Winy Maas: Are Czech people European introverts? I sometimes do not know what they really think…

Winy Maas, the co-founder of the MVRDV studio, is a visiting professor at the Faculty of Architecture CTU this year. He arrived to socialist Czechoslovakia for the first time as a student, studied modernist district Baba and was stopped by police in Olomouc while jogging. Winy Maas will surprise you with his knowledge of Prague's housing estates and satellite towns as well as with his interest in Czech culture. He is therefore not afraid to define what prevents Czechs from getting more involved in European affairs. We also talked about the connection of social housing and luxury shops or working in China. The interview was led by Pavel Fuchs after Winy Maas' lecture for the general public during the November Talks series.
Winy Maas vede na Fakultě architektury ČVUT atelier hostujícího profesora. Zúčastnil se i pravidelného cyklu přednášek November Talks.

You have already given a few interviews. What do people ask you repeatedly?

I will completely neglect questions such as ‘what my most favourite city or design is’. And you will never hear from me ‘what my favourite Netflix series are’.

Is it still true that students from Eastern Europe are more shy and do not join in the debate with others?

How to compare that? It is my first half year in the central (as you call it) part of Europe. Like in many places, some students are communicative and others are less. People from schools like Yale or Princeton talk so much that they don't design a product. But the schools in Belgium, for instance, have a beautiful combination of word and design. They use two or three words and that blends very directly. It's also a way of communication, but the level of communication needs to be high. That is fair, especially in group work.

You can talk through drawings and you can talk through proposals. That needs training because the students can be intimidated here. That needs a safe place with openness also from the teachers to work on that. Maybe in the past, the student didn't feel safe with professors because of thinking certain things. In other words, it would get a bad note if they would ask stupid (what is that anyway?) questions.

I think that you are not scared of the future because you always talk about adaptation. Do students fear the future?

Certain architects, former students, sometimes say that they stick to the existing allotment and stick more to the confirmation than to the exploration. It does not apply to every project, but if I see the results of the current Czech price for architecture, I think there is a sort of safety that has been awarded. Then I wonder how curious people are.. and if that is wise…?

A huge part of new buildings is built without architects. If you are ill, you go to the doctor. If you need a better house, you rarely find an architect. They know everything about construction or sustainability from the university but don't have the possibility to apply the knowledge.

It's quite a Czech problem, to be honest. It probably comes down to how you define liberty after having lived for a while under communist regime. The wish of doing it yourself is tremendously high and at the moment you touch that you get in political troubles.

The beauty committees (Welstandscommissie) are very important in the Netherlands. They review the project from ecology to ugliness. You could do that here as well but your definition of liberty blocks that. You focus only on monument protection in the Czech Republic. Seemingly that's politically correct and everybody has agreed to fulfil that. The interpretation of heritage on the other hand is not so liberal as in other countries. So, there is a kind of contradiction in it.

Během zimního semestru zkoumal Winy Maas se svými studenty výzvy dnešního světa i možná řešení pro města budoucnosti.

Tell me about your first visit to Czechoslovakia. I think that you were really young at that time?

I think I was 23. There was a research group in Delft that wanted to study Loos versus Corbusier. They also measured buildings of them and their pupils. In one of those missions, they sent students like me from Delft to Czechoslovakia. It was my first-time seeing Olomouc, Brno or Prague’s Baba.

I met with opinions that Czechoslovakia did not produce first-class architecture. They say that Baba is something that we just imitated from Germany or England.

Well, the relationship at that moment between Czech and Dutch amongst others architects was very strong, for instance. And so, it is influenced by the 8 and the Opbouw, by Bauhaus and other impacts. But let's also not forget Russian architects were already also experimenting and connecting. There was a kind of small network of people that were working on this cleaning up act. That's how I saw this modernist movement. Although I must say that I love Mart Stam’s House the most. It doesn't have the complete view to the city because it's on the second row, but it's a very intelligent building.

And there's the invention of having a neighbourhood out of modernist houses, there were not so many, two small ones in the Netherlands and in Germany. The fact that you did it, there's a sign of courage and internationalisation. Then you can compare yourself in general and learn from each other. I think that's very fruitful.

I also think the communist time, if I may say that, has given us fantastic buildings and the resistance to that is for a while understandable but now it is getting confusing. The Tower of Žižkov is one of the world's wonders. Old Federal Assembly, the house with a second building on top, close to Wenceslas Square, is an example of how to densify historic buildings as such. It is courageous architecturally. Maybe it can with some small additions/comments  become the symbol of a New Young Governance…

These houses are more popular among the younger generation because young people don't connect them with the communist era.

