Design Manifestos: Winka Dubbeldam of Archi-Tectonics

Winka Dubbeldam of Archi-Tectonics (Photograph courtesy of Archi-Tectonics)

Winka Dubbeldam founded Archi-Tectonics in 1994 and aptly chose the name “Archi-Tectonics”, believing in strength behind teamwork. It consists of a diverse team of engineers, consultants and contractors that understand the concepts, and have participated in creating buildings that facilitate construction that is personal, high quality, and affordable. Arch-Tectonics is a WBE registered design firm with offices in New York City and the Netherlands. The firm believes in creating original, innovative and sustainable designs that are expressed in optimized, energy-efficient, and sustainable solutions. They don’t focus on a recognizable “style” but instead seek to develop each project as its own specific identity. The team does so through comprehensive project based research which results in a customized experience for our clients, as well as an optimal spatial formation for every design. Recently, Modelo had the opportunity to meet with Winka and learn more about her unique approach and philosophy on design.

On becoming an architect
I grew up in Holland. I started thinking about architecture young, as my family moved every 2 -3 years. I initially started studying sculpture, but after a few years I realized that I loved sculpture, but I did not like being a sculptor. I switched to architecture, which in hindsight I always wanted to do. I did realize though, that studying art was hugely beneficial for me, because the art education really teaches you to be an independent thinker, to generate a clear argument. Also, artists tend to be quite brutal teachers, so from the 50 students we started with there were about 15 left. That created a strong survival instinct and an urgency. After completing my architecture study in Holland, I realized that I felt intellectually bored and unchallenged. Initially, I applied for a post-graduate study at the AA in London, which for several reasons didn’t happen. Then I heard that Bernard Tschumi had become Dean at Columbia and decided to apply for Columbia and SCI-Arc, I got accepted into both, and finally decided to go to Columbia. Columbia, at that point, had much more of a theoretical approach. They were looking into Eisenman’s ideas on soft form, Jeff Kipnis was there, and young teachers like Stan Allen and Hani Rashid — , so for me that was intriguing . At that time I was mostly interested in theories of philosophers like Gilles Deleuze, Virilo, and other French philosophers. For my final review I had written a theoretical statement on “the smooth and striated” by Deleuze. Peter Eisenman who was in my review, was interested in reading my thesis, I went to his office and the week after I worked for him. That’s a short version of how I got here in the US. The Dutch architecture studies were great, but it’s very design-oriented and very pragmatic. What it misses is the academic content. I learned more in one year at Columbia than the rest of my studies, but I realized that you have to gain that experience before you can actually enjoy and complete that one Post-graduate year.

A bottom-up urban plan and crowd-funded concept for Downtown Bogota” (Rendering courtesy of Archi-Tectonics)

On discovering her voice as a designer
I was lucky that I met great people early on. When I was studying in Holland I worked at an office, BOA [Beware of Architects] in Rotterdam, where we collaborated a lot with Rem Koolhaas, so I met Rem from very early on. Leaving Holland and completing that one-year in Columbia was extremely important for me. One thing that struck me upon arriving is that Holland was much more computer-oriented than the US. I arrived in the US in 1990 and I already had graduated with computer animation and 3D computer drawings, and here it was barely starting. Before Columbia I worked for Stephen Holl and Bernard Tschumi, but it was only when I got to Eisenman’s office, which was in ’92, that he sent the designers in the office to Ohio to work with the inventors of Form Z. It was influential to be able to engage with great minds like that right at the beginning. I call it my scan of architecture. I just gave a keynote lecture at the 50-year celebration of my architecture school in Rotterdam, it was great to move to NYC and to be able to reflect on where it all started.

