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MVRDV: On statics and statistics

Rick Poynor reviews the Berlin magazine Mono.Kultur 18, which features the work of Dutch practice MVRDV

MVRDV: On Statics and Statistics might look odd at first sight. Pages from two different pamphlets appear to have been shuffled together by accident, so that full-colour pages alternate with pages printed only in blue. Pictures overlap, bleed off the edges only to resume on the next page, and sometimes change from colour to plain blue. There are no captions to help you grab hold of this communication on one of the Netherlands’ most acclaimed architectural teams.

This is issue 18 of Mono.Kultur, a Berlin-published high-concept interview magazine that offers one Q&A per issue. Previous interviewees include photographer Taryn Simon, cult performance artist and writer Miranda July, and celebrity architect David Adjaye.

Once you start reading, the MVRDV issue - consisting of two conversations, one with Winy Maas, the other with Jacob van Rijs and Nathalie de Vries - becomes much clearer in conception. As interviewer Carson Chan notes in his introduction, each Q&A gives a very different sense of what MVRDV is about. The two layout styles express this ‘split identity’ while still locking together.

The most telling evidence of divergence centres on MVRDV’s much-discussed reliance on data, rather than on the intuitions and whims of the artistic imagination, to generate the form of their buildings. In a series of thick theoretical volumes, they have developed their ideas about density - a natural concern in a space-starved country - and this led to such mind-boggling proposals as a self-sustaining, 59km³ city housing one million people (City_Cube, 2005), and Pig City (2001), a series of high-rise towers to corral the Netherlands’ burgeoning population of pigs.

Maas, on this showing the more abstract thinker, contends reasonably that curiosity about what might be possible has to be based on information and research. His engagement with statistical data was a response to the non-architectural themes - chaos theory and deconstruction - that obsessed architecture in the 1980s. A shared understanding of data also provides a common language to talk to people outside the profession.

Van Rijs and de Vries, by contrast, insist the idea that they just plug the numbers into the computer and out pops a building is a media myth. Van Rijs’ claim that they start rationally and then develop their projects into ‘poetry’ feels closer to the truth.

We might not want to use the term stylistic signature, but MVRDV’s buildings do have some recognisable elements - cantilevers (the WoZoCo apartments, Amsterdam, 1997), stacking layers (the Dutch Pavilion, Hanover, 2000) and cut-away facades (the Mirador housing block in Madrid, 2004) - and it has shown a tendency to reuse them in recent projects.

Apart from pointing this out, the closest Chan comes to criticism is when he notes in passing that the firm’s founders are ‘too accepting of the mainstream techno-messianic rhetoric to be critics, and too pragmatic and instrumental in their designs to be proper visionaries.’ That’s certainly a fair assessment of how they come across here.

For readers unfamiliar with MVRDV’s body of work, this issue of Mono.Kultur is probably not the best place to start. It’s an intriguingly designed and collectable object, but the pictures could be used better. Van Rijs and de Vries’s interview, though good-natured - overexposure in the press, says de Vries, was like ‘the Spice Girls effect’ - is a little thin. Despite the firm’s international successes and accelerating workload, they don’t sound especially driven.

Maas is a different bundle of wires. Chan, already alert to the ‘post-apocalyptic’ drift of their speculations, asks him whether there is anything that can’t be mathematically modelled. ‘That’s the best question all morning,’ enthuses Maas. In the near future, he declares, it will be possible to model absolutely everything. Reserve your place in the data-cube now.

Rick Poynor is a design critic and the founder of Eye magazine

Resume: This collector’s item gives an insight into the Dutch dealers in data and density

(Mono.Kultur 18: MVRDV: On Statics and Statistics. Autumn issue, 2008, £3. www.mono-kultur.com)

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