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Revisit: Herman Hertzberger's architecture and influence

Last resort crop

Thirty-three years on from his original critique of Hertzberger’s De Overloop care home, Peter Buchanan contrasts the architect’s altruistic approach with the ego-driven generation that followed

Particularly considering its small size, the Netherlands exerted huge influence on modern architecture internationally throughout the 20th century, and up to now. But then, it is a quintessentially modern country, outward-looking, receptive to ideas, experimental in attitude and largely secular. Moreover, it is a man-made land, wrested from the sea and dependent on a constant vigilance that adds a communitarian ethos to the faith in environmental engineering and design, undertaken in a spirit of service to society. All this is evident in Dutch architecture of the first three-quarters of last century, the heyday of the welfare state and its relatively generous public-sector funding.

‘A libertarian ethos persists – in the whizzy choices and fun promised – but not the egalitarian and communitarian emphasis of before’

This period saw great works built for corporate clients, such as the Van Nelle factory in Rotterdam by Brinkman & van der Vlugt (1931), the Centraal Beheer headquarters in Apeldoorn by Herman Hertzberger (1972) and private houses such as that for Mrs Schröder in Utrecht by Gerrit Rietveld (1924). But it is mostly known for public and welfare state works, many of them pioneering, in such fields as housing, including Spangen’s ‘street in the sky’ in Rotterdam by Michiel Brinkman (1922), healthcare and education, including such paradigmatic works as Bijvoet & Duiker’s Zonnestraal Sanatorium, Hilversum (1931) and the same architects’ Open Air School in Amsterdam (1930).

This is a tiny sampling of important works and architects who, with a few exceptions, built in the Netherlands only, despite worldwide recognition and influence – such as that exerted by Theo van Doesburg on even Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier as charted in the seminal AR essay ‘The Pavilion and the Court’ by Richard Padovan (AR December 1981). Yet there were several important Dutch members of CIAM too. This then gave way to Team X in which Dutch architects played a vital role. Aldo van Eyck and Jaap Bakema were key founding members of this, which was also attended by Van Eyck’s colleague Herman Hertzberger.



Source: Hans Jan Durr / RIBA Collections

Three decades on, De Overloop is still much loved by its residents who have been customising the interiors

Although probably more coincidental than directly causal, the end of the welfare state marked a profound shift in the architecture with which the Netherlands is now largely associated. This has been hugely influential internationally too – but then capturing attention through both publication and design seems the main intention for these architects and their large and very active publicity departments. In contrast to the emphasis on community and serving society, this work could be characterised as an indulgent orgy of ego-driven creative cleverness. This manifests in ingenuity of concept and form, as well as linguistic dexterity in speech and writing, particularly in its prime exponents: Rem Koolhaas and OMA; Winy Maas and MVRDV. A libertarian ethos persists – in the whizzy choices and fun promised, particularly by MVRDV’s provocative designs – but not the egalitarian and communitarian emphasis of before. This may not be fair, but it is also difficult not to see a lot of cynicism in current high-profile Dutch architecture now being built in many parts of the world. This is particularly true of Koolhaas who builds for clients and places the earlier generation of Dutch architects would never have countenanced.

This strand of, very Dutch yet also international, architecture originates with Koolhaas, fuelled by his antipathy to welfare state architecture and its community focus, and whose huge influence persists at home and abroad – in academia and the media, at least, although much less so in practice. Indeed, it could be credibly argued that Koolhaas was the most influential architect in the world in the last part of the 20th century, and maybe beyond. And yet in architectural schools and crits around the world, the didactic value of the earlier generation is still recognised in the constant referencing of their work, particularly the buildings and books of Herman Hertzberger. Frequently cited too is his mentor, Aldo van Eyck, as should also be the latter’s erstwhile professional partner, Theo Bosch, architect of some outstanding buildings such as the 1984 Faculty of Letters in central Amsterdam (now abandoned because of changes in pedagogic practice) and the housing scheme in Deventer nicknamed The Banana Republic (AR February 1990).

‘Hertzberger, unlike the self-congratulatory generation that followed, is among the most self-critical of architects’

What makes Hertzberger’s work so valuable for teaching is his close attentiveness to function, although his architecture is clearly shaped by formal concerns, not least his early work with its clearly articulated compositional and constructional disciplines. His approach to function is not prescriptive, as in dictating a single ‘correct’ function. Instead his formal devices deliberately suggest multiple interpretations and ways of using them, so users discover and develop latent potentials in themselves as well as in their constructed settings. Drawing on French linguistic theory, he referred to this work as ‘structuralist’, the buildings’ forms creating a potential repertoire of uses, and the individual user’s responses constituting a personal ‘parole’. But the early works could be a bit abrasive in their rough materials and in their slightly didactic hectoring.

Mg 9686

Mg 9686

De Overloop featured on the cover of The Architectural Review, April 1985

One of the most richly satisfying and convincing demonstrations of the validity of Hertzberger’s approach is De Overloop care home in Almere (AR April 1985). This could be seen as among the most mature of his Structuralist works, climaxing the early and predominantly concrete strand of buildings, with a fresh compositional subtlety and relative softness (using a smaller concrete block). Plan and elevations play symmetry against asymmetry and make recognisable allusions to iconic works of Dutch modern architecture while also using devices such as the traditional Spanish mirador to shelter balconies from cold winds off the nearby polder. Like all his works, there are many ingenious devices to encourage visible personal expression and the generation of community life, not least by residents being able to signal receptivity to social interaction. Typical too of his concern with dignifying all aspects of life is the semicircular drum-like form conspicuous above the main entrance. At his insistence, bodies of the just-deceased are not spirited away but given a proper and prominent place in which friends and relatives can pay their last respects. 

Hertzberger, unlike the self-congratulatory generation that followed, is among the most self-critical of architects. He constantly revisits his buildings to check which parts work as he anticipated and which don’t – or, more usually, do so in surprising ways, honing his capacities of observation and judgement. I visited the building with the architect shortly after its completion. Sitting unobtrusively on a gallery overlooking the central hub space we were approached by an older woman who guessed he might be the architect. On admitting this, he was promptly smothered in affection for contributing so much to the quality of her life – the ultimate accolade for an architect. 

You can read Buchanan’s 1985 critique of De Overloop here.

This piece is featured in AR November issue on Emerging Architecture and the Netherlands – click here to purchase your copy today