On the process of starting her own firm
When I was working for Eisenman, I got a grant from the Dutch Art and Architecture Foundation. The work in the office started to slow down, as architecture is connected to global events such as the Berlin Wall coming down, which caused West Germany’s economy decline because they had to take care of the East, and so Peter’s work in Germany got postponed and / or cancelled. I thought it was a good moment to ask Peter for an unpaid leave of absence, as I wanted to do a competition and an exhibition in the East village. Then things rapidly changed. At the opening of the exhibit I met a client who asked me to design a gallery on West Broadway. In addition I was asked to teach at Columbia with Ben van Berkel. In January I had a gallery project and a Columbia teaching job. It was kind of surreal. I realized I should probably name my office, so I looked in the Webster’s and found that Archi-Tectonics means the science of architecture. I was always very aware that architectural projects are all about teamwork; hence I didn’t want my name on the office. In 1994 our office was founded as Archi-Tectonics. In my first year at Archi-Tectonics I was offered a solo exhibit by Andrew Liang, who worked for me at Eiserman’s office; he started a gallery in LA called Form Zero. After an initial exhibit with Morphosis and Neil Denari he invited me. I made a digitally printed continuous translucent strip, 30 feet long, which basically showed architectural projects and how they get influenced by architectural theory and urban data, as a continuous process. The printer then digitally shrank the exhibit strip and proposed to fold it up in a CD box as a catalog, which I sent off to a Dutch publisher, 010, Rotterdam. That became the first monograph CON-TEX-TURE.

A bottom-up urban plan and crowd-funded concept for Downtown Bogota” (Rendering courtesy of Archi-Tectonics)

On how her approach to design has evolved
I always found it interesting to produce books and I was lucky enough that my second book was with Princeton Press: AT INDEX [Archi-Tectonics Index] in 2006. I worked with a great editor. He found it apparent that our projects had moved through different fields of research. The first research field “interface” was very much related to how architecture is influenced by the city or how urban data reflects back on architecture. The second research area was on “surface”, as we were interested in smart skins. Skins that integrate all kinds of functionalities, express a specific spatial formation, they become more than a single surface. The interest in industrial design resulted in the integration of storage, speakers and heating & cooling systems in the surface, which then transformed its appearance. It’s almost an organic system. Finally the third research was called “armature”, which transformed the surface studies into 3D formatons. Reed Kroloff, who wrote the introduction for the AT INDEX Dutch, explained: “I love generalizations, so here it goes; Dutch architects are data mad.” It made me smile, but there was more, the work was a performative analysis, not to create data fields, but really to create inflected surfaces and forms that were organic in nature and smart in actuality. I was reading Edmund Husserl at that time, who discussed “meaning form” already in 1937, and formations going through gradual perfection. It’s interesting to see what’s going on now with OOO [Object Oriented Ontology].

“New Rochelle: Waterfront Gateway Design Competition” (Rendering courtesy of Archi-Tectonics and !Melk Urban Design LLC)

Around that time we were invited to create an installation in the Frederieke Taylor Gallery in Chelsea. We proposed a holographic study of the tension between object and environment, in collaboration with the MIT Media Lab. It was a holographic object that floated in space and as visitors would walk over an interactive floor (made by the MIT media lab), there were fields of deformation created, that transformed the object into different environments — fluid, fragmented, etc.

An important exhibit for urban research was the exhibit “A New World Trade Center: Design Proposals” by the Max Protetch Gallery [2002]. We decided to not present a design, but an interactive computer game, looking at which parameters and decisions create cities and buildings. In the digital interface one could choose four perimeters, which had four variables, and hit a button: GENERATE. It would generate the city model you had composed; a very low ambition choice would create an urban agricultural model — we even had chicken sounds. It was more generative then formal; you would see the city grow for a few seconds and then it would go back to nothing, there was no final outcome. You had to keep generating. The exhibit was later displayed at the American Pavilion in the Venice Biennale and finally the Library of Congress in Washington bought it from Max. The most recent book we published was with a German publisher DAAB [2010] and was about our built work: how do concepts create form and objects, and how is it realized.

