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Ministry of Social Welfare in The Hague, the Netherlands, by Herman Hertzberger

Frontelevation jpg

The Ministry of Social Welfare stands in opposition to the placeeroding internationalist pressures of the ’80s, the decade over which its design was developed.

Originally published in AR March 1991, this piece was republished online in Januray 2016

If Herman Herzberger’s headquarters for Centraal Beheer summed up in extreme form the egalitarian ideals of the ’60s, the decade in which it was conceived, then his new Ministry of Social Welfare in The Hague stands in opposition to the place-eroding internationalist pressures of the ’80s, the decade over which its design was developed.

During this decade London, and soon perhaps elsewhere in Europe too, began to be invaded by the highly serviced, homeostatic nowheres of empty shell-and-core office buildings. In these there are no rooms or any other appreciable form of space, only temporary corrals of partitions sandwiched between acres of floors and ceilings that conceal all the crucial engineering of structure and services. Architecture then is reduced to fashioning the flimsy fictions of the facades.

Against such basically American imports that serve largely as electronic switching stations for global finance the Friendly Castle, as Hertz berger calls his latest building, stands as a bastion of resistance, a demonstrably viable antithesis. Solid and substantial structure provides a stable yet rich, hierarchic yet egalitarian, framework of spatial and social relationships within which many forms of office and departmental layout are possible, both initially and through perpetual change. Flexibility goes hand in hand with fixity so that the building offers far more choice than any conventional arrangement- in part because all the options for social interchange provoked by the building will remain untouched while all those of office layout are exploited. In offering so much choice, and because the semi- public spaces are not just visually impressive but also very sensitively shaped as generators of social interaction (and so source of much of that choice), the building is far more important as an exemplary model for the future than are either the Lloyds or Hong Kong & Shanghai Bank buildings- despite much lower standards of servicing and finishes.

‘During the 60’s London, and soon perhaps elsewhere in Europe too, began to be invaded by the highly serviced, homeostatic nowheres of empty shelland-core office buildings’

Compounding its significance the building was not built by a mega-rich corporate client wanting a conspicuously extravagant symbol of confidence in the future but for a conservative civil service bureaucracy (that sets and oversees standards for others but was rather resistant to embodying any high ideals itself) on a standard stringent governmental budget.

Frontelevation jpg

Frontelevation jpg

Oblique view of faceted towers of front elevation overlooking tram and train tracks

The Ministry of Social Welfare is on the south-east edge, opposite and some distance from the beautiful old town of The Hague, of a soulless area of dull office buildings. It is huge and complex in its composition, housing 2000 workers behind rather fiddly panels of greenish glass curtain walls that are faceted between and below exposed bits of raw concrete structure with panels and tall parapets of concrete block. Across the road along the long southern side are tram tracks and then raised railway lines, beyond which are twentieth-century suburbs. Along the north side is a small canal towards which the Ministry steps down in height so as not to overwhelm it nor the buildings along its opposite bank. In one direction the canal leads westwards towards the city centre. But the entrance of the Ministry does not face this way. Instead it is opposite the tram stop and train station by both of which many of the workers and visitors come and go. Others arrive by bicycle and car which park in a basement below the southern half of the building.

Entrances for pedestrians and vehicles are both below the same prominent huge T-beam portal. This stands forward and free to serve only as a gate that gathers all arrivals into its yoke-like embrace. Those from tram train cross a bridge over a moat of parking to which cars and bicycles descend by ramp. After parking, drivers and cyclists climb an external stair to join the other pedestrians as they approach the front door. On the recessed downstand of the portal beam, the Ministry boldly announces itself in neon letters of the sort associated with shopping and entertainment rather than government bureaucracy. Decorating the pavement edge are panels of mosaic set into the concrete parapet wall fronting the parking moat. These panels were made by Ministry employees and neighbourhood children under the supervision of Hertz berger’s daughter Akelei. Together, neon and mosaics announce certain populist and participatory intentions in the architecture that carry forward ideals forged in the ’60s.

