Hiroki Matsuura is a partner and chief designer at Maxwan (since 2004) and founder of MASA architects (2015). Born and educated in Japan, lives and works in Rotterdam. Visiting Professor at MARSH School (2016). At the beginning of February 2016, he took part as a teacher in the international workshop "Future Education Space" in Makhachkala.
You are the chief designer and partner of Maxwan Architect bureaus + Urbanists, which has already established itself in the global market. At what point and why did you create MASA architects? What is the fundamental difference between these bureaus? What is their target setting? Tell us about the specifics of their work
- Maxwan Architectural Bureau was founded in 1993 by Rints Dijkstra and Rihanna McKink. It initially specialized in urban design. His first major project was the master plan of one of the largest residential areas in the Netherlands with an area of about 2,500 hectares (1994). Rihanne left Maxwan in 2001, and Rints led it alone until I became his partner in 2004. I started working at Maxwan in 1997 as the youngest possible position, which, however, is not surprising, since then I was only 23 years old. At this time, Maxwan had already established itself well both in the professional environment and among the clients. Along with the main specialization, we started to deal with urban planning. Oddly enough, all employees of the company, including me, were architects, but the specifics of the orders forced us to actively work in the urban planning field.
And then, as you know, a series of events took place that negatively affected the market situation: the architectural boom of the 1990s was followed by the financial crisis of 2008, and as a result - a shortage of orders. There were a great many architectural bureaus at that time, but only a few managed to stay afloat. At some point, Maxwan was no longer perceived as an architectural bureau; in the eyes of the majority, we were just city planners. Despite the fact that in the early 2000s we were able to successfully implement a number of architectural projects, our prospects in the field of architecture looked rather dim. So a number of reasons arose that ultimately led to the emergence of MASA.
Most of the architectural projects at Maxwan were handled by my colleague Rene Sangers and myself, and ironically, he came to the office just two weeks after me. It was Rene who became my partner at MASA. The name of our bureau is made up of the first two letters of our names. MASA is a symbiosis of two types of mentality: Japanese and Dutch. The emergence of the second bureau along with the existing one had a positive effect on the formation of the identity of each of them, since the creation of a multifunctional company was not initially included in our plans. Legally, these are two different bureaus, but there is no particular difference in their structure, corporate principles, working methods and policies; moreover, we "live" in one place and often work on joint projects. Synergy is our permanent state, MASA and Maxwan are equal participants in the creative process.
The breadth of your professional activities is amazing: you are an architect, urban planner, designer, businessman, judged competitions, taught - who are you? What, in your opinion, is the role of a modern architect?
- To be honest, I never thought about it, but I can say that I was born to create: I like to set myself tasks and solve them. Our joy in our profession stems from the understanding that our work can have a wide variety of consequences. However, one must be aware that this influence can be both positive and negative. Unfortunately, manifestations of unprofessionalism and their negative consequences are quite common not only in the field of industrial and graphic design, but also in architecture and urban planning. In this case, it is not always worth relying only on your own opinion, there are a number of criteria: any object passes the test of time, if it is good, it is copied, if it is bad, it is forgotten. The main judge is the consumer of the final product, he is the one who evaluates our work. As for me, I would like to create timelessly. In the very heart of Rotterdam, in the harbor, there are many unnamed buildings: looking at them, you get the full feeling that they have always been here. I don't care if they remember me or not, but I would really like my objects to create such an impression. While shaping the new, it is important to preserve the elusive content that the spirit of the place and the materials chosen during the design give.
As for the question of multidisciplinarity, in my particular case everything happened completely by accident, I did not plan anything, but simply did what I thought was necessary. My experience as an urbanist and urban designer has proven to be very useful in my architectural practice, but to be honest, I am sure that a city and a building are inseparable. That is why I would not speak in this context about multidisciplinarity, and I also do not consider it correct to consider this trend in relation to modern architects. I'll start from afar: I am very envious of a generation of architects who have been fortunate enough to play an extremely important and well-defined role in society. Many practical problems have been solved in their age: the problem of overpopulation of cities, the elimination of the consequences of the Second World War. They made inhuman efforts to solve key social problems, using the most advanced technologies of their time, developing and implementing a new typology. At the same time, they did not forget to think about the future, they tried to contribute to it.
Currently, 90% of all orders are pure commerce: you have to make a quality project that meets all the needs of the client. At the same time, in my practice there was such a case when a very large developer approached us with a request to build a huge shopping center in a residential area. We had to explain to him for a long time and painfully that from a professional point of view, such a construction is not only unreasonable, but also simply harmful. On the one hand, we are forced to do what the customer asks us to do, because we are performers, a hired labor force, and have no right to refuse work for subjective reasons, on the other hand, we should be guided by common sense and not succumb to provocations. In the event of this kind of dilemma, it is quite difficult for an architect to resist the established system and, therefore, the likelihood of creating something outstanding is minimized. But, nevertheless, miracles do happen, and I do not lose hope that architects will still be able to play an important role in the development of society.
