‘Dutch life was like being squeezed into a corset,’ remembers OMA’s Ellen van Loon

Rotterdam – Architect Ellen van Loon joined OMA in 1998 and became a partner in 2002. With an European Union Mies van der Rohe Award and a RIBA accolade under her belt, what has she learned so far in her career?

I grew up on the water. I lived in a barge for the first seven years of my life. My parents transported freight between Rotterdam and other European ports – like Basel, for instance. As a child, I spent a lot of time in and around harbour areas. I know the port of Rotterdam like the back of my hand. Its harsh atmosphere made an enormous impression on me as a child. That port is so huge. If you set off seawards from Rotterdam, through Europoort, you pass ocean-going vessels whose steel sides rise straight into the air, some 20 or 30 metres from the water line. The port was our playground. We sailed to uninhabited islands with our toy boats. That was our life.’

In the Netherlands, bargees’ children go to boarding school at the age of seven, and I was no exception. I attended a boarding school in Rotterdam until I was 17. There are relatively few Dutch boarding schools, especially in comparison with England, where they’re much more common. I’m currently working on the design of a private school in Brighton. I understand how the children will live together there.’

As a child of seven, it was emotionally difficult to live away from my parents, but children are relatively flexible. You make the most of your circumstances. It’s that simple. I learned a lot at that school, partly owing to the lack of privacy. Eight to ten children slept in one dormitory room. A clothes closet was the only place I could call my own. As a result, I don’t need much privacy now. I have my own room here at the office, but I’m hardly ever there. I’d rather be in the studio, surrounded by my colleagues. Noise never bothers me. As a girl, I learned to create a private space in my mind, no matter where I was. Privacy is my self-made mental sanctuary.’

In 1991 I graduated from the Delft University of Technology. I worked in the Netherlands for a short while, but it was horrible. The country felt so small, and Dutch life was like being squeezed into a corset. Everyone had to behave according to the same standards. There was little room for experimentation. I wanted out.’

London attracted me the most, but my graduation coincided with a major economic downturn in the UK. During that time, most of London’s architects were getting by on what they could earn as waiters. Jobs in architecture were nonexistent. Ultimately, my destination was Berlin, which had just undergone a turning point: what Germans call the Wende. Germany’s reunification afforded architects an intriguing playground, so we all went to Berlin. It was the only place in Europe with work for architects.’

Above, the Rijnstraat Government Office building; below, Van Loon next to a scale model of the Casa da Música Concert Hall in Porto

I left for Berlin without having a job waiting for me. I packed three bags and just took off. To begin with, I worked for a local firm on a building for a private bank with much too much money. The project proved to be good for me at the time. I then had a short stint at Léon Wohlhage, a company associated with modern architecture, which was right up my alley. I stayed in Berlin and joined Foster and Partners, where I worked for six years on the Reichstag.’

I’d always wanted to work with Foster, not because I was a big fan of his architecture but because he ran the most well-oiled, most professional machine imaginable. He didn’t hide his success under a barrel – not then and not now. I was eager to see it with my own eyes. I had planned to stay only a year or so, but being engrossed in such a fascinating project, I wanted to persevere. It was an interesting experience that taught me the best way for a big architecture firm made up of diverse teams to organize a process that yields a good product.’

Before the Reichstag was completed, I was both pregnant and homesick for the Netherlands. Don’t ask me why, but going back was a deep desire. When you’re pregnant, you make emotional decisions that are not necessarily rational.’

Initially, as a student, I wasn’t overly impressed by Rem and his work, but when he gave a talk about his competition design for the library in Paris, I was blown away by the conceptual approach. The effect of his speech stayed with me. Even so, I’m glad I didn’t join OMA immediately after graduation. The experience I gathered before arriving here probably made it easier for me than for people who come straight from university.’

In the case of Rijnstraat 8, a building that houses a number of Dutch ministries, our redesign went beyond offices and workstations to include representation and the political process. The same can be said of the building for the Dutch House of Commons, which OMA will renovate in the near future. What exactly happens in the political process and where does it take place? And how do people meet one another? Our client – the government – talks about “formal” and “informal” methods of working, terms that imply all sorts of intermediate layers that aren’t expressed in words because they’re not politically correct. That leads me to the roles of lobbyists and journalists, among others, who are also involved in the political process. As an architect, you want to enable such roles spatially while also expressing them architecturally. The theatricality of politics, which is obvious in countries like France and Italy, is something the Dutch would rather not contemplate. In England, many political decisions are taken in clubs, in environments that are reminiscent of classic cigar salons. It’s all theatre, and I like to use the same tactics in some of our Dutch projects.’

The Rothschild Bank in London is a fantastic case in point. The Rothschilds are a Jewish family, originally German, with an enormous history and an enormous archive. Tradition within the organization is quite explicit, but it doesn’t appear on paper. It took me two years to understand how it worked. A good example would be the renderings we made for the planning application, which included Photoshopped figures – a couple of bearded men among them. The first comment I heard was: “At Rothschild, nobody has a beard.” It’s an unwritten law that the entire staff is aware of. “No hats either. Remove them as well.”’

The most important lesson I learned from all these projects is: don’t take anything for granted. Make sure to question customs and traditions. Be sceptical about everything you encounter and always stop to reconsider. Doing these things makes every project an adventure. And don’t be afraid of a challenge. I’m certainly not. We can fly to the moon and back, and anything’s possible in architecture.’

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This is an edited version of our interview with Ellen van Loon, featured in full in What I’ve Learned. The book, which also includes conversations with the likes of Patricia Urquiola, Alexandre de Betak and Jaime Hayon, is available for purchase here.

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