Mechthild Stuhlmacher on the early work of the practice, on projects such as Parasite Las Palmas, House No 19, other CLT-experiments; thoughts and background information in "The Ecoedge", Esther Charlesworth, Rob Adams (ed), Routledge 2011, p. 158.

Small-scale sustainability

The architect

In a lecture in Rotterdam in April 2004, French architect Anne Lacaton described her daily practice, showing pleasantly unpretentious images of private houses that the practice had built over the years. Most photographs were taken after years of habitation. The houses were made of unassuming materials, such as glasshouse components, corrugated sheeting and cheap timber panels. Still, they appeared remarkably 'local' and comfortable.

According to Lacaton, the twenty-first century is 'the age of the user'. Contemporary architecture, she submits, is subject to demands that go beyond the image, beyond the statement, beyond the narrative concept. For Lacaton, architecture is a service, eco-friendly building is an obligation and spacious living is a right. To achieve these ideals both technically and financially it is necessary to accept the building industry as a partner and to master industrial and other production processes. The work on display was a perfect illustration of her thesis. The houses built by her practice are spectacularly big and spectacularly cheap, thanks to the use of sophisticated building systems developed for utilitarian applications. They have their own aesthetic: sometimes light and poetic, sometimes provocatively blunt, even ugly, and usually both.


The role of the architect here is that of someone who is technically competent, socially engaged and prepared to serve. Someone whose specific expertise enables him or her to evaluate and balance the priorities of all the other factors and parties involved in a building process and to combine them into an aesthetic whole; in short, the architect as master builder. 

The attitude to the discipline of architecture seems to be compellingly independent of style or ideology. In fact, what Anne Lacaton is saying (or, at any rate, what I like to think she is saying) is about the same as many other European colleagues try to express, often with very different and literally much heavier means: let us rediscover architecture as a discipline. Let us concentrate on our particular expertise and use it in an intelligent manner. Let us focus on new possibilities and tasks, but from within the discipline and not from outside. And let's embrace the issue of sustainability as a central concern. That is the only way to continue to play a significant role in the present day and age.
I still fully identify with the way Anne Lacaton defines her profession, or my interpretation of it. For us too 'sustainable thinking' deals with the way we look at architecture in general, the city as a whole, at the issue of time, durability and temporality, and at cultural, social, aesthetic and functional issues. In the work we do in our practice in Rotterdam, mainly relatively small-scale architectural buildings, these different kinds of sustainability are underlying concerns that determine the development of our projects in general.

Palmas Roof View

The 'Parasites' exhibition project (1999-2006)

As a result of a success in a competition involving Swedish housing, we were asked to develop a proposal for an exhibition alongside the larger event. The result of the commission was an exhibition scenario with the name: 'Parasites: prototypes for advanced, ready-made, amphibious, small-scale, individual, temporary, ecological houses.' The subject of our exhibition proposal was the design and realization of small structures for unconventional sites involving some thirty architects and student teams from all over Europe. The 'Parasites' were to be prefabricated by the architects in their own country and according to their own specific manner, and reassembled on the exhibition site, and were meant to occupy temporarily available sites,unused roofs, water surfaces, and hang or cling onto existing buildings. The way we planned them to spread out over the neighbourhood stressed their slightly subversive character.

The concept of the Parasites project was partly inspired by a Glenn Murcutt house for an Indigenous family. The prototype airy, poetically simple building had made a lasting impression on us, showing us the architect's deep appreciation for his clients' close relationship to nature. Murcutt had designed a sturdy yet ephemeral building that would not leave any permanent trace in the landscape. To achieve the material quality he aimed for, he organized the building work close to himself. The complete house was prefabricated in large elements in a workshop in Sydney and assembled in a short time on site by very few people. Starting to develop ideas about the Parasites, we aimed to adapt similar ideas to our own urbanized European environment, adopting the principle of prefabrication to much smaller buildings and budgets, trying to work as responsibly and carefully as Murcutt had shown us.


When we thought about temporary buildings we thought about experiments, about the enjoyable feeling of not being forced to make decisions for the long term, to be able to try out things, look for extremes, escape rigid building rules and take risks. And we thought about our own cities as multi- layered organisms that stay liveable and lively only as long as they absorb and accommodate the planned and unplanned, the old and new, the established and the experimental.

Initially our exhibition proposal was received with great enthusiasm. As a prelude to possible realization at a later stage, we asked the participants to make a 1:20 model of their Parasite object, and used these to put together an exhibition that travelled from Scandinavia to Great Britain before arriving at its final location, Las Palmas (Rotterdam).
After the sudden bankruptcy of our first Swedish host, however, the project changed and the Parasites exhibition was transferred to the Netherlands. The organizers of another large-scale cultural event, the programme for the year 2001, when Rotterdam was selected as the 'cultural capital of Europe', embraced its idealistic aims alongside making it accessible to the general public.

