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Robert Platje, besides being a building technologist and ‘concept supervisor’, is now also a partner

“In our fascination with buildings, materials and techniques, we find each other”

After twenty years with Mei and five years as an associate partner, Robert Platje (Swifterbant, 1975) is one of the two new partners at Mei Architects and planners since March 2022. We meet at the most important building of his career and talk about his love for the profession and his place at Mei. “Mei’s pragmatic approach also suits me.”

The colossus that is Fenix I keeps Robert Platje out of the wind on a cold January day in Katendrecht. For no less than seven years, he worked on the building as project architect. Now he is walking around for the first time as a full partner of Mei Architects and planners. “Look, in this building you can see the layers of time. Old and new meet here. We opted for brutal rather than stylised solutions. Did you know that it takes much more energy to preserve something old than to create something new? But we believe that you don’t have to polish and smooth everything down.” Robert is enthusiastic about this actively passive approach. It was also his job to tell the Fenix construction team how and why this had to be done. “Not everyone understood the approach at the start, so we took them to previous projects. They learned to understand, appreciate and then follow it.”

Man is ten voeten uit te zien staande op een plein, met een groot gebouw op de achtergrond. Regenachtig weer.
Robert Platje in front of Fenix I

Room for mistakes

Contrasts between old and new, making the layers of time visible and unfinished concrete and metal: these are elements that give a lot of character to Mei’s buildings. Robert saw previously at Jobsveem and the Schiecentrale (Rotterdam) and the Cheese Warehouse (Gouda) that many people would consciously choose this. Each of these are robust buildings. This design attitude is always context-dependent and project-specific, Robert emphasises. “We also make sublimely detailed buildings just as well if the assignment demands it, such as the McDonalds on the Coolsingel in Rotterdam, residential tower De Verkenner in Utrecht and the Gnome parking garage in Almere-Buiten, but always with a sturdy appearance. Parts of Fenix I are also new, but it’s never sleek or slick. A glass panel with shiny stainless steel fixings doesn’t suit us. ‘Perfect’ is not our aim, because it too often results in soulless buildings. Instead, we offer controlled space to allow small mistakes.” It is an approach known within Mei as ‘selective control’. It is this pragmatic approach that typifies the firm and which Robert – as a professional concept supervisor and ‘error maker’ – enjoys. “Our starting point here is: you just can’t monitor everything, so we focus on the most important aspects.”

“I translate concepts into something that is easy to understand and easy to make”

Man staat midden in beeld met zijn armen wijd. Boven hem hangt een enorme stalen constructie.

Concept supervisor at Mei

Although, at the age of seven Robert had no idea about a later career in architecture, he was already making working drawings. Recently, for instance, he found a drawing for a cupboard – including measurements and explanations – he’d made for his father to build. The parallels with his current work struck him. He may not be making cupboards now, but the same puzzle between form, function and details still keeps him busy: designing until ‘something works’. “From the age of twelve, I knew for certain that I wanted to make ‘things’, and this expressed itself mainly in drawing, tinkering and messing around. I was mainly interested in coming up with solutions, and that is what I still love doing. I used to reassemble a radio to get it working again; now I look at the building level to see why certain design solutions do or do not reinforce the concept and whether they are functional.”

Man staat leunend tegen een muur aan, en wijst naar oude metalen sprinklers aan de muur. Links is een groot industrieel raam te zien.

Robert joined Mei in 2000. His specialisation – architectural detailing and sustainable building – was underlined by his work for the Dutch Green Building Council. It has made him a valuable addition to the team to this day. Robert looks at how a concept can be realised as smartly as possible. What makes a concept strong and feasible? What construction technique is the most efficient? “I translate concepts into something that is easy to understand and easy to make. Then, I explain it to those who are building it and monitor the concept during its implementation. At the end of the day, everyone has to buy into it.” As we walk through Fenix I, Robert is constantly pointing out something. “Look at this beam here. It’s like an accidental meeting of old and new elements. This beam just has to be here. Everything has been conceived within the framework, but if the contractor thinks of something 20 cm to the left, that doesn’t matter to us. It’s an idiot-proof concept, according to the principles of selective control.”

