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Hermann Hertzberger at the RIBA - Familiar themes

From the archive 1971: Peter Scher reviews RIBA Gold Medal winner Hermann Hertzberger’s lecture given at the RIBA in February 1971

The last of this year’s series of the architect’s approach to architecture was a rousing and enjoyable exposure of Hermann Hertzberger’s architectural soul. The Dutch architect practises architecture and planning, has been editor of a technical journal, visiting professor at MIT and is now professor in the school of architecture at Delft University.

His chosen keywords for disapproval and approval are ‘alienated’ ‘and ‘familiar’ respectively. Standing beside a Slide of an abandoned car dump he asked, ‘Where do we stand in this world? Can we talk about architecture at all? … You must be mad to think you can contribute at all.’ The only way to be useful is to fight against ‘alienated’ environments- the nomans-land of modern architecture, the underworld of tombstones where people are stored, the too big, toocold concrete and asphalt surfaces translated from ‘cardboard models that seem so nice in the palm of your hand’.

The first of his buildings he illustrated was a students’ hostel. ‘Before’ and ‘after’ views contrasted the architect’s carefully detailed, abstract but empty compositions with the cluttered, familiar places their users had made them. ‘The whole building becomes a wall on which people explain things to each other, on which everyone puts his mark, writes history. ‘Hertzberger had not anticipated this but considered it more important than architecture.

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His next main theme was the street in the town. Everywhere they have become ‘traffic canals’, yet streets are the ‘living-room of the town’ or ‘the cement between the houses’. He showed a typical street entirely dug up while sewers were being relaid; children played in the sand, people sauntered between houses.

The same street in use has continuous parking, often double banked, on each side as well as moving traffic. Where have all the children gone? He showed many romantic holiday slides of streets which were familiar, busily used places for all the rich variety of human activities. His approach seemed to be to catalogue his own experiences of such familiar environments, his ‘associations of nice moments’, as a test for what he has designed.

In his own buildings - the students’ hostel, a primary school - he has built-in concrete blocks which act as ‘magnets’ drawing people to stop at them unintentionally for all kinds of small social events  - to sit, to stand informally, to put bags on, to read, to draw, to eat, to view from etc. The parallel to his concrete blocks was the curbside: ‘Maybe the whole thing is just putting kerfs in the right place’. He felt it was impossible for him as an

Architect to make a better thing than the block/bench/magnet which is ‘the bare minimum and the absolute maximum’ contribution of the architect. ‘The-whole-town-should-be-a-playground’ approach to streets was demonstrated in a design for a concert hall, shopping centre, parking garage development in Utrecht.

Finally he showed a planning scheme for a settlement of 10,000 people in some open landscape at Steenbrugge where only 50 people live now. The scheme is to be uncompromising in preserving all the existing elements of the landscape – dirt roads, trees, farmhouses, contours – and in providing only one-family ground-level houses, no flats. Rather than bulldoze the site flat and start anew, his approach was to see the settlement as a ‘thick coat of paint’ over the existing and otherwise unchanged site.

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Hermann Hertzberger’s themes are not new but made good stirring stuff for students. His vivid illustrations and uninhibited admissions of incompetence, sentimentality, joy, agony, were a welcome change at the RIBA.

Nevertheless, he was sometimes a little incoherent and not only because of his imperfect English. Random generalisations are likely to be as false as often as they ‘are true. ‘Architects were hired by rich people to ‘make palaces, pyramids, cathedrals and office buildings. People made their own homes.’ If architects can only design in an ‘alienated’ way then the solution is to hand the people the tools to make their own ‘familiar environments’.

This is throwing out the baby with the bathwater. The illustrations of his own designs shows that he is not really going to do that.

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