most well-known of his works, not only for its design but also for the controversy that surrounded it. After its completion, the building was object of a plagiarism claim that was later proven to have no basis. Besides this, some of the residents initially saw the project as an offense to the region’s traditions, even though it was supposed to pay homage to its wooden architecture. Eventually, it was embraced both by inhabitants and public authorities, and even used in advertisings of the Amsterdam region. For van Winden, the whole situation was like a situation in which “there is a funny guy entering the village. They don’t know what to do with it, and then they find out that it is not so bad.”
In fact, the hotel is a tremendously “funny guy.” Apart from the obvious fact that houses do not stack in the real world, this is a building full of contradictions and conceptual misalignments. Although it is supposed to represent wooden houses, all the façade panels that cannot be touched with the hand (i.e. most of them) are made of cement composite. The meeting rooms are built over a concrete viaduct that clearly contradicts the traditional construction system of these houses. To ease cleansing, the muntins of the windows are not holding any glass and are instead fixed to the façade. The interior decoration of the rooms is suspiciously clean and missing decorations (it was not designed by WAM). Just like in Venturi and Scott Brown’s concept of the “decorated shed,” which they theorized after studying Las Vegas’ Strip architecture, you could say the hotel’s façade is completely dissociated from its functional interior.
Earlier this year, Bernard Hulsman, a design critic for NRC who was reviewing a newly inaugurated bicycle shed near the hotel, described the whole urban project as an attempt to “bring Las Vegas and Florence to the Zaan region.” Although van Winden accepts the interpretation of his design as a “decorated shed,” he adamantly rejects Hulsman’s opinion: “It is not Las Vegas. It is Las Vegas when you build this in Las Vegas. They built Venice in Las Vegas, but if you build here it is Zaandam in Zaandam.” I propose a small change to this assertion: perhaps, it is more like an intensified version of Zaandam in Zaandam. He nods while laughing: “It is like drinking a cola together with a coffee.”
But, where does that “high intensity,” come from? Going through WAM’s website, especially the descriptions of each project, offers an answer to this question. Voluntarily or not, part of van Winden’s humour seems to come from the use of literal references and assimilations: a residential tower in Leiden next to the observatory with ornamental constellations, a house in Delft with has a window that is “placed like a brooch” on the façade, and a visitor centre in Zaandam that is shaped as the clouds of old Dutch landscape paintings (sadly, it was never built). On the other hand, his humour also seems to be related to the way in which he assimilates every architectural language or movement as a mere style. The most extreme case is that one of a house outside Rotterdam labelled as “neo-modern,” even though it could pass as any other contemporary design. Also for me, a millennial who never got to see the “modern world” being built, assimilating modernity as a style is an irreverent move. While this makes me realise how, despite all my efforts, I still worship modern architecture, it also makes me wonder if there is anything sacred for this man. In the end, everyone must define what is sacred and what is taboo to feel that they belong to something.
In the case of van Winden, that touchstone seems to be postmodernism. When ask him if he considers himself as a postmodern architect, he shows little doubt: “Yes, absolutely. What else could I be?” Then, when questioned if postmodernity can also be a style, he also reacts quickly: “No, it is not a style. I describe it [...] as an attitude, not as a style. It is a way of looking at things in a way of judging things and a way of coping with things.” For someone who “sees in styles,” denying the possibility of becoming a “subject of style” seems like a contradiction. Still, I empathise with him. Anyone who passionately follows an idea inevitably loses critical distance in the process, and then is left to deal with the contradictions that come with that compromise.
But even then, when we have defined what we stand for and compromises have been made, there is a moment in which another kind of humour is possible. I first encountered this idea some months ago, when I asked about humour in architecture to Herman Hertzberger. He considered it to be a problematic theme, as in his view it jeopardised the durability of architecture over time by bounding it to a specific time and space. However, he admitted another kind of humour that, as he said, had to do “with putting things in perspective. Having a standpoint which is more lucid, more over things. […] I would say ‘never be too serious in what you do.’ So, in that sense, maybe, humour comes in.”
Van Winden agrees: “Take it seriously, but not too seriously.”