MinstryHeadquarters TheHaguebyHerman Hetzberger

MinstryHeadquarters TheHaguebyHerman Hetzberger

Building steps down towards canal on north side

Responding to Beheer criticisms

If the participatory embellishments of the mosaics recall the ethos of Centraal Beheer, then the clearly announced single entrance is in complete contrast to the several well secreted ones of the Ministry’s seminal forerunner. This contrast reflects not just a now necessary concern with stringent security but also the very different nature of the clients and times of both buildings. It also reflects Hertzberger’s acknowledgement of the validity of certain often voiced criticisms of Centraal Beheer, particularly that in lacking proper facades and clear entrance it is not only enigmatic, but essentially unurban. All these factors, together with the new building’s much larger size, have inevitably resulted in a very different design that has nevertheless in some ways evolved from Centraal Beheer into an altogether more complex organism. It should not though be seen as a refutation of the old building, which Hertz berger still stands by as a solution for that client in those times, and the success of which is vindicated in its enduring popularity and capacity to accommodate change due to new security requirements, differing work patterns and lovingly lavished embellishments of often dubious taste.

Centraal Beheer was conceived as the antithesis to then ascendant Biirolandschaft with its paradoxical mix of freedom and flexibility of!ayout with panoptic coercion-for a decorum undisturbed by untidiness, personal expression or any sign of slacking. Hertz berger wanted to create a contrasting relaxed and friendly setting where people could interact with a very present architecture that encouraged both personal expression and communal cohesion. As a leading member of the Forum Group, he inevitably sought the solution in the configurative discipline of simple units repeated in a pattern to achieve a labyrinthine and kasbah-like complexity. Instead of views across regimented open office floors, there are vistas up and down of anarchic personal expression and lush planting, all both provoked and controlled by the emphatic architecture. Focusing on the individual and small work group as well as on the larger community of corporation, clients and local citizens (who were originally welcome anywhere in the building and not just passing through it as now) it not only crystallised the ethos of its time but perfectly suited an insurance company staffed by brokers and clerks all of roughly equivalent status and constantly interfacing with clients.

Such extreme egalitarianism and accessibility is unsuited to a civil service bureaucracy with its departmental organisation and jealously guarded hierarchies. The compositional approach of Centraal Beheer would in any case not work at the scale of the new building: it would be so deep in plan and section as to be unacceptably dark. And the repetitiveness would seem rigidly overpowering or boring-especially without the relief of the larger spaces required in the new programme. As well as the provision of these large spaces, the requirement for cellular offices only, and of varying sizes, and also the stipulation that all these have a window on an external wall (a general regulation issued by this Ministry) necessitated a very different approach. Such an approach would also be consistent with Hertzberger’s post-Centraal Beheer recognition that urban buildings shape space outside as well as in, so that their exteriors cannot be generated by internal forces alone. Besides, by now Hertzberger’s Structuralist approach has evolved far beyond the simple repetition of standard elements to being a sophisticated syntax that disciplines whole families of related but varied elements and junction conditions. To continue the linguistic metaphor, he has moved beyond rhythmic reiteration of the same words to stringing complex sentences together. And in place of the homogeneously cumulative character of Centraal Beheer, he has created a subtly elaborated and hierarchic design that offers greater flexibility in organisation and an even richer vision of internal community.

MinstryHeadquarters Thehague

MinstryHeadquarters Thehague

Eastern part of the building looking towards canal seen from side street

Clusters of towers

Instead of Centraal Beheer’ s stepping piles of bridgelinked separate stacks of platforms that emphasise the small work group, the Ministry is composed of tight clusters of towers- partly so that departments might be identified with the tower or cluster that they occupy. The towers are clustered in a composition that is symmetrical about the central entrance and around three multi-level glass roofed spaces: a central hall adjacent to and above the entrance and a pair of galleries on either side of this. The configuration lets departments spread both vertically in a tower and horizontally across towers while the galleries, which form the primary circulation of the building allow everyone some sense of the whole, or at least half of the building. The basic plan module for each tower, and the whole building, is an octagon- a form that can only lock together with residual squares. Clustered octagons offer plenty of perimeter for offices with external views while enfolded octagons and squares become communal spaces and galleries, or the wells that inside let light down to the gallery floors and, outside, let side light between the towers and deep into the building. Inside and out, the wells allow views ahead and across, up and down, so that at any point other parts of the building are visible. So the building constantly draws attention to itself and to its rich complexity, as well as to the people at work and moving about it.

