18 Oct 2017

Dutch Modernism, De Stijl & Rotterdam Bling

Contrast & reflection

Of all our continental neighbours the Dutch seem most like the English, or at least what we thought the English were like until recent events. Countries on the periphery, the national identities of both were forged in opposition to Latin and Catholic Europe, and imperial Spain and France. From their seafaring traditions both developed formidable commerce and extensive maritime empires. Both evolved early bourgeois societies characterized by traditions of pragmatism, understatement and toleration; a bit stolid and dull.

Historical theme: the Dutch lead the way

There are big differences of course. The Netherlands is much smaller than Britain, although with a population of 17 million it has a larger economy than most Brits realize. There seems to be more of a sense of societal cohesion which may result from centuries fighting together to keep the sea at bay, much of the Netherlands being below sea level. The industrial revolution came late to Holland – a century after England, and so in the C20 its industrial structure was relatively modern.

Can we revive the Amsterdam school please? It's amazing. No questions necessary.
De Bijenkorf store, Den Haag

But for urbanists the most obvious difference between the two countries is that in Holland the tradition of modernism is everywhere predominant. Britain was notoriously backward between the wars in every aspect of modernism. Even today outside city centres most new housing is attempted cosy nostalgia. The Dutch too toyed with garden city ideas and in the early C20 the Amsterdam School of Michael de Klerk, Piet Kramer and others produced the most marvellous terraces of workers’ housing. This drew on the traditional Dutch excellence in brickwork and the design invention of the housing fronting its many canals. It was inspired by Jugendstil and the Arts and Crafts movement. But in the late C19 Berlage was already radically re-thinking space and form in architecture, drawing on an eclectic range of influences from Viollet-le-Duc to Frank Lloyd Wright. His most famous building is the Amsterdam Stock Exchange, a celebration of brick craftsmanship with its load bearing and explicitly bare walls. In London he built Holland House (1916) behind the Gherkin on Bury Street, here employing a steel frame and clad with greenish tiles above a black granite plinth – a truly stylish building.

Berlage discovers visual hierarchy and controls ornamentation

Gemeentemuseum, hmmm... not that impressed

Berlage’s last building was the Gemeentemuseum in Den Haag, completed after his death in 1934. It reflects new ideas about the purpose and accessibility of the art gallery and museum. It expresses itself as a series of low, modest, almost random cubes and lanterns and is clad in quite lurid yellow brick - the structure is concrete. The influence of Frank Lloyd Wright is very obvious. It is viewed across a reflecting lake and you enter the building via a long, low key corridor isthmus into the much more expansive reception hall which employs brightly coloured tiles, marble, bronze and oak paneling. The layout of the galleries is deliberately complex, intended to slow down visitors and help them ‘lose themselves in art’. This ethos may explain the hopeless signing today. The galleries are all naturally lit and arranged round a central courtyard, now glazed in a low key way. The Gemeentemuseum is a strange, unsettling, almost shocking building. It is arresting but its massing seems confused, no doubt reflecting Berlage’s focus on the interior dynamics rather than creating a sculptural composition. It is building which refuses to conform to expectation.

Local government is cool

An essay in visual language: form, proportion, movement, detail ... 

This cannot be said of Dudok’s magnificent Hilversum Town Hall, the ikon of Dutch modernism. His design was presented in 1924 but the city was not ready for such a radical project, and it was only because of pressure from Berlage and the architectural establishment that it was eventually approved and completed in 1930. The building is in a park like setting and its key south elevation is viewed across a lake. The monumentality and cubic form is awe inspiring - it looks as if could be a turbine hall rather than a Town Hall. The magnificent tower and other vertical emphasis is beautifully balanced by long vertical pavilions with strip windows and by covered walkways. The load bearing yellow brickwork is staggeringly crisp but its sobriety is leavened by beautiful detailing, especially the projecting flat roofs. Then there are carefully rationed glimpses of colour, mostly blue tiles and beds of red geraniums.

.... grid, angle, texture, rhythm ...

.... alignment, symmetry, material ...

