Implanted within Haarlem’s city centre, this town hall and cinema complex reconstitutes the urban grain and adds a contemporary layer to a historic palimpsest
Just as New York overshadows York, so the name Haarlem brings to mind its US namesake rather than the original Dutch town close to Amsterdam. But in Holland’s golden age the original Haarlem was a beacon of prosperity and Protestantism and the home of leading 17th century portraitist Franz Hals. Later overtaken in commerce by Amsterdam, it is now a convenient dormitory satellite to that city, but the lack of redevelopment has left it especially well-preserved, with the original centre largely intact, canals still in use, tiny pedestrian streets, and an intimate scale often at a mere two or three stories. The narrow brick houses have generous windows and boast an infinite variety of the decorated gables so typical of Dutch towns, and it seems that every square foot was valued and given use.
On the west side of the main market place Haarlem built a noble town hall, which is still in use for political and ceremonial functions, but as local services proliferated in the 20th century, satellite offices for local authority departments grew up around the town. The new building at Raakspoort was devised to bring them all together, but it has only been achieved after a decade of discussion and development involving several players. It started with an urban master plan including the drastic addition of a three storey car park beneath the whole block, and Bolles+Wilson became involved when they won the architect-cum-developer competition for the front end, initially envisaged as a casino and cinema. Meanwhile Döll Architects won a separate competition for a new town hall, but placed well away from the old centre in the southern suburbs where it could take plenty of space and allow easy approach by car.
Then the municipality changed its mind: the casino was cancelled and the building at Raakspoort was redesigned half as town-hall, half as cinema, with Bolles+Wilson as primary architects and Döll Architects responsible for the town hall interiors. All this followed and completed the earlier master plan, with the huge car park beneath and respectable if dull blocks of five to six storey brick housing lining the restored streets. The new town hall’s job was to provide the culmination and figurehead needed to raise the cultural level and to repossess a delicate historic site.
Until the end of the nineteenth century, wars in continental Europe often took the form of seiges, and towns were fortified, often with extensive moat systems. The first cadastral survey of Haarlem from 1822 shows how the town had grown at a bend of the river Spaarne in two layers defined by rings of canal, then in the 16th century a grid-planned suburb was added to the north with projecting triangular fortifications. The new town hall’s site lies to west of the centre and market place, at the point where the westerly canal branch Raak meets the main western moat Stadsbuiten. This was the watergate at the west edge of town, connecting across to another canal which arrived from the south-west.
The Raak lost its water along with the Oude Gracht – inner canal circuit – during the 19th century, both turned into broad main streets to serve the inner town, but the outer moat Stadsbuiten remains, and you can still take a boat around the whole thing. As often happened with abandoned fortifications, the leftover space has become the inner ring road. In modern life this is therefore the place where you leave the highway to enter the restricted, dense, and largely pedestrianised town centre.
The building of the new town hall manages this transition in three ways: presenting itself to west as a large, monumental landmark as seen from the passing car, from the east as the milder protective edge of the pedestrian precinct completing the network of streets and squares, and at the same time acting as the gateway to the parking garage beneath, swallowing cars to disgorge passengers as pedestrians in the square behind. This is surely a better arrangement than obtained a decade ago, when large parts of the block were used for surface parking, leaving ugly gaps like missing teeth. Instead, as shown by Bolles+Wilson’s conveniently coloured siteplan, the urban carpet is now complete. Black is existing city fabric, blue is water.
This square is a real urban room
Light brown is new blocks of housing with attendant commercial uses. Dark red is the town hall building with bright red for terraces where the upper fabric is cut back. A generous area of pavement to west provides space for gathering and renders the car park entry more visible. From the pedestrian crossing at the main road a pedestrian passage runs through the new building to the street network and a new paved square behind. This square, surrounded by three restaurants and a brewery, is a real urban room, and is also where people emerge from the car park, rising in a glass cube between square and street. The wide street to north, site of the original Raak canal, has been demoted from traffic artery to service access and parking of bicycles.
Whatever you might feel about casinos after the crash of 2008, the type had proved a problem for Bolles+Wilson, for casino owners want a dark building with no distraction from the gaming, therefore no life to express on the outside, and their suggestion of a projected city map on the facade was not popular. Cinemas fall into the same trap, and it made more sense in the end to bury Pathé’s stack of them underground. Bringing the town hall functions together on top made a large office complex, which could have been dangerously repetitive. The third floor plan shows its rational system at its clearest, with a rectangular circuit of open corridor, four sets of fire stairs, two groups of core rooms, and a perimeter of offices with windows. But even at a glance you notice that the perimeter band changes constantly in width due to the irregularities that Bolles+Wilson introduced into the building’s outline.