Though the octagonal module orders the whole design, it is nowhere really apparent in the finished building-unlike Centraal Beheer where the module is everywhere insistent and intact. On the outside this is because the octagon is progressively cut into at higher levels. This creates more perimeter for smaller unshared offices (probably for senior staff), lets more light down the external wells and provides an intermediary scale of modulation to the curtain wall facade. Inside, the octagonal module is difficult to perceive because the central ones are cut into by wells and the perimeter ones cut into by the secondary office circulation set on a diagonal to these wells and the primary circulation around them.

Minstry Headquarters TheHague HermanHetzberger

Minstry Headquarters TheHague HermanHetzberger

External well between towers lets light deep into building and into glazed wall of side gallery beyond third floor terraces

Structuralist structures

The office corridors and the primary circulation of the galleries follow one of two structural systems, both orthogonal and interwoven at 4 5 degrees to each other. All beams sit on chunky I m x I m capitals supported by substantial circular columns. (All these major structural elements are in precast concrete). The deeper beams of the primary structure are orientated parallel to the office corridors and at a diagonal to the major axes of the building. Spanning parallel to the major axes are the shallower (because usually loaded on only one side) beams of the secondary system which sit on the same columns. This creates an enigmatic ambiguity. In plan, the dominance of the primary diagonal system is obvious. But, in the actual building, it is the secondary system aligned with and edging the wells that is more visible. Especially because the capitals align with it and the deeper beams, it seems to be the dominant system. The enigmatic quality created by such paradoxical relationships, which the clear expression of the individual components further emphasises, is typical of the richness Hertz berger now seeks from his Structuralist approach. The two interweaving systems meet in many different junction conditions, yet all disciplined according to the same Structuralist syntax.

The simultaneously simple yet rich structural arrangements and their ambiguities further play down the presence of the octagons. They also allow many options in subdivision and spatial articulation-and for opening up larger spaces along both sets of co-ordinates, as well as the wells and long views already described. It is these long views and the interwoven shorter ones and their relationship to the primary circulation (both the horizontal and the prominently positioned vertical elements of escalators, glass lifts and open stairs) that knit the whole building together not just visually but socially too. People are constantly put on display and encouraged to encounter each other in a variety of circumstances.

MinstryHeadquarters Thehague Hertzberger

MinstryHeadquarters Thehague Hertzberger

Glass-roofed central hall as seen from second floor

Hierarchic design

What this design achieves is not the simple and monothematic egalitarianism ofCentraal Beheer, but a more rich and subtly hierarchic design. At one level there is the hierarchy of single office, offices sharing octagonale module, single tower, cluster of towers, gallery and clusters of towers, and ultimately the building as a whole On another level, there are the hierarchies of offices graded in size and level and of departments graded in size, location and accessibility. And then there are the hierarchies of circulation and communal spaces and the encounters they engender, whether in corridor or gallery, coffee corner or conference room. There is nothing oppressive about this hierarchy. It is wholly enriching, creating the requisite differentiation to allow the variety of choice and contact necessary to forging a vigorous community life, an essential engine of the social machine that houses the Ministry of Social Welfare.

If not this hierarchic nature, certainly something of the accompanying modulation of parts is visible from and an important feature of the exterior. It both alleviates the massiveness of the building and gives it a richly articulated scale. Seen obliquely, the building seems a huge faceted mass. But seen square on from the south this mass subdivides into two major groupings of towers, each in turn made of two clusters of towers. Between these clusters the building narrows to let in south light and some views (inward as well as outward) through a huge stretch of glazing along one side of each gallery. Indeed, low winter sun pours right through to set panels of glass block on the shaded north side seemingly ablaze. And the central part to which the drawbridge-like entrance leads is much lower than the turreted bastions on either side that are connected overhead by a glazed bridge. All of this considerably breaks down and articulates the huge mass of the building so that it seems in no way monolithic.

