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Having started out as an artist’s assistant, Dutch architect Anne Holtrop is known for designs—whether they’re for permanent buildings or temporary installations—that incorporate abstract, unexpected references to engage the visitor’s imagination. For the 2015 World Expo, he designed a pavilion for Bahrain—a country he’d never visited before—and is now refurbishing a clutch of heritage buildings in the kingdom. He talked to us about inspiration, ideology and his unconventional approach.

You describe your work as a “possible architecture.” What does that mean?

I often start a design with things that come from outside of architecture—inkblot drawings or found forms. These don’t come from trying to solve a problem—they are specific and autonomous. By making them into architecture, I discover what kind of spaces they could create. That’s why I call it a “possible architecture”: In a sense, everything can possibly become architecture.

But architects generally think in terms of constraints. What parameters do you consider?

Of course, the program needs to fit in and it needs to work logically. But I also like to have constraints that aren’t rational. When I designed the Museum Fort Vechten in the Netherlands (a building that commemorates a 19th-century water defense line), the forms came from tracing the topography of the landscape. It’s completely non-logical—every window has a different curve. That wasn’t to overcomplicate the design, but rather to give it a specific character. When you go through the building, you recognize it as a totality.

Does your approach change depending on the project’s longevity?

In the beginning, most of my projects were temporary. For instance, the shape of the Trail House at the Museum De Paviljoens in Almere—my first architectural project—was defined by a path. At first I thought it might be a bit ridiculous, because the house would be so narrow. Then, when it was built, it was actually not so bad—you could really live in it. For me, the difference between a temporary project and a permanent one is in the materials and how to build it—otherwise, my approach stays the same.

Is it important that your buildings are interpreted in the way you intended?

I often compare it to Rorschach’s inkblots: They trigger your imagination but don’t actually represent anything. With my designs, everyone understands them differently—it’s not just about the physicality but also how you engage with it. Umberto Eco wrote that artists deliberately leave things open so the viewer can complete the work. For me, that’s why it’s essential to have aspects of the work that are autonomous from its function—something you can’t explain rationally, so you have to engage your emotions.

  • Words:
    Debika Ray
  • Photography:
    Studio Anne Holtrop

You were asked to design a pavilion for Bahrain at the 2015 World Expo in Milan, despite never having visited the country before. How do you go about summing up the long history and culture of a nation in a single, static form?

I tried to avoid a representational approach, which features so much among Expo pavilions. Instead, I started by making a drawing the size of the plot and filling it with arcs and lines, which became the lens through which I looked at Bahrain. Then I started looking at the country and its history, to find what resembled the drawing. We were specifically asked to reference Bahrain’s agricultural heritage, which makes it distinct from its neighbors, so we ended up creating a series of enclosed spaces and gardens. When the Bahrain minister of culture visited, she said, “I feel at home and, at the same time, I have never experienced it like this,” which to me was spot-on.

You went on to design Bahrain’s pavilion at the 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale, and you now live in the country. What are you working on there? And has your approach changed now that you know more about it?

We are working on 14 projects—mostly UNESCO heritage sites—including the former king’s house, houses of pearl merchants, the souk. We are turning them into museum spaces, boutique hotels and shops. This time, I’m not starting with drawings—I’m using the existing buildings as the constraint, although that to me is not bound to Bahrain specifically. What I find beautiful is that they’re all man-made, rectangular spaces, but they’re never perfect. I’ve tried to throw in elements that emphasize that irregularity, for instance, floors that do not fit.

In a previous interview, you described the work of modernist architects such as Le Corbusier as “ideological.” Do you think of your work as ideology-free? Surely, challenging these values is also ideological?

Yes, but with me, there isn’t so much of a social or political agenda. I also don’t like representational or conceptual work. Thinking and theorizing about architecture doesn’t interest me much—I’m more interested in the built thing itself.

But don’t architects have a social responsibility?

Of course, but that’s not usually the architect’s decision. There’s often a mistaken belief when it comes to public housing or public space that the architect invented it. What the architect can do when it comes to public housing, say, is to think about providing the best living conditions within the given budget or location. And if he makes a villa for someone rich, it’s still the same question.

  • Words:
    Debika Ray
  • Photography:
    Studio Anne Holtrop
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