I was surprised to find a wide variety of formal approaches in your projects. What is the philosophy of your architecture?
- One of the distinguishing features of our work is that we use almost the same approach in the implementation of architectural, urban planning, landscape and design projects. Of course, their scale and the techniques we use are different, but the method is similar in many ways. The choice of the "language" of the object is a direct consequence of the proposed conditions: context, its typological features, etc. The fundamental difference between a private house project and an urban planning project is only that, when creating a living environment for 300,000 people, you are dealing with many factors unknown to you, because you will never know,who will become the end user of your product. Therefore, you should focus on creating a quality, safe environment that meets the needs of different social groups, be it moms with children, elderly couples or dog lovers. Well-designed common areas are pleasant and useful for everyone, and there is nothing wrong with the fact that they will be typical, in a good sense "none". But the principles and approaches used in the design of the urban environment are inapplicable to iconic, unique objects of architecture, since copying such buildings devalues them.
The abundance of formal techniques can be assessed from both positive and negative points of view. I agree that sometimes this factor plays against us, because from a marketing point of view, clients turn to an architectural bureau, which has a certain identity that is identical to the ideas and views of the customer. To put it bluntly, if you apply to SANAA, you have certain expectations, because there is a common style in each of their work. I agree that this is one of the possible strategies for success, however, we take a different approach. Each case is private for us; on the one hand, we follow new trends, but at the same time, we have established techniques and methods. Another thing is that, probably, they cannot always be counted. We are always different, and we will never get tired of what we do.
As I understand it, participation in competitions brought you to the Russian market: Zaryadye Park, MFC, Moskva River, Skolkovo, ZIL. What is your personal interest in Russia? Is he there? Are there any kind of peculiarities, specificity of work in our country? Could you say a few words about your experience with local offices?
- There were many reasons for this decision, including those that I mentioned above. We should not forget about the construction boom in Russia. I must say that it was a time of change and for Maxwan, we finally realized that we needed to enter the international market. At the end of 2000, we had such a chance: one investment and construction company from Moscow invited us to take part in the competition for the development of the A101 Quarter. We can say that this event became a turning point for us, since from that moment we began to receive invitations from Russian developers to participate in competitions and tenders. Entering the Russian market, we were extremely naive, believing that they would welcome us here with open arms. It seemed to us that in such a dynamic metropolis as Moscow, we could easily find our niche and bring our ideas to life. We were confident that if the project we have completed is of high quality, successful, and commercially profitable, then clients will appreciate it and want to continue to use our developments and ideas. But everything turned out to be not so simple. The difficulty of working in Russia is that much depends not on the wishes of citizens, but on individual officials; I see it as a kind of systemic error or a relic of the old-regime bureaucracy. Private companies began to appear in Russia only after perestroika, therefore a new system of relations is in the process of formation. I met many world-class specialists in Moscow, but, nevertheless, the growth potential here is still very great, and for me as a professional it is of great interest. And of course, do not forget that I am Japanese, living in Holland for more than 20 years, which in itself is exotic, but the opportunity to work in Russia, where everything is different, also seems unique to me.
To implement our plans, it was necessary to do something special that would bring us to a higher professional level and I decided to take part in the competition for
development of the concept of the Zaryadye park. Theoretically, we could cope with the tasks before us on our own, but, on the other hand, we understood that for victory we need strong allies. That is why I contacted Latz + Partner landscape architects and TPO Reserve, proposed a joint action plan, and both firms agreed. Unfortunately, we didn’t manage to win, but I must say that cooperation with TPO “Reserve” was just wonderful. I am very grateful to Anton Yegerev, one of the leading architects of "Reserv" - it was he who acted as a "liaison" and at the same time was the project manager. It seems to me that without him our cooperation would be impossible. We met with Anton in 2008 in Holland and even then dreamed of doing something together. He is like a brother to me, we have similar views and tastes, I would even say that he is a little Dutch. In addition, in the process of competitive work, I developed an excellent relationship with Vladimir Plotkin, perhaps there is something personal in this: his calmness and confidence are very close to me. We never spoke in a raised voice, our cooperation was built on the principles of mutual respect. I would gladly repeat this experience of cooperation in the future, because I would always like to work only with those whom I can really trust.
