Perhaps no other nation has had as big an influence on contemporary architecture as the Netherlands. With firms like OMA and MVRDV leading the charge, Dutch architecture has become a worldwide industry, with buildings popping up in Europe, North America, and, especially, China. In the past decade, Rem Koolhaas has catapulted from well-respected architect to bonafide global superstar, pal-ing around with fashion designer Miuccia Prada and getting his own cameo on The Simpsons. Helped along by the high-profile popularity of Beijing’s CCTV Tower and the Seattle Public Library, Koolhaas has recently beat BIG in the Miami Beach Convention Center competition and will serve as director of the 2014 Architecture Biennale.
Rem cutting a surface
Though Rem is the biggest name and perhaps the most prolific architect on the Dutch scene, there are several important firms following in his wake, including MVRDV, UNstudio, Wiel Arets, JHK Architecten, West 8, and Neutelings Riedijk. At first glance these firms have little in common, save for geography and a loose affiliation with Modernism, but they actually have deep historical and theoretical links. These strands connecting them together aren’t just in books, either; they make their mark on every aspect of the built projects, from organization to form.
Museum aan de Stroom by Neutelings Riedijk. One skin is pulled away to reveal another.
One of the distinguishing characteristics of Dutch architecture is the focus on the skin of buildings. These exterior envelopes are articulated with windows, patterned with luxurious materials, and pulled into taut continuous surfaces, but sit on fairly unadventurous boxes and rectangular volumes. This organization shows a view that architecture is a wrapper and background for activity: program (what happens inside spaces) and circulation are primary—once these are designed, other interior spaces are often left open, with the boundaries between interior and exterior left as the only sites for adornment.As Rem Koolhaas once said, “As more and more architecture is finally unmasked as the mere organization of flow—shopping centers, airports—it is evident that circulation is what makes or breaks public architecture.”
The Academy of Art and Architecture by Wiel Arets Architects recalls early Modernism.
Tracing the origins of this program-and-facade architecture can be a bit tricky since it has been percolating through architecture discourse for quite some time. But in the case of Koolhaas we can trace it back to his 1972 thesis for the AA School in London. For this project, called “Exodus,” Koolhaas incorporated concepts and forms previously explored by cybernetic architects like Cedric Price and megastructural systems as seen in Metabolist design (one only need look at Rem’s more recent books Project Japan: Metabolism Talks and Re:CP to see his influences) to create a dystopian vision for London: a giant wall cutting across the city that serves as a refuge for its beleaguered citizens. The wall divides internal spaces based on activity, and creates a gigantic surface around these programs.
An OMA study model shows circulation and exterior surface.
But the idea of treating a surface as the most important component of design goes back even further within the Dutch tradition itself, all the way to De Stijl and Theo van Doesburg’s avant-garde designs (as well as those of Oud and van Eesteren) from the 1920s. Van Doesburg created houses with completely open interiors, with no boundaries between spaces, circulation, or rooms. He adorned the exterior surfaces with fields of color, each panel dynamically placed to seem as if in motion. These exterior panels separate the interior program from the world beyond; the color is ostensibly the result of the energy of the interior slamming into the architectural wrapping surface.
A design by Theo van Doesburg
Van Doesburg’s frenemy, Piet Mondrian, illustrates this idea more clearly with his paintings. Largely unified in terms of motif (black intersecting lines) and color, Mondrian’s compositions present a universal vision of the world, or rather, represent the world’s underlying pattern, reality, and energy, as Mondrian writes in “Plastic Art and Pure Plastic Art.” Each canvas becomes a single portal through what appears to be real, down to the universal field of color.
A cafe designed by van Doesburg and the Arps shows a continuous underlying reality revealed by canvases.
So, then, the exterior surface of a building becomes an index of the program on the interior, containing activity within a wrapper, but still being perturbed by the energy within. In the work of OMA, this manifests as separate surfaces, interior and exterior, covered in single materials, often differing within the same building. Take the Rotterdam Kunsthal: Here, wood forms the steps and focal wall of the auditorium, a red concrete line faces the street, and channel glass forms the entry facade. Other buildings, such as the CCTV tower, appear as simple volumes arranged in a simple form; the interior activity is shown through the delicate structural lattice by day, and at night by the office cubes that shine through the dematerializedglass exterior.
The CCTV Tower is a series of simple programmatic boxes stacked into a larger form. The skin is a light wrapper applied like cling wrap.
One of the major ways architects achieve these articulated Dutch exteriors is through continuous surfaces that weave in and out of a building. In OMA’s Educatorium, a single edge slices through the building multiple times, curving from floor to ceiling at one end, like a ribbon. The firm’s TVCC building (the one that caught on fire next door to the CCTV Tower) consists of glass-clad floorplates squeezed inside of a metallic casing, the glass seemingly revealed only by the slicing of the metallic volume on both facades. This same surface slicing parti appears in UNstudio’s Mirai House, where a continuous white surface was cut to reveal the windows of the office spaces.
The Educatorium comprises two very thin interlocked continuous surfaces that wrap around the program.
The TVCC Building consists of a large surface cut to reveal glass facades.
This program-and-surface-based approach to architecture has spread beyond the Netherlands into the work of many contemporary firms including BIG and Herzog & de Meuron, both of which adopt continuous surfaces, and well-adorned boxes as a key to an architectural vocabulary. This approach seems to work well in a world where the movement of goods, people, and information accelerates and becomes ever more important. As Rem once tweeted, “People can inhabit anything. And they can be miserable in anything and ecstatic in anything. Architecture has nothing to do with it.” But if the rich tradition of Dutch design—and Rem’s buildings particularly—is anything to go by, then that’s not entirely true. Rather, architecture provides the setting for our lives, the enclosure within which we can be anything.
The Mirai House by UNstudio.
This building by MVRDV displays the same cut envelope strategy.