If there is one thing architectural writers pride themselves on more than anything else, it is the art of categorization. They revel in the distillation of a studio’s burgeoning portfolio down to the telltale signs of modernism, postmodernism, deconstructivism, or high-tech: few contemporary practices can free themselves from the shackles of these broadly defined and often loaded genres, weighed down with their philosophical affiliations. However, every so often, there emerges a firm that refuses to be pinned down, perpetually flummoxing critics with displays of unforeseen but entirely assured formal surprise.
Enter Neutelings Riedijk Architects, the enduring architectural shape-shifters of Rotterdam.
For the Dutch firm’s latest trick, they will be transforming the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in Leiden, a small city 22 miles (35 kilometers) north of their home city. The practice recently unveiled proposals for the renovation of the existing museum together with a substantial new addition that will see total exhibition space almost double from 215,000 to 420,000 square feet. The resulting complex will house an astonishing 37 million objects — including the only complete T. rex skeleton outside the United States — placing it within the top five most significant natural history museums in the world.
The new spaces — illustrated with the help of a deliciously detailed timber model — typify Neutelings Riedijk’s growing poise when designing large public buildings of substantial cultural significance.
The overriding form and functional flow of the complex displays an assured balance between playfulness and practicality, achieving a kind of architectural paradox that critic and longstanding advocate for Dutch architecture Aaron Betsky eloquently described as “plain weirdness.” This achingly accurate oxymoron encapsulates an approach for which the firm has gained international acclaim in recent years: only 11 months ago, they scooped the award for Best Building in the Netherlands with their much-lauded Rozet Cultural Center in the heart of Rotterdam.
Indeed, there are many similarities between the Rozet and Neutelings Riedijk’s latest cultural scheme. First, there is the extension of external public space — both formally and programmatically — into the building. In the Rozet, this extension comes in the form of a glazed interior ‘street’ that intersects all floors and links a series of squares, each allowing access to different public facilities including an art center, community college, and two libraries. In the case of the Naturalis museum, a similar 118-foot-high atrium acts as an informal gathering space for people while uniting the building’s many programs situated on each floor.
The second thread of similarity lies with the building’s respective materials; Neutelings Riedijk expressing their intention to use an “honest, durable, and robust” palette throughout the Naturalis museum. The primary material used for the Rozet is a sandy concrete that sits comfortably between the existing buildings of Rotterdam, while the proposed palette for the Naturalis will include natural stone and oak wood along with exposed concrete, steel, and glass.
The most notable element of both schemes, though, is their distinctive façade treatment, something for which Neutelings Riedijk have become renowned in the creation of recognizable — but never contrived — civic icons across the Netherlands. While the Rozet employs a context-sensitive palette of sandy concrete with traditional ornamental reliefs, the extension of the Naturalis is overtly contemporary. Its mesh of intersecting ellipses deliberately contrasts with the existing building, acting as a metaphor for a new approach to museums — one of greater transparency and accessibility rejecting stuffy archives in favor of vibrant public spaces, bursting with activity that is visible inside and out.
This unwrapping of the museum typology is not new, of course — Rogers and Piano shocked the world when they introduced such naked architecture with the Pompidou Center in Paris — but Neutelings Riedijk are quickly turning the approach into a speciality.
The remarkable Museum Aan de Stroom (MAS), completed five years ago in Antwerp, is a striking case in point: the building appears to have been hewn from a single, gargantuan block of Indian sandstone dramatically dissected with undulating strips of glazing to reveal the spiraling public circulation space within. The museum’s structural hocus pocus — from a distance, monolithic slabs of terra cotta seem to float above the shimmering ribbons of glass — forms a startling and instantly recognizable object at the water’s edge.
It is this strong, sculptural presence that appears most significant when searching for a common thread running through the firm’s staggeringly diverse portfolio. 10 years ago, they caused a stir back on home turf with the Shipping and Transport College tower overlooking the River Maas. In keeping with its maritime program, the building is a soaring urban periscope comprising a vertically arranged stack of educational facilities and a conference room offering a panoramic view across the city.
The jaunty cantilever and checkerboard skin of the Shipping and Transport College certainly fits Betsky’s definition of “plain weirdness,” epitomizing Neutelings Riedijk’s knack for creating iconic buildings without resorting to the kind of contrivances frequently associated with their illustrious peers – the so-called ‘Starchitects.’ Each formal gesture, however playful, is derived from a rationale pertaining to program, context, or a combination of the two. As Betsky puts it, the firm’s architecture “teeters between abstraction and reference,” never as amorphous as Zaha Hadid nor as blatantly metaphorical as Daniel Libeskind. It is at once odd and outlandish, yet grounded, never arrogant.
Therein lies the secret to Neuteling Riedijk’s success — although it is not much of a secret these days. The Rozet was shortlisted for the 2015 Mies van der Rohe Award, and the Naturalis Biodiversity Center is likely to be a frontrunner for many of its own accolades upon completion in early 2018.
Will the world’s architectural critics be any closer to categorizing the Dutch firm’s work by then? Betsky refers to the firm’s work over the past decade as “urban monsters guarding the city,” examples of “bourgeois baroque” that are, above all, “monuments of the middle class.” When looking at the aforementioned projects, these descriptions appear accurate; the institutions that the firm creates allow the middle class a public stage on which to see and be seen, reveling in knowledge-sharing and the joy of conspicuous culture and history.
Ultimately, though, the architects of Neutelings Riedijk will be unconcerned with such analysis — they are focused on producing great public buildings, driven by program, cultural context, and the needs of end users. The firm will continue to confound critics, but we are not, of course, their target market: that is the general public, and they are set to receive countless more urban beacons by the Dutch firm in the decades to come.