The progressive faceting inwards of the upper levels of the towers introduces a crucial intermediary scale between the fiddly complexities of the individual cladding panel and the total extent of each stretch of curtain wall. Without this modulation, the individual panels would have seemed much t 1-titty and the whole too boringly banal-a probably die us combination.

MinstryHeadquarters TheHague Hertzbergerinterior

MinstryHeadquarters TheHague Hertzbergerinterior

One of the main side galleries with glass lift in the centre of the well and glass floored bridges across it

Also enlivening the exterior and crucial to its scale and composition is the vertical punctuation given by the glazed shafts of the escape stairs and the guide rails that project from curtain wall for the external shutters. As a result of all this, the building has not delicacy, but at least a vigorous complexity to offset the large scale toughness of the exposed concrete parts.

This rather heavy-handed toughness is a lingering legacy of Brutalism and of a more general Modernist quest for authenticity. Though perhaps increasingly passe it no doubt still appeals to many architects. But it probably leaves most lay people cold. So too might the almost monochrome grey and green colour of the building, in which even the opaque green panels of the curtain wall are the same glass used throughout the building, merely sandblasted. Yet the most serious reservation about the exterior might be about how well the concrete and especially the concrete block will weather, and if in time it will not become stained and shabby. In contrast to the otherwise rapid evolution of Hertzberger’s architectural approach, he might have remained loyal too long to his beloved concrete blocks.

Spatial experiences

Set centrally in the symmetrical south facade the entry bridge immediately introduces an asymmetry, both in its curved canopy and by being ramped on one side with steps on the other, up to which climb the steps from the parking. Inside the front door, beyond the reception/ security desks are the modem equivalent of the portcullis, clear glass screens that offer views into the building but are bullet and bomb proof. Beyond these security screens escalators reach ahead and up to the central first floor hall from where more escalators reach up sideways across wells to the second floor galleries. The central hall has some of the semi-outdoor feel of a conservatory. It is light and airy under its barrel-vaulted glass roof (part of which can slide open in summer and in case of fire) that is supported by a light steel structure, with beams supported at their ends from above, and is lit by rather street-like standard lamps. Yet its commanding central position is also obvious. The escalators make clear that it is the confluence of the primary circulation system, and even the station outside and canopy over the entry bridge are all visible through and over the glass screened entrance. And views down the wells to either side and along the bridges at this level call attention to the presence of the large communal spaces on these levels.

On the ground floor below are the shared services of archive, print and post room, while on the first floor are the more social spaces of auditorium, restaurant and snack bar, library, two small multi-purpose atria and a large roof terrace. With the exception of the atria, these spaces, unlike everything above this level, are asymmetrically disposed -like the major organs within our own symmetrical bodies. Circulation to the larger spaces at this level is by broad zigzagging concourses off which also lead office corridors.

On the second floor, double-height concourses reach diagonally forward from the head of the escalators to each of the multi-level side galleries. Again these galleries are bright lit from vaulted and openable glass roofs and the big south-facingwindows above a third floor roof terrace. Around the edges of the gallery well are main circulation walkways for each floor, conference rooms and a few offices. (Only one per cent of offices were permitted to overlook the galleries, which is strange because in most countries these would be popular locations’, particularly as the external view in most directions is nothing special.) In the middle of the well is a pair of glass-sided lifts in glazed shafts (which go down to the ground floor) while at each end are another lift and a stair (both of which rise from this level only). Thus all vertical as well as horizontal circulation is put prominently on show.

Plans jpg

Plans jpg

Third floor, second floor and first floor plan


Detailing also puts all on show, explicitly exhibiting each element. For instance, internal steel columns to the roof beams (which are again suspended from the concrete at either end) do not extend right down to the slab, but instead give way to tall concrete bases that extend upwards to reveal the presence of the concrete columns below the slab. Structural steel, like the steel used everywhere else, is very simply fabricated of standard sections, often channels. The only embellishment is a series of small square cut-outs where square sectioned spacers join the two back-to-back channels that make up the composite columns. A tiny but telling detail this, it catches the eye to add a delicate punctuation to these very large and quite tough spaces.

