Monadnock’s Landmark Building at Nieuw-Bergen provides a monument to boost the town’s identity
Limburg is the southernmost of The Netherlands’ 12 provinces and distinguished by a hillier and more bucolic landscape than is to be found elsewhere in the country. In contrast to the continuous ring of urbanisation presented by the Randstad cities of the north, settlements here are generally small and interspersed by fields of fruit farming and forested nature reserves. Despite the attrition that the region suffered in the course of two world wars, it retains a strong sense of historic identity.
Unfortunately the town of Nieuw-Bergen, which was established in the 1960s as an expansion of a nearby medieval village, is not the best representative of the area’s charms. Laid out on the basis of a plan predominantly dictated by the demands of car users, it has been focused around a yawning expanse of surface parking for much of its history. Recently, however, the local municipality has made efforts to establish a more intimate and pedestrian-focused structure. The parked cars have been relocated to the edge of the town and much of the land that they had occupied is now taken up by a freestanding shopping centre with housing above. This building’s neo-traditional facades may appear painfully at odds with the encompassing ’60s Modernism but the circuit of pedestrianised streets that they now frame represents a quantum improvement on the earlier condition.
The municipality’s plan also envisaged the construction of a second smaller building alongside the shopping centre: a circular-planned apartment block resembling, all too literally, a windmill shorn of its sails. However, the developer that the municipality appointed to deliver its plan proved unconvinced of this element’s commercial viability and ultimately negotiated the junking of the residential programme. Instead it initiated a competition for a structure that would be largely liberated from programmatic requirements while still satisfying the municipality’s fundamental ambition of building a landmark on the site.
The competition was won by the young Rotterdam-based practice, Monadnock, with a design that accommodates a restaurant and bar over two storeys before continuing as a viewing tower for the remainder of its 25-metre height. To one side the building addresses the major road junction that gives onto the new area of perimeter car parking, while to the other it commands the end of a narrow pedestrian square framed between ’60s retail units and the new shopping centre. The design attempts to negotiate the contrasting scales and architectural vocabularies represented by this context, ultimately drawing the disparate parts into considered dialogue.
While the building is clad throughout in the same red and roughly formed locally sourced brick, the material has only selectively been employed in unadulterated form. A pigmented mortar slurry was applied to the majority of bricks prior to their laying, producing a pale green finish through which the original red radiates faintly. Through the combination of slurried and unslurried bricks in a variety of bonds, the design develops a treatment that provides a fine scale of detail at close quarters while registering graphically over long distances. The work of Venturi Scott Brown is an important reference for Monadnock and the green and red patterned facade of the Americans’ 1972 Brant House in Greenwich, Connecticut suggests itself as a particularly strong influence on the new building’s unorthodox polychromy.
‘Church towers punctuate the neighbouring forested landscape. Nieuw-Bergen lacks such a feature but Monadnock’s building, while secular, has been conceived as performing a comparable urban role’
The facades of the tower, almost cubic, block share the use of a slightly projecting grid of pilasters and architraves but each elevation is subtly differentiated by the divergent scale and distribution of its openings. The ground floor is defined by wide arches closed with glazing framed in gold anodised aluminium: a device whose large scale stresses the facades’ thinness. Tectonic expectations are further subverted by the location of a pilaster in the middle of each arch, effectively cutting it in two. Meanwhile, on the two less publicly exposed elevations, the motif is rendered more insubstantial still, with areas of patterned brickwork being employed in lieu of real apertures.
A simpler portrait format window is employed on the floor above but again the motif is handled differently on each facade. On the elevation facing the square, the windows are gathered to either side of a pilaster giving the impression that each pair presents one large opening. Elsewhere they are set centrally between pilasters while on the minor elevations some are again exchanged for blank surrogates in patterned brick, disrupting the dominant symmetry. Monadnock has developed designs for the bar that is intended to occupy these lower storeys but frustratingly a tenant has yet to be found. While these generously dimensioned, multi-aspect rooms could readily accommodate a wide range of uses, any alternative function will demand careful selection as the building’s extensive glazing and compact floor plate provide the interior with considerable exposure.
The top of the building is reached by means of two misaligned spiral staircases. The first emerges from the lower block within a small cubic enclosure set back from the main facade. The volume is further distinguished by the application of a brick pattern that continues around each elevation but reverses the distribution of green and red bricks from one to the next. Exiting onto an external terrace, the visitor walks a short distance before reaching the second stair housed in the freestanding tower. This has been set at 45 degrees to the dominant geometry, again asserting its autonomy from the podium-like volume on which it stands. It takes the form of an exposed steel structure wrapped in walls of perforated brick: a treatment that presents an abstract reading in contrast to the highly figured elevations below. The insistent field of perforations lets air pass through the uncovered and uninsulated volume and provides the visitor with glimpses out as they make their ascent.
At the top a small terrace finally allows unimpeded views across a wide and heavily forested landscape, punctuated by the towers of churches rising from neighbouring settlements. Significantly, Nieuw-Bergen lacks such a feature but Monadnock’s building, while secular, has been conceived as performing a comparable urban role. Yet in contrast to the bogus historical continuity indulged by the shopping centre, the project remains awake to the theatricality of that conceit. As readily as it answers the demand for a monument capable of bolstering the town’s identity, it is at pains to maintain a reading of its essentially stage-set-like constitution. It draws on the past not as a site of lost authenticity but as a rich seam of fantasy from which the present can be invented anew.
Project team: Sandor Naus, Job Floris, Rebecca Aguilera
Engineer: Bolwerk Weekers
Photographs: Stijn Bollaert