In Hoogvliet, a Rotterdam post-war suburb, a gentle reanimation process had just been started, a rather complex process loosely linked to the programme of this cultural year, 2001. It provided our initiative with a harsh but challenging venue. With their varied and optimistic appearance, the Parasites were expected to contribute to the intended successful regeneration of Hoogvliet. The objects would gradually be built in full scale to be used for various purposes during several years of spatial restructuring. Owing to the Dutch location, the project provided us with an unexpected opportunity to react against the superficial image of Dutch architecture of the time being generated by international magazines. Our exhibition was not about fancy objects and not about architectural virtuosity. While everyone else was talking about bigness, our concern was with smallness. We propagated 'acupuncture' instead of 'tabula rasa', the cherishing and augmenting of the existing. And, while many colleagues around us were working on impressive housing blocks, we were concerned about individual expression and discrete urban densification. Our reference for the desired 'sustainable impermanence' was not the impressive Dutch pavilion in Hanover at the World Expo 2000 that everyone admired at the time, but the rough, reusable Swiss woodpiles a few streets away. In that remarkable Klangkorper (the 'Body of Sound', Swiss pavilion, designed by Peter Zumthor) we could hear, feel and smell real material, and therefore enjoy the astonishing power of a space in which it seemed that idea, form and construction were one and the same.

Swiss Pavilion

The final Parasite designs varied enormously, ranging in character from pragmatic, poetic, dreamy, naive and even clumsy proposals, to elegant and utopian constructions. It struck us that the ultimate quality of the designs depended almost exclusively on whether the material had determined the form rather than viceversa. In the end, for various reasons, only two of the projects designed for the exhibition were actually built: first, the Parasite on top of the lift-shaft of our exhibition venue, the Rotterdam workshop building in Las Palmas, designed by us and,second, a temporary community centre, designed by the Swiss firm, Meili Peter Architekten. In line with our exhibition concept, the two buildings were prefabricated in specialized workshops, in Germany and Switzerland respectively, and assembled in Rotterdam. Adding social relevance to the architectural and technical aspects of the project, three school Parasites - to be used as high-quality emergency classrooms - joined them in 2004 and there is every prospect that more will be built in the future.

Meili Peter

Solid timber construction

Solid timber construction panels have been produced since the 1980s in countries that are large producers of indigenous softwood, such as Germany, Austria, Switzerland and the Scandinavian countries. Looking at the long history of timber construction, this development is revolutionary. For the first time a timber construction system is no longer based on the assembly of linear elements with an infill,but on the assembly of solid, more or less homogeneous, panels. Both the idea and the technique are simple. Comparable to the production of plywood, solid timber panels are produced by laminating different layers of timber sheets crosswise on top of each other. In recent years a number of manufacturers offering slightly different products and services have entered the growing and therefore highly competitive market. The panels vary in thickness, composition, layering, structural performance, aesthetic quality and price.

There are many arguments for the use of solid timber construction. It may be the need for sustainability in the literal, material sense: the desire to build exclusively with renewable resources and timber as a carbon-neutral material. Some projects express wood's structural performance, functioning as an undirected slab, enabling generously cantilevering constructions and corner windows. Other projects require an extremely short building time. Still other projects benefit from the material's texture, colour, smelt and atmospheric qualities. For the projects worked on since the founding of our office in 2001, all aspects mentioned somehow played a role, with differing priorities each time. The realty decisive arguments for us, however, had to do with the possibilities of the material offered for spatial and architectural expression.

Starting with our first building experiments we were fascinated by the stunning simplicity of the panel building system and the freedom for designing it offered. We also were charmed by the lively characteristics of its natural surface. To us the material was convincing proof that industrial prefabrication does not necessarily limit spatial possibilities. The specific production technique of the solid timber elements does not require standardized dimensions or large quantities of similar elements to be efficient. Therefore, the system easily combines the qualities of tailor-made design with the advantages of industrialized mass production.

Lyon 6 Construction 5

Dutch professional culture is largely determined by trade rather than by production and craft, and this applies also to the building industry. Most projects are built by general contractors, who determine (and limit) the range of technical possibilities and standards. This contrasts with the practice of many other European countries For many practical reasons involved with this specific way of organizing the building process, Dutch architecture is dominated by a strict distinction between raw construction and interior (and exterior!) finishes. Therefore, the raw construction itself plays the role of a load-bearing skeleton without any spatial or material qualities of its own. In this particular context there has developed over the years an architectural culture that is largely determined by conceptual and visual concerns rather than based on the experiential qualities of materials and a tectonic language. The import of half-prefabricated building elements fits into this culture of trading, and local builders can execute the assemblage quickly and economically even without special skills. The import of these systems enables us to incorporate the material expression of its raw construction into our architecture without the requirement of traditional craftsmanship that has become unaffordable and therefore culturally superseded in the Netherlands. 

Lyon 1 Head

Parasite Las Palmas

The very first project built by our office, the Parasite Las Palmas, would not have been built at all without solid timber technology simply because of its challenging site. At the time we embarked on the project we only knew the material from publications and fairs but happily decided to take the risk of the unknown. As our exhibition project had been set up mainly to communicate our ideas about sustainability in the city to a wide audience, the choice of building material played a decisive role. The project aimed to underline our conviction that environmental consciousness and healthy building can be translated into architecture with a clear, outspoken, contemporary, formal language and atmosphere.
The structure of the Parasite was designed to generously display the specific quality of the panels as two-directional slabs,resulting in its sculpturally cantilevered appearance. The material enabled us to cut holes for windows wherever we felt that the spectacular views of the surroundings would be most flatteringly framed. In the interior the surface of the untreated and exposed timber with its characteristic texture determined its architectural expression.

