The Modernist temptations of going Dutch
The recent Twentieth Century Society trip to the Netherlands took in masterpieces of the Amsterdam School, Dutch Modernism and De Stijl, but spent almost as much time looking at contemporary buildings as at historic ones. While one might expect to see members enthralled by the unfolding of the complex partitions at the Rietveld's Schroder house (1924-25), frenetically photographing the Van Nelle Factory (1925-31) on a perfect sunny morning, or dodging an endless stream of wedding parties to see Hilversum Town Hall (1924-30) (all of which were undoubted highlights), it is less predictable that they should be found happily ensconced in the bright pink booths of Neutelings' Minnaert Building, or wandering in intense admiration through Rem Koolhaas' Educatorium.
In three days the group visited Utrecht, Rotterdam and the Hague with Hedwig Saam as guide. Hedwig was the society's caseworker until she returned to Holland 18 months ago and so, as well as putting together a great itinerary and inviting along local architects, had excellent insights into how conservation practice in Holland differs from here. In many cases 'restoration' amounts to almost complete rebuilding: over 80 per cent of the buff bricks chosen by Dudok for Hilversum have been replaced, and Duiker's Technical School at Scheveningen (1929-31) has had a radical make-over.
The latter features new, hand-blown, replica glass blocks and new double- glazed windows, moved outwards so that they still sit flush to walls to which external insulation has now been added. The overall result is very crisp, and at Scheveningen the reinstatement of dark, gravelly render to the ground floor and an aluminium paint above is intensely dramatic. However, there was general unease that so much original fabric had been consigned to the skip, and all sense of age and patina lost, at the expense of returning to the original architects' intentions.
Seeing the twisted, rusting remains over Duiker's sanatorium (1926), partially buried in the lush undergrowth at Zonnestraal, put this radical approach into context and made even the worst cases on the society's 'Buildings at Risk' register look in comparatively good shape.
The earliest buildings we looked at were works of the Amsterdam School. Utrecht Central Post Office (by Crouwel, 1917-24) has an imposing hall with paraboloid roof in yellow glazed brick with black carvings and stained glass; while the department store De Bijenkorf, in the Hague, (1924-26, P L Kramer) has a rich, wave-like facade of coarse dark brick, copper and embossed mosaic terminating in an asymmetric carved stone finial of real expressionist exuberance.
This was quite a contrast to two groups of housing which had almost a garden-suburb feel. The Parkflat Marlot, a few miles from the centre of the Hague, is a residential complex around a raised lawn with parking and servicing below. Both this complex and a group of flats nestling in the sand dunes nearby show the influence of Frank Lloyd Wright's prairie houses, with wide chimneys and overhanging roofs and verandas.
The final impression at the end of an exhausting but inspiring three days was that not only does the Netherlands have an extremely rich legacy from the twentieth century, but that the buildings are a source of real national pride. This means not only that vast amounts of money and energy are spent restoring and finding new uses for them, but that local sources continue to inspire contemporary architects.
This was most obvious with the iconic Van Nelle Factory. The link bridges - which once transported tea, coffee and tobacco between buildings - are echoed both at the Utrecht University buildings and at Atelier pro's recently completed technical-college campus in the Hague, where three dramatically angled glazed corridors leap on desire lines between a central oval building and a serpentine block of classrooms. More pragmatically, the Duiker School was bought and restored by a consortium organised by htv Architects, and is now designing offices. Some units in this project, which received public funding, are still available for anyone planning a longer visit; I was definitely tempted.