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Rupturing Uniformity essay
by Linda Vlassenrood

from: Frank Havermans Architectural Constructions, NAi Publishers 2010

Frank Havermans is hungry for more and as soon as possible, please. He’s ready to take on bigger, more complex commissions and willing to adapt his standard way of working to get them. So Havermans is ambitious. But he’s also a perfectionist, contrary and exacting. He leaves nothing to chance and likes to work alone. These are the qualities that over the years have culminated in a modus operandi with highly personal, clear-cut criteria. An approach that is at odds with scaling up. Havermans always builds his installations and objects on his own, which is why up till now the human scale has always been the defining factor in his designs and their execution. The lengthy construction process and carefully conceived, honest treatment of the material is associated with a high degree of exclusivity, plus months of unremitting labour in the studio. Havermans consciously keeps his distance from accepted architectural practice and constructs his projects without the intervention of building contractors and structural engineers. He produces no drawings but designs purely with models, which serve as his spatial and structural studies, providing definitive evidence of his projects’ structural feasibility. Havermans’ spatial installations are highly tactile, simultaneously rough and elegant. There is invariably an element of stillness about them.

The crucial issue that Havermans currently feels he is confronting is the degree to which he will have to abandon his individualized and intensive modus operandi if he works on a larger scale. An equally fundamental question seems to be the extent to which it will still be possible for him to give substance to notions such as tactility and honesty: concepts that form an intrinsic part of his design and construction process, and that exemplify his points of view in the face of contemporary design practice and current users and society.

Autonomy

We have discussed, in several conversations, a possible change of course and a number of considerations and fascinations that are important to Havermans. Although his strong views and resolution would suggest otherwise, Havermans responds optimistically and with surprising pragmatism to the prospect of working on a larger scale. ‘I’ll have to give it a try. It requires a different approach to designing and I’ll have to organize people around me. I don’t like organizing and in the past I couldn’t bear having others around, but I’ve been letting people in more and more, to work together. It’s the only possible way to execute larger projects.’

Hiring in some organizational talent aside, Havermans has a number of reasons for wanting to keep his distance from architectural practice. He trained at art school and then deliberately chose not to attend a school of architecture, for he wanted the freedom to experiment as soon as possible. This is why he avoided the standard trajectory of joining an architecture firm. His need to work autonomously is nowadays accompanied by criticism of the marginal role played by architects in the contemporary design and construction process. It is a criticism that he shares with many architects and critics, but which his status as an artist allows him to channel in another fashion. ‘Current practice in architecture has become so complex. In the past architects were highly regarded but now they simply act as aesthetic consultants. However, the increasing complexity of the construction process has also created some space in which I can make use of my status as an artist. I approach and present my architectural designs, like KAPKAR/TAW-BW-5860 and KAPKAR/ZZW-220, as art. As a result the conditioned building world doesn’t know what to do with them.’

Havermans is constantly searching for latitude to allow him to circumvent permit procedures and other barriers in the design and construction process. For him this is a necessity that allows him to guarantee his original intentions and thereby the quality of an object. However, this particular preoccupation also begs the question of the permanent value of his spatial installations. ‘I’m not so bothered if a project has to vanish through lack of a permit. It allows me to denounce the fact that absolutely nothing is possible anymore. For the building process is an accumulation of problems. While I’m actually endeavouring with my work to convey a certain freedom.’

Along with the marginal role played by architects, Havermans also raises the issue of the dynamics of architecture firms. ‘I know many offices where they’re satisfied if 90 per cent of their original plan is successful. I can’t imagine it myself. The purpose of an architecture office is simply to keep the firm going; within the mass of work there is sometimes a project that makes the press. I’d rather put all my energy into that one project to ensure that it is 100 per cent.’ It is hardly surprising that up till now this ambition has been Havermans’ chief argument in favour of working alone. However, he goes even further when it comes to keeping control of a project: he’s not only the designer, but also the structural engineer, the building manager, the building contractor and the carpenter. Over the years Havermans has cultivated a policy of achieving optimum results through the circumvention of existing regulations, constant control of the construction process and maintaining an independent position, and this strategy has become one with his projects. However, in his desire to operate on a larger scale and build a detached house or a bridge, for example, he now believes that he needs another design approach. Although there is a core of truth in this, the basic issue is ultimately the extent to which he is prepared to relinquish his hold on the construction process. The process that is so intimately associated with the design. Havermans himself states that making an object or an installation is merely the execution of the concept, but in his projects every knot in the plywood is pregnant with meaning.