There were very terrible things in those times, but also things that were better regulated in certain elements. Some architects say Prague will ever be baroque. I think that is a provocative remark, because that doesn't give place to other kinds of baroqueness like Baba or communist buildings. Without them, Prague would be so boring…

Can you compare Czechia from your first visit and now? We all know that there are more cars and the facades in The Old Town are more colourful. But what is interesting especially for you?

Looking back, I, like many others, can easily fall partly into a trap of nostalgia. I am a runner and I was the only one running on the street. It was cold and I forgot my pants, but of course had my boxer shorts. So I ran through Olomouc in my boxer shorts and was picked up by the police because of my indecency. We had, of course, communist guards in our cars when we went around. It was the moment that the trams, which are still sometimes in the streets, had this kind of hyper-nostalgia feeling when you jumped on them. But I could smell the coal energy everywhere, which I hated. And the food was terrible to be honost, the dinners in Obecni Dum were horrendous. The infrastructure was bad. And still is as it lacks high speed railways. it leads to a massive usage of cars. The sprawl of second homes of those days has flooded the countryside and has killed the landscapes.

Winy Maas s děkanem Fakulty architektury ČVUT Daliborem Hlaváčkem.

Could you connect with the community, with Czech students and young architects?

One of the architects in the state office made all the plastic mullions in every building yellow. I loved that subtle protest. Now I see a country that wants to be part of the European Union. The country takes more initiatives. The issue in the building industry is that it is not the best in the world now yet. People also think that you suffer from Easyjet tourism which is leading to a kind of overdose of cheapness.

I think it is very good you started to make international competitions for architecture. You have CAMP, which is a flagship on the same level as Pavillon de l’Arsenal in Paris. But CAMP would deserve more subsidiary and independence to catch up, for instance, Het Nieuwe Instituut in Rotterdam.

You have an incredible interest in culture, which should get a kind of more international momentum. You need to make more translations of your emerging literature. Please do. I cannot do that by Google Translate endlessly.

I tried to go to your theatre, but I don't understand a word. You stay still very national despite all the positions that you have. It can be a choice. You can say, okay, we want to be European introverts, but pronounce it. I sometimes don't know what Czech people really think.

Winy Maas ve své práci často používá kladení obřích objemů na sebe. Není náhodou, že jednou z jeho nejoblíbenějších pražských staveb je budova bývalého Federálního shromáždění. Zde první stavba MVRDV ve Spojených státech - Radio Hotel and Tower na Manhattanu.

You spoke in your lecture about leaders who you met during your career. The issues of the Czech Republic come from a lack of leaders in our country.

You had good leaders in the past which were exemplary for the world. That's quite a problem in more countries out there. I think the Netherlands also had much stronger leadership and you also see it in Germany. There is a kind of crisis in leadership. And yes, we must make a culture that allows for that.

Maybe it's your hyper-individualism that somehow is blocking it because you only want to have freedom. But how to allow for leadership? It's a contradiction. But how to create that wisdom and trust in each other? You cannot build a complete society on individualism.

You already mentioned over-tourism. I was watching your lecture about the market hall in Rotterdam from 2016. The building attracted many tourists. Are people still happy with it?

Tourism needs to deserve a place in our society because there is an interest in leisure and travels for everybody. I dedicated one book to The End of Leisure because it culminates not only in the tourist industry. We made a kind of complete list in terms of costs, revenues and square metres. You start to wonder at what moment everything is leisure in our society and who's then working?

Rotterdam lacked leisure. It was the ugly bird of Dutch cities because of the bombardment. Every tourist went to Amsterdam. No one has ever seen a Chinese tourist in Rotterdam for hundreds of years.

Rotterdam made a lot to its emancipation. Tourists coming to see our market hall were a confirmation that Rotterdam is not as ugly as you think. It has another kind of status than in Amsterdam where the mayor is really struggling with the number of tourists. There the spreading and enlargement of beauty and excitement throughout the periphery is seen as a way to reduce the density on the old center. I like that as it helps to solve many problems in the periphery. But it needs to avoid over gentrification though.

Tržnice v Rotterdamu se stala jedním z turistických lákadel města. Spojuje v sobě obchodní prostory a byty.

Architecture has the power to start a change of an ugly place.

I predict that Kosmonautů here in Prague will be the hottest place in the future (current official name of the metro station is Háje - ed. note).

Do you like it?

I love it. I think it has a scale which is unearthly and somehow also socially intriguing. People are going to live there. I always have a feeling I cannot say something bad about it anymore. You could do that maybe 40 years ago, but now it's actually an escape from the city.