Balustrade detailing also adds a certain liveliness, but in such an understated way that though all might subliminally perceive it, only the very sharp eyed and analytical will detect what is unusual. Inspired by a study of the discipline (not the forms) of Victor Horta’s Art Nouveau metal work, all subcomponents here retain their own independence and integrity of form and scale. Hand-rails, supporting posts, glass balustrade panes and the channels that support them all take the spacing and dimensions natural to themselves and so create a series of overlapping and syncopated rhythms. Hertzberger admits that he was nervous that these large plainly handled spaces may turn out a little dull and so he used every means he could to enliven them that would not be construed as arbitrarily or gratuitously decorative.The coffee and snack counters that serve islands of tables and chairs on the floor of the gallery also carry the expression of independent elements to extremes. They are reminiscent of De Stijl (Rietveld’s sideboard for instance) and yet also come close to the height of trendiness with stainless-steel angles and rails, granite worktops, thick glass shelves and perforated steel pane in a state of separate suspension.

TheMinstryHeadquarters TheHague HermanHertzberger

TheMinstryHeadquarters TheHague HermanHertzberger

Huge portal embraces entrances for vehicles and pedestrians

Perhaps the most eye-catching elements are the elliptical stairs at the ends of each gallery (by comparison the glass lifts in the centre are quite unobtrusive). Hertz berger had used this elliptical form before in an extension to Centraal Beheer and was determined to use it again ‘because it walks so well’. Here the stairs are suspended on a central tie, although they have none of the slight spring and sway that he would have loved to have to further enliven the experience of using them. But Dutch engineers, unlike perhaps some British ones, were unprepared to take the risk. Between and above the curving steel stringers, the treads and sides are in sheet steel. Again all parts and their purpose are clearly expressed. The props supporting sides and hand-rails pass from the outside of the stringer to the inside of the side panel through a keyhole-shaped cut -out. Also clearly exposed is the steel conduit along the bottom and outside of the side panels to bring current to the low-level lights placed just above the treads. Snaking sinuously above and about all this are the tubular hand-rails that perform fine contortions at crucial comers.

Each stair ends at the bottom in a few curving precast concrete steps that mediate the junction between suspended steel and concrete slab. Playing a similar role is the concrete upstand on which rests the bottom of the steel frame of the glass wall that rises between a third floor walkway (one level above the bottom of the gallery) and a terrace outside. Here the steps that provide access out to the terrace are concavely curved into the concrete. upstand. (Unfortunately because these steps and others elsewhere prevent wheelchair access, all the various roof terraces are now kept locked off to conform with one of this Ministry’s most recent edicts.) Set into the top landings of the concrete steps out to terraces and below elliptical stairs are small decorative panels of broken tile and mosaic made by Akelei Hertz berger. Similar panels add tiny touches of decoration calling attention to key transitions throughout the building. Besides the enormous and colourful fabric hangings commissioned from artist Joos van Roojen (brother-inlaw to Aldo van Eyck), the only other decoration in the galleries is barely apparent. Two kinds of glass block that give privacy to the conference rooms on the second floor meet in a triangular motif and some central mullions of upper level windows overlooking the gallery sport timid touches of different hues of mauve. Otherwise Hertz berger sticks to his usual palette of unpainted precast concrete and concrete block and muted green paint on the steel. Here the green is used in five shades that are so softly graded as to be unnoticeable to many. They articulate a structural hierarchy among the elements they cover, progressively intensifying the green tint of the glass

Sectional perspectivethroughgallery jpg

Sectional perspectivethroughgallery jpg

Sectional perspective of side gallery

Coping with cells

Running diagonally off the galleries are the office corridoors that crisscross all the octagons. At least half of these corridoors cross terminate in an escape stair in one of the glass shafts that are so conspicuous on the outside. Where the corridors cross at the centre of each octagon is a widening for photocopiers and other shared equipment. Hertzberger has never been happy with the entirely cellular office solution demanded by the client and still hopes that in the future partitions will come down here and there to introduce larger spaces and more openness. In the meantime, to encourage a certain openness all offices have wide sliding doors that he feels are more naturally left open (or at least less likely to be automatically slammed shut) than are standard doors. In any case, when closed they reveal a translucent glass panel that still admits light to the corridor. And above door head height, partitions between offices are glazed to retain a sense of openness.

