Blueprint innovation: 16 interviews with international architects

Francine Houben

Francine Houben. Courtesy MecanooFrancine Houben. Courtesy Mecanoo

Francine Houben is the founder and creative director of Mecanoo. Her practice’s innovation began with Dutch housing projects in the Eighties and caught international attention for its game-changing, green-roofed Delft Technology University Library in 1993. The multidisciplinary practice, with works including the Library of Birmingham, now has offices in the UK, USA and Taiwan as well as its base in Delft. Ongoing projects range from renovating New York Public Library to the vast National Kaohsiung Center for the Arts in Taiwan.

Innovation starts with being curious, sometimes in combination with being angry. That has always been how I approach the world around me and how I cross into new subjects. For example, I noticed everyday commuting was being misunderstood. Following investigation of this subject, I started advising the Dutch government on mobility as part of everyday life in 1999. This evolved into global research presented at the first International Architecture Biennial Rotterdam 2003.

A model for Manchester University’s Engineering Campus development, which will be one of the biggest UK higher-education projects ever undertaken. Courtesy MecanooA model for Manchester University’s Engineering Campus development, which will be one of the biggest UK higher-education projects ever undertaken. Courtesy Mecanoo

The areas of the built environment most in need of innovation depend on which country you’re talking about. In the Netherlands, planning and housing innovation has always been part of our culture. Worldwide, it should be high on the agenda.

Collaborating with other disciplines generates interesting innovation. We worked together with electrical engineers at the Delft University of Technology on EWICON, the wind-power generator without moving parts. Working with theatre directors and stage designers also taught me a different way of using colour and light. I never wanted to merely build, that’s too pragmatic, and university can be too academic. I like the mix. It gives the work more depth.

I encourage everyone in the office to observe what is needed in society, not to get stuck behind a computer screen. More in-depth investigation takes place within Mec Lab, our research studio led by Dick van Gameren, partner at Mecanoo but also professor at Delft University of Technology.

Room to Learn project, looking at innovative learning spaces. Courtesy MecanooRoom to Learn project, looking at innovative learning spaces. Courtesy Mecanoo

What fascinates me at the moment is the changing of learning environments. We have worked in this field for a long time, on many levels. For the past two years, we did a joint research project with Gispen, a furniture manufacturer in Holland, called Room to Learn. We asked, could we invent something that can accommodate a range of learning activities instead of a classroom environment? The first tangible result to come from this is a modular system, HUBB, which can be used to create a learning landscape. It was shown at the Salone del Mobile in Milan and will see its first implementation at a university soon.

Our projects that deal with learning environments best demonstrate shifts in architecture. The new Manchester Engineering Campus [an 81,000 sq m project to house the university’s four engineering schools and two research institutes, due to complete in 2020], for example, will transform how engineers are trained in an interdisciplinary way by the university there. But it will also be visible and accessible, and it will even be a new interface between the campus and the city, playing an urban role. Offices, educational buildings, libraries; they are starting to share more and more similarities. They all respond to the same need - environments that inspire and engage people in lifelong learning. HW

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