Architect Wim Quist, the magician of the cube

Architect Wim Quist, who died on Saturday at the age of 91, was long regarded as the conscience of Dutch architecture. “Architecture is not the most individual expression of the architect,” Quist once told his colleagues. “Architecture is fragile and has no concessions,” he added mysteriously later.

Quist, who was Chief Government Architect from 1975 to 1979, showed that his work and views were averse to fashions and trends in architecture. He didn’t like postmodernism, which also emerged cautiously in the Netherlands in the 1970s. He also saw nothing in high-tech architecture, such as the Center Pompidou in Paris from 1977.

In the 1970s, together with the architects Carel Weeber (1937) and Jan Hoogstad (1930-2018), Quist also turned against the then prevailing ‘new frumpiness’ in Dutch architecture, in which coziness and the human dimension were paramount. Architecture, as the result of long thinking and designing, should not be filled in by the users, Quist thought. He abhorred cabinets, planters and other user additions that disrupted the order of his well-considered architecture.

The water tower of Eindhoven.
Photo Cees Mastenbroek

flying start

Quist got off to a flying start as an architect at the Municipal Works in Rotterdam when, in 1959, at the age of 29, he was commissioned to design the Drinking Water Production Company Berenplaat in Rotterdam. Especially the filter building with its forest of funnel-shaped concrete structures is still impressive. His debut was followed by a series of commissions, not only for non-residential buildings such as the water tower in Eindhoven from 1970 and the service building of the Oosterschelde storm surge barrier from 1986, but also for a remarkable series of museums, including the extension of the Rijksmuseum Kröller-Müller from 1977, the Maritime Museum in Rotterdam from 1988 and the Museum aan Zee from 1994 in Scheveningen. Quist’s most visible and therefore best-known work is the Willemswerf office building from 1988, a box over 90 meters high on the Maas in Rotterdam that is split by a diagonal wedge.

Invariably, Quist’s “neo-rationalist” architecture consists of configurations of a limited number of simple stereometric shapes such as cubes and beams. From the Schouwburgplein, Quists Schouwburg in Rotterdam, for example, looks like a completely closed box on columns from which three open cubes are hung as an ode to the cube.

The Schouwburg in Rotterdam from the Schouwburgplein with the three open cubes.
Photo Andreas Terlaak

With their apparently simple geometry and made of mostly concrete, steel and glass, Quist’s buildings connect to the ‘functionalist’ architecture of the Nieuwe Bouwen from the interwar period. Like the pre-war Nieuwe Bouwers, Quist believed that only a purposeful building could be beautiful. But this did not mean to him that design was just a matter of using the functionalist magic formula ‘form follows function’. Each design was again an arduous search for what he called ‘the essence of architecture’. He was unable to put into words exactly what this was, which was the reason for the critic Hans van Dijk (1948-2021) to choose Quist’s designs in NRC Handelsblad to be characterized as ‘the magic of the cube’.

Willemswerf office building on the Nieuwe Maas in Rotterdam.
Photo Tobias Kleuver/ANP/Hollandse Hoogte

Architect’s architect

Quist’s magic cubes were especially appreciated by foodies and made him a ‘architect’s architect† The general public was not always charmed by his works. In the 21st century Quist had to experience that his work was being overhauled. For example, in 2010 the foyer of the Rotterdamse Schouwburg was made cozier by covering the bare concrete walls with carpet and cladding the ceilings with wooden slats. Quist looked at the ‘civilization’ of his fragile architecture with sorrow.

But in 2021 he did not leave it at that and forced the Rotterdam drinking water company Evides with a lawsuit to stop building the expansion of the drinking water production company Kralingen in Rotterdam from 1977. That his office building of the Morgan Trust Bank from 1994 in Amsterdam just before his was demolished again, he could not prevent.