Back to Yourself: Winka Dubbeldam on Learning to Design and Relearning to Practice

Back to Yourself: Winka Dubbeldam on Learning to Design and Relearning to Practice

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By Julia Gamolina, from PennDesign’s Women in Architecture live-interview event, PWIA Presents: A Conversation with Julia Gamolina and Winka Dubbeldam

A practicing architect and founder and principal of the New York firm Archi-Tectonics, Winka Dubbeldam is widely known for her award-winning work, recognized as much for its use of hybrid sustainable materials and smart building systems as it is for its elegance and innovative structures. Archi-Tectonics' work ranges from residential to commercial, from real to virtual, and is realized in urban designs, architectural designs, and installations. Recent projects include the V33 building, the Brewster Building, and the Chelsea Townhouse (all in New York City); the Ports1961 flagship retail stores in Paris, London and Shanghai; and the American Loft Building, Philadelphia. 

Professor Dubbeldam was named one of the DesignIntelligence 30 Most Admired Educators 2015. She was the external examiner for the RIBA at the Architectural Association in London for 6 years and is now the external examiner at the Bartlett School of Architecture. In her conversation with Julia Gamolina in front of Penn Design’s students and faculty, Winka talks about going back to her core beliefs and values in order to design, advising young architects to choose where they work wisely.

JG: How did your interest in architecture develop?

WD: I grew up in a family full of boys, hence first a massive interest in cars. I often stole all of their toys, especially Lego, so we were constantly building things. My brother and I even decided we would start an office - he would be the engineer and I would be the architect.

The spark also had to do with the fact that we were constantly moving within the Netherlands, and my parents were often on construction sites because, when we moved, we would never buy a finished house, but something always under construction. The interest really started pretty early.

You studied architecture in the Netherlands, and then came to Columbia to study in the States as well. What did you learn during your time in both places?

I actually started studying sculpture - I loved sculpture but then realized that I didn’t want to be a sculptor, so I switched to architecture. In Holland, and in Europe in general, you learn design, but in a very pragmatic way - a ton of structures and things like this. There are strong concepts, but not what we refer to here as “design methodologies.” As such, I was intellectually extremely bored. I found one philosopher in Delft - the poor guy had to endure me and my questions often.

While studying in Holland, I also went a lot to the AA in London a lot, and I started hearing about Dean Tschumi at Columbia in New York, eventually making the decision to come to New York to study further. I always feel like I learned everything at Columbia [laughs], but I’m also glad I had those years in Holland to set the stage for all that I was able to absorb while at Columbia. At Columbia I also felt like I was free to do whatever I wanted because I already had a Master’s Degree. I wasn’t in it for the grades or the credentials.

Asian Games, courtesy of Archi-Tectonics.

Asian Games, courtesy of Archi-Tectonics.

When you first graduated from Columbia, you worked with Peter Eisenman. How was that?

I loved working with Peter, I really did. I was warned from all angles [laughs] - someone even said, “You’re going to work for the devil?!” That was a pretty strong statement.

The people in the office were fantastic though and what I appreciated about Peter was that his feedback was never personal. He is very tough - I called it commando training in architecture. Working in his office was like being in the army and on the ground in mud - but it was really all about making better architecture and making better concepts. And, he’s funny!

When did you start your own practice?

I left Peter’s just after the Berlin Wall came down. East and West Germany came together, and the West’s economy went down, having to take care of the East. The first thing that happens in an economy that goes down is that all of the avant-garde architecture gets put on hold or cancelled. At Peter’s, we had four very large projects in Germany, and they all stalled. I took a leave of absence then, doing a competition and exhibition on my own. So I didn’t really “start” my office purposefully, but kind of fell into it because of the political climate and thus the financial situation at Peter’s.

“...what you need to be a designer is to go back to yourself, all the time, find your strengths, and ask yourself what you believe in.”

How were you able to find work to get yourself going?

