The Superlofts philosophy: Marc interviewed in Het Parool!

Want to read more about how Superlofts can solve the current housing crisis and make cities more communal, less wasteful, and more beautiful? Read this Het Parool interview with Marc to find out how Superlofts can increase occupancy and lengthen the lifespan of buildings, thanks to their Open Building framework, while making the city more diverse, with space for all kinds of incomes and households.

Read the original dutch article here

The kitchen here, the TV there — we should do away with boring fixed layouts, says architect Marc Koehler. He designs “Superlofts”: big, empty apartments. Koehler’s dream is an inclusive, tolerant city, where neighbours meet each other.

The nicest thing about designing your own house is that you have to imagine scenarios. You have to ask yourself: how can I be happy for the rest of my life? Design can make you happy. Do you have big windows designed in just the right way that make you feel as if you are living outside? That is something that brings happiness,” says architect Marc Koehler. “But if the windows are not well-designed, and you’re always too hot, then it will go all wrong. What is also true is that Design can fuck your life up.

He begins describing a long list of happy moments. Waking up with the sunlight on your bed while you smell and hear the espresso machine making you a coffee. The happiness inspired by a house full of light, trees, and plants, with a beautiful view and finely-tuned acoustics. “A design can realise all of this. Individual freedom and the realisation of happiness, inside a collective framework. That is an architect’s job.”

So that is why you ask future homeowners to describe their ideal day at the beginning of the design process? 

Yes, like a film script, from moment to moment, right down to every detail. How do you want to wake up, what kind of music fits the atmosphere you would like to create, how does the light fall, what do you see, what do you smell and hear? Thinking from scenarios is a hallmark of all of my designs.

Where does that come from?

My partner is a choreographer at the Dutch National Opera & Ballet. At the beginning of my career I designed the scenography and decor with him for a couple of ballet performances. I realised then that you can look at buildings in the same way. Every building is actually a set for a certain choreography — our lives. As an architect you create the conditions where the dancers, or rather inhabitants, have complete freedom to express themselves. If you do that well it will become a harmonious whole rather than a mess or a cacophony.

Everyone wants to live in a well-designed house that perfectly fits them, but the reality is that that’s not an option for many people in the city. 

People don’t get the chance, because most homes are not designed with the idea of allowing complete freedom of expression. If a home is already designed in a fixed way, where you can only put the sofa in one place and the TV has to be in a certain place even though the light falls on it in a weird way, then it’s game over. But you can design homes that leave far more decisions to the inhabitants.

Many homes don’t reflect what people actually want, then? 

Yes, exactly, and we just accept it. But I would say: we’re still going to build so many homes. Let’s do that well, not with cramped homes with the same old standard layouts, with walls and pipes and electrics all fixed in concrete walls that you cannot adjust without knocking them down. The stupid thing is that building laws sets out so many rules, but doesn’t specify that you should be able to put your sofa in three different places.

Koehler is sitting at a small kitchen island made of natural stone in the open space of his loft in Houthavens, Amsterdam. He has built a mezzanine into the room, which has five-metre-high ceilings and walls of raw concrete slabs. The mezzanine is a hanging steel construction with a solid wood floor. There are stairs on either sides that connect the living room and bedroom. Downstairs is a general space for relaxing or working, while upstairs is for cooking and eating. 

In his house, which is full of plants, he has created a bath that slides out of a closet, a second front door (so that the loft can also be easily divided, if he ever wants to rent out a part of it) and a fantastic view. It is situated between the old and the new city. On one side he has a view of all the new builds, and on the other side the industrial harbours of Coenhaven and Vlothaven. From here he can see the IJ, the cars on the A10 ringroad, the towers and spires of the city’s ancient churches and other monuments, and the skyscrapers around Zuidas and Amstel station. In short: the whole city.

This is what he calls a ‘Superloft’. It is an apartment in a block that is made up of similar empty blocks stacked on top of each other. They are more or less empty boxes. Inhabitants can design and construct the interiors however they choose, determining where the walls, stairs and rooms will be built.

Three of these Superloft complexes are now in the Houthavens, all of them built without a developer. Koehler developed them together with a cooperative of residents and the architects group De Hoofden.

In Buiksloterham there is another block of Superlofts, also built with an a cooperative, and there are two more being built in collaboration with developers in the north of Amsterdam. They are also in Delft and The Hague, some are currently under construction in Hoorn, Groningen and Almere. There are even plans for Superlofts abroad.

But there was also a moment, not so long ago, that no one saw this happening. Real estate agents said: no one would want such a home, everyone wants to live on the ground floor. Commercial parties didn’t dare to take the risks. It was actually out of frustration that we began in 2011, in the middle of the crisis, to develop the buildings ourselves.

