Wiel Arets was named the new dean at the Illinois Institute of Technology College of Architecture in early August, succeeding Donna Robertson, FAIA. Hardly had he settled into his elegant new digs on the Ludwig Mies van der Rohe–designed campus, when sent a welcoming party: Stanley Tigerman, FAIA, an architect with few qualms about dispensing his vigorous opinions.
Arets has no shortage of teaching experience, having served as dean of the Rotterdam-based Berlage Institute from 1995 to 2002, and having held positions at Columbia University, the Architectural Association (AA) in London, the Universität der Künste in Berlin, and the Architecture Academies in Amsterdam and Rotterdam.
Through his eponymous Amsterdam-based firm, which he founded in 1983, Arets currently has several high-profile projects in the works, including the Allianz headquarters in Zurich and the IJhal Centraal Station in Amsterdam. Meaning that Arets will be racking up the frequent flier miles as he travels to and from Europe.
During an hour-long conversation in mid-September, Arets and Tigerman discovered that they are, in fact, neighbors—the Dutch architect just purchased a Mies-designed apartment on Lake Shore Drive in a building adjacent to Tigerman’s. More significantly, they had a far-reaching discussion about architectural education at IIT and beyond, in what is sure to be the first of many meetings between these two Chicago deans.
Tigerman: You realize the reason I’m excited about your being here is, if I exclude Gene Summers for a second, you’re the best architect since Mies to actually direct the school. You’re aware of that.
Arets: That’s your statement.
Tigerman: Yeah. It’s something I actually believe. And I’m not trying to blow smoke up your ass to make you feel good. I truly believe that. If you include Gene, who was also a wonderful architect, but he was utterly under the sway of Mies. All of which is great. But outside of the two of you, it’s been a long time since something new and exciting has happened here. So why did you decide to do this, because you have a very flourishing practice in Europe?
Arets: Yes. We have offices in Maastricht, Amsterdam, Zurich, [and Berlin]. Yes, we have very good work. And sometimes things cross your path and then you start thinking about it. And of course I had been to Chicago when I was a young student. You had to visit Chicago. I came to Chicago and saw the work of Mies. I was born in the south of Holland. Mies was born 11 kilometers from the place where I was born.
Tigerman: Really? That close to Aachen?
Arets: Yes, I’m very close to Aachen. I was born in Heerlen, which is a city where the coal mining industry was happening. Mies left at the beginning of the flourishing of the mining industry. After that the area became very rich, became very exciting. Because it is where Holland, Belgium, and Germany are next to each other. But there is also lots of Spanish and French influence.
Tigerman: But then you went to school in Eindhoven [in southern Holland]?
Arets: I went to school at Eindhoven [University of Technology], then after that I was teaching in Amsterdam, Rotterdam, for one year, and then Alvin Boyarsky asked me to teach at AA in London. I thought he would like me to do a lecture or whatever, and then I did Diploma Unit 1 for five years, which was for me a very important time. I was nearly as old as the students were. So for me it was a big challenge to be there.
Tigerman: What year was this?
Arets: It was 1987. From ’87 on.
Tigerman: Do you know that Alvin was here in Chicago? He was the associate dean at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where I was teaching. From there he left to go to London, where he had this remarkable career at the AA. Which one could argue, simplistically, made the AA. Turned it from a very conservative, almost reactionary institution, to a wonderful place.
Arets: Alvin had a lot of influence, I think, on many people. I think when Alvin went to the AA he had no clue what he should do there. The AA was not a rich school. It was a school which he started to develop. I think when we look now at it, we say, okay, Alvin transformed AA, he did a great thing. But in the beginning it was not easy for him.
Tigerman: No. Actually, you probably know the history. He was close enough to Margaret Thatcher that he actually had money funneled away from Cambridge to the AA. So he found a way, a clever way, to keep the thing afloat. And then he started to publish various journals, and brought in brilliant people, it turned out: Rem [Koolhaas], Zaha [Hadid].
Arets: They were students there. Rem was in Holland when his father was living in London, and he went to London, and Zaha went to London. So all of these people were students, and after they studied there they became teachers. So most of the people who were teachers there were previous students. And that was for him, for Alvin, also a way to keep the school alive. He could save costs, and there was diversity in the school. People had different ideas.