Dens(C)ity Trend: interview with Nest Vandenken

Dens(C)ity Trend: interview with Nest Vandenken

Often the art and architecture Dutch scene gives to the world personalities capable to envision new perspectives and interpretations of the world we live. These characters can tell common issues with new eyes, that exasperated and stirred up, describe a different story or just generate new conscience. In the last century and half, from the Flemish lands Van Gogh, Aldo van Eyck, Theo von Doesburg, Rem Koolhaas and many others appeared. Nowadays a new personality is heading to the international scene, offering to us his architectural dystopian vision: Nest Vandenken. In the following interview, the dutch artist tells us about his work and the thought behind it.

1 – Tell us about you: who is Lord Nest Vandenken?

I am an architect, I was born in Dutch, but I live and work in Milan for many years now. I am interested in drawing (hand drawing and not) and digital photography. I studied in several european countries and I am both into architecture and urban planning, especially into urban transformation and in a general way into anthropized territory. Some of my drawings were published on “Architectural Review Folio” and they were included from Divisare inside the collection “Radical Resistance”. I published a catalogue with my works and recently my studies on Rome were included in the number 121 of the AR magazine entitled “Roma sognata. Gli archivi di architettura dal Nolli alle nuove poetiche radicali”.

2 – Your works bring us to mind an almost utopian kind of visualization, that is possible to track down to the italian and english radical movements in the last century. Is there a continuity with this kind of studies? And how do you see the result of your work? Do you consider it an artwork or the result of an architectural research?

I wouldn’t talk about utopia, but dystopia. I want the future I represent to generate a certain unease to the observer. I think that in the radical movements, someway, there was confidence in the future, technology and progress. I think there was a positive willing to propose a different way of living, an alternative to the present, even through more than disputable solutions. Some pictures can recall radical themes (dimension and collocation of certain buildings), but what I want to assert, is the total surrender of the mankind, in front of the present, even before a future, full of unavoidable and evident social, environmental and economic failures. It is more a political instance than an architectural research.

The architectural organisms i draw are often sustained by an exoskeleton made up of a more or less regular grid. The indefinite building is a “human container”; the exoskeleton in fact is a structure that sustains, also symbolically, something that locks us up and limit us. However, more than everything else I’m interested in the location of these manufactures. It is not an architectural research, but a work about the paradox of collocation, with the reasonable amount of humour I can’t live without.

In “Density | Insanity” I draw townscapes where the human irrepressible “constructive force” doesn’t rest. Let’s think about Venice, choked by high water in these weeks. One of the biggest petrochemical plants in Italy stands in front of Venice. I only located a hotel and a small shopping centre on Punta della Dogana. Nevertheless I also built three towers in Piazza del Campo, in Siena , residential buildings on the remains of the unfortunate Costa Concordia, a bank’s headquarter above Westminster, a building upon Ponte Vecchio in Florence, an inhabited bridge on the Strait of Messina, skyscrapers in Piazza Duomo in Milan and in Piazza San Pietro in Rome, slums on the Tower bridge in London and on the Brooklyn Bridge in New York, residential complex in the most irreal places such as oil platforms, deserts, polar ice and icebergs, hangars and military wrecks, ships and mountains. I proposed to live in Fukushima and in Chernobyl. In Chernobyl, after the Netflix tv series, people go spending their holidays. Reality goes beyond the most catastrophic representation.

Inside the manifesto of “Density | Insanity”, I ask myself if does exist a limit to densification and construction in impossible places, from different point of view: Climate, morphological frailty, physical unreachability, symbolism for the religious and financial power. And I don’t see any limit. In “7Billion City | Masterplan” I tried to include natural elements, like sea and lands, to imagine the appearance of the widespread city that tries to host, with great distress, more than 7 billion of people, in the next future. I think that the sea will have a central role in this issue, I don’t know whether positive or negative.

3 – On your website we can find three series that contain your works: Untitled Landscapes, 7Billion City | Masterplan e Density | Insanity. Between one series and the other there is a firm change in scale and a different method of representation. How these changes developed?

The main focus in all my research is the city with its transformations. At different scales, from the series of buildings to the macro-structure and the widespread city without limits. What really change is my representation technique, that obviously affect the subject matter. I’m interested in hand-drawing, digital drawing and photography. I believe they should coexist and find in each other the multiplicative coefficient. I like to experiment in a rather free and empiric way. Hand-drawing for example, is very instinctive and fast, without second thoughts. Instead, with digital photomontages I can increase details and verisimilitude. I think there are no rule, but only ingredients to mix, in order to create combinations. Contamination and hybrid technique are those that mostly fascinate me, and I believe they can bring the most unexpected and interesting results. I’m sure I still have a lot to learn.

4 – Within “Density | Insanity”, you face a thematic more and more tangible and there for all to see in last years. How do you see nowadays the phenomenon of overcrowding in certain regions of the planet and the related architectural solutions adopted?

