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A special kind of ordinary: Molenplein by Tony Fretton

An artist’s touch lifts  Tony Fretton’s Molenplein housing scheme out of the commonplace, says Rory Olcayto. Photography by Christian Richters

I t was during a site visit five years ago to Vassall Road, the housing he designed for Crispin Kelly’s Baylight in Lambeth, when I first started to really ‘get’  Tony Fretton. Vassall Road (AJ 11.09.08) is a terrace of apartments and maisonettes with a simple brick facade, big windows and generous balconies and raised deck access round the back. Steel railings and granite setts mark the building’s footprint, and large trees brush against it. It’s pretty low-key. Ordinary even.

But then I noticed the purple brickwork. Hand-made Rudgwick red roughs, apparently, painted with a thin wash of Keim’s black mineral paint. Their pitted texture meant every brick had its own miniature shadowed landscape. When the sun shone, the whole facade seemed to ripple, but ever so slowly. You’d have to keep looking to register any change.

A few weeks later the AJ received a letter criticising Fretton’s technique, suggesting ‘the same effect could have been achieved’ with a cheaper industry brick. In his reply, published alongside, Fretton politely dismissed the comments as uninformed. I cheered because Fretton was right. It wouldn’t have been the same had another brick been used. Few architects however, would be willing to take the risks he’d taken to ensure it was cooked to perfection - like asking the contractor to rebuild portions of the facade three times. I cheered that too, because sometimes quality comes hard-fought.

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When we discuss his studio’s latest project, the €4.5 million Molenplein, a terrace of houses in Den Helder on the North Sea coast of Holland, Fretton is clearly pleased with how it’s turned out. ‘There is a sense of stability. It’s a place where people can feel at ease,’ he says. ‘It’s very much there. It has a familiarity. It is material, pleasant, and solid - but slightly illusory, as well.’ Having visited Den Helder, on a cold April evening, grey skies, spitting rain and an icy seaborne wind whipping the canal, I know what he means. When I tell him this, his response is surprising: ‘I’m a significant facade designer, not just compositionally, but socially, too. I’m very sensitive to the street.’ Perhaps the lack of similar commissions in Britain - Vassall Road was a rarity - has forced this burst of pride.

Molenplein is part of a municipal plan in Den Helder to mitigate against the loss of the town’s long-standing naval base and a certain demographic. The canalside terrace is for middle income families - ‘of all kinds: young couples, middle-aged parents with three kids’. It occupies a strip of land facing the dockyard across the Werfkanaal on one side and the smaller Helders Kanaal on the other.

At one end there is a sturdy brick church, at the other, a plot of undeveloped land. Fretton, along with Dutch firm Geurst & Shulze, has designed the whole block - 3,200m² - for Rotterdam developer Proper-Stok. By using two contrasting architects, the plan reflects the diversity of existing terraces further along the canal. West 8 did the masterplan, which proposed large, three-storey houses towards the dockyard and compact, two-storey houses on the other side, with private gardens between. This void generates some strong pictorial moments as you walk around the scheme and from within too, such as the view across the back gardens to the church.

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Molenplein’s facades are in a white-pointed, rose-coloured brick that blends well with the existing colours of the neighbouring dockyard. Some have been painted white - which Fretton has done before, on the garden walls of Vassall Road and for the Stirling-shortlisted Fuglsang Kunstmuseum (AJ 07.04.08) in Denmark. It’s a Dutch brick by Engels. Again, Fretton was advised to make another choice by Molenplein’s project manager, ‘to save money’. But Fretton wouldn’t budge and his colleague came to agree.

‘ “You’re the architect,” he said,’ Fretton recalls, ’ “that’s why you’ve been hired, to make decisions like this.” ’

The final price obviously worked out. The cost per square metre - €1,406 - is good. ‘You get more space for your money in Holland,’ says Fretton.Like the classic Amsterdam canal house, each terrace facade sports large windows with standard wooden frames. ‘We loved the openness and energy we saw in de Prinsendam in Amsterdam, where owners radically personalised their interiors,’ says Fretton. He adds that he wanted to draw upon the generosity of scale and abstraction in Dutch Golden Age architecture, early Dutch Modernism and the contemporary work ‘such as that of Frits van Dongen’.

As with many similarly-scaled Dutch housing projects, the houses are offered to residents as ‘cascos’ or ‘shells’. As Fretton explains: ‘They have fixed service risers, carefully positioned fenestration and staircases that provide a wide range of possible internal room configurations.’ Molenplein has what some might call the tenor of good ordinariness, but it also has a deep sensual quality that’s hard to pin down. The facades are enhanced considerably by the ornamental quality lent by discreet panels of Belgian marble set alongside a select few terrace doors. (It is the same one Fretton used for the British Embassy in Warsaw).

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‘Detail is the continuation of the experience I want to provoke,’ says Fretton. ‘It’s me solving problems in a tactile way.’ But it’s also something to do with the placement of the marble, the very deliberate randomness, and the Vermeer-ish yellow of the doors alongside. Together they suggest a painterly composition. Its seems to embody a quality we’d discussed while considering the broader work of his studio, what Fretton calls ‘a happiness tied to artistic seriousness’. This too, reflects the nature of Fretton’s set-up, which is more like an artist’s studio. ‘I design everything,’ he says, ‘there are other voices, but the motive comes from me.’

‘I looked at so many streets to get this right. But it’s very much a foreigner’s version of a Dutch street facade,’ he says, drawing comparisons with Italian tailors in the 1960s, who would mimic English cuts. ‘You’ve either got it, or you haven’t,’ Fretton concludes. ‘And I’ve got it.’

Letters, please, to the usual address.

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