I first met Anne when I was 23 years old. I was a very young art dealer at the time. He bought my favourite work of art in the gallery, the one I would have liked to buy myself. I was very glad that it ended up in his collection as since then, having seen Anne’s work in magazines, I really understood that this drawing was meant to be his. It was made by two girls and the idea behind it was that neither of the two should really understand the purpose of what the other one was doing, and yet use it as a constraint. It was the constraint that became the starting point for imagination. Reading this article, you will understand what I mean when I say that it is a fantastic metaphor of Anne’s work.
What’s your story ? You live between Bahrain and Amsterdam ?
At present, I live in Bahrain because in 2015 I was invited to take part in the competition to design the National Pavilion of Bahrain for the World Expo in Milan, and I won it. It was an extremely rapid project that took us only a year to build. It consists of 2000 square meters, the same size as the museum we built in the Netherlands, but that took us five years of hard work. So this project was exceptionally fast – only one year – and this includes the gardens, the design of the exhibition and everything. It was really fast! But also extremely exciting !
And then, through my work, I met my wife who was already working in Bahrain. She’s a Palestinian and she works for the ministry of culture there. So I moved.
So it’s a beautiful and romantic story…
But it was also exciting for me to go somewhere that I did not know. So we took that step and now I still have my small studio in Amsterdam but my work is mainly in Bahrain.
Recently we have been working on another project, a big project, for the heritage buildings in the old city. We have been asked to do restoration of the heritage buildings and to design new buildings next to them. They will become museums, a boutique hotel and things like that. And one of the museum spaces is devoted to pearls, natural pearls, because Bahrain is known for having the best natural pearls in the world. Cartier used to come here, to Bahrain, in the 1950s to buy pearls. So we will make a pearl museum in one of the houses of an old pearl merchant and we will show old jewellery, also Cartier jewellery. We will get it on loan from their collection, to show it here at the museum. So this is why I ended up here.
For Maniera… Amaryllis Jacobs, who started this gallery, asked Office Kersten Geers David Van Severen from Belgium to design some furniture. They agreed to do it but only on the condition that it would be a kind of dual exhibition. So they asked me to join them and that was how the first exhibition came about. From then on she has always done this dual thing, which is very nice because it brings perspective and dialogue to the work exhibited.
Yes I really find this approach to exhibitions of design incredibly interesting. It is a wonderful gallery!
The design of Office is very geometrical and is based on grids. My work is the opposite in its form. It’s not so much of a system. So… I was looking at this collection of stones by Roger Caillois. I had this old book, his original book, called L’Écriture des Pierres (The Writing of Stones). There is a collection of stones in it. Marguerite Yourcenar has written a very nice introduction to that book. And the whole text is about the fact that stone as a material has a certain presence and beauty. But for Caillois the interest lays in the fact that you could read stones, so there was a kind of spiritual aspect to them too. He said that the secret cyphers of the universe is hidden in stones. And I really like that because you have, on the one hand, the physical presence and on the other, you have something that you can read or imagine. It could represent a lot of things, not literally of course but in the imagination. So I liked that duality. I said to her, listen I would like to work with these stones and the shapes of these stones and their image. But of course real stones are very small. And we don’t even have them. So I needed to find a sort of translation, to see how to make these stones on a scale of a piece of furniture. Then I discovered this “faux”-marble school in Brussels. It is called Van der Kelen and it has been teaching this painting technique for nearly a hundred and fifty years now, the same technique. I met the third generation of the founders of that school and the grand-daughter, Sylvie, painted all this furniture. I gave her the images and then she reproduced those images using the Van der Kelen technique on the pieces of furniture. I thought : “This is an interesting way for me to deal with furniture because it is not only the object, there is a whole world basically hidden in this object.” I see them as small environments. I gave each of them a very simple name : this is a desk, this is a shelve, you know it’s like very simple understanding of furniture and on the other hand, there is this small world hidden inside it. And that linked them to architecture.
The Maniera thing was a way to have a two dimensional project inside a three dimensional design. What is your approach to dimensions and their changes?
First of all, when I graduated from the school of architecture, I worked for quite some time with Krijn de Koning. I was his assistant for five years and this helped me in my own work as well, because I began to work with a bit more autonomy. So after I worked for him, my first project was the Trail house that I made for a museum, for an exhibition. The request was very simple – they had this land behind the museum and they said “Propose something for this land”.