Glazen balkons, schuin van onderen gezien. Een man leunt op een zwart stalen frame wat de glazen railing onderbreekt.

The muse frame is a defining detail of Fenix I. “The original warehouse consisted of enormous beams that we translated upwards. There you see all kinds of consoles. We wanted to make a really beautiful console, something that would distinguish Fenix from ‘just another flat’. We made it very specific, with a textured mat for ribbing, a recess in the concrete slab and a niche around it. The muse frame is that black, bent bracket. It is a bit higher, so you can lean on it or ‘muse’. It’s wonderful to puzzle out the right design, knowing that you can have it made affordably and that the contractor understands and likes it.”

Plaster versus Brutal

We enter the central passage of Fenix, where old and new visibly come together. Robert is visibly enthused. “Here you can clearly see the old warehouse, but also the smooth facade with the new steel construction. And look, here you can see the two types of concrete from which Fenix I is built: granular concrete from the 1920s on the left, smoother fair-faced concrete on the right.” The different layers of time fascinate him. “In the 1920s, the concrete had a different texture, so it was plastered over. During the reconstruction, the shed was repaired with concrete from the 1950s: the much finer fair-faced concrete. That concrete, you get to see!” Those two sides are reflected in Fenix. The entire elevation on the Veerlaan is plastered in the style of the 1920s, the quayside shows the fair-faced concrete in the tradition of Brutalism. Brutalism celebrated new techniques in construction in the same way that Mei does. “We also like to make techniques visible in our buildings. The Gnome parking garage in Almere is a good example of this. We made the perforated facade panels in collaboration with a manufacturer from the automotive industry.” It testifies to a deep fascination with technical solutions, where the technology is always a means, not an end in itself. The aim is to create functional and pleasant ‘people buildings’. “You can see that in Fenix, which is actually just a gallery flat on the inside. It is a friendly building because of the space it offers for personalisation. People are allowed to have their own flowerpots here and place their own benches. It is a plea for living the way you want to live. It’s not the architecture, but the people dictate that.”

Man staat in een lange gang en wijst de betonnen muur aan

Robert still finds drawing a detail himself the most fun

Space for people, not egos

Robert sees this attention to the individual reflected in the practice. “Everything we do is done in collaboration. There’s plenty of room for personal input and opinions, but not for egos. Perhaps, it’s not even your knowledge and skills, but your character that is more important to us: we want to see curiosity and courage. And yes, we work hard, but we make no secret of the fact that the top priority is that things are going well at home – in your personal or family life.” The team now consists of 50 people, but the 3 partners are still closely involved in every project. Why? “This is not from the motivation to control everything, but from genuine involvement. We don’t want to see something only when it opens. And we want to talk about opportunities and risks in the process and give our team the chance to raise the red flag when it’s not working out. I like that I’m now at a point where I can use my experience to help people get back on track quickly.” Robert still finds drawing a detail himself and ‘tinkering’ the most fun. In Fenix, he was able to do just that. “This building has such a high level of complexity: transformation, new construction, flexible building, a parking garage and cultural cluster, everything comes together in this.”

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

Robert Winkel, Michiel van Loon and Robert Platje are now standing side by side at Mei, as the complementary trio that they are. “A colleague once said, ‘you come together through your fascination’. That is exactly right. It doesn’t matter whether we have eight or fifty people, we basically keep doing the same thing. It’s never the easiest way, but it is the most fun. We take our work very seriously, but certainly not ourselves.”

Robert Platje lives with his wife and two daughters in a converted 1920s house in Schiedam, with lots of light, an open floor plan and plastered curtain rods. When he’s not working, he reads about history, psychology or theology, goes to museums with his family or, in the evening, gazes at the moon and stars with his daughters through their telescope. After Rotterdam, his favourite city is Ljubljana, because of his wife’s Slovenian roots. 

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 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…

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