Sketching with Models

So how does Havermans approach this intensive design and construction process? Once he has received a commission, he always sets about making models as quickly as possible: on the one hand to get a grip on the scale and the proportions of the space where the object or installation is to be placed, on the other to give expression to his first intuitive thoughts about the spatial design. Havermans sketches with his models and every project generates an extensive series of these. The first model is purely concerned with form, function and space. Initial models are made to a scale of 1:100 or 1:50, allowing Havermans to gain some idea of how the design should look. In subsequent stages he makes his models to an increasingly large scale, which enables him to incorporate more and more details and develop the structure. Working in these scaled steps also affords Havermans the opportunity to assimilate the construction method. ‘I usually end up at a scale of 1:20 and that final model includes everything I’ll need to actually build the spatial object or installation. My models start out as an intuitive development medium and then acquire the status of deduction model before finally becoming a presentation model. I never draw my designs but take my models to my clients for their feedback.’ Although Havermans needs to produce fewer and fewer models to test his desired result, these models, which are generally made of cheap plywood, still bear a great resemblance to his finished projects. During construction his final model also serves as a three-dimensional blueprint. ‘The model sits beside me on the saw bench. I measure it and copy it.’ So a Havermans’ project is an obvious scaling-up of his last model, which is not the case in architectural practice. Once Havermans has completed a project, this final model acquires an autonomous status and becomes an art work in its own right. It is the only moment at which Havermans allows his sculpture to be just that.

Havermans also calls his final model the conclusion model. Although the term ‘conclusion’ is open to a number of interpretations, to Havermans it means that the concept has been totally fixed and the project need only be realized. The dividing line between concept and realization is somewhat harder to define for outsiders, however. In the case of the KAPKAR/TT-C2P Cinema, for example, Havermans knew in advance that he would use plywood to make the installation; during the course of construction, however, budgetary limitations prompted his decision to utilize used materials, obtained from a demolition company, which he chose with the greatest care and incorporated in his object. Used plywood has evolved into one of the stylistic characteristics of Havermans’ oeuvre, although it was a choice largely born of necessity engendered by limited money flow in the cultural world. ‘I’ve made a point of cultivating working with cheap, used plywood: time and again I’ve developed and found new approaches to arriving at new sculptures and works using the same material.’ Many significant decisions are thus entailed in the materialization of Havermans’ concepts, which means he largely undermines his own parameters in the statement cited above.

Tactility

Havermans’ modus operandi and projects are coloured through and through by his fascination for tactility, structure and honesty. He taxes his sense of touch by simply selecting material, for he sometimes spends days at demolition companies, searching out the right plywood for a project: not too new, not too warped, good colour and no glue remnants from flooring materials. Although tactility is not a goal in itself, there are exceptions to the rule in Havermans’ oeuvre. In the case of KAPKAR/TO-RXD, for example, the skin effect forms an explicit part of the object’s experience and integration in the landscape. This is the first project in which Havermans worked with concrete, allowing himself to be astonished by the remains of the formwork’s tree bark in the skin; the rough structure is an effect he clearly sought to emulate. Havermans’ predilection for cheap basic materials has made him a master in building with used plywood. Concrete, steel and brick are a future prospect. His fascination for both tactility and structure is combined in these materials.

Construction

Although building was a feature of Havermans’ childhood, thanks to his father’s carpentry workshop, he says that his fascination for structure and construction did not develop until art school. It was a feeling that slowly grew with each project and first culminated in an installation for De Overslag artists’ initiative in Eindhoven in 1998. ‘After graduation I spent four years drawing, but all my fascinations came together in this installation: architecture, art, a small space in which you can sit and construction. It was a sensational feeling.’ The installation was a replica of the initiative’s exhibition space on a 1:3 scale. Perspective shafts connected the door and window openings of the replica with the door and window openings of the exhibition area, allowing the model to float in space; a balcony offered a view of the model and provided access to the installation. The space between the model and the exhibition area could be explored through two door openings on the ground floor.

