Encompassing a diverse arts programme, Arnhemʼs new Cultuurhuis has a spatial and textural richness that seeks to consolidate the cityʼs diffuse historic centre
Operation Market Garden was a calamitous campaign fought by the Allies in the Second World War − a bid to invade Germany by a massive airdrop onto Dutch soil in September 1944. Some 30,000 paratroopers were tasked with seizing bridges spanning the Rhine but, hampered by an overstretched supply line, soon found themselves outnumbered and outgunned. The medieval city of Arnhem was the site of a particularly crushing defeat, requiring the evacuation of what remained of the British First Airborne Division after its failure to seize Arnhem Road Bridge. That battle and the following Allied bombing effectively robbed the city of its waterfront.
A programme of reconstruction began in the 1950s but with results that were less than happy. Poorly built and doing little to re-establish the historic centre’s relationship to the river, the area struggled economically and eventually fell into dereliction. At the turn of the century, Arnhem tried again to address the difficult urban legacy of the war years, commissioning a redevelopment plan from the Spanish architect and urbanist Manuel de Solà-Morales. That scheme’s key feature was a new pedestrian route leading from the peripherally located station to the historic centre’s principal monument, the 15th-century St Eusebius’s Church. For much of its length, the route was planned to extend along the line where old town and postwar redevelopment encountered one another, forming a suture which would animate the run-down buildings to either side with new activity. At one point it would also run past a new marina which would reconnect the historic city with the water.
Yet after a decade in development, the plan was abandoned following the city’s failure to commit to the necessary expropriation of property required to establish the route. It was a frustrating outcome but Solà-Morales’s work did at least precipitate the realisation of one substantial built project. The masterplan identified two sites on the route suitable for the construction of public facilities: an arts quarter, and a knowledge quarter focused around the construction of a library. This latter project had two significant factors in its favour. The first was that its programme comprised facilities that already existed in Arnhem. There was a strong financial imperative to consolidate them on one site, permitting the sale of the existing buildings and the implementation of a more economic management and maintenance regime. The other was that the site was occupied by nothing more substantial than a parking lot, presenting the promise of cheap and quick redevelopment. A competition was duly held in 2009. In marked contrast to Solà-Morales’s experience, the Rotterdam-based practice Neutelings Riedijk saw construction begin on its winning proposal in just over a year.
Dubbed Cultuurhuis Rozet, the project houses five public institutions: library, adult education unit, local heritage archive and two academies − one of fine art and the other of music and dance. As the scheme’s original designation as an arts quarter suggests, it was by no means inevitable that these facilities would be in a single building, but that is the strategy that Neutelings Riedijk adopted and one that has the significant appeal of enabling interaction between the diverse user groups. However, the idea that all activities might be accessed by way of the same front door was not easy to reconcile with the very particular shape of the site. Sandwiched between two street frontages it takes the form of an attenuated wedge, the long faces of which extend for a startling 90 metres.
Pragmatic planning might suggest locating lobby and vertical circulation midway down the length, but urban considerations demanded an entrance at the wedge’s sharp end, where a 15-metre wide elevation addresses the old town across a small and ill-defined square. Neutelings Riedijk’s clever solution to this conundrum was to conceive the route up the building as a huge scala regia. From the modest square-facing lobby, it rises along one long elevation for three storeys before switching back and climbing for a further two on the other. Open for 18 hours a day it provides direct access to all five institutions and ultimately a large roof terrace at the top. The device bears obvious comparison with the equally monumental stair that extends up the height of Neutelings Riedijk’s Museum Aan de Stroom in Antwerp (AR June 2011) and as there its identity is that of a public space intended for use by all whether or not they choose to use the building’s facilities. However, its street-like character is also enhanced by a significant level of interaction with the activities ranged along it. This is as much a product of necessity as design. Giving over such a substantial area to the stair − it is 4 metres wide at its narrowest − only became possible by making it do more than serve as a means of circulation. A similar ambition informed the design of the Museum Aan de Stroom, where it was hoped that the stair would provide a setting for some of the larger exhibits, but to date conservation considerations have prevented that from happening.
