by Vere Van Gool (AA 5th Year) and Mary Wang
Founders of MISS

24 February 2014
Lecture Hall, Architectural Association


The AA lecture hall transformed into Ellen’s studio

On the afternoon of 5 February, three oversized suitcases, two rolls of carpet, two staff members of OMA and Ellen van Loon arrived at the Architectural Association’s Lecture Hall. What at the time looked like mountains of bubble wrap actually contained a laborious selection of ceramics, precious stones and fabrics that Ellen had collected over her twelve years at OMA. The previous week, we had combed through the back alleys of her private archive, sorted through heaps of material in OMA’s Rotterdam office and negotiated the limits of airfreight (even oversized luggage had a limit, we learned). Sure, there were split seconds when even we wondered what could possibly be worth all this effort. Could leaving things out be the most difficult part of architecture?


The audience sipped on punch and nibbled on popcorn as they listened to Ellen speak

Since Ellen was made partner at OMA in 2002, she has led several award-winning projects whose images could easily fill days worth of presentations. But Ellen does not work with just renders, she works with stuff we can touch. To fully understand her process we had to travel through her material world. Fabrics, travertine, tiles, glass, plastic, PVC, foam, thread and even some gold leaf competed for our attention on the tables and walls of the lecture hall. By guiding us through her private collection of materials, Ellen would become more than just a renowned architect lecturing on her most accomplished projects; she would show us the little fragments of human business that eventually make grandiose buildings.


Ellen van Loon, partner at OMA speaks about her Perfect Night In

At 5.57PM, three minutes before take-off, all of Ellen’s precious, personal possessions were pinned up and filled the lecture hall with life. It then occurred to us that Ellen’s talk was not so  dissimilar to how students at the AA present their work. In a way, Ellen now took their – somewhat vulnerable – position presenting her mock-ups while students sat back in their seats to play the role of the jury. With her work on display, she allowed us to enter her world: a life packed with materials, leaving not an inch of white space unfilled. As we poured the punch and picked at the popcorn, Ellen admitted candidly what we all expected – this is actually what her studio looks like.

The fragments sourced from her design process for the Casa de Musica in Porto and the Rothschild headquarters in London were mostly unfinished, unpolished, and even unusable material samples. Ellen’s swift transitions between immaculate details and complex debates on whether OMA considers itself a modern office, made time pass by way too quickly. Getting to see her room of one’s own made us come close, but it was really as she guided us through the small trials and errors that amounted to her final triumphs where she revealed the human behind the superhero – the Ellen behind Van Loon.


The tactile materials that each mark a different project and moment in Ellen’s career

For more information:

MISS is a platform that celebrates femininity and diversity of self-expression in design

Ellen van Loon is a partner at OMA (Office for Metropolitan Architecture)

Ellen’s Perfect Night In Lecture Video

MISS mentioned in Maria Smith’s article for Architecture Review: Why do women really leave architecture?

Don’t forget to attend the next MISS event – Eva’s Paella Party with Eva Franch I Gilabert from New York’s Storefront for Art and Architecture in the Lecture Hall at 6pm tonight!