The young Rotterdam-based firm Kempe Thill has found architecture's antidote to globalization: "specific neutrality." "Most architecture is banal, gray, mass production, while at the same time the world is shouting for the unique, the special, the iconic," says Oliver Thill in the firm's office in the Van Nelle factory, itself an icon of 1920s industrial Modernism. "Architecture has let itself be seduced into producing pretty pictures for the media. 'Specific neutrality' sounds like a paradox, but we want to show that there is an architecture that can be a synthesis that expresses the hidden vitality of our time."
Oliver Thill and André Kempe come from Dresden, where they met during their studies in the early 1990s. They worked in Japan and France and then settled in the Netherlands, where they started their own firm in 2000. Although the architectural climate in the Netherlands has since grown more conservative, their work has drawn attention, and in 2005 they were awarded the prestigious Dutch Maaskant Prize for young architects. Their core business is housing in Holland, but they also have projects in Belgium, Germany, and Austria.
Kempe Thill designs with an eye to a building's life cycle, not just to its 15 minutes of fame. For a housing project in the Dutch town of Roosendaal, for example, the housing society said it wanted something really special and different. 'But when we got down to brass tacks, it turned out that they wanted the same floor plans as they have always had. That is fine with us, but then we modernized the design by adding voids in the living spaces and full-height glass skins to the facade,' For a housing project now under construction in a postwar suburb of Amsterdam, the firm designed a structural system with a flexible floor plan, making it possible for the inhabitants to change their dwelling as their lifestyle changes through the years; hopefully, a project like this will help stabilize the neighborhood, too.
Another project that combines continuity and innovation is the team's Franz Liszt concert hall in Raiding, Austria, next to the house where the Austrian composer was born. Inside and out it is made largely of wood and plaster, evoking the rural vernacular, but at the same time, the facades have enormous acrylic plates that not only open up the inside of the building, but also open it out to the park where the concert hall is situated.
Kempe and Thill often make their designs specific by using unusual materials. Their Acrylic Dome for the 2003 Echigo Arts Festival in Japan was an attempt at creating a new kind of dome that would provide both maximum volume and total transparency, virtually causing the architecture to disappear. The traveling museum pavilion called Light Building, of 2001, was a simple enclosure of space between walls made of translucent white plastic, this time in the form of made-to-order beer crates.
The architects are well aware that the term neutral is risky; it sounds beige and boring. "But it is necessary if we are to create buildings that are flexible enough to fulfill a series of different functions," Kempe emphasizes. "We hope that by creating architecture that proves itself over time, we will help the profession to be taken seriously again."