A Life in Architecture: Meet Wytze Patijn

By Emma Heijdeman

Collage by Emma Kappeyne van de Copello

The appearance of Wytze Patijn is humble at first sight. At 73 years old, he radiates a grandpa-like sweetness; his voice is gentle, and he chuckles often. Walking the grounds of the Vrije Universiteit, few would suspect more than meets the eye. But, in fact, Patijn is a bit of a hidden celebrity: as nationally acclaimed architect and former rijksbouwmeester (‘chief state architect’) of the Netherlands, his name and work have gained renown throughout the country. As he starts to retire from his involvement in “Mastering Creativity”, a VU honors module attended by AUC students since 2018, Patijn’s notoriety in his professional field is worth uncovering before he retreats from teaching. 

To Sola Lutringer, an AUC student who took Mastering Creativity last year, Patijn’s humility was also apparent in class. “When I first met Wytze, he talked to me about music instead of architecture,” Lutringer says. “He told me how he was learning the piano, and that it took a lot of time for him to learn simple passages because of his age… I didn’t know he was an architect, and definitely not a nationally celebrated architect.” 

Born in Rotterdam in 1947, Patijn grew up in a middle-class family together with two brothers and a sister. At age 10, he started to play the piano and got a glimpse of the world of musical professionals. He didn’t like what he saw. “I thought all the people of the conservatory were alienated,” he says. “They were all totally in their own world, and I wanted to do something through which I could be in the world.”

That something became architecture. “I saw that as something you don’t merely do for yourself,” says Patijn. “Architecture is something you do for others.” Between 1966 and 1976, Patijn was a student of Architecture at the Technical University Delft, and a student of Sociology in Groningen. During this time, he became part of the leftist student movement whose mission – to “only do things which were useful and good for society” – resonated with his socially oriented views. That was why Patijn moved to work in social housing projects for the municipality of Rotterdam after his studies, until he founded his own architectural firm in 1987: Wytze Patijn Architecten. 

Patijn made a name for himself: his firm worked on projects such as the design of the University Medical Centre Groningen, the Chinese Embassy building in The Hague, the city hall of Vlissingen and the Blood Bank in Amsterdam, the last three of which were undertaken after his firm was merged with Kuiper-Compagnons. Patijn also taught at the Faculty of Architecture at the TU Delft between 1993 and 1995.

Patin was “totally dazed” when he heard the news that he was nominated rijksbouwmeester (chief state architect) in 1995. As rijksbouwmeester, he was responsible for all the architecture in possession of the Dutch State, such as the royal palace in Amsterdam, the Rijksmuseum, and more general buildings such as historical monuments and ministries. 

The position of  rijksbouwmeester is one of high honor; Patijn recalls “being treated like half a royal” during the time he occupied it. He left the position after five years. He says, “before you start to believe in it, you need to be gone.” After his tenure as rijksbouwmeester, he continued as co-CEO of Kuiper-Compagnons until 2006, when he was asked to become dean of the Faculty of Architecture at the TU Delft.

But no life is all happiness and prosperity; during his tenure as dean, some of the most impactful drawbacks of his life took place, all in the span of a couple of months. In May 2008, a big fire burned the university building of the Faculty of Architecture to the ground. Fortunately no one was hurt, but with the building gone, the faculty had to scramble to continue the most important tasks and activities like graduations and classes. 

Despite the shock of the incident, Patijn was able to see a bright side in having to rebuild the faculty from scratch. “I thought to myself: ‘this is going to be a lot of fun’,” he says. “Now we are going to do many fun things.” And he was right. The reconstruction of the building turned out to be an incredibly joyful process. Institutions like interior design company Vitra, the Rotterdam Parade and even the Venice Biennale helped out. People near and far chipped in, creating an enormous sense of solidarity and comradeship. “If you want to improve your organization,burn your building to the ground,” he jokes.

A portrait of Wytze

Then, during a simple surgery in September of that same year, Patijn contracted a bacterial infection due to a contaminated injection causing all his organs to fail. He was put in an artificial coma for three weeks. It was unclear if he would ever wake up again. At the time of the surgery, Patijn had been working on a special project called the Fietsappel (an apple-shaped bicycle parking lot) in Alphen aan den Rijn together with his Kuiper-Compagnons colleague Silvian van Tuyl. For Van Tuyl, Patijn’s absence actually brought them closer together. “I had to think like he would,” he says. “The biggest compliment I’ve ever had was when he came back and said: ‘you did a good job.’”

And Patijn did come back: on October 16th he woke up in the hospital in Rotterdam, paralyzed due to muscle loss and half-sedated by anesthetic drugs. Rehabilitation took him a year, and he had to relearn the most simple actions. Nevertheless, Patijn speaks of this period with immense gratitude and is still moved by it. “It is life which you feel very intensely for a moment,” he says. “It is that you understand everything, it is not sorrow.” 

The Fietsappel was completed in 2010 and its unusual shape reflects Patijn’s willingness to use his imagination and think out of the box. Els van Soest, Patijn’s wife since 1992, says: “He always does things just a little different. We can’t cycle over the sidewalk, or we can’t enter somewhere, and he’ll go: ‘yes, but we can!’” Patijn sees this as part of his life credo. “If you have both feet on the ground you won’t make any steps forward,” he puts it. “Sometimes you have to tie things to the clouds.”

From 2011 onwards, Patijn became independent architect once more, as well as stadsbouwmeester (‘chief city architect’), of Delft  until 2018. Now, Patijn is not yet ready to retire from architecture and still engages in a multitude of smaller projects, among which are teaching one class from the Mastering Creativity module he used to co-coordinate, local volunteering work near his place in Rotterdam, and the restoration of a historical windmill in Sint Laurens together with his old colleague Van Tuyl. Patijn doesn’t struggle with ageing so much. “My mother always said that if you don’t want to get old you should just hang yourself,” he says. “It’s part of the deal.”

His advice to students?  Openly explore how the world works and find out what role you want to fulfill. “I think it is important that you embark on a voyage of discovery,” he says. “All the technical stuff will come later. Just go and find out how things work, and don’t let anyone tell you the way it is.”

This article is a collaboration with the Journalism class of 2020-2021.

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