Palmas Upstairs

House No. 19 or 'nomads in residence'

Following on from this first project we took on a second commission for a
similarly small-scale project, this time in collaboration with the Rotterdam-
based artists Bik van der Pol. It was our task to design and build a transportable studio for artists to serve as a temporary dwelling and exhibition space. Due to the uncertainty of site and context we designed a closed 'black box' with the maximum dimension that Dutch regulations allowed for transport on public roads: 4 x 18 x 3.6m.
Despite the temporary character of House No. 19 we aimed to design a space that was pleasant all year round. The house should respect the privacy of its temporary inhabitants and at the same time facilitate different and much more collective uses. The compact plan was organized around a simple core containing all facilities, such as a shower, toilet, a small store,a kitchen and a large dining table. The building could be either used as one space or subdivided into smaller rooms. The skylights gave all spaces a reserved, gallery-like atmosphere. When the large shutters in the different facades were opened, the interior space changed completely to be used as a veranda or a podium.
These first small projects became important to us because of the freedom the kind of commission offered in supporting their experimental character. The experience we gained with the solid timber construction and the discovery of its spatial possibilities were elaborated further in later projects. 

Huis 19 Door

Cultural House: De Kamers

A recent project, directly inspired by the client's visit to House No. 19, is the cultural building, De Kamers (The Rooms'), Amersfoort. The building is situated in Vathorst, a new suburb near Amersfoort. Vathorst is one of the many low-rise mono functional suburbs that have been built in the Netherlands since the early 1990s. These suburbs usually lack any social or cultural infrastructure of their own.

De Kamers is a private project initiated by a vicar and an artist.Both
regarded the pioneering years of the new suburb as a challenging social and
cultural period, and saw an important task for themselves. They jointly
decided to create a place for 'sociability, inspiration and expression' in the area, with the generous support of many sponsors and the municipality of
Amersfoort. The building and its activities are meant to grow with its growing surroundings over time, to offer space for various cultural activities and events
such as theatre, film and creative education. Its heart is the huiskamer, a public living room, meant to be a hospitable space for every body.
The design consists of simple wooden volumes with cubic shapes and varying dimensions. These rooms are loosely collected in a casual, almost improvised composition that allows for multifunctional use and future changes. Special attention has been paid to the spatial character of each of the rooms, their proportions, materiality and use of day light.

Kamers Corner View

The exterior is clad with stained heat-treated timber boards, which is a new, environmentally sound procedure to make European softwood more durable. The plinth has been designed for advertising, as an ever-changing band of hand-decorated panels covered with artwork, graffiti, posters and texts made by the users of the building.

The extremely tight privately funded budget led to an architectural decision to give priority to the interior rather than the exterior. This time we made use of two different, similarly sophisticated, timber building systems.All 'rooms' have been constructed in timber. For the walls we used solid timber panels; the floors and roofs, however, are made of timber hollow-core elements that we imported from Switzerland to achieve larger spans than the solid panels would allow. The prefabricated elements guarantee a clear, simple and sustainable structure with high-quality finishes and good spatial and acoustic properties.

The composition of cubes implies the semi-enclosure of outdoor spaces. These 'garden rooms' are regarded as just as important as the indoor spaces and are used as outdoor stages, gardens and terraces. Here the colourful painted plinth turns into a wainscot of self-made wallpaper. The large sliding doors emphasize the direct relationship between indoors and outdoors and the inviting and open character of the project as a whole. 

Kamers 04 Web Mensenwerk

These projects and our reflections on them are just beginnings. We founded our office in 2001 when the general public in the Netherlands, even more than in other European countries,was still not ready (or willing) to make the link between global realities and personal behaviour. Even though awareness has improved in recent times, the recent economic crisis, strangely enough, has diminished the very basis of architectural culture and, therefore, the possibilities for our profession. After eight years of practice it seems harder than ever to find clients who are willing to take risks and truly explore the architectural possibilities of sustainability thinking. 

To counteract this frightening development we conclude that, despite all efforts, we have failed to communicate our concerns in a way that reaches all the people that matter. We feel that now, more than ever, we should concentrate on our 'main task', very much in keeping with the description of 'the ideal architect' in the introduction: the design of healthy, beautiful, durable and comfortable spaces. Sustainable architecture is something that should be within the reach not only of a cultural elite but also of everybody else. Project De Kamers was a first important step in a promising direction as it combines our technical concerns with our cultural ambitions. Furthermore, it is a hospitable building that many, very different people can visit and enjoy. But much more needs to be done. The ubiquitous call and urgent need for sustainability is not just a technical issue to be solved. It is a serious cultural task that needs our full attention, despite the all-determining rules of a risk- avoiding and hesitant market.

Kamers Auditorium 2