Having been born in Hilversum and raised in the nearby village of Kortenhoef, Sylvia Karres retains strong ties to this part of the country. Since 1997, she and her business partner Bart Brands have been managing the international design firm Karres & Brands, which specialises in landscape architecture and urban design. Based in the former municipal workshop buildings at Hilversum’s Werf 35 creative space for start-ups and other businesses, their office is designed in a minimalist style, with high ceilings, an open-plan layout and a workshop littered with tools and materials – known at the company as the ‘playground’ – where their designs are transformed into models.
Sylvia has always had a fascination with the natural world, the landscape and the built environment alike, having spent a good chunk of her childhood living in the countryside, where she developed a love of nature and the scenery from a young age. As a professional, she has unconsciously been influenced by the work of Dudok and buildings designed by Duiker (Dutch architects of the Modernist and Constructivist schools, respectively), such as the Gooiland theatre and Zonnestraal (former sanatorium in Hilversum). These two noted Dutch masters have played a role in moulding her into who she is today.
‘I credit both those aspects – the varied landscape in the greater Hilversum area and the distinctive style of urban design found there – as huge influences. My father always encouraged me to look closely at the world around me. When I discovered there was a course of study out there for me that would teach me to do just that and that went beyond garden design alone, I enrolled in that programme. After graduating from the College of Garden and Landscape Design in Boskoop, I studied at the Amsterdam Academy of Architecture, doing a course that combined landscape architecture, architecture and urban design, which was based on a highly cross-disciplinary approach. Our firm follows a similar template: we are both landscape architects and urban designers; we’re involved in infrastructure and occasionally take on architecture projects. That’s what makes our firm so successful: managing the interaction between all these different disciplines.’
Karres & Brands
‘We specialise in designs for the outdoor environment, which means we create everything from parks, squares, cemeteries, country estates and landscape structures to dyke improvement projects, as well as urban design plans where we’re not actually responsible for the architecture itself but set the conditions and typologies for the buildings. That means establishing the maximum permitted height for the homes, finding out what materials need to be used, and so on. For example, we did this one project in Hamburg 18 months ago, which happens to be one of our biggest projects. It involved developing a whole new district with more than 7,000 homes and lots of sustainable features.’
‘In our projects, we tend to deal with large-scale structures, without overlooking the details. One of the questions we ask ourselves is how you can keep the landscape structures intact if the area or site is repurposed. I like to compare a landscape to a chest of drawers: you can change the contents of the drawers, but the chest itself – the landscape, if you will – you keep intact. Managing the dynamics of transformation is something we all really enjoy at our firm, but it’s something that gives me personal satisfaction as well. I obviously don’t work by myself but am backed by a team of 40 people, often in addition to external partners. We like to think of our firm as an inspiring football team, where everyone gets a chance to contribute, has their own role to play and can flourish in the area in which they excel.’
The projects Karres & Brands takes on are extremely varied and diverse, with one common denominator: all projects need time to take off, sometimes even years, and there are many different parties involved, ranging from clients and contractors to civil servants and operational staff and ultimately, of course, the users.
‘What I personally love about our projects is that the things we make are fluid and never set in stone; they are essentially appropriated by users after they’re completed. We always try to create designs that allow for that kind of freedom: the freedom for users or administrators to add elements and improve the design along the way. That can sometimes make us a little apprehensive, as inevitably it doesn’t always turn out successfully. In our work, we need to consider factors such as the environment, the buildings and the users. Projects all have their own individual dynamic, and that’s absolutely fine.’
Typical day at work
‘There’s no such thing as a typical day at our firm! No, really, there isn’t, other than the fact that we all try to be in the office together every Monday. We’ve got a team of people here in the office whose job is to manage the projects and make sure things get done, but everyone else is pretty much all over the place. That goes for me as well: I’m always on the go. Communication is a big part of this business, and assessment and analysis are other key aspects. You regularly need to reach out to partners to discuss things together. It can be quite enervating, but also tends to be very inspiring. I have a habit of discussing just about everything with our team. We do a lot of brainstorming together, also with clients, and sometimes I’ll go out for a walk with one of my colleagues: just go out onto the heath and get some fresh air, get away from it all. I also go on a lot of field trips, to discover other projects, cities and landscapes, see new things and find inspiration in new places. Our business is both dynamic and a lot of fun.’
