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Michiel van Loon, besides being a designing architect and ‘space maker’, is now also a partner

“We are a strong team: three generations, each with their own expertise”

Alongside Robert Winkel and Robert Platje, Michiel van Loon (1985, Bergen op Zoom) is the new partner at Mei architects and planners as of March 2022, after three years as an associate partner. At home, at his kitchen table in Breda, he talks about the course of his career in a house that underlines his fascination for conservation, flexibility and the reservation of ‘residual space’. “At the level of both the city and the building, that space is incredibly important.”

One of the old entrances of the former St. Anna’s School – built in 1919 – now provides access to the house of Michiel and his family. A house with lots of space and light, thanks to the 4.5-metre-high ceilings and windows and the open – and thus future-proof – floor plan. The school building was transformed into a complex for creative living and working. The family meets the other creative entrepreneurs in the shared inner garden for whom this building is reserved. The Municipality of Breda made a clear choice for the integration of communal live-work buildings into the city. A choice that Michiel applauds because in projects, he himself likes to reserve space for creativity, meeting people and everything that contributes to a pleasant living environment. His conviction? These kinds of choices – especially these kinds of choices – also contribute to value development. In this approach, ‘value’ refers to more than just the financial aspect. The Kabeldistrict in Delft is a good example of such an approach, explains Michiel. “We are transforming factory buildings with cultural and historical value into a lively city district along the Schie. It is a dream project. This kind of project, with its high complexity and the layering of existing and new buildings, was the exact reason I applied for a job at Mei in 2012. I like working on different levels of scale and can do that well, switching between city level, building level, user level and detail level in renovations and transformations. Without those skills, I wouldn’t be able to do this project.”

Michiel at Kabeldistrict in Delft

Learning (and) transforming

Mei previously delivered several successful transformation assignments, including Jobsveem, Schiecentrale, Fenix I and the Gouda Cheese Warehouse. The Kabeldistrict, of which Michiel is now the project manager, also fits in with this list. Michiel is excited about such assignments, not just on a professional level but also on a personal level. “We are together making the school building in which I live more sustainable and we decide on shared facilities together. As an architect, I gain valuable experience that I take with me to projects where shared spaces are also involved.” Looking back, Michiel was fascinated by proper spatial design even as a teenager: he filled his free time with photography and drawing cities and skylines. He still scrutinises his own living environment and experiences, always looking for lessons and opportunities to be learned. Which is fortunate, because that is how Mei came across his path. After a Master’s degree in Architecture in Delft, Michiel worked at various practices at home and abroad, before applying to Mei in 2012. “I wasn’t actively looking for another job, but I knew that I wanted to work more conceptually within a less hierarchical company. When I heard that a position had become available at Mei, I saw it as an opportunity. I loved the aesthetics of projects like the Schiecentrale, as well as their significance to the neighbourhood and their complexity.”

Impressie van straat overdekt met stalen spanten van de oude fabriek. Rechts de oude fabrieksmuur. Veel groen op de stoep. Vrouw laat hondje uit.
Kabeldistrict, Existing & New come together in the inner street

From junior to project architect to partner

After almost ten years with Mei, the firm’s working method still fits him like a glove. “At Mei, we enter into a dialogue with each other. We draw up the starting points of a design and the objectives of a project together.” They did the same with the all-changing pitch for Fenix I in 2013. In the meantime, we are almost ten years, many projects, awards (Fenix I won 21 awards) and a considerable growth spurt further on. From seven colleagues in 2013, the tail end of the economic crisis, the office has grown to a team of fifty in 2022. Michiel also grew in his role. “I started at Fenix I as a junior architect. Robert came up with the total concept and the typologies, and together we thought about the elaboration and details. Those details proved valuable during the pitch. It was very stimulating to notice that as a junior with relatively little experience you can also have an impact in such a process.” During the development of Fenix I, Michiel developed from junior to project architect. He then took on new projects independently, such as ‘World’s fanciest McDonald’s’, in the glass pavilion on the Coolsingel. “That was an important project for me. Mei gave me the confidence to carry out the project independently. Whereas Fenix I took seven years, we developed this glass pavilion in just one year. It was an express train.”