Dudok insisted on designing everything in the building including the furniture, typography and upholstery; it is the ultimate Gesamtkunstwerk. The integration of natural and electric lighting is a brilliant touch. One of the very few things he did not design himself is the symbolic chairs in the Wedding Room, which are by Mackintosh. A touching aspect of the scheme is the extent to which this was seen as a ‘citizens’ building, with many groups across social classes donating gifts to the Town Hall; Dudok of course insisted on designing these himself. How different from the suspicious and parsimonious attitude towards local government today.

... contrast, light and colour ... 

... have we forgotten the joy of looking?

Hilversum Town Hall had a huge international impact, even in Britain, and was the inspiration for town halls like Hornsey and Greenwich, amongst others. The bastardised influence of its bricky simplicity can also be noted in the ubiquitous ‘Odeon’ style found across Britain. Dudok became the city architect of Hilversum and built many schools and other civic buildings, as well as residential areas on garden city lines. His major department store in Rotterdam was destroyed in the war, although a later office building survives, now the Café Dudok. The ingenuity of Dutch architecture between the wars can be seen in the city centre of Den Haag, most extraordinarily in the multistory car park designed in 1928 by Jan Greve on Torenstraat, one of the main streets, based around elliptical ramps providing five floors of parking circling a wedge shaped light. The De Bijenkorf department store, designed in 1923, is a Piet Kramer masterpiece with a façade of curved bricks and faceted strips of glass. But perhaps the most interesting is the De Volharding Socialist Co-operative store of 1927, designed by Buijs and Lürsen. This has a five storey reinforced concrete skeleton covered in black granite, aluminium edged frosted glass and prism black tiles. The light boxes on the façades were designed for advertising, transforming the building into a luminous billboard at night. The design is heavily influenced by Cubism, Russian Constructivism and of course De Stijl.

The De Volharding Socialist Co-operative store of 1927

The joy of looking is endemic in Dutch culture

The De Stijl movement, founded in Holland one hundred years ago, involved architects and artists (including Mondrian). Heavily influenced by Cubism it advocated the abstraction of design to the universal elements of form and colour. Naturalistic forms were eschewed for straight horizontal or vertical lines. Planes were separated so that each element is seen independently. Colour was restricted to black, white, grey and primary colours.

Nearly 100 years old

The De Stijl movement had an influence way beyond the relatively few works it produced. Indeed the only building which fully illustrates the principles of the movement is the famous Rietveld Schröder house in Utrecht. Rietveld was a furniture and interior designer but was commissioned by Mrs Schröder to design a house for herself and her children. She was very closely involved in the evolution of the concept and detail of its design. The tiny house is at the end of a conventional terrace and overlooked open polders (until a motorway and urban expansion in the 60s). The exterior is composed of horizontal and vertical lines and planes in black, white and grey with a few bars of primary colour and it looks jewel-like. The inside is more magical yet. Everything is carefully designed to maximize space and flexibility. This is best seen on the upper floor where the living room and bedrooms all have sliding or revolving doors allowing the space to be fully opened up or divided into private space as required. The space has a strong sense of the Japanese. The lack of division between inside and out is emphasized by an ingenious fully opening corner window. Rietveld’s skill as a cabinet maker is shown in the clever built in furniture, and also his famous chair.

Dear big British house builders, you are all morons 

Although a one-off, the Rietveld Schröder house had a huge influence on housing design in the Netherlands, which is apparent from any train journey across this densely built up country. There seems to be an inherent sense of order and design expressed in Modernism but also reflecting older societal and architectural traditions. (Of course there is another side to the Dutch character too – hedonism and vulgarity, which we explored in our blog on self build in the Netherlands.)