Honesty

This first installation in Eindhoven meant a new beginning for Havermans and clearly showed him that he wanted to work with architecture. His architecture involves an approach to construction that recalls the nineteenth-century architectural debate about truth and character. ‘My work should be more than just a representation. The sculpture emphatically arises from the construction.’ KAPKAR/TFA-5W in Fort Asperen was obviously designed to engage in a play with gravity. The object weighs 500 kg and floats in the high, narrow space on arms which extend through the windows and are clamped in position on the other side of the wall. Since no nails are used in its suspension, it is considered an ‘independent’ construction. Havermans was not able to check whether the installation would actually remain suspended until he positioned the work in the space. ‘The sculpture derives from the play of thrust and traction; if those forces had not worked, a magnificent object would have been reduced to decoration. In which case the project would have been a complete failure in my eyes.’

Quality

Achieving quality is a pervasive motive in Havermans’ oeuvre. It is clearly present in the tenacity with which he sets about his work. However, Havermans also seeks to generate more meaning in a society that is increasingly geared to consumption and standardization. ‘In my projects I work with junk. It’s the cheapest material you can find. How can you make something special from an old piece of plywood? This is where the essence and the quality of the designing come in. Quality for me is also about the life of objects. I’m irritated by our throwaway culture. Have something made. There are so many good designers. It’s often not much more expensive than the furniture superstores and at least you’ll have something really special that’s well put together too. Quality doesn’t just lie in luxury, either. Many of the installations I make are awkward and cumbersome. With KAPKAR/TAW-BW-5860, for example, you have to be careful not to bang your head. Luxury isn’t always quality. Quality can also mean that you start to think about where you are or what you’re doing.’

It is this raising of awareness that Havermans wishes to achieve in users or the public, through uncomfortable means. In his abhorrence of unilateral consumption and a society geared purely to leisure, comfort and convenience, Havermans actually expects a great deal of users. ‘I think that people should make a bit of an effort when using certain things. Otherwise you deprive them of reflection, which is a form of stupefaction.’ Another approach which he takes to stimulate reflection is the continuous creation of small spaces. There is always an air of stillness about these spatial installations. Their contemplative effect is inherent in their dimensions and derives from Havermans’ deep-rooted desire to be alone. He is always in search of places to which he can withdraw. It is a search which functions, often unconsciously, as a point of departure for his designs.

The Next Step

How working on a larger scale will actually lead Havermans to another way of designing remains to be seen in practice. For the moment, he awaits a concrete commission and has no clear plan of attack. Scaling-up will certainly cause him to shift his priorities on all kinds of levels. ‘Designing something small is often much harder than something large. For everything is equally important in the small designs I produce. The smaller an object, the more visible the skin and the material.’ Working with ‘new’ materials such as steel and concrete will provide Havermans with an important starting point. KAPKAR/TO-RXD is Havermans’ first project in concrete; the material presents him with many new angles of approach that he wishes to explore further in the future. More intensive collaboration with structural engineers necessarily lurks in his use of new building materials. Havermans himself makes a clear distinction between designing and constructing, although the dividing line is rather abstract to outsiders. Apparently he feels enough mental space to delegate the construction process. This will, however, irrevocably lead to Havermans producing a detailed design which will allow him to keep effective control of its execution by third parties.

Scaling-up may also cause Havermans to become active in another field. Although his ideas about urban planning have found expression in his TOFUD projects, these ideas may encounter more specific resonance in the physical urban environment. An environment in which Havermans believes there are hardly any more places for spatial intervention in an unexpected manner, and in which new building displays a lack of imaginative power. Havermans misses diversity in the urban scene and is irritated by levelling in architecture. In this regard he is not necessarily concerned with experiment, but with the way in which space is regarded, for space is so much more than an accumulation of rules, functions and market-oriented economic force fields. ‘I don’t know whether it’s part of the urban planning vision or a fashion in designing, but all the buildings have the same kind of detailing, all merging together in the grey mass: the same style of grouting, the same way of finishing, the same kind of window frames. Anyone could have designed one of those blocks. It’s like it’s in the software. I’d love to counter that “fashion” with something else.’

There may be a simpler response than the one which Havermans envisages with his ambitions. His long-cherished desire to work on a larger scale and thereby expand his field of operations could be translated into another course of action: the large-scale rupturing of urban uniformity through Havermans’ spatial interventions whose tactility, stillness and awkwardness stimulate all our senses. It would be a welcome change.

from: Frank Havermans Architectural Constructions, NAi Publishers 2010