‘It’s been a battle, even with myself’

Photo © Sam Rentmeester.

Photo © Sam Rentmeester.

Thanks to his talent and his vision that often clashed head-on with the spirit of the times, Jo Coenen has really made his mark on architecture. As an impassioned professor in the faculty of Architecture, he was able to achieve great things.

Were you interested in architecture from an early age?
“I was definitely intrigued by some of the local buildings. In the 1950s, my parents took me to buy clothes at the Glaspaleis (Glass Palace), a department store in Heerlen. Forty years later with Wiel Arets, I returned to that superb building – by then horribly disfigured by disastrous renovations – to restore it and transform it into a culture centre. Even at the age of eight, I could not fail to be impressed by the entrance hall. Of course, I had no idea what architecture was. That was something that came gradually. I have often since wondered: what on earth have I got myself into?” (he laughs)

Do you regret becoming an architect? That will come as a surprise to many.
“So far, it has been quite a battle. Also with myself, of course. But the main cause of the conflicts was that I wanted to be a craftsman as well as an architect. As an architect, it is your job to create the conditions for people’s well-being and that involves responsibilities. It may seem a simple principle, but if you stick to it, it can lead to difficulties.”

“Let me give you a practical example. If you discover that your design for an apartment block is about to be built in such a way that no daylight whatsoever reaches into the entrance hall, you will move heaven and earth to make sure a window is installed after all. But if, at a construction meeting, you discuss humane architecture and the importance of daylight in a building, some people will dismiss it as ideological bunkum. The third time you raise the issue, you are told that you will need to modify the plan – and remove the window – and that refusal could mean you will not be paid. I learned some very expensive lessons during meetings like that. If you embrace this view of architecture, you are not likely to earn much money.”

Why? Because you earn yourself a reputation for being difficult that deters clients?
“That is part of it, yes. But mainly because, during the construction process, you are continually attempting to include the window in the plan, in a way that is acceptable for all parties. It can take weeks of careful thought. Afterwards, your client can say: I did not ask for that, so I refuse to pay for your time! I wanted to tell students about this kind of day-to-day practice. Because I know that young architects sometimes think they will become famous and not face this kind of problem. But that often turns out to be an illusion.”

So the opinion of an acclaimed architect has no weight?
“Not everywhere. People will say to you: We need to earn money from your product. It is a case of selling architectural plans as if they were toilet rolls. That is also how I put it to students. To make it clear to them what kind of clients they will soon have to deal with.”

So is it different in the Netherlands than elsewhere?
“Yes. In countries like Germany, Switzerland, Spain and even Belgium, the respect shown to me as an architect is many times greater than here. If you raise something like this at a Dutch construction meeting, you will not be popular. It is seen as arrogance.”

Today, would you still have opted for architecture?
“No.” Coenen hesitates for a moment. “Let’s put it another way: perhaps. But I would have had serious doubts.”

As well as buildings, you have also designed whole city districts, such as Céramique in Maastricht and  Wilhelmsburg Mitte in Hamburg. What did it feel like being asked to design a whole city?
“That city – a satellite of the Indian metropolis Bangalore – was never built in the end. There were issues with land speculation and expropriation from farmers, and the Prime Minister, the driving force behind the project, lost office. But it was an interesting exercise working on that scale. My design, inspired by a variation on the Amsterdam cityscape, was rudimentary. It was a gigantic project: a city with a million inhabitants was expected to emerge from the ground in just five years. It was not possible to move the deadline. That caused me some inner conflict, because the pressure of time threatened to turn my design into a blueprint cast in concrete, with no room for modifications or new ideas.”

In your valedictory address, you explained how you have decided in the end not to work as an architect in countries like China and India, because you have insufficient understanding of the cultures, being European. But would Asian megacities not actually benefit from the urban design vision of an outsider?
“I did not rule out Asia completely. They could certainly use our knowledge and experience, and an agency in Asia would be an interesting venture for us. But if we ever go to work there, it will need to be in close alliance with local partners: architects, urban designers, architecture faculty professors. They have a much better understanding of the context.”

As a professor, you enjoyed teaching individual students the most. Why?
“It is not possible to convey every aspect of the subject through books, readers, lectures etc. Designing is not only about technique, it is also a question of attitude. As a designer, you have to make decisions and choices all the time. Every student struggles with that. I might even say every designer. It is important for the student to be given mental support in that quest. At certain crucial and decisive moments in the design process, the student needs to make enormous leaps. That is when you need a mentor who understands the process and says: You are not going to fall. I will help you. That is the essence of teaching. I learned it from my father.”

You also mentioned your father in your speech: ‘a politically and socially committed teacher of didactics’.
Where did he teach?
“He taught in an earlier version of teacher-training college. Teaching people who would later become teachers themselves. So I learned the basics in didactics at home. My father himself studied in Tilburg at Catholic teacher-training college, taught by professors who used bulky books. He learnt philosophy, religious education, pedagogy – all with strong emphasis on social commitment. I am currently studying his graduation thesis. It explores miners’ families in Limburg, and the dangers of poverty, including spiritual poverty. He wanted to explore the best methods for effectively combating poverty.”

A socially committed environment then.
“One evening in our house, important seeds were sown for the Radical Political Party (PPR), an offshoot from the Catholic People’s Party (KVP) that would later become GroenLinks (the Dutch Green party). In a living room in a small miner’s house. I don’t want to become sentimental about it, but I was raised in a tiny house in a Limburg mining community. The mine railway was next to our front door, and you could hear a cargo of coal from the state mine trundling past every ten minutes. The noise was truly thunderous.”

Making sketches is an essential part of the design process for you. Was your father good at drawing?
“He was a captivating storyteller, who drew the most beautiful illustrations on the blackboard in different coloured chalk. Eventually I started doing the same, drawing on the board. By the way, when I started teaching, my father also spent years giving me extra lessons in didactics. He taught me to keep a close eye on who you are teaching and whether they are capable of coping with the level of the material. He also taught me to respect people who may not be able to conjugate every verb accurately, but who are born craftsmen, with practical intelligence. A person is a vessel, full of unsuspected talent and potential and it is your job to awaken those talents. That is how he put it.”

Prof ir. Jo Coenen (Heerlen, 1949) studied architecture and town planning at TU Eindhoven. He established his own architects firm in 1980. Coenen also worked as a professor at Karlsruhe University of Technology. In 2001, he became professor of public buildings in Delft. Some years later, he set up an influential research group focusing on modification, intervention and transformation. He also made a name for himself as an innovative Chief Government Architect. His architects firm in Maastricht opened up studios in in Berlin (1999), Amsterdam (2002), Milan (2007) and Bern (2012). Since 2014, he has been director and curator of IBA Parkstad, which aims to boost his native region by developing sustainable projects.

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