See caption above

In the port area of Rotterdam you find an early modernist estate for the working class designed by Oud, a key architect of the De Stijl movement, in 1925. The Kiefhoek estate plan is long rows of two storey terraces rendered in white with a base of yellow bricks, red doors and grey ground floor window frames with a continuous band of yellow window frames at the first floor. The tiny front gardens have yellow walls and blue steel railings. The houses were meant for big families but seem small, still lacking bathrooms or running hot water – tenants carried this from a special boiler house. But there was a church, playgrounds and two shops strikingly at the angle where terraces join. The original estate was demolished in the 90s because of poor foundations, but meticulously rebuilt. The De Stijl principles continue to inform Dutch housing design, like the estate of low rise terraces at Ringvaartplas Rotterdam, designed by Mecanoo in 1989. The value of long term planning is clearly seen here too with the Metro which efficiently links this peripheral estate to the city centre.

Match of the Day: Van Nelle v Boots

The train from Schiphol to Rotterdam speeds past the Van Nelle factory on the city’s northern outskirts. This is one of the most thrilling examples of modernist industrial architecture, designed by Van der Vlugt in 1925 and completed in 1931. Le Corbusier said ‘the visit to this factory has been one of the most beautiful days of my life’. It was clearly the inspiration for Owen Williams’ awe inspiring Boots D10 factory in Nottingham, built in 1932. The Van Nelle complex was designed for optimum functioning and the completely integrated flow of production from the arrival of raw materials to the dispatch of finished product. It was also intended to provide much improved working conditions for employees.

Concrete mushroom columns: 1 - 1

The building has concrete floor slabs with mushroom columns, leaving the façade free for continuous metal framed windows, so the building is flooded with light. With commendable pragmatism the architect specified cheap standard glazing used extensively in Holland for greenhouses. The structure is divided into main three sections; eight floors for tobacco, five with a double height mezzanine for coffee and three for tea. These are linked to storage and dispatch areas by exquisitely angled glazed bridges making the complex look like something out of Fritz Lang’s ‘Metropolis’. This was in fact a happy accident; the introduction of larger canal barges and development of road transport meant the original plan for delivering raw materials had to be changed. Freestanding offices at the entrance follow the curve of the road.

Curtain walling: 2 - 2

Overhead walkways: 3 - 2, Van Nelle wins in extra time!

The nature of the work required high standards of cleanliness and facilities for the staff were outstanding for the time including the first sick pay in Holland. Men and women were however segregated into different jobs – the women left when they got married. The workers’ entrance leads to a double staircase, one for each sex, leading to showers and other facilities. The Van Nelle company excelled at advertising and promotion and were particularly good at brand recognition with distinctive typography and design. The Van Nelle signs on the roof are iconic. Closed as a factory in 1995, it has been refurbished as space for exhibitions and conferences and offices for architects.

A sanatorium designed for TB patients 

Now visited by suffering design enthusiasts from Britain

Sanatorium Zonnestraal (by Duiker and Bijvoet 1926-31) is another seminal Dutch modernist building. It was part of an idealistic social programme rather than a statement of style and was commissioned by the General Union of Dutch Diamond Workers. The sanatorium was intended as a temporary expedient awaiting the development of a cure for tuberculosis, which was (rightly) expected within 30 years, and this pushed economy in construction. The buildings are located in extensive woodland and were designed around principles of maximum access to sunshine and fresh air, and with complex separate circulation systems to avoid cross infection. Patients arrived beneath the main block by car and were symbolically led up into a light filled upper floor social centre and restaurant with sun terrace. There were flanking pavilions for the wards and medical facilities. The buildings have concrete frames and columns but the walls are plaster on a wire mesh with an outer layer of (originally unpainted) cement. Fenestration is maximized. The 3 metre module was for cheapness and speed of production. Zonnestraal was very much admired and strongly influenced Aalto in his later and possibly more famous Paimio Sanatorium. Zonnestraal became neglected and unused but the main building was restored in 2001 and the other blocks are also being restored.