Building yourself is about having courage. Pioneers are rewarded. This kind of project is not per se for people with a lot of money, but it is for people who can make the effort from the beginning to join this kind of project and who invest time and energy in it.

And that’s how it stays relatively affordable? You paid €380,000 for your loft of 135m2, right?

Right, and the interior building and finishing cost an extra €70,000. But the real financial advantage is for people who can phase their investment. A Superloft is a relatively big home, but it is completely empty. So you can save up for a luxury kitchen, an extra floor, a bathroom, or an extra bedroom. It lends itself to new ways of living, too. In this block there’s a divorced couple who are still bringing their children up together: they live next to each other, with a different front door each, but they have one shared room.

But this is 2019, not 2011. Is it still possible to build this kind of project in Amsterdam now?

There are still areas today that are like what Houthavens used to be: Noord, Zuidoost, Duivendrecht, Haven-Stad, NDSM. You can still find pioneering locations where it’s still possible. Maybe. Because the high land prices, ever-increasing requirements [from local governments] and the rising price of construction has made it very difficult in Amsterdam. And the developers’ hunger is so rapacious that, apart from IJburg, there are very few opportunities for this kind of initiative.

My plea would be: if you want this kind of society, then make sure that this kind of building is accessible, or tempt developers with something — low ground lease prices, for example — to encourage special initiatives.

Why would you want this kind of luxury home as the basis of today’s society? 

It’s not about luxury. In the Superloft buildings we want as many types of diverse homes as possible: from 30m2 to 200m2. Then you will get a diverse mix of people and you create a kind of mini-city, or village. That is the key to an inclusive city. Amsterdam is still inclusive, but we have to be careful. If everywhere becomes a yuppie district then the soul will be sucked out of the city.

You’ve now been selected as an architect-in-residence at the Architectuur Centrum Amsterdam, to give both solicited and unsolicited advice to the municipality. So: what do you think should happen?

I think that we have to ensure that we don’t make any buildings that only fulfil a function temporarily and that will be empty in ten years. It has to be more flexible. That means higher ceilings, walls that can be moved around and flexible piping and electrics, bigger windows, and even multiple entrance doors per home, so that you can later cut them in two. The loft enables the chance to combine multiple programs in one building. Social housing, luxury homes to buy, or office space: then it’s all possible. And that, in short, is how you arrive at the idea of the loft.

What is so attractive about a loft?

Think about Soho in New York and the old industrial buildings at the beginning of last century. They had huge glass facades so that the factory workers could work with daylight even in the middle of the building. They are buildings that have proved their worth: they have been used by squatters, artists, as ateliers and for creative companies. Everything has passed through since they were built. 

The qualities of this kind of building are created through the big rooms with no set fixings or walls, with big open spaces, oversized, and with lots of glass. It’s a building without a fixed function and that makes it ideal.

They are often buildings made by unknown architects. 

Yes. They are also not grotesque buildings that scream: look at me, look at me! They have good, solid bones, and a world of diversity within. Whereas now there are many buildings that come divided up into the ‘most sold layout’ by real estate agents. The architect is only allowed to think about the facade, which is treated as a kind of decorative architectural sauce to spice up the ugly building behind it. But that is superficial and unsustainable, and in the long run erodes the city.

With this kind of building you play a modest role.

Well, modest… Actually, I think there is great responsibility in finding and restoring the balance between the collective and the individual. But indeed, I want to make buildings that are timeless, strong sculptures that can take a beating, not a structure that screams. Robust simplicity. 

Does that fit with your generation of architects, that got started after the collapse of the dotcom bubble and that lived through the credit crunch?

There is now a new generation of architects for whom it’s much less about egos and the design of the facade, and much more about the fundamental innovations. I’m part of a group of architects who began a movement that we call ‘Open Building’, from the ideas developed by John Habraken in the ‘60s. He was a true visionary. Our circular buildings give the freedom to users to design a room oneself and that are future-proof, thanks to their flexibility. A building is just a piece of infrastructure, and the life that happens inside is the content

That sounds very functional. 

It’s not. Why do people love the style of the Amsterdam School or the industrial architecture of Soho? Because the shell, the supporting structure, is so beautifully made. If it was just a functional structure then it would have no authenticity, it would be have no soul. And don’t think that it’s easy to design a facade that is calm and timeless and that ages beautifully. A facade is a pile of construction materials: facades, windows, doors, ventilation grilles, downspouts. Everything has to fit.

What was the first house that you designed? 

That was a house on IJburg in 2005. The client wanted the most sustainable ecological house that was possible within their budget. It became a building with a vertical garden and urban farming on the roof, with chicken, pear trees, and a vegetable garden.

And that house got a lot of attention. 