Man kijkt volijk in de camera terwijl hij met zijn handen een gebaar naar links maakt. Op de achtergrond is een grote fabriekshal te zien

“Choice is essential. You can make everything important, but that doesn’t necessarily make it more relevant.”

Look critically, choose wisely

The most important lesson so far? The importance of making choices, says Michiel. “Choose your battles. We constantly weigh up what is really important within a design and are not afraid to make a selection. How you choose, has to do with the objectives and what you stand for as a firm and as an architect. We look for the elements with the greatest risk of failure and monitor them; we let the rest go. That’s what we call selective control and it’s an approach that I didn’t know yet. We prefer to be a pleasant collaboration partner rather than fighting over everything. We understand that a development is the sum of all kinds of things. Through that understanding, you can help each other progress.” For Michiel, the approach of selective control was both instructive and liberating. He looks more critically and chooses more efficiently, by challenging what a design really requires and what his own added value is within a project. “You can make everything important, but that doesn’t necessarily make it more relevant. Of course, we also want to make beautiful buildings but it has to be in the service of a greater whole. Sometimes the focus is on users, sometimes it’s on the building’s place within the city.”

“In the Kabeldistrict, the cultural history of the building and the location remains clearly visible. The large hall, where the cables were made, remains unchanged and offers an enormous feeling of length and emptiness. It is still that factory building and will remain so. Among other things, the KD Lab is now located here, a place for experimentation for the entrepreneurs in the building. We have this valuable space, it was given to us and it will never go away, because it forms the basic structure of the plan.”

Man zit op een stapel pallets in een grote fabriekshal
Maquette van het Kabeldistrict door Frans Parthesius
Maquette van het Kabeldistrict

Reserving space

By working from its own five core values, the office works passionately on appropriate solutions for the place, user, client and for today’s society, says Michiel. “We design based on our core values of Context, Community, New Aesthetics, Flexibility and New Values. We are committed to these and want them to be incorporated into the projects we work on. We, therefore, look for collaboration partners who also support these values. When faced with challenges such as rising construction costs, many tend to lose sight of these values. That’s a real pity. We continue puzzling over things until we can align their feasibility and values.” This includes reserving space, at the city level, for example, by allowing temporary programming and facilitating places for entrepreneurs to grow. In this way, they contribute to the development of a place, Michiel says. “Space for initiative and ownership by the user are extremely important for a city or residential building. It is precisely this kind of breathing space and developmental space that makes areas attractive. These are the places which are bustling, where there is a relaxed atmosphere and the feeling that something is still possible. That feeling is also very evident in the Kabeldistrict because we keep reiterating its importance and we found a developer who endorses it. A commercial infill is always possible, but evoking the right feeling is much more difficult at a later stage. Did you know that these places are more important in people’s daily lives than the architecture they live in? It stimulates me enormously that we can contribute to that with our design.”

And contribute, they will! “Our team is growing. With the Mei Academy, we want to give our people the space to further develop their talents on the one hand, and on the other hand, to get to grips with Mei’s working methods and outlook. Robert Winkel, Robert Platje and I are a strong team. We have the same vision, but are three different generations, each with their own expertise. It works very well.” As a partner at Mei, Michiel finds it extra important to continue to speak out about what he finds important. “At the moment, I’m mainly visible from the projects we do and less so from the public domain, which is something I want to develop. Just like designing, of course, because that’s what I love to do most.”

Mei directie van links naar rechts- Robert Platje - Michiel van Loon - Robert Winkel
vlnr: Robert Platje, Michiel van Loon, Robert Winkel

Michiel van Loon lives with his wife and two children in an old school building in Breda, with high windows and ceilings, ingeniously built-in cupboards and children’s rooms and a large, green, shared schoolyard on the doorstep. When he is not working, Michiel likes to garden in the large communal backyard, go mountain biking with friends or hiking with his family and being outdoors in nature.

Text interview: Priscilla de Putter – Studio Goldfinch
Photos: ©Jerry Lampen – Jerry Lampen

Read the full press release

Robert Winkel is pleased to announce the appointment of two new partners: Robert Platje and Michiel van Loon.

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About Mei

Mei architects and planners realises leading projects in the Netherlands and abroad. Our work is founded on respect for the environment: for the history of the location, the current context…

Team Mei voor Jobsveem