In Memoriam Rein Jansma 1959-2023

On 17 April 2023 Rein Jansma died, at the age of sixty-three.

Surrounded by creativity

Rein was born in Amsterdam in 1959, the son of Arie Jansma and Jeanne Nancy (Oekie) van Dulm. His mother had grown up in the Dutch East Indies, where she was held in a Japanese internment camp during the war, and was now a young mathematics teacher in the Netherlands. Arie was a middle-aged man who had been a communist activist in the 1930s, operating internationally, and during the war he was a member of the Dutch resistance. After the war he became a building contractor and also emerged as an artist. Their first child René was followed by a daughter called Benita. René died at the age of four. Rein was the third. The family lived in a small house in the Falckstraat in Amsterdam, between the Reguliersgracht and the Frederiksplein.

Even before he reached school age, Rein confided to his mother that he found nursery classes terrible and thought up ways of staying home. Primary and secondary school proved, if anything, an even more frustrating experience. He took a tortuous route to his VWO (pre-university level) exams. There was no lack of knowledge, stimuli and incentives. His parents’ circle of friends ensured that he grew up in an environment of designers, photographers, architects and artists. They included, for example, Wim Crouwel, Benno Premsela, Cas Oorthuys and Dick Elffers.

In 1969 Rein’s father exhibited his sculptures and intuitive designs in the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, under the title De Dingen van Arie (Arie’s Things). Among the enthusiastic visitors to the exhibition was Moshé Zwarts, an Amsterdam architect working for Shell, who was about to become a lecturer in building technology at the TU in Eindhoven. Moshé and Arie met, discovered they were kindred spirits and developed a close friendship. It led to regular family visits on both sides.

Dovetail cube

Rein took part in these lively sessions, which involved debates and crafts, games, experiments in physics and the solving of puzzles. Moshé tackled, for example, the question of how it was possible to make a dovetail cube that did not have hollow spaces inside. He conceived and made several: rotating, with hooks on the corners, sliding straight or diagonally. 

Rein, around fifteen years old, said that another was possible, one that slid through the body diagonal. Moshé thought it could never work, but Rein was not deterred and put together a model from cardboard and sticky tape. He cycled to Moshé’s house to prove he was right. Moshé was convinced: it was possible after all.

Moshé and Rein

The friendship between Moshé and Rein, and their collaboration, intensified when, shortly after one another, both families moved out of the city to rural Abcoude, where they lived a stone’s throw apart on the banks of the Gein river. They spent a lot of time together in the workshop. Through contact with a friend of the family, biologist and poet Dick Hillenius, Rein had become fascinated by biology, especially by the capacity of living organisms to build astonishingly efficient patterns and structures. He enrolled to study biology, but during the first year it quickly became clear that Rein did not see a future for himself as a biologist. He applied to study architecture at what was then still called the Technical College in Delft.

Pop-up book Stairs

Living in a basement apartment on the Binnenkant in Amsterdam, he commuted to Delft. Even during the first year of his studies, his intensive double life took its toll; he was diagnosed with glandular fever. During the months of recuperation he cut small foldable sculptures out of cardboard with a small Stanley knife. He made a series of pop-ups of different staircases. Through Joost, the son of designer Dick Elffers, they were published as a successful book (Stairs) and Rein came into contact with Rob Malasch. 

Holland Festival

Rob Malasch asked him to design and build, from moveable staircases and ladders, the decor for the Philip Glass opera The Photographer, which was to have its premiere at the Holland Festival. Little as yet had come of his studies. With a friend he made the decor for a theatrical production in Paris of the tragedies of Aeschylus. He carried out design and installation work for an exhibition of art by Pat Steir, a renowned American painter, in Sao Paulo. He was gradually becoming part of the art world. Did he want to be an artist?

In 1988 Moshé asked for Rein’s help in making a large maquette, with which he was hoping to win a competition for the design of a modular filling station for Shell. Rein’s structural insight and great dexterity at the lathe were more than welcome. The collaboration went even further in designing the shelters for the Haagse Tramweg Maatschappij, the tram company in The Hague. Their revolutionary transparent, modular, and flexible system for over a thousand stops won the Berlage Prize a year later.

A year later the pair’s revolutionary modular and flexible system for more than a thousand tram stops won them the Berlage Prize. When in 1989 they were asked to enter a competition for the design of the Dutch Pavilion at Expo ’92 in Seville, Moshé said: if we win this, shall we start an architecture bureau together? They won and designed the pavilion.


