An interview with architect Rijk Rietveld

Rijk Rietveld, along with his wife and partner Margaret, heads Rietveld Architects LLP. Extablished in New York City in 1994, the firm is widely konwn throught the US and Europe for large-scale, creative commercial and residential architects. You can find more information regarding Rietveld Architects at there website, www.rietveldarchtiects.com.

The following interview is but a brief insight into the exciting world of Rijk Rietveld, enjoy!

What are the European influences in your work?
When I put two House and Garden magazines next to each other, the one from the Netherlands is completely different from the US version. There is a deep rooted difference between the two cultures. However, over the last 25 years, they have come closer together, in the same way that Windows became closer to Apple. My life is between two cultures, which keeps me continuously on my toes.
 
Why did you emigrate to the United States and continue to live and practice here?
My wife Margaret is American, but we met in Amsterdam. Via a detour to Berlin and Paris, we made it to New York. We were going to stay in New York for only a few years, and wanted to move on to Tokyo or Hong Kong, but that never happened. That is 25 years ago and now I cannot imagine ever leaving New York. In the beginning it was quite a challenge to work remotely, but technology has finally really caught up the needs…
 
How is the dynamic working with a spouse?
We work on all the designs together, but she has the day-to-day running of her own projects, and I have mine. Because Margaret has a more academic approach, and I have a more pragmatic approach, we have major collisions during the design sessions. However, the morning after, we almost invariably reverse our positions, revisit the issues, and a concept is born.
 
What was the influence of your founding, formative years on your current design process and work?
To have worked for Herman Hertzberger as well as Richard Meier, exposed me to the two ends of the architectural spectrum. In the beginning it was hard to get out from under Hertzbergers relentlessly intellectual approach to architecture, but later it got balanced by Meiers relentless pursuit of design. Mix into this Margaret’s and my experience with the sophisticated design or I.M. Pei, we had a choice of where to position ourselves on the architectural range.
 
Do you have a continued relationship with those firms today?
Very much so. We are still involved with Richard Meier on the City Hall and Library in the Hague, the Netherlands. Any major change is still presented to Richard, and we are the conduit between the City of the Hague and Richard. A couple weeks ago, Margaret and I just had lunch with Herman Hertzberger and his wife Hansje for his 80th birthday in Amsterdam. We were very honored that he took more than two hours to update us on his plans and visions for the future. We had some contact with I.M. Pei, to get him involved in a remote life video conference for Rotterdam, but that did not work out…….
 
How has your work continued in the same vein as those formative years and how does it now differ?
We work with a few young but brilliant people, like Piet Meijs and Martin Eisler, who continuously propose innovations and improvements to our practice. As long as we approve of investing in this, we are able to stay in the forefront of the architectural practices. We never use innovations to save money, but always use it to improve on our project. Being CO2 neutral for 5 years, using our own sophisticated 3D model printing machine for four years and being paperless for more than two years keeps us relevant.
 
How do you see architecture having changed in the past five years or so? What is your “New Normal” like?

We worked long and hard on the structure we have. About 7 years ago, way before the economic crisis, Margaret and I spent 6 months redefining our office. The outcome of this ongoing discussion was to have no additional partners, and bring the office back down to 15 people. The upward pressure was enormous, but obviously now we are glad we resisted that successfully. We are still 15 people, but the makeup has changed, and is still adjusting as we speak. We used to do only a handful of projects. Simply put, we would have two projects under construction, two projects in the approval process and two projects in the incubation period. This changed dramatically last year when in two months all our stability fell away, with two of our largest clients become insolvent for completely different reasons. Overnight we had to shake many trees, and scour our network for possible projects. I explain the difference that we went from a comfortable 6 project office to a 60 “project” hectic office. All of a sudden it not any more “do what you like, and the money will follow”. I jokingly say to our most trusted clients “that nowadays I have to work for my money”.
 
Was there a decisive moment in your life or career or had some major influence that led you into the design profession and where you are today?

My first job. In 1973 I took an internship for school in an architecture office. Some nondescript office in the Netherlands. That was awful. They did not even do such bad work, but there was no spirit, no innovation, no information, no team, no learning. I still don’t know how I survived that. But I came away with the resolve that I would never live in such an environment.

How did you form the initial relationship with your mentor? What is the story of how you met and began working with them?

I knew that my second six month internship for school had to count, so I applied for an internship at Hertzberger. The office was open, and while I was waiting, I could hear somebody else being interviewed right before me, and he was a whole school ahead of me, and I lost all faith that I would qualify. Even worse, when it was my turn, Hertzberger did not ask any questions, just looked at my drawings. He left the questioning to Wim Oxenaar. To my big surprise I did get the job, and I went “all in”, and the six months grew to 12 years and six months.
 
How do you make the decision to stop working with your mentor?

That was a real mentor move. Hertzberger was asked to design a small canal house in the town where I was born, and he turned around and gave the commission to me. It was time…….
 

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