WY-LENE YAP: What did you want to be when you were a child?
CAMIEL WEIJENBERG: That’s a very good question. I guess, a pilot? My dad is really into planes, and he even built his own plane. I was inspired by that… but here I am—a designer/architect. I grew up in a building and construction environment: my dad was an engineer, and my grandfather was a contractor.
WY-LENE: Tell me about the house you grew up in.
CAMIEL: It was an old farm and we converted it into a home. It had a big garden, surrounded by greenery, with lots of room to play. Later, my dad also built a large hangar for his airplane. Witnessing that transformation was very interesting, as it helped me become more aware of how things were constructed.
WY-LENE: What kind of child were you?
CAMIEL: Well, I was the annoying kid who asked a lot of questions. Till today, I am still a curious person, but now I prefer to sit back and observe.
WY-LENE: I understand you are Dutch—would you say that you are a very tolerant person?
CAMIEL: To a certain extent, yes. But I can be very impatient—time is limited, so why wait for anything? Of course, certain things take time to grow and mature, and I recognise that, but I don’t like waiting or queuing for food.
WY-LENE: You’re based in Singapore now. What drew you to this city?
CAMIEL: I spent 10 years in London working at Zaha Hadid and I also studied at the Architectural Association. Personally, I felt that I reached the end of a cycle, so I didn’t want to go back to the Netherlands. I looked at Hong Kong and Singapore, before deciding to make Singapore my base. I really like Singapore because it is a fantastic place. London can be a chore at times—it is a pain to get around, it is a pain to get anything done, the number of regulations is just mind blowing. Singapore serves as a good springboard to Asia, and it is easier to do business. We have projects now in Australia, Malaysia, and Sri Lanka.
WY-LENE: Zaha Hadid said, “For a woman to go out alone in architecture is still very, very hard. It’s still a man’s world.” What are your thoughts on this?
CAMIEL: She was fantastic of course… and tough too.
WY-LENE: But do you still think it’s a man’s world?
CAMIEL: I don’t think so. Although there are still a lot of male architects, women in general can multi-task better and adapt quicker to situations. There are opportunities for women out there and I think the landscape will change over time.
Your last project should be your best project.
WY-LENE: How has working for Zaha Hadid influenced your design approach?
CAMIEL: I was taught how to constantly improve each project and find ways to push boundaries. Your last project should be your best project. Things don’t always come together the way you want it to be because they are many factors involved, but you have to try and pull all of them in the right direction.
WY-LENE: Your design philosophy is ‘Crafting the Traditional’ whereby you incorporate cutting technology with traditional materials. Is this what sets your firm apart from the rest of the competitors?
CAMIEL: I don’t know—for us, it is a mindset that I believe in. We should embrace existing cultures and materials and infuse them with cutting technologies like laser cutting, CNC, robotics, etc. If you look at RAW (Taiwan), everything was done locally, and the materials were from Taiwan. We are doing the same thing with a resort in Sri Lanka. I think that makes a project local.
WY-LENE: What is your ultimate goal when it comes to your work?
CAMIEL: I enjoy what I do, and making that transition from a carpenter to an architect and having my own firm helped me grow as a person. What also satisfies me is knowing that each year is different from the year before and the journey is exciting to me.
WY-LENE: What do you want to be remembered for?
CAMIEL: I hope to inspire people and contribute to the design scene.
WY-LENE: What is the most meaningful project you have done?
CAMIEL: When I was 12, my friends and I built a half-pipe for skateboarding. It was 3 to 4 metres high. The collective effort to create a social environment was meaningful to me.
WY-LENE: Do you ever read design and architecture magazines?
CAMIEL: Not much, but I like a+u.
WY-LENE: Then what do you read?
CAMIEL: At the moment, I’m reading How To Write Well [laughs].
WY-LENE: Are you serious?
CAMIEL: Yeah, it teaches you how to write short emails.
WY-LENE: What do you think is the most effective way of presenting a project?
CAMIEL: It really depends on the client. Some clients only want to read a plan, while others prefer to look at images, so you have to gauge their level of understanding and comfort. Sometimes, they are too busy and don’t have time to go into the nitty-gritty, so they only focus on the bottom line because they have complete trust in our capabilities.