Rational and creative – Delft station

Rotterdam, with a population of about 650,000, is only slightly smaller than Amsterdam. Den Haag, the seat of the Dutch government is almost part of the urban area and is linked to Rotterdam’s Metro system. Rotterdam is also the largest port in Europe, its docks occupying a vast area along the Maas to the North Sea. So Rotterdam is very much a rival to Amsterdam but its character and function is entirely different. It is a much harder place. Rotterdam was insignificant compared to nearby towns like Delft until the industrial port was developed in the C19. In 1940 the city was bombed in a devastating Blitzkrieg which took only 15 minutes to flatten the city centre. The ‘fire line’ of total destruction can be followed today in a thin red line in the pavements, devised by Adriaan Geuze in 2010. The monument to the Destroyed City by Zadkine, unveiled in 1953, is a figure without a heart. It is at least arguable that the ‘Basic Plan’ for rebuilding, drawn up by the City Architect van Traa, created a city without a heart.

Het Steiger Church 

Coventry Cathedral vibes

The city’s rebuilding was as radical, symbolic and celebrated as that of Coventry but there was no emblematic building like Coventry Cathedral, unless it is the Euromast of 1958, but that was erected for fun, not commemoration. Some churches were restored or rebuilt, like the impressively austere Het Steiger Church (1959 by Kraaijvanger Architects). Here in a side chapel the Virgin Mary shelters the City of Rotterdam beneath her cloak, an odd icon in the circumstances.

Van Traa abandoned the idea of reconstructing the old centre and instead designed a completely new spatial layout with radical separation of functions. The new centre was dominated by commercial buildings and shopping. Housing was mostly, but not entirely, pushed to the outskirts in a radical shift in the city’s structure. The dominant feature of the new city centre is its massively wide new roads which, now mostly flanked by tall buildings, create Rotterdam’s reputation as ‘the windy city’.

Lijnbaan, twinned with Coventry & Stevenage

Rotterdam Kunsthal (Rem Koolhas 1987)

The architecture of the post war rebuilding seems very familiar from British experience. It is mostly decent, modest and cheaply done. The set pieces like Lijnbaan, the first pedestrian shopping precinct in Europe designed by Van den Broek and Bakema in 1951, still impress. There are attractive flats and gardens behind. The Huf Shoe Store by the same architects (1952) represented modernity but the Bijenkorf Department Store of 1955 by Marcel Breuer, an almost sealed box with a honeycomb cladding of hexagonal travertine panels with only narrow slit windows predicted our retail futures. Many of the offices of the 50s and 60s were traditional brick buildings with careful detailing, that provide a foil and visual relief to the very many shouty new buildings of today. And such has been the scale of development in the last decades that Rotterdam does not really seem like a post war city but a very modern one. Whereas Amsterdam is like a sunflower, as our waiter explained, with a compact centre and the suburbs spreading out like petals, Rotterdam is more like a constellation. It has many of the right components but they are disjointed. There are lovely parks and a whole district of excellent museums like Boijmans van Beuningen, completed in 1935 and designed by the municipal architect in the Scandinavian style. Nearby is the Kunsthal (Rem Koolhas 1987), a bit lost fronting a busy dual carriageway. It is deceptively simple, divided off centre by a ramp down to the Museumpark. He jokily employs expensive travertine next to corrugated plastic.

Didn't see that coming

An imaginative cityscape 

Rotterdam is often eccentric. Oud’s de Stijl façade for the Café de Unie, which enraged opinion in 1925 and was destroyed in 1940 was reconstructed in 1986 although in a different place. Next to the neo-renaissance City Hall and in front of the main Post Office on Coolsingel, both imposing from the early C20 and which survived the Blitz, a ‘pavilion’ for MacDonald has recently been rebuilt to make the street 'more convivial'. Piet Blom’s yellow cube houses from 1984 form an intended ‘Ponte Vecchio’ bridge across a dual carriageway to link the market area to Oudehaven and, if not functional, have become a tourist attraction. The strange stubby 'pencil' tower is also part of the scheme. The spectacular new Markthal by MVRDV has only recently opened. It is a horseshoe structure with great glazed ends. It includes 200 apartments within the skin of the horseshoe structure and all have a view of the market hall. The great hall is filled with stalls, often with cafes above where you can admire the vast artwork ‘Horn of Plenty’ covering the entire roof.