For me, one thing was clear: I wanted it to be about architecture because that was my training, my education, but I also wanted to work with forms that were already there somehow. When I started looking at the site, at the paths there, I wanted to discover the architectural possibilities of it all. So on the one hand, there is this element of autonomy, let’s say this form that does not have any relationship with architecture yet, and on the other there is me, who is trying to find those architectural possibilities. I call this also the “Possible Architecture ”. It is always present in my work: a non questionable element in the work. A form made by itself, or an appropriated form.
So as Aliki van der Kruijs said in her interview with Hlow when speaking of her project Made by Rain, there is a place for randomness in your work?
No. I think it is almost the opposite of randomness. It’s like a very strong constraint somehow. I force myself with those constraints. I decide that this is the form or the formal language that I want to work with and that is all that’s possible. So all the solutions of how to make a building have to come from there.
Saint Augustin said something about the only moment you are totally free is when you force yourself to follow the decision you have made. So freedom would come from constraints, which is somehow the opposite of freedom. I guess your technique is a climaxing example of this.
Yes the furniture I made inspired by Caillois’s book, came from cut stones, which had an oval shape. And that for me was the difficult part. I didn’t know how I could make something out of that shape, especially when it was transformed into furniture. Then I started to cut the stones. So in fact I used fragments of the stones, so suddenly I had straight edges and I could start putting them together. It seems so simple when you see it, but really it was rather tricky. I also like to mix stones, to use several stones, so in the desk the back panel is one stone, the desk itself is another and the side is yet another. This creates a certain kind of collage, a complexity. I like the fact that there is this kind of irrational part in the work. It needs to be as straight forward as possible with that constraint. In order to do that, we often take enormous detours in the work because we don’t always understand straight away what the constraint is exactly, and how we can work in a very simple way with it. I don’t like it when the work gets extremely complex. I want it to be simple in its understanding but it should have the irrationality of the constraints.
I do a lot of Zen mediation, and one of the interesting teachings is that there is no duality between inside and outside. Actually no Manichaeism. Everything is nuanced and intertwined. I find a lot of this in your architecture. For example when Jean Nouvel created the Fondation Cartier, everybody bragged that there would be no outside nor inside in the architecture of the future, it has become a sort of architectural cliché. But in your work, I perceive this Zen theory not just as an effect, because nature is one of the premises of your work…
The Fondation Cartier was basically a glass building.
He made this first wall before you enter in order to blur the lines.
Yes, but for me, it is more to do with the nature of the work: a simple consequence of the fact that I simply follow an abstract drawing.
I also like the fact that in architecture the thickness of the walls remains the same. It creates a continuous line.
In baroque architecture the interior is something on its own and the exterior is something on its own. The difference between the two is concealed in the difference of the thickness of the walls. So a baroque church is an intermediary between the inside and the outside, between the holy and the earthly.
So for me this line, because it just has one thickness, always has direct implications on both sides. So when the line bends a little, you will feel it from the inside as well as from the outside. I understand now that that’s something that I really like, it is simple and I like the consequences of it. An outside form can look fairly smooth and continuous whereas on the inside, because you only see a part of it, you see a kind of strange fragment of it. It’s like you cannot really ever understand it as a whole. The only way is either to be on the roof of the building or when you look at its blueprint …
Or you simply consult a magazine about your work, which has the overall picture…
Yes that’s when you have the best overall view, the geometry of the thing, but when you walk through it, it is like a collection of mysterious fragments. That’s one of the consequences of this approach. But these consequences are also quite convenient in some way.
It forces the visitor to participate in the creation process, he has to struggle, and make his imagination work…
Yes, exactly, and it’s part of this bigger puzzle. You feel the work as a unity, but at the same time you constantly see something different. It’s like everything in life. I like to redo the things that I enjoy doing and every time it gives you extra experience and that’s great!
