MVRDV reinterpret the curtain wall with a printed glass facade in Schijndel, Netherlands
First impressions can be deceptive. Questions are raised. Why is a barn encased inside a glass casket? Or a built version of a computer game model ensconced in the middle of a Dutch market-town square? And why are the walls peeled away to reveal the interior of a modern shop unit, or café? In Western towns and cities, we’ve become accustomed to the fritted-glass facade explicitly revealing the interior world of the office, the pumping autoeroticism of the city gym, and the extreme lucidity of the apartments of the hyper-wealthy. We’ve grown so used to the transparency, the openness of glass and the clarity of tectonic meaning that the shock of the opaque brings into sharp focus glass’s inherent ambiguity.
Completed in January, MVRDV’s Glass Farm in the Dutch town of Schijndel articulates the uncanny potential of the material that has, largely, lain dormant throughout much of Modern architecture’s recent history. Glass − enabling the enlightenment triumvirate of openness, clarity and lucidity − is the very harbinger of the transparent. It has come to connote the democratic process (if you can see it, you can change it, goes the unspoken maxim of many a parliament building). What contrast, then, the illusion of opacity imprinted on the all-glass envelope of this community amenity building in a Netherlands’ town square.
Taking the form of a traditional Schijndel barn, multiplied 1.6 times, the facilities of the Glass Farm (wellness centre, shops and cafés) are enclosed in 1,800 metres of fritted glass-facade, printed with the representation of an archetypal regional farm − the perfect image of a non-existent reality: a compelling simulacrum (a copy of an original that never was) in glass and steel.
‘Augmented history’ is how MVRDV term the outsized scale and composite imagery of the facade (composed of photographs of all remaining Schijndel farms): a barn door is four metres high, bricks appear unusually larger than one remembers them to be, and we are transported through the looking-glass into a confusing realm of scale, translucency and material ambiguity. With ‘augmented reality’ (the digital overlay on the material world) becoming increasingly common, and the boundaries between the virtual and actual blurring, a building like Glass Farm asks intriguing questions of surface, depth, material and meaning.
Here, the technical expertise of the complex curtain wall (engineered to within an inch of its life) is subsumed by the expressive possibility of a material that can passively glow; that can reveal and hide; that can expose and conceal. Style becomes just surface deep, second to spectacle, and history gets repaired − made to be the perfect, ideal, archetypal form it really should have been. Glass Farm could be read as a truly 21st-century building. A direct product of the logic of Google Images, of Bing Maps, of Photoshop and the digital mash-up. Its historicist playfulness and background technological achievements have brought back to the use of glass a sense of colourful narrative − albeit one of indeterminate meaning − much as stained glass has done for centuries, and inflected the transparent with that most meaningful of commodities: ambiguity.