Het Nieuwe Instituut’s newly appointed general and artistic director Aric Chen feels excited about the future. The architecture and design curator, and long-term Wallpaper* contributor, was based in Shanghai when the offer to take the helm of Rotterdam’s seminal architecture, design and digital culture organisation came up. ‘I’d been in China for 13 years at the time, and I was very contented and happy, so I wasn’t really looking,’ he says. ‘But this came up; it was just an irresistible opportunity. For me Het Nieuwe Instituut (HNI) is an institution that is unique in the world, in its multidisciplinarity, covering architecture, design and digital culture as well as having a historical collection.’ After a soft start in May 2021, he relocated and kicked off his tenure fully this September, heralding an exciting new era for the institute, the city, Dutch architecture and beyond. 

‘Rotterdam is a can-do city, and the institute is a can-do place too,’ he says. And given the cultural organisation’s recent internal changes, there was lots of scope to try out new things (HNI absorbed what used to be the Netherlands Architecture Institute – moving into its headquarters in 2013 – as well as Premsela, Netherlands Institute for Design and Fashion, and the Virtueel Platform, a knowledge institute for e-culture). ‘The institute has the possibility to experiment and start anew,’ adds Chen. 

Research Centre in Het Nieuwe Instituut. Design by Sabine Marcelis. Photo by Pim Top.
The Research Centre at Het Nieuwe Instituut., designed by Sabine Marcelis. Photography: Pim Top

Chen is keen to maintain the institute’s strong reputation for research and critical thinking, and expand it. ‘I’d like to see if we can take it a little further, exploring the interdisciplinarity and even shifting the emphasis from thinking to doing. I’d like to push us to become even more of a testing ground and put words to actions – in a way that only a cultural institution can,’ he explains. 

A case in point is his plans for the HNI’s shop, which is currently in redevelopment. Chen questions the role of consumption in the current era, challenging its purpose and perception, asking how our consumption habits are contributing to the problems the world currently faces. ‘A lot of younger designers are proposing new models that cause less social and environmental damage,’ he says. The new shop is set to not only offer products that are better suited to our times, but also challenge the whole way of operating a store, in order to test, along with thinkers and consultants in the field, ‘where the friction is’. Plans will be revealed next year.

MVRDV exhibition at the Het Nieuwe Instituut in Rotterdam
View of the exhibition ‘MVRDVHNI: The Living Archive of a Studio’ at the Het Nieuwe Instituut (2021-2022). Photography: Aad Hoogendoorn

More is yet to come. Zoöp is another ongoing research project at HNI, a practice-based investigation ‘into the design and application of a new kind of legal format for collaboration between humans and collective bodies of nonhumans, in order to support ecological regeneration’. This is linked to plans to reveal a new garden for HNI’s home, which is currently being transformed around the principles of multi-species urbanism. Other plans include a global architecture summit at HNI in 2022; the first ever solar biennale (aiming to ‘shed light on solar futures and technologies’); as well as constant efforts to find ways to ‘make our own building more sustainable’, Chen adds. 

For now, the institute is celebrating the opening of its show on architects MVRDV’s archive – ‘MVRDVHNI: The Living Archive of a Studio’. Timed to open with the official launch of the Boijmans Depot, the multimedia exhibition explores the world renowned Dutch practice’s archive, which the organisation holds (including some 400 items, from its inception up to 2015). Chen hopes that the immersive show invites visitors to discuss different perspectives and look and learn from the prolific studio’s body of work – organised here under three thematic sections, Human, Green, and Dream. 

Rethinking and reframing HNI’s existing collections, as well as exploring new practices and actions seems to be at the heart of Chen’s vision for the dynamic organisation. ‘It is about rethinking our past, revisiting the archive, expanding, telling different narratives, innovating the past and the future,’ he says. We can’t wait. §

reading room at Research Centre in Het Nieuwe Instituut
The reading room at the Research Centre of Het Nieuwe Instituut, which was designed by Sabine Marcelis. Photography: Pim Top
Some highlights of the MVRDV maquettes from the collection at the Het Nieuwe Instituut in Rotterdsam
View of the selection of MVRDV maquettes from the archive held at the Het Nieuwe Instituut in Rotterdam. Photography: E. Roelsma