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Fort Vechten Museum in the Netherlands by Anne Holtrop

Fort Vechten Museum Anne Holtrop04

A museum hewn out of the landscape creates a singular experience for the visitor, but is let down by a white-cube approach to presentation

Anne Holtrop doesn’t see architecture as problem solving. He begins the design process with a drawing; a formal exploration that is both his first step and his end goal; both the aim of, and the constraint for the built output. Once fixed, the drawing carries the weight and responsibility of the idea. His challenge, as a designer, becomes the translation of these lines from two-dimensional paper into three-dimensional reality. 

Holtrop’s competition entry for the Fort Vechten Waterline Museum consisted of a rectangular frame dropped into the topography, the landscape’s contours naturally transmuting into the outlines of an organic, architectural construct set at an angle to the historic barracks on the site. Formally, the scheme belongs to the same family as his Trail House, born out of a path in the terrain, and his Temporary Museum, inspired by the making of automatic unconscious drawings. In Holtrop’s work, landscape is ever present, but more as material process than as context. His work revolves around the appropriation of free forms and the exploration of these as spatial experiences. Boundaries between art and architecture blur: Fort Vechten is actually Holtrop’s first ‘real’ building – upon completion of Trail House, his friends told him he couldn’t really call himself an architect since his windows didn’t have any glass.

Fort Vechten Museum Anne Holtrop location plan

Fort Vechten Museum Anne Holtrop location plan

Location plan

Situated in a strategic military location favoured since Roman times, Fort Vechten is  the second largest of 48 fortresses erected along the New Dutch Waterline. Built in the 19th century to protect western Holland from potential invaders, this ingenious system of dykes and locks, bastions and walled cities, enabled the knee-deep flooding of an 85 kilometre long, 3 to 5-kilometre-wide strip of land. 

There has been recent renewed interest in this defensive line, both for its natural beauty and – as many of the forts remain intact – for its potential to reach a new audience with the establishment of a diverse programme in both restored and new structures. Architectural interventions include RAAAF’s bunker 599 (AR December 2013) and RO&AD Architecten’s Moses bridge. 

Fort Vechten Museum Anne Holtrop01

Fort Vechten Museum Anne Holtrop01

Source: Bas Princen

Ahead of the waterline’s official designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2016,  Fort Vechten was selected to become a concentration of natural, cultural and commercial attractions to draw weekend visitors from the nearby town of Utrecht. Penne Hangelbroek designed the masterplan and worked with landscape architects West 8 on the rehabilitation of the site: cutting a narrow corridor through the 6m-high defence mound as the new main pedestrian access, restoring an 80m-wide strip of overgrown land to its original barren state. The masterplan also included a new visitors’ centre  and the transformation of the fort’s abandoned military and ammunition stores into event facilities.

Holtrop took a sculptural approach to his museum design, sinking a monochromatic unit into the landscape. The new insertion was cut into the ground, then covered with earth, restoring the site to its ‘as-found’ state.  As an archaeological monument, no digging was permitted beneath the historic structure, inevitably limiting the depth of the intervention and forcing the construction to rest on raft foundations. 

At ground level, the museum is fronted by the original brick barracks which also serve as the museum entrance. The distinct elements required by the programme – the gallery, auditorium and waterline model – are condensed around a central pit, giving them a strong sense of both unity and identity. The building is revealed from the carving out of material and, at strategic points, the exterior welcomes itself into the interior – quite literally so in the small sunken garden at the entrance and in the central courtyard.

Fort Vechten Museum Anne Holtrop floor plans

Fort Vechten Museum Anne Holtrop floor plans

Floor plans - click to expand

The choice of dark brownish-grey concrete applied to both walls and floors, in both the courtyard and the interiors, turns the whole edifice into a world of its own, a fortified structure that speaks of shelter in times of war; of the frightening beauty of bunkers.  Although it stands in contrast to its surroundings, the interior is entirely shaped by the existing topography. The landscape’s contours give form to the volumes, not only in plan as dictated by the drawing, but also in section, as each room’s ceiling height is dictated by its depth below ground. The spaces organically unfold before visitors, the smooth curved walls guiding them from room to room, the homogeneous floor treatment guaranteeing continuity between the enclosed and open-air spaces.