Their key intervention is a pedestrian passage skewed through the building at 24°, which on the west side answers the pedestrian crossing, while to east cutting off the view and noise of the main road from the pedestrian street. It also conveniently divides the public territory of town hall, entered frontally at the north-west corner, from that of cinema which opens more nocturnally to the passage. The skew in plan, once introduced, became a leitmotif throughout the building, setting the all-important main stair on the diagonal to arrive in generous and fluid triangular foyers on each floor, and recurring as diagonal lines in carpets and ceiling lights throughout. Bolles+Wilson also adjusted the plan’s perimeter, for where the master plan envisaged an east side that was simply orthogonal, they introduced two slight skews of 4° to render the building convex, a significant change as seen from the public square.
Another way a big office can become oppressive is in the stratification of identically repeated floor plans, but Bolles+Wilson and their partners Döll have rung the changes in section too, taking advantage of the varying perimeter conditions and changing requirements. Major moves were creating a glazed hall on three levels for the town hall’s public interface which is accessed by spiral stair, and countering this with a downward hall and escalators for the cinema. The through passage’s impact is increased by a series of internal balconies which step back at upper levels to increase light and allow diagonal views. Upper levels are further relieved by two high-level terraces excised in the west front, not only to differentiate between floors, but to produce a complex articulated profile culminating in the clock tower that was requested by the municipality.
Not only the clock tower but reference to Dudok was apparently suggested, and the Raakspoort building is perhaps appropriately dominated by brickwork, mostly projecting at every fourth course to give strong horizontal lines. There are no true lintels or arches, windows are not vertically aligned, and while some are flush, others project, and yet others turn corners. Patches of stretcher bond in lighter mortar appear without tectonic rationale. Clearly, it is not load-bearing, and the floor plans reveal the heavy engineering in concrete that has to be there to support it all – accommodating cinemas, parking grid, and the all the shifting liberties of plan libre. The structural acrobatics appear slightly on upper floors where exposed diagonal bracing follows the largest span, and five giant columns lurk behind the glazed north facade, but mostly the effort and complexity of the structure are concealed, and better so.
The brick still gives an impression of solidity and permanence, but accepting that it is merely a skin, Bolles+Wilson have exploited it in a collage-like manner, allowing variations of scale and treatment which have to do sometimes with neighbourliness, sometimes with internal functions, and even with the demands of balancing the three-dimensional composition. Their skill at these games has been evident through a long series of buildings, and has certainly not failed them in this case.
A new variation, however, is the accommodation within the composition of architectural fragments from earlier buildings on the site. Two statues, a couple of stone arches, some sculpted reliefs, and other items have been integrated in significant corners in a manner that recalls Carlo Scarpa and his Castelvecchio Museum, setting up a stark contrast between new and old. With some the homage to Scarpa is perhaps too close, but the preservation of memories from former occupation of the site is important for those who knew it earlier, while for others it adds a historical enrichment that can only be welcomed.
Ever since their first masterpiece the Münster Library (AR February 1994) Bolles+Wilson have set a high value on context, always seeking to integrate their buildings in the place. They were a lucky choice of architects for this sensitive site, and have dealt magnificently with its transitional role and contrasting faces. There has been harmonious cooperation both with the masterplanners and with Döll Architects on the interiors, whose choices in colours and furnishings are sympathetic, and whose place-making values have joined seamlessly with those of the principal architects.
The larger significance of the project lies perhaps in its borderline position between highway and pedestrian zone, or between the no-man’s land of the modern motorway system and the homeliness of the town. Until late in the 19th century most European towns were recognisable as entities, approached by the age-old donkey path and remains of walls and gates, so it was clear that you had arrived, and within town everyone walked.
In the car-bound modern world the rules of traffic engineering have been allowed to dominate, motorways being routed to avoid towns rather than to link them, and screened for noise and pollution which also prevents view. Arriving in town, we are diverted from the original streets that once led to the centre, instead plumbed into the circulatory system. Losing all natural sense of direction, we are presented with a wasteland of backs, car parks and vacant sites.
But as pedestrians we have rediscovered town centres, limiting parking and banning cars in favour of people: Venice is now so special less for its canals than for its absence of cars.
There has also been an increasing reaction, both in the Netherlands and the UK, against the endless proliferation of signs,
signals, and barriers which some brave authorities have entirely removed, repaving their streets for the pedestrian while permitting cars on sufferance. Disaster was predicted, but the accident rate fell, and traffic flow even increased.
So in dense urban settings some ideas of safety were evidently misguided and the rule of the car can be broken, but on the motorway the engineers must surely continue their hegemony, for any sensible pedestrian flees. The question is how to switch between the two, and Raakspoort surely provides a fruitful example, with the violence of the huge carpark well disguised and the start of the pedestrian zone clearly marked. It is all the more exemplary for lying precisely at the historic town boundary, remembering and reinforcing the integrity of the original urban pattern.
Contact architect Bureau Bouwkunde B.V.
MEP engineers: DWA installatie- en energieadvies B.V.
Structural engineers: Corsmit Raadgevend Ingenieursbureau B.V.
Building Physics: DGMR Raadgevende Ingenieurs B.V.
Landscape architect: Urbis bureau voor stadsontwerp
Project management: BBN Adviseurs
Photographs: Christian Richters