The next important stage of our activity in Russia was participation in architectural competitions for projects
International financial center and the development of the Moscow River. These three projects made us "our own", we received recognition, which opened up new opportunities for us. Now we are working on landscape design for the Skolkovo Innograd: this is our first large-scale project in Russia and a landmark victory, a kind of reward for seven years of failure. I am convinced that we would not have had this chance if we had not participated in all the earlier competitions, which became a "springboard" for us. We were twice the second and were very disappointed, but here, like at the Olympic Games, you can be upset that you lost, or you can be happy: after all, you were one step away from victory, which in itself is a lot.
I know that you taught at the Berlage Institute, lectured at the Delft University of Technology and the Academy of Architecture in Rotterdam. What place does educational activity take in your practice?
- To be honest, I never thought about a teaching career. Perhaps the whole point is that I had very little time, since for several years now Rints Dijkstra, partner and founder of Maxwan, has been holding the position of state adviser for urban planning and infrastructure of the Netherlands (in Holland, the duties of the chief architect are divided between three specialists in charge of, respectively, for architecture, landscape design, urban planning and infrastructure). In addition, he teaches at the Delft University of Technology. As you can imagine, it is quite difficult to combine educational activities with architectural practice, and Rints's example was always in front of my eyes. Nevertheless, I would like to try myself as a teacher in the future, especially since I already have experience as a visiting professor. I think I have something to say to the students, since I have many years of practice behind me.
I am a pragmatist, materialist, and I have often come across the fact that architects tend to talk about things that are of great importance to them, but have nothing to do with real life, forgetting that when working on urban planning projects, you cannot rely only on your own vision of life. As I already said, the design of the urban environment, in contrast to architecture, is conditioned only by objective reasons. In my opinion, learning to formulate your subjective vision is much more difficult than being guided by dry calculation and common sense. Architectural ideas are sometimes difficult to describe consistently, each case is unique, which is why it is probably much easier to teach urban planning methodology than architecture.
How did your cooperation with MARCH School develop? What factors influenced the fact that you agreed to take part as an invited critic at the inter-semester defense of the diploma studio, and subsequently acted as one of the teachers of the workshop "Future Education Space" in Makhachkala?
- In fact, everything is trite: two of my old friends - Anton Yegerev and Nadezhda Nilina - worked at MARCH, but at that time I never had a chance to visit here.
I met with the rector of MARSH Yevgeny Ass at the Delft Technical University: he and Vladimir Plotkin gave lectures there. But Nadezhda introduced me to the director of the MARSH School Nikita Tokarev during my next visit to Moscow (at that moment we collaborated with her in the framework of the competition for the concept of the Moscow River development). In general, the theory of six handshakes in action (laughs). Later I was invited to the MARCH to give a lecture, and after it I was offered to become a visiting professor there, and I simply could not refuse. But there were many reasons for participating in the Makhachkala workshop: the first was curiosity, interest in Russia, the second was the workshop participants themselves, since I personally conducted the selection, studied their portfolios - I must say, I managed to form an excellent international team - and the third reason was the fact that by this time I had already agreed to the position of a visiting professor at MARSH and I wanted to do something for this university.
Considering your teaching experience, how do you assess the work of MARSH and its students, can we talk about the international level of education at this university? Do you perceive MARSH as a Russian school or an international one?
- For ten years now Maxwan Architects + Urbanists have been rightfully called an international architectural bureau, because about 70% of our employees, including myself, are foreigners. I am familiar with many architects with very different backgrounds, and perhaps I can evaluate and compare its quality, but one thing I can say for sure: thanks to the Internet and specialized printed publications, architectural education in different universities has become more uniform. This applies not only to students, but also to teachers. Looking at an applicant's portfolio, in most cases it is impossible to determine in which country the author studied. However, the recent inter-semester, interim review of MARSH graduates [defense of graduation projects at MARSH will be held at the end of May 2016 - approx. Archi.ru], where I was a guest “critic,” made me doubt my earlier conclusions. The presentation of the works made a great impression on me, first of all, by the fact that it was strikingly different from what I was used to seeing in the Netherlands. In Holland, a student skillfully presents his project, using all possible techniques in order to make those present believe in its validity and realism, at the same time hesitating to demonstrate his creativity, sacrificing the "audacity", "sexuality" and "poetry" of the idea. The MARSH student is the complete opposite of him. The works I saw were extremely creative, excited the imagination, were supported by emotional performances, but most of the participants in the viewing did not have enough arguments to explain their “creative gesture”. But the essence of the projects, their internal motivation was clear to me on an intuitive level. The discovery I made made me look more optimistically not only at the teaching methodology at MARSH as a whole, but also at my participation in the pedagogical process. Because learning to “be understood” is a matter of time, and you can really teach this, while the “inexplicable” already lives in these guys. I see a huge potential in Russian students due to their high level of artistic thinking, which in itself brings MARCH to the international level.