Anything That Is Good Is Called Lekker

Lekker Design | MARK Magazine#17

Lekker is the Dutch word for nice, tasty. When asked about the story behind the office name, Joshua Comaroff, an American citizen, and Ong Ker-Shing, a Singaporean citizen, directors of Lekker Design, tell me the following story: ‘We were on holiday in Capetown, South Africa, at Joshua’s mom’s family. They are all Afrikaans speaking. We just opened the firm and had to quickly come up with a name. In Capetown, anything that is good is called lekker. The word got stuck in our mind. On the other hand, both of us are also huge fans of Droog Design. So there is a faint reference to a practice where people focus less on style and more on very innovative ways of thinking about very traditional problems, a certain way of dealing with roughness.

Lekker Design | ORDOS100

We are in the Chinese city of Ordos (see “Babel for Billionaires“, Mark #15), as Lekker Design is one of the firms invited to participate in the ORDOS100 neighbourhood. In-between America, where both studied at the Harvard GSD-program, and Singapore, where they are based since 2006, they spent one year in Shanghai on a travelling fellowship Ong Ker-Shing received: ‘We wanted to be part of and see the new frontier economy, see how things were happening in China. Our work mainly dealt with studying the existing fabric that was about to be torn down. Our interest lay in documenting the ways in which people are informally innovating the existing. People got interested and we started doing little projects, master plans, installations. Without any plan we worked out of our living room.

One evening they were hanging around in a bar in Shanghai’s posh Xintiandi neighbourhood, when the owner told them about the ‘tremenduous feng shui problem he had,’ Joshua Comaroff recalls. ‘They had a cash register that was facing the door and in front of it there was a taxi stand. Across the street was a path and then the lake, so the worst possible configuration. He gave us a set of roof tiles from the North of China, the same ones he had used for the logo of his bar, we did some Photoshopping and went to Singapore for a long weekend. When we came back it was built exactly like we drew it.

Lekker Design | MARK Magazine#17

Since then, Lekker Design has been working on various scales on projects in Singapore, China and the USA. One of the characteristics of their work is the mindset of their clients: ‘We have this wonderful thing where we get indecisive clients with very open minds. They ask us for radical houses and the more we present these in various venues in Singapore the more similar people we attract. Many of these clients will hire us just to test the possibilities of their project; however, we are never sure whether they are serious in pursuing these schemes beyond the concept stage. Often, we hear a great deal about how “interesting” and “new” our proposal is, and then never hear from them again. For many clients here, hiring a young firm is a bit like going to an Indian restaurant or driving through a Bohemian neighbourhood – it’s a very small adventure that one undertakes before doing something profoundly conventional.

Both of them talk with humour, lucidity and visible joy about their adventures in architecture. Joshua describes the client of a recent residential project called Stain House as ‘an overseas Chinese property developer of the Onassis-type generation, wearing square glasses’. The concept behind Stain House is to turn stains into an integral design feature of a building. Instead of trying to keep stains away, Lekker Design turned them into a meaningful formal technique in architecture: ‘One of the obsessions in Singapore is that it has an incredibly hot and humid climate. All the houses have stains on the surface and architects go to incredible lengths and use expensive technologies to try to avoid this and it never works. So we asked ourselves what would happen if we didn’t try to stop staining, but allowed it to become a formal technique.

Lekker Design | Educational Resource Center

Other clients, owners of a small apartment, are described as ‘pack rats, who own so much stuff they do not know where to put it’. Joshua explains: ‘Due to the very high cost of housing, well-off young people can afford only relatively modest homes. This leads to a common condition, wherein a young family will have a small house and a huge number of possessions.’ So the design became a form of shelving. ‘Everything including the benches and seats were pushed into the wall, so one can walk on top of these storage boxes to get upstairs. We love the idea of a house where everything is tucked and pushed away. The client was also very patient – when he got pissed off about the progress he would go away, meditate, and come back after two days. In the end it was perfect.

Lekker Design | Hebron House

When asked if they are developing a style through their projects, Lekker Design state that their main concern is how to put different parts of a building together, which not seldom results in ‘putting something on top of something different’. This architecture of adjacencies, like the villa they presented for Ordos, where a ‘normal house’ is put on top of a modernistic slab, or their in-work Hebron House, where a typical Mid-Western barn grows from a simple concrete base. With a sharp focus on how to put different elements together and a resistance towards style – but with the ‘base’ as a recurrent theme – this has so far lead to a series of surprising projects, built and non-built, creating an unlikely architectural universe.

Lekker have an ongoing fascination with established typologies and conventional building-forms. ‘While this is somewhat un-stylish – very ’80s, perhaps – we have always felt that it is important for contemporary architecture to remain in dialogue with something recognizable, and conventions are where the rich vein of architectural meaning resides. When we decide to do something strange to a building (some naughty operation, like parking one house on top of another, as in Ordos) we want for it to be read against a normal state of things. Being troublemakers, we like to see rules being broken. As a result, we have always been more attracted to the manipulation of conventions than to that brave new world of blobs, squiggles, or pointy things that appear to have no external reference, only the indistinct poetics of shape and affect.

Lekker Design |  MARK Magazine#17

Working in Singapore seems to give lots of opportunities to this young practice. Part of
the reason for this is the cultural and political climate in Singapore, which they describe as ‘violently inventive’. This is a society that completely destroyed and restructured itself. They say ‘they have this weird social engineering, where everything comes together. In a way this is perverse and leads to a lot of kitsch, but in another way it is an amazing society to live in. There is an idea that we could tear down all our conventions and rebuild everything. This perpetual way of thinking is for us, and I guess for any architect, interesting. But one is also flirting with the authoritarian problem. We have been involved in a couple of government projects and I have to admit they are amazing clients. They see themselves as avant-garde, which is very irritating because if you show them a cool proposal, they say, “We already thought of that five years ago”.

Operating from within an architectural culture that asks them to be super avant-garde,
Lekker Design have set themselves a major task for the future, one which aspires ‘to resist developing a set of tricks really quickly. We want to get to a point where we feel our architecture grows organically from our concerns.

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“Anything That Is Good Is Called Lekker” by Bert de Muynck
Published in Mark Magazine #17 December 2008 – January 2009.

Other publications in MARK Magazine;
A Letter from Beijing | MARK Magazine #09 (July-August, 07)
An interview with Ai Weiwei (CN) | FAKE Design | MARK Magazine #12 (Feb-March, 08)
Olympic Architecture | MARK Magazine #14 (June-July, 08)
Babel for Billionaires | MARK Magazine #15 (August-September, 08)

(back to Writings on Architecture or ORDOS100 – MovingCities Embedded Research)

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