the gentlewoman

The Calling

As one of the architectural masterminds at OMA, Ellen van Loon has helped shape urban landscapes from Beijing to Berlin. The 58-year-old has just unveiled her 35th building for the Rotterdam-based practice: BLOX, a tremendous glass-fronted, stacked, geometric cultural centre perched on Copenhagen’s harbour front. Ellen’s fabulously analytical mind delights in the complex problem solving that gives flight to such wild ideas. And she likes to be in her office by 8am each day.

Ellen van Loon

Richard: How does it feel to see BLOX finally completed?

Ellen: It’s always a tense moment. I’ve been working on this project for 11 years and it can feel like being in a bit of a bubble, imagining how a building is going to function and how people will use it. Are they going to behave as I thought? It’s very special to witness people’s initial reactions to a space. That’s the moment of proof.

R: Have you been lingering in the corner, watching people then?

E: It’s one of the reasons why I include a cafe in every building I design – it can be a good place to sit and observe. People’s first reaction is critical because you can instantly read on their faces if they like a space or not. But either way, it's fine. I don’t believe in the perfect building.

R: Why not?

E: Buildings are very different from making a piece of art or designing clothes – if you don’t like it when it’s finished, it can’t just be thrown away or put in the cupboard. I’m not so precious about my work that I won’t adjust it, even with projects that I’ve worked on 10 years ago. I’m still involved in changes; it’s my professional responsibility to ensure that a building is appreciated and fulfils its function as best as it can.

R: What was your first encounter with architecture?

E: When I was five or six, I started designing clothes for my dolls, then for myself. At 12, I became more interested in space and I was always moving furniture around at home – it drove everyone nuts. I also loved mathematics and I enjoyed solving problems. Architecture appealed to me because I’m not a person who can really work on my own. That’s the great thing about it: you bring ideas and people together, discuss things, develop them and become richer for it.

R: Does what you’re doing now bear much resemblance to your earliest work?

E: Some of my earliest work was designing theatres. Every aspect of a theatre is about having the audience suspend their disbelief. It’s about selling a dream. That idea changed my entire outlook on architecture. A building is not just a space where people work, meet or live – a building also needs to entertain.

R: What would you say is your biggest achievement?

E: The first building I did on my own with OMA, Casa da Música in Porto in 2005, I remember thinking, I have no idea if anyone can even build this. It was so complex; there were so many issues, but we got there. It taught me when you’re creative you can always find a solution.

R: What are you like to work with?

E: I’m quite social, I talk; and I’m direct. If I have an opinion, I voice it. I think I’m able to make everyone feel like they’re part of the team and not just the hired help. Our projects often start with just six or seven people, but the further we delve into them, the bigger they become. They’re like puzzles. I like managing that process, gearing everything up to get the best end product. But there are moments in the design process where I have to say, “No, it should not be like that”. I fight hard to prove that I’m right.

R: That notorious Dutch directness must help.

E: Ha! Yes, we Dutch have to be very careful especially when working with clients from other countries. I’ve been doing this job for 20 years, working with people in the Middle East, India, the USA, so I’ve become quite adept at intuiting different expectations and adjusting my approach accordingly. Again, just by watching people’s faces you can get a sense of the situation. Quite often I’m in meetings where I don’t even speak the language so that can be a powerful tool.

May 2018. Interview by Richard O’Mahony. Portrait courtesy of OMA/Frans Strous.