Our founding partners Jan Benthem and Mels Crouwel met in 1979 at the Delft University of Technology, where one of the professors introduced them because he thought they would make a good team. They started their firm Benthem Crouwel Architects the same year, from a small basement in an Amsterdam canal house.
They did not plan to become a very large firm, but in the late 1980’s two major assignments - the masterplan for Amsterdam Airport Schiphol, and becoming architectural supervisor for the RAI exhibition and convention center – would prove pivotal for the firm’s growth.
JB: “We had built a couple of bike sheds and containers at Schiphol when we were asked to come up with a masterplan that would double the airport’s capacity. We didn’t know all that much about airports and I had never even been on a commercial flight, but the opportunity seemed too good to pass up.”
MC: “Something similar happened when I was asked by Alexander Bodon, architect and supervisor for the RAI complex, to become RAI’s next supervisor. Both commissions turned out to be complex, long-term projects that have shaped our office a great deal. We’ve never underestimated the factor of luck when it comes to our successes – it’s hard to imagine where we would have ended up if these projects had not come our way.”
Modular construction, flexible building and the use of innovative techniques, fast growing trends in architecture today, have been an integral part of the firm’s designs from the very beginning.
JB: “We have always said that we are not building for eternity. That’s partly because of our modest approach, but it’s also realistic. Some of our earliest projects, like my own house in Almere and the customs posts, were already completely modular – light and simple constructions, easy to disassemble. Current projects like the faculty building LAB42 and the Equinix data centers are based on that same principle.”
MC: “For me the Sonsbeek pavilion is a great example of how the modular, inventive way of designing has always been in our DNA. An ethereal, transparent glass pavilion with an innovative glass and steel construction protected fragile artworks at the Sonsbeek 1986 art exhibition. Compare this to the extension to the Stedelijk Museum: that looks dramatically different, but its shiny seamless composite façade was created through the same process of research, science, and matching the building to its function.”
40 years of architecture means an impressively broad and varied portfolio. From working on the North South line metro stations for 23 years, to small renovations on their own homes; and from museums and office buildings to transport hubs and bridges.
MC: “We don’t feel that we have a specific style or signature that ties all these designs together - what defines our work is the way we approach the assignment and how we work together with the client to come up with the best possible answer for their question, and design a building that people will be happy to use. Especially with public buildings this is a very rewarding process.”
JB: “And there is a lot of consistency and continuity in this varied portfolio. Look at our transport hubs. We came up with Schiphol Plaza in one weekend, right before we had to present it to the client. They wanted a train station, and instead of designing a building to house that train station, we had the idea to simply cover the forecourt in front of the terminal. A brilliant concept that became the prototype for all the major transit hubs we have designed. From Schiphol Plaza to Utrecht Central Station, they are basically spacious public city squares, covered by beautiful roofs that connect everything. A good idea will always remain a good idea, and this continuity is something we are very proud of.”
Unlike a lot of architecture duos who have parted ways after working together for a while, Benthem and Crouwel maintained a strong and successful partnership for over four decades.
MC: “We never really gave this much thought. People always like to point out how different we are – Jan the engineer, Mels the artist – but actually we are more alike than you might think. It’s our shared background and the values that were instilled through our upbringing that created a solid base for our success. And now we see the four new partners embracing our approach to architecture, while still setting out on a course of their own.”
JB: “The life lessons we both got from our parents were to accept and respect people as they are, don’t interfere too much and don’t be jealous. That has worked well for us, both in our partnership and in our collaboration with clients. We tried to always stay true to our character. The firm is now no longer ours, even though we still love to come to the office. Being an architect has always been our life. But yes, we are slowly letting go.”