Yeah, and it’s never exactly the same feeling each time…
You created your own style based of your own lexicon and you’ve been using this vocabulary in many places in the world. Do you think that architecture should be the same everywhere and if not, if you want to refer to the environment you build in, how should it adapt itself to the environment without losing its style? I sort of guess from what you already told be about your constraints as premises, that you are going to tell me that the particularities of each project are part of this very narrow starting point, that sort of dictates a big part of your design, but…
I’m actually quite happy to be in Bahrain because there is not so much contemporary visual culture here yet (no good contemporary art museum or contemporary architecture), so there is not so much distraction. And it’s actually nice to be away from all these things. And of course, the place where you are, influences your eye. I love Arabic writing, its calligraphy. And the nice thing is that so far, I cannot read it. I know a few letters but I cannot read it, so the text has no meaning, it has only a form. I can enjoy it freely. Free from meaning. It influences me. And another thing that I use now is the constraint of working with existing buildings. So there is already something. They are the limits as far as shape goes. These limits are not perfectly geometrical spaces. I really like this unevenness. And then the question is what I can add to it, how can I create something new that did not exist inside of that limit. If I was doing heritage buildings in Italy it might have been the same process, but the limits would have been completely different of course.
Could you give us some of your visual references?
I am now very much into the art from the Arab world. It is quite exciting for me because it is quite new for me. I didn’t know much about it until recently. Certain things give me a new insight on things. A lot of contemporary artists here are into storytelling, which I am not so much into. I think I am more into the concrete…I mean my work is not about metaphors, just the material. However, there are a few artists here that I find really exciting: Mona Hatoum for instance.
There is also a lot of storytelling in her work of course but there’s also this other aspect to it. A very physical presence of the work. VERY PHYSICAL! And Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian, the Iranian artist working with mirror mosaics.
I associate it of course to Persian architecture, which is also very exciting. Especially when you start studying some of her work where there is quite a difference between what you think you are seeing and what you really see. It looks very formal, but actually it’s not so geometrical. There are beginnings of it that are geometrical, with for instance rose-like shapes, but then these are not placed in a geometrical way. And then there is all this invention of how to relate one shape to another. It’s a really beautiful technique. There’s also a nice story to it. I read somewhere that these glass mosaics were made in many old places because large mirrors would brake during transportation. So this tradition came from a kind of necessity to work with small elements. And you also see this in India, in Rajasthan, in the palaces. Of course there was a lot of exchange between Iran and India. There’s a very nice mystery there. I saw a lot of them in India, unfortunately I haven’t been to Iran yet, but I would love to see them there.
What would your advice be to young people starting their creative carrier now? How should they proceed ? How to be patient, how to be visible, how not to copy each other…
I was the head of a Masters programme at Sandberg, which is the Masters programme of the Rietveld Academy in Amsterdam. There I had a Masters that I invented myself and it was called Studio for Immediate Spaces. It was based on the idea that in many disciplines we are concerned with space. So I wondered how can all my various students develop a practice that deals with space. So I had architecture students, but also students coming from fine arts, photography, from graphic design, textile and all kind of different backgrounds. The only thing they shared was this interest in a “spatial practice”.
Then the muezzin started his rather beautiful call to prayer. It somehow covered our skype interview and reminded me that Anne was now talking from very far away, even if everything he said seemed very close to our visual universe. But he seemed really used to it and went on…
“Spatial practice” in the sense that it is dealing with space. That was the only guideline. For the rest they had to reinvent what it was all about. And now, after four years, I stopped teaching at that school. Now I teach in Switzerland, in Mendrisio, the architectural school, and there, the topic is “Material Gesture”.
Yes I know … this is our soundtrack, a few times in the day…
So to make an architecture that starts from the material and the gesture that you find beneath this material, or that you apply to yourself as a maker to the material – the way you cut something, the way you cast it, smear it, whatever you do…I like students to engage in something with no clear reference but to find their own reality. With a certain kind of constraint or focus on something and then, from there, their own work can emerge. And that occurs especially in architectural schools but also in art schools. There are always a lot of references, not always visible, sometimes they are hidden, but we can recognize them. And my job is to see them in my student’s work and to remove them, to clean the work from those references. So they have to go back to their own approach and the consequences of these approaches, to develop their work. This takes a lot more time of course. The result is much slower. But in the long run it is a lot more interesting. That’s what I try to teach them. And also to have faith in themselves, to trust themselves because it doesn’t always look good straight away. I often say “When it doesn’t resemble anything, you are on the right track.” It can also be a big failure but it’s worth trying out as it might also be a big success. Because you cannot understand anything outside of what you know. It’s a good moment when you reach that point.
There are three mosques here in the area, and they all call for the prayer.
Anne, thank you so much for this incredible voyage in both time and space. And also for the generosity of your explanations, which will, I am sure, be a source of inspiration for many of hlow’s readers. And all the best with your pearl merchant’s project.