Biq Architects’ four unshowy blocks in Hessenberg are an important propotype of urban repair, finds David Dunster.
It has been argued that if modern architecture has abandoned its mission as the signal of democratic improvement, then architects can only play personal games. To escape the horror of this emptiness, the best architects have revisited one particular tenet of modernism: that the existing city has to be reformed, ridden of slums, with the poor treated as well as the rich. Reconstructing bombed Europe since 1945 meant ignoring what existed in pursuit of the ideal. Now repairing the urban structure implies a decrease of architectural ego to the point of indifference, of aping without slavish imitation.
Nijmegen, the oldest Dutch city, was carpet bombed by mistake in 1944 and makes no claims to significant architecture today. But at a time when many other Dutch cities chased international novelty in their reconstruction, it has used architects who prefer public space to publication.
The centre of Nijmegen is tight, with tall buildings and narrow streets. AWG Architects’ masterplan for the newly reconstructed inner-city area of Hessenberg derives from an emerging theory of stitching new to existing. In this case there was no space for a grid and this more thoughtful plan organises new buildings around long views and small courtyards. Two taller buildings, one brown one beige, signal the existence of the new quartier from afar. Closer in a series of truncated block forms open the development up to the city centre and connect it to a major park. The forms of each building derive from this masterly stitching. What is most intelligent here is making the architecture subservient to the creation of new public routes and spaces.
Does this make the architecture simply banal? Fear of the ordinary, of repeating what exists, and inventing new forms to signify that the past is over imply that a new phase of architecture can begin. But what Miroslav Šik wrote about BIQ architects’ extension to the Bluecoat Arts Centre in Liverpool holds more strongly in Nijmegen. He argues that using available tectonic forms and materials enables radical interventions. All is not lost to mimicry or contrast. Banality is all too familiar in new buildings as volume housebuilders copy existing forms built with the newest, most economic methods of construction. At Nijmegen, the quality of construction is not in question, nor the tectonic formal control, nor the delight the masterplan has engineered. The banal never opens up new possibilities for construction whereas this scheme is exemplary for the hopes it offers. Repetition of plans and forms, so often the architect’s solution to the problem of designing housing, is abandoned here for repetition with variation on the facades.
In BIQ’s four buildings the underlying structural grid is only implied on the
facade by the layout of identical windows within a brick surface. This is different from the grids explicit and unvarying in Mies’ towers, or those employed by OM Ungers. Here the regularity gives order, but specific locations are given special treatment. Against the irregular heights of the buildings of the main street at Hessenberg, the scheme’s entrance is signalled by a banner inscribed on the wall which announces the previous existence of the offices of the local newspaper, De Gelderlander. From this quasi-monument (BIQ call it the ‘stammering facade’ for its garbled repetition of the name), a stepping-back of volumes leads to a monumentally wide staircase that rises to the array of public spaces connecting the new buildings to what is already there. That sequence offers the observer a first glimpse of the complex nature of the masterplan which the architecture of the buildings supports without drawing attention to itself. If the thinking of earlier rationalists is evident at Hessenberg, so too is the voice of Robert Venturi – who already in 1966 had called for a second-glance architecture – and even the gnomic utterances of the Smithsons in Without Rhetoric. They didn’t really find what they sought, unavoidably caught by the moral demands to express structure and materials. At Hessenberg, structure is implied with bases, hinted at by string courses, and concealed by orderly facades. These buildings do not totter with incredible cantilevers, like so much recent ‘Superdutch’ work. They are simply there.
We search in vain for the meaning of a specific thing if it is disconnected from its moment or place of appearance. The architect Emilio Ambasz countered this tendency when he insisted that: ‘the meanings of these structures can only be interpreted in the context of the relationship they establish with other structures…’ He was imagining a future Manhattan that might be composed of fragmentary elements abstracted from cities across the globe. The idea of reciprocity, that objects only acquire meaning in relationship to other objects, is important. The one-off, spectacular, look-at-me performance building stands apart in the hope of creating its own gallery to be shown in, knowing that it could be transplanted to another place and still have some value. Such objects presume a high level of interest and quality, but not all of Beethoven’s music is as good as the Waldstein.
The qualities of the Hessenberg project are maybe more like Bach than Beethoven. They show that is not bad to be experimental at every moment, but this is in the service of careful and painstaking thought about what will help the place, the site, the city. Hessenberg is not a critique of spectacular architecture, nor especially exciting. But for architects who face the problems of darning damaged, shrinking, deprived cities, these buildings are of tremendous use as prototypes.
David Dunster is the Roscoe Professor of Architecture at the University of Liverpool. He chairs the RIBA Research Trust Awards, and was the founding editor of The Journal of Architecture.
Architect: biq; design team: Theo van de Beek, Hans van der Heijden, Roger Kant, Wiepkje Kingma, Rick Wessels; masterplan: AWG Architecten; landscape architect: MTD;
contractor: Heijmans Bouwcombinatie Hendriks.
AT213/ November 10, p28