Leading from the front

As architect Alex deRijke of dRMM is appointed the new Dean of the school of architecture at the RCA, Aidan Walker looks at his portfolio of outstanding work

Itake a quick shufti round the deRijke Marsh Morgan website before I talk to Alex DeRijke, newly appointed Dean of the School of Architecture at the Royal College of Art. He took up his post in January, but I notice (in November) he is already calling himself ‘Professor’ in his email signatures. Perhaps a bit of friendly teasing is called for; Alex and I ride motorcycles together on the racetracks of Europe, and however distinguished and accomplished an architect is, when you have spent all day battling him neck and neck for the same patch of Tarmac, professional politesse tends to give way to ribbing.

I’m brought up short, however, and my affectionate, respectful, but gently deflationary comments die unsaid in my throat as I look first at the picture of him brandishing a handful of pieces of cross-laminated timber at me from the screen, and then at the collection of extraordinary and visionary buildings he and his ultra-talented team have built over the past architectural generation.

Our conversation turns first towards his passion for cross-laminated timber, or CLT; ‘My work here is done,’ he announces, going on to maintain that the ‘paradigm shift’ in architects’ materials of choice, from steel and concrete to timber, is well under way in the UK. It’s arguable, but when you’re engaged in conversation with the overwhelmingly articulate and persuasive Alex, there doesn’t seem much point in raising objections.

Timber, and particularly the cross-laminated kind, which comes in sheets as large as 18m x 5m is but one of deRijke’s obsessions. He built the tallest (at the time) CLT structure in the UK – core, stairs, everything – in the form of MK40, the tower in Milton Keynes to celebrate the city’s 40th anniversary. Not surprisingly, it’s 40m high. His Rundeskogen apartment towers in Norway are built of it – round a concrete core this time – enormous tree-like forms perched on a concrete ‘trunk’. dRMM’s recently opened the Tower of Love in Blackpool, a restaurant with a wedding room attached (built to commemorate that in the Sixties no less than 64 per cent of British males lost their virginity in that egregious resort) is made of it – but clad in a combination of a specially designed semi-concrete block made out of timber waste and discarded wine and beer bottles and a gold-finished stainless steel. The new dRMM offices are soon to be made of it, forming the superstructure for an enormous barge being prepared in Belgium for its journey across the Channel to London, where it will be moored and fitted out. You may also recall the practice’s pioneering designs for schools from the Nineties, particularly the Kingsdale School in East London, which attracted a lot of attention and awards at the time for the largest ETFE roof yet to be installed – a generous 80m x 40m – covering an ‘inside outside’ space with a light-sensitive membrane that eliminated the need for lighting, heating or cooling. Grimshaw’s Eden project uses the same technology. Or – and there’s plenty more – Clapham Manor Primary School, which doesn’t use timber in a significant structural role, and narrowly missed the Stirling Prize last year for its idiosyncratic match (or mismatch) of floor levels between old and new structure, and its geometric arrangement of multicoloured cladding panels. Or his Sliding House in Suffolk, whose fully glazed greenhouse-like section rolls back and forth over the enclosed part, opening and closing views and spaces according to the weather and the building’s heating or cooling needs. Here is an architect of courage, imagination and wit, with a deep passion for making.

Which kind of brings us back to where we came in – or at least, to craft, seen from many angles in this column lately. I decide, by way of a laugh out loud, that Alex’s characteristic take on the state of architectural education in this country is what got him the job that most architects of a certain age would kill for. ‘It’s a professional embarrassment that after five or seven years of study it’s still possible to have no skill or confidence in making buildings,’ says deRijke. ‘ Graduates fresh from college have to spend a year in a practice before they are any use at all.’

He doesn’t discount discourse, debate, investigation and experiment of course, nor even the naivety with which some new graduates design, because through such naivety it’s possible to achieve genuine innovation. But making forms on a computer all day doesn’t teach one how buildings are made. ‘You can only do outstanding architecture if you understand how it is made. Why are you asked to prioritise form over content, the political over the structural?’

says deRijke. ‘It’s useful investigation, but people can emerge from an education like this without knowing how much materials weigh!’

Which is also why the RCA is such a special appointment for him, in that the newly independent School of Architecture (until this year it was part of the School of Design) sits alongside a family of other departments where the teaching and the students are very much engaged with the processes of making. Industrial design innovation, automotive design, furniture design, jewellery... there is an inherent culture of making that you don’t find in the average school of architecture, a culture that Alex calls one of ‘critical creativity’.

The job can only be done as one where theory and practice are imbibed simultaneously. He plans to start interior design and urban design departments, and sees a huge opportunity to grow the school in size and influence. ‘Architecture and interior design students should be designing elements, fixtures and fittings, as part of gaining understanding about how buildings go together. Why shouldn’t you be designing a modular bathroom or a polypropylene kitchen, or a door handle? I want to encourage a culture of making, and of learning through making.’

The connection to dRMM’s own philosophy and body of work is clear: ‘All our buildings are didactic. They’re easy to read, it’s easy to understand why they’re built as they are.’ His enthusiasm for materials and process – ‘If a building moves me, it’s not only because of what it’s made of, but how’ – sits at the heart of deRijke’s creative muse alongside a profound understanding of real sustainability. For him, the materials, the process and the performance of the building, in the sense of how it houses and accommodates people, are all part of the same agenda.

Timber is the material of choice because it is endlessly renewable, durable, as strong as anything else, and has its own sympathetic warmth. It is its own finish, which means we don’t need to spend money on plasterboard. I find myself tempted to use the word ‘holistic’ to describe his practice, and hence his teaching, and can only conclude that the RCA, and architectural ducation in general, can only bless their luck to have him.

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