I’ll tell you the secret: if you want to meet good people, host good dinners. With lots of wine - that breaks down all barriers very quickly [laughs]. This is such a European thing to do, and it really works. I met really interesting people, among which Terry Reilly who later became the curator of MoMA, for example. Many of these people then came to the exhibition I put on, and at this exhibition, I sold some of my work. My therapy while at Peter’s office was making really dark photo etchings [laughs], and that’s what I sold.

One of them got sold to an Italian gallerist who was starting a gallery in New York City, and she asked me to make an alternate scheme. Her parents had hired a very traditional Italian architect, but she told me, “Let’s try.” We did, and her parents liked it, and that’s how I got my first job! After which I had to figure out how to start an office.

How did you?

It was hard. I was lucky that when all this happened with Peter and my exhibition, it all happened very quickly - in two or three months maybe. In that time, I got a call from Tschumi saying, “Ben van Berkel is supposed to teach but isn’t able to make it the first month. How about you teach with him?” I had just gotten out of Columbia, and it was a bit terrifying, but I decided to go ahead, and that’s how I was able to start my practice.  

The first people who collaborated with me were all my colleagues from Eisenman; we did several competitions together. I didn’t really hire anyone right away, I just collaborated with friends. We had absolutely no money, and were just sharing resources and helping each other out.

InScape Meditation Studio, courtesy of Archi-Tectonics

InScape Meditation Studio, courtesy of Archi-Tectonics

InScape Meditation Studio prototyping, courtesy of Archi-Tectonics

InScape Meditation Studio prototyping, courtesy of Archi-Tectonics

Archi-Tectonics has been around for almost 30 years. How did you build up the practice and handle things like business development and operations, when all you probably wanted to do was to do the work and make architecture?

Everything was really organic; I just dove in and figured it out as I went. I knew nothing about business models; the way I learned how to run an office was from Peter - which basically means I ended up making everyone cry [laughs]. This was at first shocking to me, but I slowly I learned through my employees, how to temper my remarks. The way you run an office is based on what you see from the people you work for, so choose where you work wisely. I had to relearn a lot.

When I think back about architecture, what I keep coming back to is that in school, architecture students should study more classes in psychology and business. What I’m most grateful for is that in Holland, we had a class on law – and the legality of business relationships. That is such an important thing! You need to know where you are responsible and liable, and even more, where you are not responsible because too many architects take responsibility for things they shouldn’t. Don’t be nice in architecture - just be what you have to be. I was lucky I learned that and that was often my big savior. My other cardinal rule is that I am not cheap. It’s not good to be cheap. It doesn’t help, it doesn’t get you jobs, no one respects you for it. I was never cheap – but I was reasonable.

Having had to relearn a lot, what is your approach now to running a practice?

I realized early on that there are two ways to become and to be an architect. The first is that you go for the money, and you get the work that you need to make money. Design then isn’t your driver. The second way is that you go into academia to pay the rent, and you then  you focus on what you want to make. I was always lucky that people were coming to me because of my work, because that’s the way I chose. I just felt that I had studied much too long to do things I didn’t believe in.

I have my shortcomings, and that’s another key thing in building a practice - you have to know your shortcomings. I’m definitely not the right person to run a gigantic office; I like a smaller office. That way, I can still be creative. I don’t want to be a manager only - and here I am sitting in front of all of you as the Chair - but that is my driver, that I don’t actually want to be a boss because I really feel that architecture is about teamwork. Maybe that’s why at Penn, I accepted becoming a Chair - this is the most horizontal organization you can run because you are working with faculty and students. That makes it really interesting and fun and and one of the most fulfilling things I have done.

Tower in Rotterdam, rendering courtesy of Archi-Tectonics

Tower in Rotterdam, rendering courtesy of Archi-Tectonics

Tower in Rotterdam, image courtesy of Archi-Tectonics.

Tower in Rotterdam, image courtesy of Archi-Tectonics.

What else has been a highlight?

Peter Eisenman hiring me. Winning the Asian Games last year and combining landscape with architecture in that design. Coming here to the USA. This might be interesting - right before I moved here, one of my favorite offices in Holland called me and offered me a partnership! This was one of those moments where you’re just completely flat against the wall and have no idea what to do.