“New Rochelle: Waterfront Gateway Design Competition” (Rendering courtesy of Archi-Tectonics and !Melk Urban Design LLC)

On her role at Penn
I was always teaching in several universities, I was between Harvard, Columbia, and Penn, the differences were interesting to me. At some point, I was at Harvard, and Penn offered a practice professor position and the possibility to start a post-professional program — a second master’s, as its Director. I started in 2003 and initially first formed an international network; multiple connections to create a very global program. It grew fast. We started publishing books every year. At some point developers and cities started inviting us to collaborate on research and design, we studied the future of housing for the city of Tel Aviv, we looked at an urban development, Santurce, in Puerto Rico, we worked on a bottom-up proposal for downtown Bogota. In 2013, after 10 years, I became the Chair at PennDesign. In academics, they don’t really give you a job description, and I realized quickly it’s like an architecture project. You need structure, you need a concept, and it needs to have a very clear direction and focus. If you think about the future of architecture it is clear that education needs to be ahead of the practice. I started the first semester with five different things: 1) turn Penn inside-out [it was like an oyster — Penn wasn’t really appreciated, it was amazing inside but the outside is a bit rough], 2) I started publishing a book every year, made a big lecture series, 3) made sure we started a huge conference for each Fall, the 1st one was the “New Normal” 4) I updated the curriculum. 5) I bought 3D printers, Makerbots, for studio. The students loved that. Those five things changed the school rapidly. I had the summer to work these out further, so by the time September came, we were organized. The school immediately grew quite a lot. It was a scramble with the spaces, professors, and seminars, but super exiting as well.

“Yulin Culture Art Financial Center Competition” (Rendering courtesy of Archi-Tectonics)

On her aspirations for the firm in the next 5–10 years
I’ve actually just made a five year plan because initially you grow organically and then later you have to start making more clear decisions. We just realized that we’re known mostly for our residential buildings, although we have completed quite a few commercial buildings, such as galleries, retail spaces, hotels and mixed-use buildings. We partnered up with an office in China and we designed large urban studies, including large public buildings. We won two of those — one in the North of the province of Shaanxi, Yulin, and one in Xian. That doesn’t mean you build these immediately because it’s a chunk of a city, but it means the client start their fundraising and you are a consultant at first. It gave us a chance to design a whole new set of typologies, such as libraries, theaters, concert halls, and museums. That was the beginning of that transition. Now we focus on the U.S. We just finished a large competition for New Rochelle, a waterfront competition that we did together with !Melk Landscape architects. Those kinds of projects are of great interest to us, how to revitalize cities like New Rochelle, they have incredible pasts, but somehow, somewhere it all stagnated.

Another recent project is in Bogota. We did a bottom-up study for downtown Bogota to figure out how to revitalize the downtown. There are two ways to work from the bottom up: one is to talk to people, collecting their opinions, we did this through a website called my ideal city, where we posted 3,000 questions together with PSFK. PSFK is a large research office from London. The second way is from a more academic bottom up approach, by looking at what’s intrinsically already there. Here we analyzed 5 specific areas and found that if we inserted an “activator”, that could become a generator for spin-off effects and eventually; growth. This is essentially different from a topdown Master plan; it is based on organic growth. These 5 acupunctural projects would become generators for a social, cultural, and economic growth. Our client, a private developer and not the government, thinks the way that strategists think.

“Vestry (V33)” (Photography by Floto and Warner courtesy of Archi-Tectonics)

We have mostly worked with smaller developers, who are architecture lovers. We have built mostly in Manhattan, our last building V33; is a stacking of seven “urban villa’s” with large cantilevering terraces and a parking in the cellar with a car elevator. We’re a quite unusual office in the U.S. as we literally design from the scale of furniture to very large urban studies, and everything in between. I’m not sure whether it’s because I’m Dutch or because the idea of sculpture is still hovering, we specialize in optimization and highly specific designs for our clients. How to analyze something so you get rid of habits, traditions that no longer work, using new technologies, make it more sustainable, and starting to integrate the most advanced technologies. If we want to advance as architects you have to assume that is where you start. That’s also what I do with my students. I try and teach them to think in a way that they can operate in large teams, work as an independent architect, but mostly be critical thinkers and be able to devise strategies. And in the meantime have fun designing things.