Wiel Arets was born in Heerlen, the Netherlands, in 1955. His father was a printer and his mother was a fashion designer, and from them he learned both the love of books and reading, as well as a deep respect for craft, materials and making. Heerlen, an ancient town founded by the Romans, located in the Limburg region in the south of Holland, near the borders of both Belgium and Germany, was from 1896 to 1966 the center of an important coal industry. As a result, the people of Heerlen were drawn from all over Europe, and together formed a strongly multicultural society. Arets grew up speaking four languages; French, German, Dutch and the regional dialect of Limburg. One of Arets’ grandfathers was a farmer, from whom he learned a respect for the unique aspects of the landscape of the Limburg region, while his other grandfather was a mining engineer, from whom he gained an abiding interest in technology.
Intensely involved as a youth in soccer, and initially drawn to study physics, having been inspired by the first man landing on the Moon, Arets decided to focus on architecture after his grandfather gave him a book on the history of the Dutch house. After completing engineering school in Heerlen, he attended architecture school at the Technical University Eindhoven (TU/e), where, in addition to his classes and studio work, he spent three hours in the library every day. Among the writers who most inspired Arets from his youth was Paul Valéry, whose lifelong writing project, the Cahiers (Notebooks), Arets read in the original French, and Giorgio Grassi, whose La Construzione Logica della Architettura Moderna Arets translated into Dutch while a student. In addition, Arets has always been inspired by the works and thinking of the filmmaker, Jean-Luc Godard. It was at this time that Arets developed his admiration for the dialogue as an operative method, as exemplified by Valery’s Eupalinos, or the Architect, Cesar Cattaneo’s Giovanni e Giuseppe, and Plato’s Politeia.
While still in school, Arets undertook research in the archives and library of F.P.J. Peutz, an architect who built over 500 works in Heerlen, including the Town Hall and the Glaspaleis, which Arets would renovate and restore in 2004. In 1981, Arets organized an exhibit on Peutz at TU/e, and co-authored the book, F.P.J. Peutz Architekt 1916-1966, the only study on this important architect. While still a student, Arets co-founded the journal Wiederhall; organized a series of visiting lectures at the TU/e by architects such as Zaha Hadid, Peter Eisenman and John Hejduk; organized the first European exhibit of the work of Tadao Ando; as well as organizing student research trips to Paris, Como, and Russia.
Upon graduating from the TU/e in 1983, Arets went on a six-week research trip to Japan, where he met and wrote articles for the Dutch magazine De Architekt on the work of Ando, Maki, Shinohara, Hasegawa, Yamamoto, and others. Upon returning he opened his own office in Heerlen, where in the next years he designed his two most important early works, the Academy of Art and Architecture in Maastricht (1989-93) and the AZL Pension Fund Headquarters in Heerlen (1990-95), both of which were published in monographic form, and both of which received international awards. His work also received early recognition through the Rotterdam Maaskant Award of 1989, the Mies van der Rohe Award for European Architecture 'Emerging Architect' in 1994, and the publications Wiel Arets Architect (1989), An Alabaster Skin (1992), Wiel Arets Strange Bodies (1996), as well as the El Croquis monograph issue, Wiel Arets (1997).
Starting in 1986, Arets taught at the Architecture Academies of Amsterdam and Rotterdam, and from 1988-92 he was invited by Alvin Boyarsky to teach the Diploma Masters Unit at the Architectural Association in London. During this time, Arets organized research trips for his students to the Villa Malaparte in Capri, designed by the writer Curzio Malaparte, where they were among the first to enter the house after its return to the family (resulting in Arets’ ground-breaking article on the design of the house in the AA Files, Casa Come Me); to Hong Kong to study the walled city of Kowloon; as well as to Mexico City to study the work of Luis Barragán. From 1991-94, Arets was invited by Bernard Tschumi to teach at Columbia University in New York, and during this same time he was invited by John Hejduk to teach at Cooper Union, also in New York.
From 1995-2002, Arets was the Dean of the Berlage Institute School of Architecture, which moved from Amsterdam to Rotterdam during his tenure. He reorganized the Institute as a research laboratory focused on thematic issues of contemporary urban import at both the national and global scale. He also co-founded the journal Hunch as a way of documenting and presenting the research work of the school. From 2004-12, Arets was a tenured Professor at the UdK, Berlin; served on the Advisory Council for the Princeton University School of Architecture; as well as teaching as a visitor at selected schools including the Universidad Politecnica de Madrid and Washington University in St. Louis.
