Onix Architects - Unpolished, sharp and contrasting

30 October 2013

Innovative constructions, experimental structures and combinations of materials and an ‘exceptional sensitivity to the practical aspect’. This is the thread running through the work of Onix Architects, which was set up by the student-friends and kindred spirits Alex van de Beld and Haiko Meijer in 1994. They have offices in Groningen in the Northern Netherlands and Helsingborg at the southern tip of Sweden. Their portfolio includes more than a hundred projects in virtually every market segment. Many of them have been included in various editions of the Architecture Yearbook. Onix Architects like contrasts. These architects are just as happy with the Student Cloud, with a floor area of 25,000 m², as with the 36 m² poplar Onix garden house that Haiko Meijer designed for himself and his family and which became an unexpected bestseller.

Prior to the Dutch Design Week in Eindhoven, the ‘Philips’ city, which has only just come to its festive end, Onix Architects was honoured with one of the prestigious Dutch Design Awards for its almost futuristic staircase in a historical church in the countryside of Groningen province. Haiko Meijer is genuinely delighted with the prize: ‘It is a cultural recognition of the beauty and meaning we want to make visible in our architecture’. This is not the first prize Onix have won. It started with the Charlotte Kohler Prize for young and promising architects in 1995. In 2000 they received the School Building Prize, and in 2010 they were voted Architects of the Year and the Stavanger Architecture Prize found its way to Groningen. In 2002 and 2009 the firm won the Wood in Architecture Prize and the Wood Innovation Prize.

It is not by chance that they won these prizes related to wood. As a boy growing up among the woods on the edge of a country estate in Groningen, Haiko Meijer wanted only one thing: to be a carpenter. He stuck closely to this boyhood dream by opting to study at the Architecture Academy in Groningen. Woods are still a rich source of inspiration. ‘The form of trees and branches, the way the light filters through the leaves, the chemistry that arises when you build a treehouse together…’ Meijer captured his passion for wood in the Onix book WoodWorks, an exploration of wooden architecture. Onix built an eloquent example of the possible applications and beauty of wooden constructions in Sneek, where two identical timber-framed bridges over the A7 motorway mark the location of this watery Friesland town.

Room for uncertainty
Haiko and Alex got to know each other at the Academy and a different type of chemistry ensued. In those student years woods were not the most important source of inspiration, that was the pub. With a certain degree of recalcitrance, these architects turned against the pragmatic approach of their teachers by preaching ‘deconstructionism’. A mild form of recalcitrance is still evident at Onix. Haiko: ‘At the Academy you were taught to reason and design on the basis of certainties. We consider it more interesting to leave room for uncertainty; to accept a state of uncertainty as a positive adventure. Our adventure with Tichelaar is a fine example. The bridges we designed for Sneek were initially dismissed as ‘impossible’ too. Now they have been installed they arouse wonder and appreciation. Sneek has embraced them fully’.

After their studies, Haiko Meijer and Alex van de Beld worked for renowned architectural firms independently of each other. They remained in touch, however, and also still shared their views on the profession. It was almost inconceivable that they should not set up a firm together. This was Onix, which was founded in 1994. Its common mission was to ‘translate clients’ wishes and dreams into meaningful architecture in which construction, climate, installation and technology fuse to form an integrated environment’.

Experiencing the magic together
Haiko Meijer: ‘Meaningful architecture starts with the willingness really to want something together, to employ your talents together to benefit the appearance of the Netherlands. Seeing spatial design as an integrated concept, looking for points of contact between art, architecture, landscape, interior, craft, ecology and technology. Not thinking compartmentally, but experiencing together the magic of the moment when everything turns out to combine together.’

If it’s up to its founders, the characteristic mark that Onix is able to make on architecture will not be fully discernible in one single building or project. Their portfolio is varied: housing, schools and children’s centres, industrial buildings, theatres and concert halls, a mosque, in close combination with 150 housing units, a school and community and parking amenities. ‘Our oeuvre is everything we are engaged in, day in, day out. Onix means architecture with a story. The materials are never chosen ‘by chance’, but are related to the creation, and we take a critical look at their function, sustainability and added value. In the design process, great attention is paid to the spatial context and quality. Above all, Onix considers the future user, on the basis of our self-imposed mission to create open and hospitable architecture.’

‘Super-personal’
Super-personal is a term that Onix likes to use. Haiko: ‘If we are commissioned to design an individual home, we first talk endlessly with the future occupants. In the case of a school building or housing complex for the disabled, we want to get an idea of the end users. Both staff and pupils have to experience a school as ‘our school, our building’. People with various physical limitations should as it were feel that someone has thought about their lives. Only then does architecture have any value. In this ‘super-personal’ context you then endeavour to add to the surroundings an object or building that is distinctive and sustainable.’

An average of 25 people work at Onix. Due to its unique vertical organisational structure, everyone is equally involved in the design process. Clients talk directly with the architects at each stage of the project. As a team, Onix aims for optimal involvement, for co-creatorship. With a highly developed sense of proportion, in harmony with the surroundings, Onix, together with all the parties involved, takes up the challenge of departing from well-worn paths. Haiko Meijer: ‘We are builders, makers of material things. In principle you never do this alone. It is the art of creating something that makes the world that little bit more beautiful and interesting, on the basis of fantasy, love and skill, and with a shared vista. It’s no more complicated than that.’

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