I called my professor, and asked what to do. He said to me, and this is one of those things I always keep with me, he said, “Go where you feel you will develop the most, and meet the most interesting people.” After some hard moments, I decided to turn the partnership down and go to the US. What I’ve found is that in those hard moments, it is best to talk to someone who knows you well. If you ask the right person, you usually get a great answer.

What have been your biggest challenges?

All of it [laughs]. Coming to the US by myself was really hard, especially because I gave up this fantastic opportunity.  As a young student I also had a really hard time learning how to design - I was not a natural, and what you need to be as a designer is to go back to yourself, all the time, and to find your strengths and ask yourself what you believe in. It’s hard, because there are always a lot of things going on, but you need to be who you want to be, make what you want to make, and stand for that. This means that you need to be rigorous and let a lot of other things go, and at times say no!

The 2008 crisis was very hard. I think every architect today was affected by this economical crisis and had to let a lot of things go and start over.

Every single person I’ve interviewed - every single one - has mentioned the recession and how it affected them.

It was brutal. Only bad news. I played with my dog a lot during that time [laughs]. At this time though, we started working pro-bono for an African school and orphanage - that project was great for all of us, and we learned a lot.

Throughout all of this, what has been your general approach to your career and your work?

I go back to myself all the time, and ask, “What do I stand for? What do I want to do? Where do I come from?” I don’t read a lot of architecture magazines because it distracts me and it worries me that it would stifle my free design thinking. I mostly read philosophy, and critical theory - I like reading a lot more than I like looking. Because of this, I sometimes miss what my colleagues are making

I imagine that that’s very liberating.

Yes, because I don’t want to constantly be comparing myself. In the office, we usually just do a lot of research and start to design inside out and then we see what comes out of that. Letting it grow rather then follow a style.

What do you stand for? What do you find when you go back to yourself, like you said?

I really believe that ugly things are underrated. I don’t believe in style or aesthetics for the sake of style. I do like beautiful things, but beautiful things that come from an inner logic. My favorite building is Hans Scharoun’s Philharmonic in Berlin - it’s this weird alien thing, but with incredibly strong moves which all add up to something extraordinary. It’s still one of the buildings that is super original - if I can stay close to that originality, that would be really amazing.

“The way you run an office is based on what you see from the people you work for, so choose where you work wisely. I had to relearn a lot.”

What advice do you have for those wanting to run their own practice?

You have to choose between the two ways - are you going to go for the money, or for the more rigorous design. There are moments where the two blur of course, but you do have a choice to make.

The other advice is that if you want to do it, just do it and don’t give up. Be rigorous, pull the sleepless nights. Also remember that the hardest thing about running your own practice is not architecture - it’s the people. You have to be able to guide your staff through all the projects, and I find that much harder than design itself. Your team is like a marriage - you’re going to be around each other a lot, and you have to be open and fair with each other and stick it out together.

Have you found the secret to working well with people?

Unfortunately, I’m Dutch, so they’re probably the ones who have found the secret to endure me [laughs]. My whole theory is that I like to be really transparent and open. I’m slightly more tempered now I’ve been in the US for so long, but Dutch people really are very honest and can be brutal to others because we are often brutal to ourselves. We are not afraid of taking a hard look at anything and I think that that has been helpful to me.

Finally, what advice do you have for those just starting out in architecture?

It’s really important to understand that whether a project is big or small, everything is complex and that you should never underestimate anything. Never underestimate a client, never underestimate a project - spend as much time on something small as you do on something big. It’s sometimes almost easier to do a big project because with it you get a big team and a lot of support - for a small project, you are more by yourself.

The other thing, and this is my favorite advice - if you start an office, never ask your engineers what the structure should be. Tell the engineers what you want to structure to be. You ask an engineer anything, your building will be unsurprising. You want their expertise, not their approval, in order to challenge them you have to state what you want to achieve. If you don’t, your building won’t be good. This is very important.

Winka Dubbeldam

Winka Dubbeldam

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