Creating unorthodox designs born from a sensitivity to context and an interdisciplinary design process, the Dutch architectural practice Mecanoo finds its newest home in Manchester, UK.

Helen Fletcher discovers how Francine Houben’s ‘People, Purpose, Place’ philosophy transcends the Netherlands’ borders.

Mecanoo architecten was co-founded by Francine Houben in 1984. She has since led the firm to success in the Netherlands and abroad, amassing a portfolio of work that is wide ranging, inspired by global challenges and with a sustainable view on society. Mecanoo combines the disciplines of architecture, urban planning, interior design and landscape architecture to produce unorthodox design solutions born from a strong sensitivity to context and a highly interdisciplinary design process. Mecanoo’s projects range from single houses to complete neighbourhoods and skyscrapers, cities and polders, schools, theatres and libraries, hotels, museums and even a chapel. Some of its most notable projects include the Municipal Offices and Train Station in Delft; the Holland Open Air Museum in Arnhem; one of its latest projects, the Hilton Amsterdam Airport Schiphol hotel; the Library of Birmingham; and HOME Manchester to name just a few.

The practice is made up of highly multidisciplinary staff of over 160 creative professionals from 25 countries working in offices in the Netherlands, UK, US and Taiwan. Alongside creative director Houben, the company is led by technical director Aart Fransen and financial director Peter Haasbroek, who are joined by partners Francesco Veenstra, Ellen van der Wal, Paul Ketelaars and Dick van Gameren. Knowledge centres within the practice enable the team to stay up-to-date in technological and design innovations in sustainability, eco-engineering, technology, education and learning, high-rise and mobility. The extensive collective experience, gained over three decades, results in designs that are realised with technical expertise and great attention to detail.

Each of Mecanoo’s projects illustrate the three fundamental elements of Houben’s architectural vision: people, place, purpose. Discovering unexpected solutions for the specifics of programme and context is the foremost challenge in all of the assignments. Each design is considered in terms of its cultural setting place and time. Preoccupied not by a focus on form, but on process, consultation, context, urban scale and integrated sustainable design strategies, the practice creates culturally significant buildings with a human touch. Interweaving social, technical, playful and humane aspects together, Houben and her team form a unique solution to each assignment, embedded within its context and orchestrated specifically for the people who use it.

Houben maintains an active presence in academia and culture, regularly publishing critical works and giving lectures all over the world. She has performed in numerous academic and professional capacities throughout her career, including Chair of Architecture and Aesthetics of Mobility at Delft University of Technology; visiting professor at Harvard Graduate School of Design; and as director of the First International Architecture Biennale in Rotterdam. In March 2016, she was awarded an Honorary Doctorate from Utrecht University in the Netherlands. She has received honorary fellowships of the Royal Institute of British Architects, the American Institute of Architects and the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada. In 2014, she was elected Woman Architect of the Year by the Architects’ Journal and in November 2015, Queen Maxima of The Netherlands presented her the Prins Bernhard Cultuurfonds Prize for her wide-ranging career.

In 2011 the Mecanoo Manchester office was born – acting as a project office for HOME Arts and Culture centre, a project that in 2015 solidified Mecanoo’s position in the city of Manchester.

Headed up by Partner and Architect Francesco Veenstra alongside Associate Architect Ernst ter Horst, the Manchester office has grown significantly in the past four years and now has a strong team in place working alongside the duo. While the offices in Delft and Manchester are separated by water, they have a unified identity and thanks to the internet are in constant communication.

Having been with Mecanoo since 1995 and partner since 2007, Veenstra’s client-centred approach is underlined in the development of strong concepts that lead to both the satisfaction of the brief and the enhancement of community benefit. The strength of this is evident in the wide reception of numerous Mecanoo projects he has lead to completion, most notably the Library of Birmingham, HOME Arts and Culture centre, the Delft Municipal Offices and Train Station, and Texel Island’s Kaap Skil Maritime and Beachcombers Museum – all of which reach beyond the limitations of the site and the project to serve their communities.

Ernst ter Horst is Mecanoo Manchester’s frontman and he played an integral role in the delivery of HOME. Having worked for Ian Simpson Architects for over twelve years, he leverages a wealth of experience having worked on some of Manchester’s most significant construction projects over the last fifteen years. Born in the Netherlands, raised in Portugal and now living in Manchester, Ter Horst lends a rich cross-cultural background to the Manchester team, including his own experience as a student at The University of Manchester, where he graduated with distinction in 2003.

For Veenstra, what makes Mecanoo stand out from the crowd is its design philosophy, telling mondo*arc: “Some architectural practices have a very distinct separation between the various design disciplines, but we believe it’s a necessity to cross borders. Depending on the needs of a project, one or two partners lead a multidisciplinary team, ensuring cohesion in the work. There are no strict boundaries between architecture and design or way-finding or software engineering and so we always try to bring all the elements together and stitch them in – creating one holistic design.”