At Arnhem, this approach has found greater success. The heritage centre and art school both use the stair as an exhibition area, mounting work in large oak-framed vitrines that extend up the internal wall. The heritage centre also has a large display area in the basement, connected by tunnel to a conservation facility and store housed in a historic building across the street. The items mounted on the stair are drawn from its less fragile holdings − at present a display marking the 70th anniversary of Operation Market Garden − but provide a valuable shopfront for its extensive collection. At the stair’s turn there is a newspaper reading area and desks where adult literacy classes can be delivered alongside a facility where library users can borrow artworks. At times, the stair also functions as a performance space. There is an enclosed 200-seat auditorium at the very top, which looks back to St Eusebius’s Church by way of a large expanse of glazing set behind the stage, but choir rehearsals and lectures are frequently conducted on the return leg of the stair, where the steps have been selectively bulked out to transform it into an informal seating area.
Prior to setting up practice with Michiel Riedijk in 1992, Willem Jan Neutelings spent five years at the Office for Metropolitan Architecture and lessons learnt during that period still resonate strongly through Neutelings Riedijk’s work. In particular, the practice shares OMA’s interest in the use of facades that serve as unifying skins − generalised surfaces that suppress the reading of the often considerable spatial and programmatic complexity housed within. In the Arnhem project, that ambition has led to the use of a repeated yellow precast concrete unit of 600mm width which alternates with glazing of the same dimension. This close-grained treatment answers practical demands such as the need to provide adequate wall space for library shelving but no less critically denies any reading of the building’s internal partitioning. The only interruption to the facade’s insistent rhythm is provided by the large expanse of glazing to the public areas: a continuous band that frames the entrance, creeps up the side facades in line with the stair and ultimately reappears on the square at high level in the form of the window to the auditorium.
‘The circular motif is modelled on a Penrose fractal pattern, its interlinking facets an analogy for knowledge housed within’
However, the detailed resolution of the precast units also suggests a debt to a more distant source in the form of Frank Lloyd Wright’s houses of the 1920s. Westhope in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the house that Wright built for his cousin Richard Lloyd Jones in 1929, is another building assembled from alternating piers of glass and yellow precast concrete each of 600mm width. But a no less significant reference is the series of four textile block houses that Wright realised in southern California earlier that decade. These too are in concrete block but of a much more richly ornamented nature, betraying their architect’s interest in the then recent excavation of Mayan buildings on the Yucatán Peninsula. The facades of Cultuurhuis Rozet employ two forms of ornament. A series of small embossed rosettes − the Dutch word for which provides the building with its name − extend up the middle of each panel. This circular motif is modelled on a Penrose fractal pattern, its interlinking facets serving, in the architect’s conception, as an analogy for knowledge. The panels also project forward at their edges, giving them something of the character of stacked pallets. The advancing surfaces have been sandblasted to ensure greater reflectivity and intermittently serrated in a manner that, as with Wright’s ornament, suggests a strong primitivist inclination. In the context of a building conceived as a temple to learning, this conjunction of au courant and archaic imagery carries a clear symbolic resonance. The elaboration of the profile of the projecting elements also proves particularly helpful in animating the tangential views of the two long facades. These elevations address very different conditions: in one case, a run of multi-storey concrete-framed offices, in the other low-rise traditional brick houses. In their distinctive combination of repetition and intricacy, Neutelings Riedijk’s facades present a considered response to both streets while achieving an expression imbued with a compelling sense of civic grandeur.
Given the current propensity for cities to conceive major public buildings as opportunities for brand definition, both the hemmed-in nature of Cultuurhuis Rozet’s site and the urbane handling of its form are unusual and welcome. It is to Arnhem’s credit that it recognised that no icon was ever going to offer a silver bullet solution to its urban problems. Instead, it has realised a building that reads as a necessary piece of public infrastructure and the fact that it houses five pre-existing institutions was no doubt a help in this respect. The brief was already highly developed at the competition stage and changed little subsequently. For all the architecture’s idiosyncrasy it evidently represents a tailored response to a precisely framed set of requirements.
The clearest testament to the strategy’s success is the fact that the building has drawn 700,000 visitors in its first year − a marked increase on the 400,000 who visited the five institutions annually before. It has also had a pronounced impact on the vitality of the surrounding fabric. One of the previously unlet office blocks has been converted into a hotel, while new shops and cafés have been established in what were formerly run-down units on the other side. Visit the building in late afternoon and you will find the square transformed into a sea of bicycles as hundreds of teenagers descend on it at the end of the school day. Yet the city’s investment might prove more impactful still if it could revive its commitment to the Solà-Morales development plan. While a terrific work of architecture in its own right, Cultuurhuis Rozet remains a solitary fragment of a larger vision. The building still has the potential to contribute much more to Arnhem’s efforts to consolidate its fragile urban structure.