The Dutch architect Koen van Velsen prefers to focus on one building at a time, rather than a catalogue of projects, according to his colleague Steven van der Heijden
Working at a steady pace, van Velsen scrutinises, tests and stretches his client’s ambitions in order to make the most of potentially overlooked opportunities. As a result, his practice of about 20 people has spent the last 35 years producing a steady stream of sophisticated buildings across a range of uses, collectively described by Dutch critic Hans Ibelings, as buildings based on ideas.
Reworking Louis Sullivan’s 1896 statement that ‘form follows function’, van Velsen prefers the axiom ‘form follows intention’. He refers to projects as assignments in which architecture can express a key idea or a series of ideas at all levels, ranging from a 1:1000 masterplan right through to a 1:5 detail.
This building extends this lineage and represents the culmination of more than 12 years’ work (nine years in development and three on site).
The structure is the first phase of a three-stage plan to consolidate and rejuvenate the Rehabilitation Centre Groot Klimmendaal (providing care for children, adolescents and adults who have had an illness or accident), its neighbouring community and 9.4ha forest site to the north-west of Arnhem in the Netherlands.
Covered by beech trees, the site had been extensively developed as a sprawling campus of one- and two-storey buildings, which despite the dominance of the trees, had suffocated the landscape.
To remedy this condition, van Velsen proposed a masterplan of three large densely planned standalone buildings, including this one and two future phases, a school and apartment building, all set within a restored and publically accessible landscape.
And while his strategy is based on a proclaimed respect for the landscape, it might appear counterintuitive to produce a building so big and so bold, with its three-storey portico of
civic proportions at one end and its conspicuous toothy grin at the other.
However, beyond the well-reasoned purposes of these key spaces, at a strategic level and with its final execution, the architect has done well to give form to almost 14,000m2 of accommodation while controlling its impact on the wooded setting.
Reminiscent of Norman Wilkinson’s Dazzle Camouflage, the interplay between solid and void, geometries of structure and skin, and the forest’s constantly shifting light levels, lessens the visual impact of what is a large-scale intervention.
Clever planning also limits the impact, with the tightly arranged composition of stacked terraces, cantilevered from a smaller ground bearing plinth, that displays van Velsen’s typical optimisation of net to gross relationships.
As Ibelings observes, of van Velsen’s buildings, ‘there is always a difference between net and gross, between the scope of the programme itself and the scope needed to accommodate that programme.
‘It is within this difference that architecture for him, occurs, where architecture speaks and where the building acquires a use and a right to exist with more meaning than the strictly functional.’
In this building, this difference is expressed in how the architect refused to adopt the conventional mode of navigation for a healthcare building - a long corridor with suspended grid ceilings and bump rails - putting in its place a series of more humane circulation spaces with no dead ends, which offer slow and fast routes across the plan.
First, linking portico to toothy grin, a generous double-height foyer runs the full length of the building. Parallel to this, a six-flight stair links all levels from plinth to roof on one axis, providing a direct route between all departments and leading to other roaming routes that encourage physical exercise.
Finally, deep in the plan, four plunging patios connect different levels and bring daylight to the heart of the 30m-wide building, articulated by vibrant colours.
These elements all help users find their way between staff and service spaces on the lower-ground floor, communal and social spaces on the double-height ground floor, clinical treatment spaces on the first floor and accommodation for 60 patients on the second floor.
On the top floor is a self-contained and separately accessed Ronald McDonald House, where the founding charity - which was formed by an unlikely alliance in the US between the Philadelphia Eagles football team, the Children’s Hospital of Pennsylvania and a McDonald’s Franchisee - provides home from home accommodation where the friends and family of resident children can stay.
This component, together with the incorporation of public functions, such as a theatre, sports facilities and a restaurant, is seen as being central to a rehabilitation process that encourages the reintegration of the patient into the local community.
With the ground floor functioning as a market or a plaza, where the patient can work with the community, this building has radically changed the way in which the client provides its care through a programme of integration that focuses on what the patient can achieve.
In contrast to the efficiency of the plan and the sophistication of the circulation, at first glance the portico might not appear as integrated as other parts, seemingly over-scaled in this setting.
What emerges through conversation with van der Heijden, however, is that this space is set to play a key role in phase two, when it will form a grand entrance and link to an expanded rehabilitation centre.
This will provide the possibility to add new floor plates between pre-formed column heads, which currently protrude from the columns.
For now, the curious blocks contain phase-one lighting and the columns and canopy provide shelter for two of the building’s three entrances, using their scale and generosity to allude to the broader ambitions of the project.
The elements stand as a metaphor of the landscape that will continue to be revived as future phases go on to transform this cluttered and poorly planned campus, into a delightful life-promoting public park.
Architect Architectenbureau Koen van Velsen
Project management Brinkgroep
Structural engineers DHV Building and Industry BV