Interview by Merel Pit
This article was originally featured in A.ZINE's "Mevr. de Architect" magazine, which was launched at MVRDV House in January 2021.
Nathalie de Vries (1965) is one of the most visible female architects in the Netherlands. Besides being one of the three founders of MVRDV, she fulfils many social functions – for example, she was recently appointed city architect of Groningen. As president of the Royal Institute of Dutch Architects (BNA), she put the theme of "women in architecture" on the agenda. “I sometimes say to women who want to go all the way, that it’s useful to become independent”, she says. “If they want to advance, they shouldn’t be afraid of that.”
What was it like to start an agency with two men, including your own husband?
“After our studies, we deliberately didn’t work for the same agency. The idea was that we would gain work experience first and only then think about starting our own agency. Coincidentally, we did participate together in Europan 1991. Winy was called in by Jacob. We won with our plan Berlin Voids. People then automatically thought that we were a firm and approached us with assignments. I quit my job at Mecanoo and before we knew it, we were running an agency. In the end, it’s very practical that Jacob and I now have a shared agenda, especially during the time when our two children were small.”
Back then, women with their own agencies were even more unusual than they are now. What was it like for you?
“I lived under the assumption that there was no difference. At Mecanoo I had had a wonderful role model in Francine Houben. Within the firm she filled all the roles and didn’t limit herself to certain assignments. Also within MVRDV we have always had many women working, including in leadership positions.
“Gradually I realised that I was often in male company, especially in the private sector. There were also fewer women present in the spotlight. So for a while I didn't take on a jury if I was the only woman. I didn’t want to be the ‘token woman’ anymore. I also didn’t do interviews with women’s magazines. I avoided the theme of ‘women in architecture’. But as I grew older, I did see that something was not right. It would have made sense if the women I graduated with were now be running their own offices and were visible, but they were not. When I became president of the BNA, I put this issue on the agenda.”
What did this accomplish?
“Unfortunately not enough insight into the problem. Just finding a little data on it. That’s impossible to do. In the end, the most important outcome was that a group was started within the BNA to discuss the theme. This group still exists and is growing. During one of the meetings, I called on women to stand out, not to cancel side jobs and press opportunities, something not only I, but more women did. Role models help the next generation do what they do best. We women need to show up and be heard. How I act and present myself has an impact.”
Two years ago you were appointed by TU Delft as Professor of Architectural Design. TU Delft is also a male stronghold.
“That’s right. There are hardly any female professors. I taught in many places in the world before I got the opportunity as a professor in the Netherlands. Outside the Netherlands there is a much greater awareness that the workforce of universities and schools should also reflect society.
“When I studied you had the phenomenon of women’s studies within Architecture. There, you were put into a box as a woman, as if women architects were only concerned with social housing, while the projects in this department were fun and interesting, and for men. Because why should you, as a woman, only tackle certain tasks?”
MVRDV I understand as a firm where people work late into the night every day. Is that true?
“I don't recognise this image. I see it more as an image that is very much attached to larger agencies. The idea that architects work day and night is part of a myth that surrounds the profession. Last year I was teaching bachelor’s students, and all of them had to work hard because of deadlines. Then someone said: ‘well, those deadlines are part of the architectural profession’. In other words, you can’t have a family life alongside it. I went against that. It’s not true that if you work day and night you’ll make a better design. It’s also about how you set up and structure the design process. That can be done much more efficiently. Maybe women are better at that.
“We have always had a lot of women in our agency, which has never had a huge macho culture. But even then, we have to be aware of prejudice. Equality is not a given. My husband and I worked four days a week when the children were small. Anyone can do that within the company. The work-life balance is just as challenging for men. If academy students can work four days, why can’t people with families? So, the reality is that at MVRDV many people work and have families. We've just had another baby boom.”
So at MVRDV there is room for difference?
“Diversity is necessary. Architecture is teamwork. When teams include people with different backgrounds, it has ripple effects upon how the team works on projects. For us, the only way is to make quality. This means we have to make sure that everyone can, and wants to, work with us.”
Inger Kammeraat, managing director at MVRDV, told a BNA meeting that you have recently equalized all salaries within the firm between men and women.
“When I started at the BNA with the ‘women in architecture’ theme I thought we should also look at ourselves. Where are the hidden differences? For example, women tend to use different negotiation techniques than men. This is one of the reasons we also had a pay gap, which we have now rectified. We also bring other subjects to the surface and make them open to discussion. For example, we work in different countries, where we have to deal with cultural differences and other aspects of diversity. Some women operate in environments that are not very female-friendly. We then look at what we can do about it as an employer.”
How do you look at your own career? In addition to running MVRDV, you teach and hold various social positions.
“Teaching helps me stay self-critical. I am not interested in cloning myself, but rather in getting students to think. As a result, I am constantly engaging in discussion. In addition, at university you can try fantastic things that reality hasn’t yet gotten around to.
“Over time, I started to take on more and more social roles. The first serious auxiliary position was that of Chief Railroad Architect. Suddenly I became more visible and one thing followed another. I discovered that additional functions [editor’s note: Nathalie is now also on the Supervisory Board of the Groninger Museum] give me a different perspective on the profession. At the office, you have to bang on with your projects, but as a director or supervisor I can work in a different way on the quality of our environment. In those roles I can show how architects can make a difference, because I believe we can do good things with our profession.”