WY-LENE: Your team is around 6, right?
WY-LENE: In the past 3 months, what’s the smallest change that you’ve implemented that has led to the greatest impact for your company?
CAMIEL: I try to be less involved in the smaller aspects and give more responsibility to my team.
WY-LENE: Do you think buildings have a soul?
CAMIEL: Some do.
WY-LENE: How does one define architectural soul—or possibly attain it?
CAMIEL: I went to Dhaka 2 years ago to look at the National Parliament House designed by Louis Kahn. To me, that building has the biggest soul or spirit (however you want to call it). It was just mind blowing and out of this world. The citizens simply love that building and are so proud of it. It’s really, really special and Kahn died before the project was completed.
WY-LENE: How did you feel when you saw it?
CAMIEL: In books, it looks awesome but when I went there in person, it took my breath away. If you look at the mosque which is inside the building, it still has old bathing methods like the running line of water on the floor, and that just shows how far the world has come in 40 years. The building is like a piece of the future, yet it has traditional elements in it—that makes it striking.
WY-LENE: When I look at building critically, there could be a fall in the light, a shadow in the space, the warmth of material. Some make me feel sombre. So, my next question is how can our souls be uplifted by the spatial experience of a man-made object?
CAMIEL: Yes, absolutely. If you have dark space which is low, it is a completely different experience when it’s high and bright. It goes hand in hand and it is a big part of what we do. If you look at great buildings, they only use a couple of materials because they are crafting spaces and architecture. However, certain others use 12, 15, 20 different materials and 5 to 10 different types of patterns. It’s just insane and it hurts my eyes.
WY-LENE: Fair enough. [laughs]
CAMIEL: I think it’s aesthetic pollution. [laughs] There should be a police for such matters. There’s no need to use so many different materials and so many different patterns… it saddens me sometimes to see that because these buildings will be around for quite a while.
WY-LENE: Can you name a building in Singapore that has a soul?
CAMIEL: The Colonnade on Grange road. It’s a luxury condo and there is something utopian about it—you can see and feel the blocks, and how they continue in any direction towards the sky.
WY-LENE: Do you live there?
CAMIEL: No, I wish.
WY-LENE: What’s the first thing you do when you get an idea?
CAMIEL: I will analyse it critically. Next, I will ask myself: Does this align with what we are doing? And does it make sense for the company?
WY-LENE: What is your creative process?
CAMIEL: It usually starts with a question. Why this? What if? Could we do it like this? What if we take that out? And these questions could come up at any time of the day and anyone in the team can add to an idea or test each other’s idea. I think discussions are very important. Then we sketch, model, or play with the software to find a new way of thinking towards a project.
I have an extremely selective memory. I wish I could remember everything, but I can’t.
WY-LENE: What’s the most daring thing you have ever done?
CAMIEL: I have a parachute licence. It is probably expired by now.
WY-LENE: How do you even get one?
CAMIEL: First, you have to learn how to fold a parachute, and then you jump. You need to do 8 jumps. Sometimes you do one or two a day depending on the weather. It took me a week to get my licence.
WY-LENE: Where did you get it?
CAMIEL: In Holland.
WY-LENE: What is your greatest fear in life?
CAMIEL: Running out of time because time is the most valuable thing.
WY-LENE: What is your most treasured possession?
CAMIEL: I don’t have an object in particular. I treasure the connections I have with people, though.
WY-LENE: What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?
CAMIEL: My forgetfulness. I have an extremely selective memory. I wish I could remember everything, but I can’t.
WY-LENE: What is your most marked characteristic?
CAMIEL: The ability to work well with people—for example, working on a project in a foreign country, and dealing with a foreign language. For RAW (Taiwan), I couldn’t speak Mandarin, but we managed to pull it off, despite it being a very complicated project. At the end of the day, you have to make people understand your objectives, and how you plan to achieve them.
WY-LENE: People can sometimes make work more complicated. There is always an unpredictable element.
CAMIEL: But you need them.
WY-LENE: Yeah, I agree.
CAMIEL: People can also make work better and easier. I think it’s critical to work with people in the right way. And I hope I can still learn from others and improve myself.