The Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) recently named Dutch architect Wiel Arets dean of its architecture school, which Mies van der Rohe famously chaired for 20 years, starting in 1938. Arets’ firm, WAA, has studios in Amsterdam, Berlin, and Maastricht, as well as Zürich, where the firm’s latest project—a headquarters complex for Allianz—is nearing completion.
WAA, which Arets started in 1983, is known for work that simultaneously blends in with, and breaks free from, its urban setting, achieving what the firm calls “complexity of content.”
Midwest editor Chris Bentley recently sat down with Arets in IIT’s S.R. Crown Hall to discuss the legacy of Mies van der Rohe, along with space travel, and the beauty of imperfection.
The Architect’s Newspaper: How active do you anticipate your role as IIT dean will be? Do you have a vision for the program?
Wiel Arets: When I’m involved with something, I always want to be 100 percent involved. I’m either involved or uninvolved. For me, this first academic year is a transition year because I would like to work out how IIT’s culture of architecture will work in the next decade. I have to first under- stand the school, the community, and the city more in depth, and what the relationship is between this place and the world.
I think it is the dean’s task, with [the help of] faculty, to make sure what the division of this place for the next few years will be. I will also in one way or another be involved in teaching. I’m interested in the academic world mainly as a student—I’m curious; I’m very much interested in research and the development of architecture.
What about IIT or Chicago in general interested you? What drew you here, now?
Chicago is the most central city in America, so it’s very well positioned. Also, in terms of architectural legacy, it’s maybe the most architectural city of America. Not only the skyscrapers, but I think the new developments in architecture, whether we talk about Mies or Wright or many other architects—SOM. There’s a big legacy but also an incredible future for Chicago, in my opinion. IIT as a university is changing. I think IIT will develop as a very interesting institute, and architecture will be an important part of that.
The legacy of Mies is clear: He was one of the most interesting architects. But we are in the second decade of a new century. And there’s a lot to achieve, there’s a lot going on in the world. People are going to Mars, developing cars like the Tesla, doing a lot of new research. The iPhone is an American invention. America is an extremely progressive country. It’s a country with dreams, where dreams come true. What I think the College of Architecture should do is ask whether we can have new dreams and whether we can make these dreams come true. We are ready for today, because the future starts today.
At IIT, I feel like a student—I am an architect who builds, who writes, and [who] would really like to produce new work while I’m here and when I’m out. For me this academic environment is important because it gives me space to do research with a very interesting community, in Chicago, which is extremely open and qualified. It’s a great honor to be here.
As dean of the Berlage Institute from 1995–2002, you focused on “progressive-research,” promoting collaboration and a kind of roiling creativity across disciplines, around shifting themes. What did you learn from that, and will this approach work at IIT?
IIT is a different school. It’s bigger. It has an undergrad program the Berlage didn’t have. I think young architects are extremely interested in asking questions. They are curious, clever, eager to be con- fronted with new developments. So the school should give them an environment where that can flourish. Yes, we have to teach them skills, but from day one, we have to give them the bigger perspective in what an architect could be.
Architecture is a complex discipline. Every day it’s becoming more complex, but everyday it’s becoming more exciting. Besides the development of the BArch program and MArch program we need to see that the master of science program develops very strongly. Then we can bring all the students and maybe even difficult faculty for an ongoing debate within the school. I for sure would like to concentrate also on the Ph.D. program. We should be a little more broad—we could look more to the limits of what we can achieve. We’re not talking only about technological development, but also thinking about projects in a different way. We could think about the house, the museum, the library in a slightly different way. We could think about the city, the public realm in a different way.
We navigate through the world physically, but also within technology, in a very different way than we did before. In that sense I would like to bring that debate through all the school’s programs. We can work with other faculties. I spoke to deans from other faculties and I think there are things we can learn from literature, law, business, philosophy.
An architect in the first place is someone who thinks. Someone who has to deal with philosophy in a very complex way; so mathematics is not strange. For me, input and output is really important. This really is a school with a legacy, but one where every day, every hour looks different. I’m looking forward to being a really intense part of this institute. I’m interested in “rough premium.”
What do you mean by that?
I’m interested in imperfection. I’m interested in rough reading, rereading. Because there is no straight, smooth way from A to Z. I would say the better ideas develop along the rough way. That’s why I think resistance is extremely important for an architect, and architecture schools. In certain ways I’m interested in stress, forces—when there is wind out, there is something you have to fight against. Roughness creates questions. For me, that’s very important for students.
You end up having formal relationships of a state made from an amalgam of informal relationships down to the family level. How do the informal and formal interact?
A building has formal and informal conditions. You can deal with this in many ways. I believe very strongly that the formal-built work should enable an informal communication: how light is entering, how materials and acoustics are performing. I think a building should be able to change during the day.
We built a soccer stadium in Holland. There are soccer hooligans. We only built a three- foot glass barrier, and people were worried. The whole stadium became green. We used curtains, fabric—we had respect for 22,500 [fans] visiting the matches. It has been open for six years, and it remains in good condition. When you respect your audience, your audience respects you.
You have to take risks, but a certain kind of risk. It was a risk to go to the moon, but it changed the world.