Top architect Winy Maas argues for urban porosity

Top architect Winy Maas argues for urban porosity

“We need to move towards an open society”

The designs by leading Dutch architect and urbanist Winy Maas are sensational. The iconic buildings designed by his architectural firm MVRDV can be found around the globe; from Rotterdam to Seoul, and from the United States to Japan. For Maas, there’s much more at stake than a pretty design and some masonry. His objective is for his creations to improve society, and preferably worldwide. His work as architect involves devising smart solutions for major social problems, such as how our planet will be able to accommodate 10 billion people comfortably in the near future.

Winy Maas is often compared to Rem Koolhaas, a particularly versatile architect who conquered the whole world with his sensational, innovative architecture. “It’s an honour to be compared with Koolhaas,” says Maas, who graduated under him. “He’s a brilliant thinker who has always been far ahead of his time, and who has built a bridge between architecture and thinking globally.” It seems as if Maas wants to do some kind of follow-up, but from a different perspective; greener, softer, more human, even more research-orientated, and perhaps a little bit more ordinary, with the digital world incorporated more deeply in his work.

According to Winy Maas, nearly everything is possible. “A lot is doable,” he says.

Urban greening
Maas is an international representative of the innovation that design is undergoing. He’s also constantly seeking out the boundaries of his profession, and he is a master in making unexpected links across disciplines. Maas is anticipating compact cities with extensive greenery. Asleep in your 20th floor flat in the middle of a tiny forest? He thinks it’s a great idea. The trees and plants absorb nutrients from cultivated aerial roots, which means forests can be created at great heights. The Why Factory, his academic think tank at Delft University of Technology that is researching the future of cities, is cooperating with Wageningen University on research into this revolutionary way of making the urban space greener. Utopia? According to Winy Maas, nearly everything is possible. “Many things are engineerable,” he says.

International recognition
His architectural designs are living proof of this assertion. The Rotterdam Market Hall (NL), the Twin Towers in Taipei (Taiwan), the Binhai Library in Tianjin (China) and a three-dimensional city in Shenzhen (China) have each earned him international recognition in their own right, as have the landscape, urban development and infrastructure plans that he is equally keen to take on board. For example, Maas developed the master plans for the future of Greater Paris, the left bank in Bordeaux, a sky garden on a motorway cutting through the heart of Seoul, and the waterfront in Oslo. He has also held educational positions at various institutions in the past, such as the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Yale University, Columbia University in New York, the Strelka Institute in Moscow, Hong Kong University, and the Rotterdam Building Academy.

He is currently professor of urban design and architecture at Delft University of Technology, director of The Why Factory at the same university, urban research curator of Manifesta 2020 Marseille, member of the Qianhai urban committee in Shenzhen, supervisor of the new eco-neighborhood of Bastide Niel Bordeaux, and guest editor of the Italian magazine Domus for 2019. And as if that wasn’t enough, he has also published a whole series of books, linked by the slogan ‘The Future City’.

Our current cities are full of introverted boxes; towers completely divorced from city life and the ecological context

In his latest book PoroCity, Winy Maas argues for an open and porous city, for the inclusion of the public domain into the private sphere of our urban spaces. According to Winy Maas and co-authors Adrien Ravon and Javier Arpa, too many buildings have turned their backs on urban life; the question now is, how can they be opened up again? American sociologist Richard Sennett, who contributed to the book as a guest writer, put the question as follows, ‘How do you design a city that helps people to get along with each other in a positive way?’ “We need to move towards a society that is open in terms of politics, society, the environment and the economy.” Buildings can support such a society spatially,” according to Maas. “Our current cities are full of introverted boxes; towers completely divorced from urban life and the ecological context. An open, extrovert city provides connectivity and space to meet, and has places whose destiny has not yet been defined. These ‘porous’ cities are characterised as both meeting places, and environments that offer cooling, shade, ventilation, water and greenery.”

Caves in towers
In The Why Factory’s study into ‘urban porosity’, Maas and his students looked for ways to unlock cities, and studied how far architects can go when designing buildings. Barbapapa houses? Caves in towers? Floors made of stairs? Balconies in unexpected places? Pocket parks in perforated buildings? In theory, anything is possible. “We have to consider how we’re going to live together when there are ten billion of us in the near future,” says Maas. “Most will live in cities with a high population density, so we’re going to have to find a new urbanism. In our Planet Maker project, we are extrapolating this urban compaction on a larger scale. We’re using software to help us visualise the future of our planet in terms of ‘what if’ scenarios. Mass migration means that the Netherlands will have 54 million inhabitants, for example.” What will our country look like if that happens? “Like a beautiful Manhattan on the North Sea,” according to Maas. “In this scenario, the Netherlands is the Stockholm of North-West Europe, where you can sail through all the cities, and the IJsselmeer will be a kind of mini Dubai. Visualising these types of scenarios provokes a lot of reactions. Sometimes it brings about antimovements, but it also generates understanding, adaptation and inspiration, and in any case awareness.”

“Design is a means of making an argument, and a way of imagining and creating the future”

Fascinating period
According to Maas, that’s exactly what design must incentivise. “It’s a means of making an argument, and a way of imagining and creating the future. That opens up a wealth of possibilities. Just a decade ago, we were sure that sky cars were unthinkable. The world is becoming one, and as a result the multiplier effect is increasing enormously. In that respect, we’re living in a very interesting age. The middle class has never been so big, there is more expertise and verbality, and the economy is doing well. At the same time, there’s increasing polarisation between rich and poor, and climate change and the energy transition are posing us immense challenges. It might sound strange, but all this excites me, because we have to make the future right now.”

You’ll meet Winy Maas @CWF2019 on Monday 21 October in Eindhoven.

Photography by Barbra Verbij.

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