Having attended college during the pre-digital era, Sylvia never learned to use computer-aided design (CAD).
‘I sketch by hand and do a lot of talking: mostly brainstorming with others, with an entire group or even with our entire team. We might do a few quick sketches here and there and develop some ideas. I feel it’s important to see what options are available and discuss them together. I also teach occasionally, and tell my students it’s important to be able to think independently. It’s very important to think about the ideas you can come up with: theoretically within the parameters of a project, but also beyond those parameters. It’s been my experience that the younger generation tends to spend too much time stuck in front of a computer screen. Sometimes you just need to tune out, get away from the screen and take two steps back.’
Of course, modern technology allows you to do all sorts of things that weren’t possible before: you can create 3D designs and do tests on the computer within no time at all. But even with access to all this technology, Sylvia still believes in the importance of creating ‘old-school’ models: playing around with pieces that make you look at a design in a different way.
‘You need to keep a lot of balls in the air all the time: creating a design, taking meetings, doing sketches, making models, taking a few steps back, and then picking up where you left off.’ It’s important to always keep honing and improving your designs. That’s our modus operandi at Karres & Brands: to keep looking during projects until the very last stage to see if we can make any improvements or changes to the design. This approach has been known to make our clients a bit nervous at times, but it does give you close control over the quality of your end product.’
What makes her proud?
Karres & Brands has been around since 1997 and has developed numerous projects worldwide during that time. Although she can take her pick of prestige projects, Sylvia cites a project in the Netherlands – Amsterdam, to be precise – of which she’s particularly proud.
‘De Nieuwe Ooster, an Amsterdam cemetery, is a project that’s very representative of Karres & Brands. Our firm had won a competition for the redesign of a small section of the cemetery, and that’s when we developed a plan for the cemetery as a whole, which included that small section. We ended up winning the competition based on this plan and developing lots of other projects at De Nieuwe Ooster. This is one of those typical Karres & Brands projects where we were able to bring our plan to full fruition. Many of our team members all did parts of the design for this project, which has been acclaimed both in the Netherlands and internationally. The concept is appealing, complex, beautifully executed at all levels and just a stunning project all around. That’s something I’m very proud of. The director of De Nieuwe Ooster, the client for this project, actually won the Golden Pyramid Award for the project, a prize awarded by the Dutch government for companies that have commissioned projects in a particularly inspiring way. As a client, she really enabled all the parties concerned, and trusted them enough, to do their work properly and achieve a fantastic result.’
‘I feel it’s very important to develop a sense of place for each new project. I always try to really understand a place or location. Sometimes it’s a gut feeling, which I combine with my individual and our collective experience as a firm. You need to walk around the place to get a feel for it, have a look around and “soak up the vibe” and then start designing. For me personally, the village of ‘s-Graveland is a major source of inspiration. There’s the whole history of ‘s-Graveland, that rational system of trenches which were dug in order to dispose of sand that was used to build the foundations for the townhouses along the Amsterdam canals. The domestic waste was then returned to ‘s-Graveland to fertilise the soil. And finally, all these changes were made to the landscape within this framework. It successfully combined old elements with new ones. And despite all these changes, ‘s-Graveland still has a very distinctive style, because it’s such a solid system. It’s similar to the Amsterdam Canal District, but from a more rural point of view.’
Hilversum and beyond?
‘We did, at one point, consider relocating to Amsterdam, but we couldn’t find what we wanted in the end. There didn’t seem to be any suitable premises available, and then there’s the inconvenience of all that heavy traffic around the city. We’re not really star architects as such, all flashy and demanding that people look at us. We prefer to keep a low profile and are somewhat unassuming. Not so much in our work, but as people. Also, Hilversum suits us perfectly; we’re happy to be based here and feel very much at home at the Werf 35 site.’
Lessons from the creator
Keep an open mind and don’t limit yourself too much in your thinking. I also feel it’s important to be open to other people’s opinions, ideas and solutions and respect their input. It can be challenging, but everyone has an opinion and that opinion deserves to be heard, even opinions from people who may not be the most assertive or outspoken. Everyone has something valuable to contribute