Do you have other favourite places in Prague outside the city centre?

I don't know Prague that well yet. I love Šárka, that you have a nature reserve in the very heart of the city, which should be protected from the building of new villas. I was embarrassed and surprised by this satellite town just north of Jenerálka.


It’s hilarious. You have a perfect copy of an American dream there.

Maybe it should also be protected.

Ha! It's worth UNESCO! I was there at that moment when everybody was washing his car on the street. And they have this kind of old-style 19th century lanterns! I don't want to live there at all, but I am curious that it happened. I was also amazed by the private schools, to be honest. There are fences that look like prisons and that's a worrisome sign, because for me, education should be public and equal!

Depozitář postavený v muzejním parku v Rotterdamu si klade za cíl zpřístupnit co nejvíce uměleckých sbírek běžnému návštěvníkovi.

I think that private schools or blocks of flats behind fences started in the 90s, but they are not so popular nowadays.

Not sure if that is true. By the way, I love Trója, especially the vineyards. I would want to skip that road that goes through it though.

You speak about Trója, which many people like, but it is still a village in the city. One of the biggest issues of Prague is that many parts are not very dense, so you do not have enough density for new businesses or good public transportation.

It's a sort of escapism which is not to be blamed, but if we can make more quarters as Dejvice in your city, that would help, I think.

You have an office in China. What did you learn about this country?

Change of subject? Do you want to compare CZ with CN? :) We have already worked there for 25 years and it's a very dialectic relationship. Because on the one hand, I'm critical about social rudeness and I'm critical about human rights, but also about the dictatorship in terms of central planning. Initially, I was doing more in Shenzhen because it's more experimental than Beijing.

But I want to keep a relationship for better and for worse. It is so important to stay in dialogue. I like it because of the energy and of that dialogue with many people that you can have and of course there are also many disappointments. But I cannot be a reporter without that.

I always wonder if it is ethical to collaborate with China or not? Maybe the collaboration can help, for example, in human rights.

Yeah, that was also the strategy up until a year ago for Russia. I also wanted to work there because I think certain intellectual components were very nice and there are many nice people. In China, communication is not as easy because you always need translators, and you have to trust them. Normally when I speak with a client, I look into his or her eyes and we have a direct relationship, you can see the nuances in the eyes. And that is what I miss sometimes in China. You don't build the project in the end because of the miscommunication or the misunderstanding. That's more serious than in other countries. It exists also in the Czech Republic - your “hmm” means ‘no’ and it is hard to get an honest yes.

Studio MVRDV je velmi aktivní i v kontinentální Číně. To sebou přináší otázky o spolupráci s nedemokratickým režimem. Zde knihovna ve městě Tianjin.

Where do you take the energy to be like a psychologist or moderator between community, developer or city?

I think it's one of the nicest roles, maybe I am therefore more an urbanist than an architect. And I think our architecture is communicative. It's very readable. I don't want to make one-liners, but I want to make things that are comprehensive and they're meant for communication.

I think that architects are often too serious about their work. You use humour and jokes not only in the presentation of your architecture. I found many jokes on your Twitter. But you use humour also in the project, for example, you put words or prints on facades. Do you think you're doing this for the surrounding community?

In our office, we do not like the elite approach of architects when they know everything better. We can do fantastic job; we have more skills. Humour relativizes the over seriousness and sombreness that dictates architecture.

We are creating a society where we actually want to turn everybody into the middle class. It sounds weird, but that's the neo Northwest European style, let me say it that way, which is to allow for wealth so that everybody can live good with it. I think that the majority of our people are therefore not stupid. Can they make an opinion? Come on, more than ever. And then I need to approach people on a collective level, be communicative and ask the opinion. This is not populism though, maybe you can call it ‘pop’.

Many architects dream to be famous enough to have rich clients and design luxurious buildings. Is social housing a big part of your work?

Not enough, to be honest. I love our mixed projects where you see a melange of social and more expensive housing. For me, this melange is one of the tools to do not only in specific areas but everywhere. Also in Pařížská street or on Champs-Élysées.

That's quite a hard task, isn’t it?

Not at all if we collectively believe in that. I can add some stories on top of the roofs of Champs-Élysées. So: why not? It would be my dream to add this layer in that part of Paris. And there are projects that do that. At Our Crystal Houses (Amsterdam), the two upper floors are dedicated to social housing on top of Hermés store.


The interview was led by Pavel Fuchs.

Přednáška Winyho Maase je dostupná na youtube Fakulty architektury ČVUT.

For the content of this site is responsible: Ing. arch. Kateřina Rottová, Ph.D.