Architect in Profile - Aart Koning

Fresh out of university, Aart Koning, Director at CHQ Architects, started his own design firm with two friends back in the ‘80s. From here, he went from strength to strength, working for the likes of Foster + Partners. In this Q&A, Aart talks to us about his career and explains where his love for architecture began.


Aart Koning

is a Director at CHQ Architects

Please tell us a bit about your background.

I studied architecture at the Delft University of Technology, in The Netherlands, in the ‘80s and graduated just as computers came on the scene. Still a bit ‘green’ in the industry, together with two friends, we bought a few computers and started our own design studio. Our business strategy involved free feasibility studies, and if a client wanted to take it further, we would start charging. Needless to say, it was great fun, we were very busy but didn’t make much money. So, in 1989, I came to London.

We went back to Holland during the recession in the ‘90s but returned after three years of working at a practice in Amsterdam. With this Dutch experience, I was lucky enough to get a job at Foster + Partners, which had just been commissioned to design the World Port Centre in Rotterdam. Richard Hyams was the Associate at Foster + Partners, leading the project. Together, we travelled back and forth to Rotterdam on many occasions. By then, he had already been at Foster + Partners for a long time. I learned a lot from him.

I only stayed at Foster + Partners for about three years. Still, the analytical and open-minded design approach there was a very refreshing and exciting experience which, looking back, has made me more confident as an architect. Trying to find the right work-life balance, I have bounced back and forth several times between working closer to home or closer to the action in London, made lots of friends in the industry and have been lucky enough to work with people in environments that stimulated new skills, ideas and opportunities, as is now the case at CHQ Architects.

Had you always wanted to pursue a career in architecture?

When I was around 14, perhaps a typical boy, I had a fairly carefree attitude, fuelling a lack of ambition. Being concerned, my parents made me do a test to assess my interests, and one of the suggested options was an architect. I haven’t really looked back since. My father was a painter and musician, so it was always likely to be something in the creative industry.

Who has been your greatest influence and source of inspiration?

As you do, during my studies, I tried many different architectural styles to find out about myself. In those days, a transition took place in Delft, moving from the human approach led by people like Herman Hertzberger to an innovative, intelligent technique led by Rem Koolhaas. I think it’s fair to say that both men have influenced me, resulting in a fairly pragmatic, fresh approach to design whilst being interested in the culture and ambitions of the client/user/context.

One of my favourite architects is probably Peter Zumthor, who seems able to combine locality with beauty.

What has been your most notable project?

I find it difficult to select one project as a notable project. For me, every project is a notable one. I am very interested in the design process, working with people, understanding their culture and personalities, the site’s context and conditions, and the commercial context that is always present. Perhaps it is, therefore, not surprising that I have enjoyed working with private clients and organisations, such as schools, universities, community groups and special organisations, like religious groups. Still, I also work well with contractors, commercial developers and local authorities meeting their objectives.

How do you approach your projects?

I am reasonably quick at putting pencil to paper, and whilst doing that, I try to understand the site and the brief and explore different ways to bring these together. A big part of this process is sketching, testing and exploring ideas that work, or often don’t, in collaboration with others. Sketching allows me to think.

What is your favourite building and why?

Although there is a lot of information available showing new projects being completed worldwide, I don’t seem to be able to store this information. On the contrary, I have seen too many architects with a wealth of knowledge about the history of architecture who find it hard not to get distracted by ideas they have seen elsewhere. It is important to allow yourself to think and not get distracted.

If I had to choose one, I’d probably say the Notre-Dame du Haut chapel in Ronchamp. I went to see this twice, once as a child with my parents and once as a student with friends, and it has left a footnote in my memory as a beautifully-crafted experience. But, if you ask me tomorrow, the answer will likely differ.

What do you think is the greatest challenge for architects at the moment?

The architect’s role has been stripped back over time, and we operate in a commercial world with more specialists joining the process. However, I do believe that architects are still uniquely trained to develop and coordinate a design, leading the process of collaboration with specialist input from others, especially as we seem to be experiencing a new renaissance with social, technological and economic advances, setting new values, standards and awareness that trigger fresh and interdisciplinary design responses.

What do you think is the greatest challenge for architecture students?

I attended the student presentation at Oxford Brookes University last month. I was very pleased to see that students are encouraged to think and create an architecture informed by a critical view of society. Studying in Delft taught us that if architecture doesn’t reinvent itself, it may as well be dead. The challenge students face when they enter the ‘real world' is that they don’t lose this optimism in society, but this is not any different from previous generations. To be successful as an architect, you are always expected to be an all-rounder.

What advice would you give to newly-qualified architects?

In a time when everything is available at your fingertips, understand that designing is a process that involves others, not an individual activity with an instant result.

What can we expect to see from you over the next year?

I hope to keep following new trends in our society, technological developments and environmental awareness so we can do what we do best, advising our clients and the community we work in. It’s an exciting time to be joining CHQ Architects.

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