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Dutch courage for the future

building study: As the debate about poor UK housing design standards continues, Maccreanor Lavington shows what can be achieved - at least in the Netherlands

Whereas young uk architects often find themselves struggling to establish a practice by working on small private commissions, many of their Dutch counterparts over the last ten years have been able to realise substantial bodies of work. They are supported by a government policy of actively fostering architectural experiment and a strong culture of patronage, helped by enduring economic growth in the country in the last decade. Young offices in particular have been beneficiaries of various initiatives to raise the quality of architectural production. Much of this building is generated by the long-term programme set out in the 1990 government white paper (vinex) on housing and regional planning in which a large number of new sites were allocated for around one million new dwellings to be built before 2020.

As a result of the sheer size of this building programme, much of Holland's densely populated west has become one large construction site. Travelling on the motorway from Amsterdam to Rotterdam, the motorist passes an almost continuous stream of immaculately levelled sand beds waiting to be covered by the mixture of terraced houses and medium-rise apartment buildings which constitute the unadventurous standard for Holland's new suburbia. Where the motorway makes a sharp westward bend on the outskirts of The Hague, the third largest city in Holland and the administrative centre of the Netherlands, one of the largest vinex projects has been developed on the site of the former military airfield of Ypenburg. It is here, in a completely new suburb surrounded on two sides by constantly trafficked roads, that the young Anglo-Dutch practice of Gerard Maccreanor and Richard Lavington has realised its second housing project in Holland. The office, which operates from North London and Rotterdam, has previously gained publicity with its mixed-use building for the British Film Institute and the Lux Cinema in Shoreditch, East London (aj 12.2.98), and a Europan housing scheme in Zaanstad, a small industrial town north of Amsterdam (aj 4.5.95). At Ypenburg, Maccreanor Lavington addresses issues familiar from earlier schemes: an interpretation of the building as a recognisable, geometrically defined object with a strong material presence, based on a careful and sophisticated reading of the existing - or in this case projected - context and realised with a laconic sense of craftsmanship which seeks for the specific in the context of ordinary modes of industrialised construction.

The Ypenburg project consists of two four-storey buildings for a housing association, each of which contains 34 apartments and overlooks one of the two green squares of a neighbourhood of 1100 units. The detailed urban plan by the Rotterdam-based planning firm Quadraat proposed a field of two- to three-storey suburban brick terraces laid out in straightforward blocks, with the larger open spaces providing a sense of orientation. In contrast to the majority of the terraces, the two apartment buildings were realised as social housing. These buildings, which had to meet strict requirements of disability access to cater for the large proportion of elderly tenants, were to be highly visible, unique buildings standing out from a background of anonymous terraces.

Rejecting a strategy of attracting attention by offering a spectacular formal gesture, Maccreanor Lavington's buildings are simple L-shaped volumes with mono-pitch roofs, which behave as if they had occupied their site for a long time. This approach gives the buildings an eerily timeless character and informs the layout, dwelling types and treatment of detail and construction. Where the building engages with public space it appears as a tall, sharply defined volume clad in a solid North German engineering brick reminiscent of the material used in the bfi building. The facades facing the intimate courtyard, formed by the building and its neighbours and divided into private gardens, are informal, with unvarnished wood covering everything including the sheds. The distinction between the public and the private image is enhanced by the section of the building: two rows of maisonettes stacked on top of one another. This allows the lower dwellings to be understood as conventional family dwellings with a front door and a back garden. The upper maisonettes offer a less hierarchical configuration of three rooms of almost equal size and engage more directly with the public side of the building.

The simplicity of the plan is informed by the aim to provide a functional and spatial arrangement open to interpretation by the tenants. The interior spaces are clearly defined and display an almost Classical sense of proportion (which would be even more effective without the low statutory ceiling heights on the lower floors). Large windows establish a strong relationship between an individual dwelling and the outside world. Whereas on the ground floor the private garden makes an outdoor space clearly detached from the public realm, the equivalent on the upper floor is necessarily limited to a balcony facing the street. To provide visual protection and privacy, these balconies are enclosed by solid white concrete balustrades establishing a sense of enclosure and enhancing the public character of the facade. From the street, the projecting white volumes add relief to the smoothness of the brick surface and the repetition of openings which lend an air of calm solidity to the building.

The assured handling of a limited range of materials and the simple hierarchy of scale is pursued in the communal interior spaces. A low entrance hall on the street corner connects to a generous double-height gallery giving access to the upper level maisonettes. In its dimensions and layout the gallery is indebted to the Modernist concept of the street in the air. Its appearance, however, has little in common with the many unfortunate examples of this type of access. Protected from the open air by single sheets of glass of monumental dimensions, this access space can be understood as an extended collective vestibule to the individual unit while at the same time engaging with the larger urban scale of the building. The treatment of the gallery epitomises the approach of the entire project. It uses accepted and conventional solutions of post-war housing and assembles and reinvents them in order to produce a distinctly urbane building: a politely reticent but nevertheless visibly and physically present object establishing a sense of continuity in the emerging suburban life of Ypenburg.

This approach, which understands the architectural artefact as a structure allowing appropriation, recurs in the other projects currently developed by Maccreanor Lavington. These projects include housing schemes, office developments and commercial buildings and constitute ongoing research into the essential factors that enable the permanent structure to perform in a rapidly changing social context. In their work and written statements Maccreanor and Lavington refer to industrial buildings, mills, warehouses or the generic terrace, all proving to be highly flexible in use through a combination of neutrality in layout and expression, ordinary and adaptable building technology and a clear expression of territorial boundaries between public and private.

The new low-rise dwellings in the Amsterdam satellite town of Bijlmermeer (see page 40) adopt the concept of a loose-fit structure to provide a housing type for an ethnically and culturally diverse group of users and buyers. The standard solution for the suburban terrace acquires a functionally undefined large hall which incorporates the entrance and acts as an extended threshold, an informal semi-private room where friends and neighbours can be entertained without interfering with the private family life on the upper floors. The garden is transformed into a landscape of smaller patios and roof terraces overlooking the mews which gives access to private garages and storage rooms at the back of the house. These strategic design changes in an otherwise ordinary building type offers tolerance to suit a range of unpredictable life patterns without being prescriptive.

The project for 140 dwellings in the small new town of Zeewolde on the Ilsselmeer-polders (page 37) focuses on the definition of town and countryside and the design of a formal approach to the settlement. Two rows of terraces line up along a green 90m-wide strip which carries the orthogonal landscape of the man-made environment into the town. The length of the buildings is emphasised by the monumental roof which is reminiscent of rural buildings types, while the staccato of dormers articulates the individual house which is part of the larger ensemble.

The attempt to redefine the balance between the single unit and the volume of a number of houses also informs the design for 135 dwellings at Leidse Rijn near Utrecht (page 41), one of the largest vinex sites. Here Maccreanor Lavington found an urban master plan by Kees Christiaanse which consisted of a range of clearly defined enclaves separated from each other by water and strips of green landscape. The design is based on a straightforward open-row typology of terraces with gardens on the south side and access paths on the north side. The reference to the tradition of post-war housing is as direct as it is effective. The long volumes of four to six units are unified by large mono-pitch roofs which seem to go back to the popular solutions used for suburban developments in the 1970s.

In this project Maccreanor Lavington's approach amounts to redefinition of the notions of the vernacular and a reassessment of an undervalued legacy which accounts for a large part of the everyday built reality both in the uk and the Netherlands. This position, which also informs commercial building schemes like those for adaptable offices and a diy garden centre in Amsterdam, allows the building to become a functionally and mentally adaptable structure and a backdrop for the change occurring during its lifetime.

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