What's going on? – Markthal

Better than flats overlooking a Tesco (see Gateshead, Woolwich)

Rotterdam is today known for its adventurous new architecture like the Markthal. The skyline too has been transformed and whilst many of the new buildings seem to be trying too hard, desperate to stand out with silly motifs and lurid materials, there is overall a sense of confidence which is infectious. A good example is the ‘Red Apple’ apartments towering above the inner harbour at Wijnbrugstraat. The fenestration looks crazy at first, but there is a clear logic. Office buildings cantilever for no obvious reason but look cool, especially ‘The Bridge’ seen across the harbour hovering over a Unilever factory.

The Red Apple, image by Przemysław Turlej (Creative Commons)

The Harbour 

In a sense the harbour is the heart of the city, its raison d’être and most dramatic feature. A ferry trip in the grey light of dusk is extraordinarily evocative with its skyline of cranes, bridges, silos, towers and vast hulks of shipping. The scale of the dock operation is amazing, and we saw only the inner docks, not Europoort. The cluster of tall buildings around the waterside is impressive even if some are pretty ordinary in themselves. In the old red light district of Katendrecht, Maccreanor Lavington have added two elegant blocks of flats alongside the water. A walk to the old dock workers area through the streamlined Maas tunnel is highly recommended. It was completed in 1940 (separate tunnels for cars, cycles and pedestrians). In the working class district of Charlois there are interesting examples of ‘homesteading’ in the run down terraced streets, like the ‘Black Pearl’ on Pompstraat.

More appealing than their essays

The absolute star of the waterside is OMA’s De Rotterdam, a mixed use 'vertical city' designed in the late 90s but not completed until 2013.  Above a massive plinth three interconnected towers rise, but about half way up they are displaced in different directions. This excitingly articulates the building mass. Otherwise the building is very serious and restrained, beautifully detailed and entirely satisfying. What is so brilliant about it is the relationship to the Erasmus Bridge (Van Berkel and Boss 1996) with its diagonal stays and expressively angled pylon.

Bit like Birmingham Station, but less shallow and more thorough

The scale of new infrastructure in Rotterdam astounds. New road bridges and railway tunnels span the Maas. A vast new Centraal Station was completed in 2013. The concourse is a triangular structure with a dramatically cantilevered and angled roof – and it is not entirely given over to shops and eateries either. Other new stations like Blaak stagger in their scale and style. Rotterdam has 5 Metro lines and innumerable tram lines. This in a city with a smaller population than Leeds, a telling- really quite horrifying - comparison.

Integrated design thinking: how the parts relate to the whole

Where design education is integral  – Delft Technical University

This being in the Netherlands cycles, cycle lanes and stacked up cycle parks are everywhere. However there is still a sense that traffic is far too dominant. This is the legacy of the Basic Plan with its network of dual carriageways which traffic engineers made into expressways. Pedestrians are fourth class citizens after trams, cars and cycles, all with their segregated tracks and traffic lights. So walking about the city centre is a bit of a pain, waiting endlessly for the green man to let you cross the road. The pavements often seem quite empty with little street life. It is sometimes difficult to find even a cup of coffee or a sandwich as neither the post war rebuilding or the big new new developments cater much for small shops..

Rotterdam is impressive, lively, dynamic, confident. It is a great city but one which needs more fine grain, human scale attention. Maybe it needs to emulate Hamburg, its nearest rival as a port, with an ambitious new green agenda. This could start by redesigning its city centre expressways as green boulevards.

This blog is largely based on the C20 Society guided tour ‘100 Years of De Stijl’ led by Susannah Charlton. I have relied heavily on her expositions and quote from her notes. Check out the website https://c20society.org.uk for forthcoming trips.

‘Rotterdam Architecture City’ by Paul Groenendijk et al and recently published is an indispensible guide to recent architecture in the city.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great post on Rotterdam - glad to see you back after a year away. Your comment on transport infrastructure in Rotterdam compared to Leeds is right on the nail. It's no wonder that the UK is failing behind W Europe with or without brexit. All major urban corridors in the UK have a "crossrail" - Glasgow/Edinburgh, Leeds/Sheffield/Manchester, Cardiff/Newport/Bristol/Bath, Southampton/Portsmouth...