Yes, when Jort Kelder [a well-known Dutch journalist and TV presenter] saw a photo of that book on the cover of an architecture book, he commissioned me to design his vacation home on Terschelling. It is an eco-dune house, sunken into the sand. Jort gave me complete design freedom and his trust. That doesn’t happen often in the Netherlands, because everyone tries to have too much control or doesn’t want the building to stand out. 

I now only work with partners and clients that trust me 100%. That, I think, is the way to make a difference and to excel. Otherwise compromise and mediocrity rule.

That sounds like a luxurious position to be in. 

It is, and we worked hard for fifteen years to get here, but at the moment it does feel a bit like being a kid in a candy store. The economy is spinning like crazy, so we are able to choose who we want to work with. Now the best clients are coming to us and we don’t have to search for work.

We have something like twenty projects running simultaneously. But it’s also a tense time because construction costs and ground prices are so high at the moment that it’s not clear how a few of the Amsterdam projects will go. Will the municipality’s stipulated ratio of 40-40-20 ownership which means 80 percent of the built homes have to be for low to middle incomes, be stuck to? Can we make smaller but more smartly designed homes so that they are still affordable? What effect will the whole nitrogen discussion [the Netherlands was recently found to be in breach of EU limits on nitrogen emissions] have on our work? Can we find another construction system that makes building costs some 10 percent cheaper? Or can we find investors that are happy to settle for lower returns?

Do you get worried about all of this?

Regularly. I’m really tense, because we have built up this big practice. We put in 10 tenders last year and won six of them. That means we’ve grown enormously and have a really great team, with a new office in an old film studio in Amsterdam Noord, but because of the pressure on the projects in Amsterdam there is the threat that things will stagnate. And you have to keep paying your staff, of course.

But your friends say: Marc has become much more relaxed these past few years, and is much less of a workaholic. 

That’s because I saw the light five years ago and realised that it’s important to live healthily. I radically changed my lifestyle overnight.

Why was that?

It was sink or swim to get Superlofts off the ground. I had to work really hard for a long time and we nearly went bankrupt a couple of times. Then I went to Thailand, really stressed, and read a book by the Dalai Lama: The Art of Happiness. When I came back I got a dog from a shelter, I started getting up at 6am every day to go running and I started eating healthily. I lost 18 kilos and it has changed my life dramatically.

What is different?

I am just very aware of how important your health is. If you work yourself to death, eat unhealthily and drink too much, that will have a negative effect on your mood. A healthy body and healthy mind are interconnected, so I take care of myself.

That means that you have to try to get stress under control. And that you do things that you get energy from. Authentic things that suit you and in which you wholeheartedly believe. Nothing for money, nothing for your ego. Those are things that I let go of.

And that is reflected in the buildings that you design.

Yes, a healthy lifestyle is reflected in everything. We do a lot with wood because that is the healthiest and most sustainable way to built. We integrate green in architecture with roof gardens and green facades, just as with the first house on the IJburg. That house actually contains the seeds of everything that I still do now, but now I’ve managed to adapt it to a larger scale. And buildings where you can meet other people is important. That is really the key for an inclusive, tolerant city.

What can an architect do to make that happen?

Combine an entrance hall with a lounge that has places to work for people who work at home, a playroom for the kids or a workplace with shared tools, where everyone can repair something or paint a cabinet. Make a collective roof terrace with barbecues, solar panels and outside showers. Create places where people can spontaneously meet each other.

Do you miss the crisis?

If I was young and starting my business now, then I would really welcome a crisis. Everyone now wants the top price, so there is nothing happening in some areas. But the moment that the economy stops, the prices fall and all experimentation becomes feasible again. Never waste a good crisis.

And what are your plans? 

Bringing Superlofts abroad would be wonderful, but I also want to design more small affordable Superlofts. And I still have a dream of connecting all the Superloft initiatives to each other to make a kind of ‘super community’ with all the residents. So I’m investing a lot of money in a website where residents where tell their stories and seek contact with each other.

So you’re actually stretching the role of an architect very far. 

Everyone tells me I’m crazy that I’ve already invested hundreds of thousands of euros in the development of Superlofts and in the community. I’ve now commissioned 25 lofts to be photographed, and got professionals to interview the residents, make films of their homes, and to make the website. But intuitively I know that I have to do that, because I get energy from it.

Is that the only reason?

As an architect, building a community around yourself is one way to have influence on the quality of the city. In that way I’m trying to lead the market to build more sustainable, inclusive buildings. Do you think a German or Chinese investor cares how people live? Not at all. They just want a generic product that involves as little risk as possible. 

But I want to develop gigantically daring projects, as challenging as possible, with new ideas, that are sustainable, inclusive, timeless, future-proof. There are risks involved in that, but they are manageable and mostly I see opportunity. And hello, that is why we became architects! To do fantastic things and to make the city better.

Photography: Friso Keuris, Jansje Klazinga

Interview and Text: Lex Boon

English Translation: Sophie Knight