In autumn 2012 Arets was appointed Dean of the Illinois Institute of Technology’s College of Architecture (IIT CoA), in Chicago, Illinois, USA, where he is also the Rowe Family CoA Dean Endowed Chair Professor. Under his leadership, the IIT CoA has revitalized the school and restructured its curriculum, which now culminates in the innovative 'horizontal studio'—a school-wide educational and research laboratory in which students in all degree programs (B.Arch, M.Arch. MLA and PhD), work together on research and design topics related to the metropolis, undertaken with the guidance and with criticism from internationally recognized visiting teachers and lecturers.
Starting in 1995 with the Stealth furniture line produced by Lensfelt, Arets has been involved in product design in both mass and limited production. Since 2001 he has designed almost one hundred products for the Italian company Alessi, including the Il Bagno dOt series of bathroom fixtures, a salt shaker, pepper mill, corkscrew, coffee maker, mixer, coffee-tea-milk-sugar set, espresso cup, saucer and spoon, tableware, and other kitchen products, as well as jewelry, a mobile phone, and a wristwatch; in 2009 Arets received the Good Design Award for his designs for Alessi. Arets has also worked with the jewelry maker Leon Martens, as well as designing three chairs that have gone into production, including the B’kini Chair by Gutzz and the Jellyfish Chair by Quinze & Milan. As with the Stealth furniture line, designed for the AZL Pension Fund Headquarters, many of Arets’ product designs have originated in his architectural commissions.
In 1997, Arets built his home and office in Maastricht, where his practice then moved from Heerlen. A second office was opened in Amsterdam in 2004, and a third office was opened in Zürich in 2008. A life-long fascination with Japanese culture, resulting in many trips to that country over the years, culminated in Arets designing and building a house for his family in Tokyo, completed in 2013. In 1997, Arets was one of ten finalists in the competition to design the addition to the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and from 1995-99 he saw realized a series of four innovative police stations in Vaals, Cuijk, Boxtel, and Heerlen. Over the past more than twenty years, Arets has designed and built a series of innovative and highly successful urban multi-family housing projects, both in the Netherlands and abroad, including the Four Towers Osdorp, in Amsterdam, for which Arets received the Amsterdam Architectural Prize in 2010.
The University Library Utrecht, which was completed in 2004, was the subject of the monograph, Living Library: Wiel Arets, as well as the site and subject of a ballet staged by the Dutch National Dance Theater in the library during its construction. In 2005 Arets received the Rietveld Prize for the design of the University Library Utrecht, and that same year he received the BNA Kubus Award for his entire oeuvre. More recently, he received the AIT Innovation Award for Architecture and Technology, for Allianz Headquarters; the German Sustainable Building Council Silver Certification, for Schwäbisch Media; and the Victor de Stuers Award, for The Post. The book, Wiel Arets: Autobiographical References, won the Best Dutch Book Design Award in 2012. Arets was President of the Jury for the 2012 Venice Biennale of Architecture, and in 2013, Arets was Chair of the Jury for the Mies van der Rohe Award.
Other monographs on the work of Wiel Arets Architects include Wiel Arets Architect (010, 1998), Wiel Arets (C3, 1999), Wiel Arets: AZL Heerlen (010, 1999), Wiel Arets (Ediciones Poligrafia, 2002), Wiel Arets (Electa, 2004), The Bathing Dutchman (Alessi, 2007), Wiel Arets: Autobiographical References (Birkhäuser, 2012), Wiel Arets: Inspiration and Process in Architecture (Moleskin, 2012), and TC Cuadernos: Wiel Arets 1997-2013 (TC Cuadernos, 2013), and NOWNESS (IIT CoA, 2013), published to coincide with Arets’ investiture as the Rowe Family CoA Dean Chair at IIT; forthcoming publications include a new monograph and a book of photographs of Arets’ works by Bas Princen.
In 2010, Arets won the competition to design the expansion of the IJhal at the Central Train Station in Amsterdam, and in 2013 he won the competition to design Europaallee 'Site D' in Zürich. Recently completed works include the Allianz Headquarters, Zürich, Switzerland; Schwäbisch Media, Ravensburg, Germany; AvB Tower, The Hague; B’ Tower, Rotterdam; Campus Hoogvliet, Rotterdam; E’ Tower, Eindhoven; V’ House, Maastricht; The Post, a renovation project in Maastricht; and the Jellyfish House, Marbella, Spain. Arets has numerous projects under construction throughout Europe, and ongoing projects include the Cathedral and new urban district in Cape Coast, Ghana.
Robert McCarter, 2014
Architect, Author, and Professor
Ruth and Norman Moore Professor of Architecture
Washington University in St. Louis, United States of America