Jing Liu and Florian Idenburg, the founders of the New York firm SO-IL.
Noah Kalina Jing Liu and Florian Idenburg, the founders of the New York firm SO-IL.

The architecture team selected to design the Arts Cluster project in the Netherlands will be tasked with housing two existing organizations—a modern art museum and a film center—in one new property. Potential designs for that facility are still a ways off. But there's one thing about the design competition that stands out even this early into the process.

Among the shortlisted firms announced in December are some of the usual suspects: Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG), based in Copenhagen and New York, for example, teamed with Allard Architecture, based in Amsterdam. And Rotterdam, Netherlands-based OMA made the grade (but then reportedly withdrew from the competition last week). There's also Amsterdam's NL Architects and Tokyo's Kengo Kuma & Associates. But one new name among the stars is New York's SO-IL, which partnered up with Amsterdam-based Architectuurstudio HH and ABT for the contest. If SO-IL takes this competition, it may mark the young firm's foray into the majors.

"It does feel a little bit of David and Goliath," says SO-IL principal Florian Idenburg about his firm's competition. "But we don't need so many stones."

What he means by this, he explains, is that the presentation materials for this particular competition are not as daunting or expensive as they could be. By early next month, each of the five shortlisted teams will submit a digital presentation and two A0-sized boards to be displayed publicly.

Design competitions can often require models or other more expensive materials with no guarantee of a project payday, which can give larger firms a leg up over the little guys. As Idenburg puts it, "they probably have more chest to tap into."

Artist's impression of the Arts Cluster neighborhood.
City of Arnhem Artist's impression of the Arts Cluster neighborhood.

The teams are competing to build what will become a new cultural mecca for the city of Arnhem, about 70 miles east of Rotterdam and about 60 miles southeast of Amsterdam. The new roughly 91,000 square foot development (in gross floor area) would merge the Museum voor Moderne Kunst Arnhem (Museum of Modern Art Arnhem), a museum of realism, with Focus Filmtheater Arnhem.

The project is slated for a site in the Rijnboog area of the city, which, according to the city's website, could spur development. With some help from Google Translate: "Arnhem has the ambition to make Rijnboog the area, the area between the inner city, the Rhine and the railway station, a bustling part of the city."

In a letter to the board posted on the Museum voor Moderne Kunst Arnhem website, board chair Candel Frank argues (again via Google Translate), "With a city center location, museum visitors will visit the city. (And vice versa: visit the city's museum.)." He also argues, "From the point of use is there an added value, the Museum is especially active during the day, the Filmhouse evening. In terms of content, there is an added value. Modern art is becoming more multi-media art. The dividing surfaces between cinema and contemporary art thereby blurring. Focus and Museum to see the removal of the dividing planes have a chance to join a huge challenge that we will proudly enter."

In other words, the winner of this competition stands to build a cultural anchor that Dutch authorities believe will transform its area. That would be a breakout project for a firm that just turned five.

Founded in 2008, SO-IL (short for Solid Objectives—Idenburg Liu) has skyrocketed to the headlines in those six years, for projects such as "Pole Dance" installation at the Museum of Modern Art P.S.1 in 2010 as well as the firm's recent winning bid (with American firm Bohlin Cywinski Jackson) to design a museum at the University of California, Davis—beating out New York's WORKac and Henning Larsen Architects, based in Copenhagen, Denmark.

Karrie Jacobs, writing in ARCHITECT last March prior to the UC Davis decision, noted that SO-IL's "aesthetic is unusual, highly tactile, and deceptively simple at a time when young architects tend to design buildings that advertise their own complexity." This aesthetic manifests in out-of-the-norm ideas such as draping their concrete Kukje Art Center in Seoul, South Korea in chain-mail.

For the Arts Cluster, the firm will have to prove its chops against the firms behind the Smithsonian south mall master plan (BIG) and the Besançon Art Center (Kengo Kuma). The 32 million Euro project (roughly 43 million dollars) is expected to open in 2018.