Spanning through seven decades, Herman Hertzberger’s career as both architect and professor is reviewed
Herman Hertzberger is the exception to the rule that nearly all famous architects design their most significant works between the age of thirty-something and their late fifties. Hertzberger did this as well, but after that he started a second act, as an architect, writer and educator. Now 80 years old, Hertzberger is still in his second act. This year will see the completion of the total make-over of his own 1970s Vredenburg Concert Hall in Utrecht into the new Music Palace (2003-2013), for which Jo Coenen, Thijs Asselbergs and NL Architects each designed one of the additional concert halls. And next year a new building for the Department of Applied Physics and Electrical Engineering of the Technical University Eindhoven will be inaugurated.
The first act of Hertzberger’s career started in 1958, when he opened his own office in Amsterdam. A year later he became editor of Forum magazine, together with Aldo van Eyck, Jaap Bakema, Dick Apon, Joop Hardy, Jurriaan Schrofer and Gert Boon, until a new editorial board took over in 1963. In the 1960s he realized his first projects, including student housing in Amsterdam, (1959-1966, with Tjakko Hazewinkel), a Montessori school in Delft (1960-66), the extension of Lin Mij Textile Laundry in Amsterdam (1962-64) and the Diagoon housing in Delft (1967-1970). In 1968 he got the commission from Centraal Beheer, a Dutch insurance company, to build their offices in Apeldoorn. This ‘workshop for 1,000 people’ which he completed in 1972, gave Hertzberger world fame. Centraal Beheer offered an innovative open office concept with a wealth of informal meeting places in the building, and on the rooftop terraces. Employees were free to decorate their work place as they wished, to grow their own plants and even to keep pets, including chickens. According to the long-time manager of the building this worked pretty well until someone took a rooster to work, upsetting the hens. After that the company’s policy became a bit stricter.
While working on Centraal Beheer, Hertzberger became professor at the architecture faculty in Delft (1970-1999), adding to his stature as one of the leading Dutch architects of his generation. Right after Centraal Beheer he landed the job for one of the most important cultural buildings of the 1970s in the Netherlands, the Vredenburg Concert Hall (1972-1979). The year Vredenburg was inaugurated he was commissioned to design the new Ministry of Social Affairs in the Hague, a complex housing 2,400 civil servants. This building, which took eleven years to finish, marks the end of Hertzberger’s first act. When he began the project, he was still very much immersed in the entangling complexity of his structuralist approach which he developed and adhered to since the early 1960s. In the late 1980s however he started to free himself from the constraints of the intricate system in which everything had to fit.
In an interview with Maarten Kloos in 2007, Hertzberger put this in a wider perspective when he candidly explained that it was more than just a release from a design approach: ‘One could say that I gained independence only in the eighties. I became less hindered by self-doubt, and I gradually managed to liberate myself from Le Corbusier and Aldo van Eyck. You should’t underestimate that process. The connection with Le Corbusier was a sort of father bond, which continued for a long time after his death in 1965. And the bond with Aldo lasted even longer.’
The transition from the first to the second act took place in the period when Hertzberger’s architecture was out of step with the prevailing trends, and his work did not get more than lukewarm reception. This coincided with the arrival of a new generation of architects, a large number of whom had been educated by Hertzberger. These young architects were often unimpressed by the achievements of structuralism, which they considered as old hat and sometimes they showed an undisguised aversion towards both its soft social overtones and its perceived lack of formal clarity.
Yet even in those years Hertzberger maintained his influence, albeit for a while more as an educator than as an architect. He played an important role in the creation of the country’s first post-graduate architecture institution, the Berlage Institute, of which he became the first dean, from 1990 until 1994.
TU Delft (graduated 1958)
Professor of Architecture, TU Delft (1970-99)
Dean of Berlage Institute (1990-94)
Diagoon housing, Delft (1970)
Centraal Beheer, Apeldoorn (1972)
Vredenburg Concert Hall, Utrecht (1972-79)
Montessori-College Oost, Amsterdam (1993-2000)
De Titaan secondary school, Hoorn (1999-2004)
Royal Gold Medal (2012)
‘What used to be called a sense of social concern is now regarded as paternalism’
Especially in its first years, the Berlage Institute contributed significantly to the internationalization of Dutch architecture, by attracting international students and by bringing a range of renowned guest lecturers from all over the world to the institute, which was initially located in Aldo van Eyck’s Orphanage in Amsterdam (which by the way, was salvaged from demolition thanks to an international rally initiated by Hertzberger). At the Berlage Institute, Hertzberger took the opportunity to teach in the Montessori tradition (of which he is a product himself) ‘by not pushing student in any particular direction, but merely showing them the greatest variety of possibilities on offer.’
It might be too deterministic to claim that being dean at the Berlage widened his own perspective as well, but the appearance of the work produced since 1990 differs substantially from what he did before. In his second act, in which he developed a steady and consistent output which shows the formal and spatial liberties he now has taken in projects such as the Chassé Theatre and public library in Breda, the CODA arts centre in Apeldoorn, several housing projects in Middelburg, Dordrecht, and Haarlem, a number schools in Amsterdam, Hoorn, Arnhem and Dordrecht, a large university building in Utrecht, and much more. Not everything produced by the Hertzberger office is completely his own. To reflect this, in 2007 the office changed its name in Architectuurstudio HH, and two younger architects from within the office, Patrick Fransen and Laurens Jan ten Kate gained a more prominent role.
Parallel to his design activities, Hertzberger published several books on his own work, and on his ideas on architecture. The most successful, and most translated, of these is Lessons for Students in Architecture (1991), based on his teachings in Delft since 1973. The Dutch edition of this book came out in 1996 under the telling title Ruimte maken, ruimte laten (Making space, leaving space), a motto for his approach of architecture. This comprehensive book is not only a didactical introduction to architecture in general but also an immersive journey through Hertzberger’s world..
The length of Hertzberger’s professional career is such that it exceeds the lifespan of some of his buildings. A few of them have been partly or completely demolished and quite a few are renovated or refurbished, sometimes by others, but in several instances Hertzberger was asked to do it himself, as with Centraal Beheer, the Ministry of Social Affairs and the Vredenburg Concert Hall.
Architecture is often too short-lived to make the complete shift from new to dated to timeless. Too many buildings fall victim to the wrecking ball or unkind rehabs before they even had the chance to prove they are timeless. This holds true for the work of Hertzberger as well. Yet his career is long enough to have made full circle, from being new and exciting in the 1960s and 70s, to slightly falling out of fashion in the 1980s, to getting back to the centre of attention, and receiving nearly every accolade available in the world of architecture, with the exception of a Pritzker Prize.
Illustration by Michelle Thompson