SectionthroughMinstryHeadquarters TheHague

SectionthroughMinstryHeadquarters TheHague

Cross section through building, canal and train tracks

Some of the partitioned offices seem awkward in shape with too many comers. And some of them only look into more of the building with no view out beyond it-an almost inevitable consequence of keeping the building lowish, and so very deep. Also the low cost prohibited any sort of integrated servicing. Heating is by clumsy cheap domestic radiators under the windows, while plugs for electricity and telephones are on the sides of metal stalks protruding up from the floor. The curtain wall fenestration is also very busy, with narrow central casements in each room and part of the top lights obscured by a white translucent sheet inserted between the panes of the double glazing. This last is a typical Hertz berger device, giving some containment and shadow at ceiling level (and so some feeling of intimacy) as well as, in this case, diffusing some of the incoming light to lessen glare. The desks, chosen by the Ministry not the architect, are rather clumsy with fat legs projecting above comers of theworktop. But they seem right for the offices, as any more delicate or refined system would have looked out of place. Because stairs and lifts are away in the galleries or glazed shafts, movement between office floors is less easy than between adjacent towers-rather undermining the intention of stacking departments in towers. An interesting comparison is with the ESTEC offices by Aldo van Eyck CAR Feb 1990), completed earlier but designed later and in full knowledge of the Ministry design. The ESTEC towers are drawn somewhat apart and arranged around central stair wells. There, vertical and horizontal communication seem equally easy allowing departments to spread either way. And everywhere in the building there is some sense of contact with the outside. But such a solution could not have worked at the scale of the Ministry. And the social centre that each stair well forms would have detracted from the intensity of that served here by the galleries. Some of these minor reservations about the offices are no doubt provoked by having seen them only in the chaos of furniture being moved in and no doubt will prove unfounded once everything has settled in. Most were unavoidable because cost cutting was necessary to afford the generous public spaces that so distinguish the building.

These, and the way the circulation is handled within them, must be considered unreservedly as a total triumph. Lofty and light filled, the central hall and side galleries evoke something of the spirit of Berlage’ s Amsterdam Beurse, especially in the plainspoken directness with which construction and the mix of heavy masonry and light steel and glass are handled. Most contemporary associations the galleries might evoke are more misleading than relevant. They have little in common with most atria which bring light and landscaping into the centre of a building but are otherwise more decorative or impressive than really social. Here, the way the galleries and the hierarchy of horizontal circulation through and around them are related to the vertical circulation, and to the various social facilities in and around the galleries, constantly brings people close to each other and so together in many different circumstances. These are not just spaces across which people are seen, but rather where you are encouraged to mix and get involved with each other, and where the solitary person and even gatherings of up to 2000 persons (as at the opening) as well as small groups, all feel equally at home. The dynamics of this interaction between people and building, and people and others, are all far too various to be described in detail. It is to be hoped though that the client, whose business is social welfare, will study and record for the benefit of architects everywhere the way in which the building integrates groups previously working in several small buildings and fosters the rich community life that it is impossible not to imagine taking hold here.

Some will see this building as anti-urban in that its interior life is so severed from the streets around (actually they are only roads) for which the building does little. But any other strategy would have been inappropriate for the site and area which, though within the city, are in no way really urban. Instead it might be more significant to think about how a future historian might consider the building. Historians look at architecture of the past not just for artistic quality but for what it says about the social ethos of the time, about how people treated and were treated by each other. In these terms, the Ministry building encapsulates the most noble and nuanced social ethos and so will be judged, whatever minor reservations one has about weathering and office layout, as one of the great works of our time.

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