This is, actually, the real problem. The planet is collapsing. His resources are consumed but not regenerated. In China there are 100 cities with a population above 100 Million of people. We don’t know where they are neither their names. And we keep building just to fuel (up) the economic engine, unable to turn it down, on pain of collapse of the whole system. Many of these cities are uninhabited, ghost city, all identical. The same thing is happening in Africa. Then we can think to the spontaneous city, the worldwide spread Slums. In Asia and Africa, almost the 25% of population lives in slums. There are spontaneous settlements where even more than 1 million of people live, all together, in a condition of total poverty, without the possibility to access the minimum services, like running water. Due to these premises it’s impossible to imagine different solution from the “storage” of large amounts of people inside more or less planned agglomerate.

On the other hand, the occidental city provides unsustainable standards for the rest of the planet, but it lives of speculative transformation by big capitals, through punctual policies of gentrification and subtraction of social spaces for privatisation of areas and services. Expulsive tendencies are recorded in every occidental city and strongly growing phenomena, based on the “Airbnb model”, accelerate this process of marginalisation of wide parts of society. Most of the real estate property in London is in the hand of companies with registered office(?) in tax havens all around the world. The most famous area transformed in the last years in the heart of Milan is property of the sovereign wealth fund of Qatar. The whole situation is in total imbalance and the perspective is not different from a hyperbolic detachment between two realities with dramatic consequences about poorness, even in the apparently richest part of the world.

If we wanted to look at numbers, first, we should think about a housing response to these mass of people to whom the access to minimum standard dwelling is denied. But it would be hypocritical. The system has indispensable priorities and his imperative rules for hundreds of years. It is possible to affect little, and frequently it is done to get free visibility. Facing this situation, we must ask ourselves what the main role of the architect is and what are his responsibilities. We must examine our conscience.

5 – Your last works concerns, in a radical way, about high densification architectural proposal. On that basis, we would ask how do you imagine the city of the future?

City of future. However, does exist a city of the present? I refer to what I said: currently there are many models of city, very different each other. The occidental city, as we live it today, barely resist, precisely because simultaneously, millions of people detained in slums, can sustain it with low-cost labour. Unbalance has always generated opportunities. If does not exist only one model to the city in the present, I think it cannot exist in the future. The occidental city has excessive problem of land consumption, pollution, difficult logistic of people and goods, reuse of abandoned areas, contraction of the effective number of locals despite the numerical increase of services users. The current trend tells us we must deal with pollution because it’s profitable, in terms of mediatic visibility and political consent.

If I open the window, I can see Milan. In the future it will have more and more cars, because the car, in a very large amount of population, is considered a status symbol and the policies still incentivise the sale of this good. Actually, the only car that doesn’t pollute, is the one you don’t buy. Circulation control policies are useless, and they only shift the problem. Sure, Milan will have a new subway line soon, but also a huge concrete pour for the Olympics winter games in 2026 and for the transformation of the railway yards. We will have more buildings with few trees hang on it, if they will be still fashionable and if the greenwashing trend will continue. But it will not be much different.

Things change if we change our mentality and personally, I don’t see much signals about that. In a wider perspective, I see people who only focus on their immediate interests, mostly guided by short-sighted leaders. Smart city is a well sold product on the market too, and today many are enriching letting the people believe that it will be easier, more intuitive, more affordable, cleaner, lighter, more electric. Without additional costs for society. From the cities designed by occidental architects in the desert in order to accomplish the oil emir’s green mania, to the forest cities in china built to dress of social and environmental sustainability a totalitarian regime that does not guarantee the minimum rules to a worker. It seems an occasion not to be missed, especially because architects are opening firms in China. There is even who plays with the idea of designing buildings on Mars, waiting for the possibility to get there, with the furniture. All this while Venice drowns, bridges collapse , wastes flood us and millions of people are willing to cross the Mediterranean at the cost of dying, to leave behind their country dramatic life conditions , where there are those slums, that will be the city of future, bigger and bigger, uncontrolled, isolated and poor.

I see people focused on designing the city of the future, while the city of the present is collapsing over us. But we design it too far, in time and space. Who can’t plan the tomorrow, plan the next 50 years. The city of the future is still going to be a place of friction and social conflicts, as always. Even if to turn on the lights will be Alexa.

6 – What are you working at today?

At your interview.

7 – What is your advice to future architects?

Never block in front of a blank paper. Never stop hand drawing and forget about computers. Create, day after day, a personal and recognisable graphic style, by which convey the concept you care enough to communicate through your own architecture. Find a passionate mentor able to transmit the knowledge. Listen to good music and to get ready to hold on.

Translated into English by Giuliano Coppola.

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Duccio Prassoli Administrator
Graduated at the Department of Architecture in Genoa, he is currently pursuing his Master’s degree at the Polytechnic of Milan. He is interested in the architecture of the 20th century and the influence that this is having on society and contemporary architectural thought.
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