Because of the complexity of the curves and the assiduity to abide by the lines of the initial drawing, the timber formwork was different for each portion of wall. This inevitably demands close collaboration with the contractor and a series of tests at one to one including 8m-high mock-ups of wall sections were undertaken. The large curved windows each required four distinct pieces of glass, made possible by Saint Gobain’s new production line of adjustable moulds.  It took two years on site to complete the project. Having trained as a building  engineer before studying architecture, Holtrop says his understanding of structures enables him to trust an inner feeling that what he draws is buildable, and pushes him to find a way to materialise ideas rather than making concessions. 

Fort Vechten Museum Anne Holtrop03

Fort Vechten Museum Anne Holtrop03

Source: Bas Princen

Fort Vechten Museum Anne Holtrop05

Fort Vechten Museum Anne Holtrop05

Source: Bas Princen

Unfortunately, the current exhibition at the museum has been curated as if contained in a white cube. In conversation, Holtrop is quick to dissociate himself from the display’s design – he was not consulted and only managed to forbid the use of paint applied directly to the concrete (all text was affixed instead). The multimedia display features the history of the defensive line and its physical impact on the territory and its population. Tickets are replaced by wristbands which can be scanned at various points throughout the visit to find out whether your house would have been protected from attack by the waterline, or to hear the story of a farmer whose crops have been flooded, forcing his wife to take the goats further afield. There is even a virtual reality mask that lets you jump out of an aeroplane, open a parachute above the flooded countryside, and land in the museum’s courtyard (the Dutch defence line hadn’t provided for technological developments, which is why Germany didn’t struggle to defeat the Netherlands during the Second World War).

Holtrop’s single contribution to the exhibition is in the central courtyard: an impressive model replica of the entire New Dutch Waterline. At a scale of 1:1,600, the 85km waterline comes to 54m in length. The depth was modelled at 1:50 to block passage from one side of the courtyard to the other. In real life, it would take up to three weeks to inundate the fields, but the flooding here takes just 25 minutes. At the time of my visit, only one of the valves was actually working, but I was told this is currently being fixed, alongside snagging issues such as leaks in the roof – the museum opened in October 2015.

Fort Vechten Museum Anne Holtrop section

Fort Vechten Museum Anne Holtrop section

Section - click to expand

Fort Vechten Museum Anne Holtrop detail

Fort Vechten Museum Anne Holtrop detail

Detail section - click to expand

In comparison with the gadget-infused pedagogical approach of the exhibits, the flooding of the courtyard is a more powerful way to engage visitors in the story of this infrastructure. Holtrop rightly argues that the courtyard model is a piece of architecture in itself, as it embodies rather than represents its subject, providing a spatial experience rather than a didactic one. 

As an architect blurring the boundaries between installation and architecture, Holtrop was an enlightened choice at Fort Vechten. Once the current exhibition has lost its shine, the opportunity will exist to make a visit to the Waterline Museum a more powerful one. This client is not alone in failing to treat the building as exhibit and create a holistic visitor journey. The didactic display of content must be reconsidered in favour of a more evocative and sensorial, if more subtle, approach. For this to happen, closer collaboration between architects and curators is needed.

Fort Vechten Museum Anne Holtrop02

Fort Vechten Museum Anne Holtrop02

Source: Bas Princen

Fort Vechten Museum

Architect: Anne Holtrop

Project team: Arjen Aarnoudse, Gabriel Cuéllar, Sebastian Hürni, Akira Negishi, Shumpei Nitatori, Ryuta Sakaki, Remco Siebring, Esther Vonwil, Stijn de Weerd, Roderik van der Weijden, Samuel Jaubert De Beaujeu, Sophia Holst, Sander Manse, Francesco Apostoli, Dora Loncaric

Structural engineers: Jeroen Luttmer, Corsmit

Photographs: Bas Princen

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