As part of this holistic approach, Mecanoo appreciates the relationship between architecture and lighting, with both daylight and artificial lighting being very important factors in the company’s philosophy and design methodology, as Veenstra and Ter Horst explain.

“The architectural design stage is very much dependent on lighting,” says Veenstra, “changes in light, changes the space.”

Using HOME as a reference, Veenstra continues: “if you look at the restaurant space (at HOME) which – together with Concrete architectural practice – we developed a lighting concept for, the luminaires are 3m above floor level, meaning the light almost becomes a second ceiling in the space. The use of artificial light really helps to create space and focus when needed. Artificial lighting is of great importance in our designs and ideally should be part of the very early design process.”

“We love light, it’s fundamental,” adds Ter Horst. “Working with daylight is a wonderful thing to be able to do. From a sunlight perspective on a larger scale, we’re always looking back at the design to maximise natural light into the project, landscape or the building and enhance this wherever we can.

“When you get to the medium level of design, you’re looking at how windows, roof lights or atriums can be designed to flood the building with daylight. You have to consider how the light is being used and how it is supplemented, asking questions such as ‘how can the details of the window frames be enhanced so even more daylight comes in, or is reflected, or is bounced around’. A micro level of this is the artificial lighting.

“The whole southern elevation at HOME is highly glazed to get as much daylight into the scheme as well as views out. We had to battle against solar shading and solar gains to prevent the building from overheating. Using fins helps to mitigate excessive solar gain but also, their orientation is such that you can still see outside,” continues Ter Horst. “I’ve been at HOME on warm days and have been surprised at how pleasant the temperature is. We’ve got the thermal mass of the concrete and lots of daylight flooding in, yet it feels absolutely fine which is really remarkable.”

“We worked with BuroHappold on the lighting at HOME, as well as other designers,” continues Ter Horst. “This helps keep the ideas fresh and new. This can be considered a trait of Mecanoo – working collaboratively with lots of other disciplines, not just lighting designers.

“Often there will be someone working on the project that approaches the lighting with a fresh pair of eyes and from a different angle – this makes you think differently about it and can make the project even better. Working with lighting designers is key as it can be really beneficial in specifying the right light fittings for reducing energy use, while getting the right quality of light.

“Francine’s view on lighting is very strong – the warmth of light you get at HOME is really key to her. In the Library of Birmingham for instance the large entrance space with the café is a wonderfully impressive environment, but a slight light adjustment in terms of warmth and tones could define the café in a better way. This is an example of where lighting designers can really enhance that level of specification and get the right feel in a space.”

Veenstra adds to this telling mondo*arc: “I think that up until about ten years ago we underestimated the importance of lighting design, the focus was more on daylight and artificial lighting was very much about choosing the right luminaire in the sense of aesthetics rather than performance.”

“This has radically changed since we started to work on larger scale projects,” says Veenstra. “It has become more obvious that we need to work with a lighting designer. Performance has become increasingly important, not only from a sustainability aspect but from a building management and  healthy environment point of views. I think from that moment on, even on the smaller projects, having lighting designers on board became a real contribution to the Mecanoo team.”

Commenting on what lighting should bring to a project, Ter Horst again references HOME: “Lighting brings a great deal to a project. Take the HOME lighting sign for example that is suspended from the restaurant’s ceiling. We worked with a signage designer for this and it creates a different sense of scale inside and a distinct identity for the building.”

“We didn’t want to just stick a sign on the front of the building and neither did the client. We wanted to be restrained and subtle in our approach and this is one way we achieved this. The sign provides an identity for the project as well as creating an intimate sense of scale in the tall restaurant space.

“Intimacy, identity and warmth are unquantifiable. Lighting provides points of interest and gradation.”

Where as some architectural practices might come to the table with a fixed plan of what they want to do, this is where Mecanoo differs, preferring to present a less formal, structured idea so that it doesn’t become unworkable further down the line if it doesn’t fit the intended space. Instead of being form-based, each project is informed through open dialogue – all very diverse but all the while using Houben’s principle of ‘People, Place, Purporse’ to create unforgettable spaces.

Looking ahead, with the Manchester office now firmly established in the city, could the next step be London, something that would be considered an obvious move to some? “We do have projects running in the London area,” says Veenstra. “We’re currently working on the construction phase of a residential project in Cambridge, as well as a large-scale residential project in London for Peabody Trust. It’s a huge scale project, which requires a very local presence and as such, we are indeed planning a London office.

“Our main focus will remain on the projects we currently have, delivering what we’re supposed to – high quality architecture,” concludes Veenstra. “We manage to be a successful partner during the construction phase as well and this is something we want to build on to improve the architectural quality in the UK.”

Pic: Harry Cock – Francine Houben with Mecanoo colleagues.