Founding ZJA

Moshé gave up his professorships in Eindhoven and Delft and the architectural studio Zwarts & Jansma Architecten, was established in 1990. The professor with the grey curls and the brilliant young autodidact gained the nicknames Professor Calculus and Lampie. Over the next decade ZJA grew to become a successful bureau that focused on large and complex design commissions, especially for sport and infrastructure, such as stadiums, tunnels, stations and bridges. Examples include the Wilhelminaplein metro station in Rotterdam, the renovation of the De Kuip stadium, the iconic light-rail station on the Beatrixlaan in The Hague, the inflatable surge barrier at Ramspol and the greenhouse of the Hortus Botanicus in Amsterdam.

Rein was the first Dutch person without a diploma to be officially allowed to call himself an architect, without even having to sit an exam. Based on references, his services to innovation in architecture and his portfolio, he was given an exemption from the Dutch Register of Architects, in the name of the queen.

Lightweight constructions

The work of ZJA is all about optimally accommodating flowing movements: those of travellers, cars, trains, cyclists, animals, water and air. It is characterized by an attempt to come up with structures that seem to have been invented for one unique situation, using as little material as possible, light and slim, and, no matter how technical, appearing self-explanatory. Technology and industry are placed fully at the service of human wellbeing, through visible and hidden ingenuity. The dreamed-of effect is that of unencumbered freedom of movement, surprise and comfort.

In the late 1980s Rein met Maartje Nevejan, an actor who would later develop into a documentary filmmaker. Their personalities and ways of thinking were very different, but they turned out to complement each other brilliantly. They became a couple. From the early nineties onwards they had children: Abel, Noa and Mas.

ZJA has grown to become a company employing more than fifty staff with more than fifteen nationalities. In 2000 and 2003 the board of directors was expanded to include Reinald Top and Rob Torsing respectively. Both had worked at ZJA for years, helping to strengthen it in an architectonic, business and organizational sense. In 2009 Moshé stood aside and retired. He died in 2019. Rein increasingly became the person who kept alive the connection between the design process, which concerned itself with functional and programmatic demands, and research into new structures, materials and design methods. Digital innovation, such as parametric modelling, and old-fashioned experimentation in the workshop with wood, concrete, steel, rope, laser cutters and 3D printers went hand in hand. Particularly impressive examples include the extended Waal bridge and the Diamond Exchange in Amsterdam.

Rein characterized himself as an über-rationalist who lived by intuition. His main source of inspiration seemed to be the self-organizing capacities of living nature, where without the involvement of any design, the most beautiful structures and efficient solutions emerge. To him design was ideally a kind of evolutionary process at maximum speed, of which chance, mathematics, rational demands and investigative dealings with wood, steel, rope, cloth and clay were part. In that process the interaction with others, and with other disciplines, was crucial. Rein was curious about shipbuilders, space-travel designs, artists and discoveries made by biologists. He applied that mentality to all the projects in which he was involved. Within ZJA he provided what he called ZJA’s humus layer: he arranged time and attention for play, pleasure, curiosity and experiment, which ultimately remain the source of all rational and useful design.

A flexible mind and highly talented hand

Rein was curious about shipbuilders, space-travel designs, artists and discoveries made by biologists. He applied that mentality to all the projects in which he was involved. Within ZJA he provided what he called ZJA’s humus layer: he arranged time and attention for play, pleasure, curiosity and experiment, which ultimately remain the source of all rational and useful design.

Rein was a man with a flexible mind, said one of his partners at ZJA, and a person with highly talented hands. Anyone watching him busy in the workshop thought they were watching a man with four or eight hands. A magician with paper and a virtuoso at the lathe.

He combined the eyes of an old soul with those of a child at play, and he had a profound dislike of anything that hinted at obligations, ideological dogmas, homework or tedious routine. 

Sometimes he adopted the persona of an impatient lucky child, used to having the final say. But what dominated was his tendency to arrange his environment and his life in such a way that there was space for everything and everyone to develop optimally and to discover themselves.

Six years ago everyone was shocked when Rein told them he had been diagnosed with a serious illness. What seemed like the announcement of a rapid decline became instead an adjustment to the inevitable that went on for years. Open and vulnerable, he nevertheless endured all the treatments with courage and good cheer. Until the very end he continued, if only for an hour, to make a contribution, by asking questions, suggesting stimulating solutions, introducing people to knowledge or inviting them to do something new. Until that became impossible.

In a speech he gave recently to the staff at ZJA he said that after all these years he had more or less reconciled himself to the fact that his life was ending, but that he simply didn't want to leave because he still found everything and everyone such a delight. The final period was devoted to being together, at home, with Maartje and the children, and it was there that he died on Monday, 17th of april 2023.



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