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Heerlijkheid Hoogvliet, Rotterdam, Netherlands by FAT

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FAT’s community building on the outskirts of Rotterdam distills the essence of suburban dreams, writes Kieran Long. Photography by Rob Parrish

FAT’s community building on the outskirts of Rotterdam distills the essence of suburban dreams, writes Kieran Long. Photography by Rob Parrish

This building is dreaming. What about? Of a large country house with expansive, Capability Brown-designed gardens. Of a world where the comfortingly slick cuteness of a Nintendo video game can be part of our homes. Of a Post-Deconstruction world where a bring-and-buy sale is dignified with architecture made in the grandest of porticoed, cathedral-like buildings.

Heerlijkheid Hoogvliet, a new community building by London-based practice FAT, is none of these things, of course, but it has ideas above its station; a vaulting dream that springs from the imagination of its designers, and of the model-boat builders, pigeon-fanciers, Antillean DJs and tree-lovers of this depressed, post-war suburb of Rotterdam in the Netherlands. Those dreams are expressed on the jovial facade of this simple, steel-frame shed and its surrounding landscape.

It’s the kind of decorated, communicative architecture that most architects don’t much like. We know this, because hardly any of you do it. Rare is the architect whose analysis of a given situation or context leads them to propose a large golden portico of stylised trees made out of sprayed polystyrene. But then, no one designs buildings quite like FAT.

This community building, and the multi-faceted landscape that it sits in, was conceived as part of a regeneration effort in the town of Hoogvliet, led by an organisation called WiMBY! (an acronym of Welcome into My Backyard!), which was set up by Rotterdam-based Crimson Architectural Historians. This group of activist-academics was commissioned to come up with an alternative regeneration strategy for a context it is obsessed with: the post-war Modernist suburb.

Crimson/WiMBY! must take the most molecular-scale approach to consultation I have ever seen. WiMBY!’s office was in Hoogvliet, and it talked to everyone in the town, engaging a wide range of groups through different tactics, including an annual festival bringing together diverse groups within the local community. The pavilions and interventions for those festivals were designed by FAT, in a search for what Crimson describes as ‘an architectural style exclusive to Hoogvliet’.

The result is a radically different architecture, but also a real example of an alternative to conventional planning practice. Think of how this post-war suburb would conventionally be redesigned in the UK. Densify the core into a town centre, create activity at street level, supersede Modernist towers in parks with blocks hard up to the street. Perhaps make a high street. Why didn’t this happen here?

Wouter Vanstiphout of Crimson explains: ‘There were lots of big plans to introduce high streets and perimeter blocks, but our criticism was that this is another completely artificial, tabula rasa approach. It says that the Modernist planning paradigm has failed, and we have to return this place to paradigms that work. That kind of consensus allows for a schematic, quantitative approach to urban renewal under the guise of consultation.’

Needless to say, Crimson emphatically doesn’t believe in this kind of conventional masterplanning practice. ‘Normative planning is, in the end, always reductionist, because it always assumes an ideal society,’ says Vanstiphout. ‘Norms are very poor compared to looking at the way the city is in reality. Imagination and extrapolation are a poor substitute for reality. It is only when these models fail that they become real urban situations.’

However, while this anarcho-democratic paradox might be familiar from crit rooms or pub conversations, this is, as far as I’m aware, the most comprehensive example in recent years of trying to practice this kind of consultation and allowing it to drive the urbanism and architecture. The project is a polemic against what one might call coffee-morning consultation, where residents get to put a few flags in maps and are then sent on their way.

This leads to FAT’s Heerlijkheid (which roughly translates as ‘beautiful place’) - a project with a mix of programmes that boggles the mind. This is a space for parties, wedding receptions and Antillean festivals. It also houses an arthouse cinema; a café; a space dedicated to making models of cargo ships; an arboretum; a nature park; a small scaffold hut for teaching kids how to make wattle-and-daub walls; and a large lake in the shape of a map of the Netherlands for birds and model boats, surrounded by barbecues. Other programmes that were nearly part of the mix but didn’t make it (or haven’t yet) include a pet cemetery; a giant Hoogvliet sign facing the motorway with pigeon lofts in the letters; stables; an ‘outlook tower’; and a place to store machinery for maintaining the park.

Many of these uses came from the consultation that WiMBY! undertook, in which it discovered a world of furtive social activities taking place in people’s lounges, garages and sheds. Some of the other ideas came from FAT’s approach to the non-existent brief. The practice was engaged in 2001, before the site or use of the building was decided, and that gave it a unique involvement in the project’s genesis. For instance, it was FAT’s suggestion to have a pet cemetery, and, by chance, WiMBY! was able to find a cemetery operator who was looking for a new location. This particular use didn’t happen in the end, but it shows how FAT’s testing of its client’s boundaries prompted a new and utterly unique mix of uses.

FAT’s reading of the site was also used to help it achieve one of the priorities on this scrubby bit of land, which is on the edge of a motorway and opposite one of the biggest oil refineries in the world. ‘We wanted to manufacture a sense of place,’ says Sam Jacob, partner at FAT. ‘Our approach is like Critical Regionalism from the opposite point of view. It is about abstraction and stylisation, but an abstraction that’s not heading towards meaninglessness, but trying to find a meaning. We want to articulate the complexity of the story, not reduce it.’

The landscape is complex, a collage of elements that absolutely makes an identifiable place, even if there is a miniature-golf eeriness to some of it. There is the aforementioned Netherlands-shaped lake. There is the tarmac landscape with an ovoid patch of astroturf, like a hyper-real corporate panorama. A ‘hobby hut’ sits by an artificial mini-canal. There’s also a wetland area where kids ‘can go and play about in the mud’.

Jacob describes it as ‘not Arcadia, but an imaginary Arcadia’, and I can’t really improve on that description. As you look into the distance at the man-made hillside that shields the building from the motorway, you are overwhelmed by how a strong artificiality is needed to blot out the banal man-made context of wasteground, motorway and refinery. When you have a headache, you take a Nurofen, not an herbal remedy. FAT’s approach here has a kind of pharmaceutical strength.

But, underneath the decoration and the discourse, at the heart of this project is a dumb box, right? Right. And wrong. Inside, the building is divided into two halves: one is a big room for parties, and the other houses a café on the ground floor and a small, two-screen cinema above. It’s a steel-frame, out-of-town shed at heart, even if the frame is painted pink. But look again, and you notice that in the double-height entrance hall is a cheap galvanised staircase winding around the space as if it were in a grand country house. FAT’s building is still dreaming.

The thrilling tension in FAT’s work, though, is the degree to which, for all its two-dimensionality, this building can’t help but reach beyond the narrative to the architectural.

Its facades retell the story of Hoogvliet in a dreamy, cartoonish way; trees, chimneys, half-timbering - and a portico that looks like the stylised foliage of the trees on its suburban verges, crossed with plumes of smoke from the nearby Shell refinery. And, to continue the Classical architectural references, this project has both the portico (although it’s a Super Mario golden portico, made of a homogenous non-material that will not age) and a frieze (the cut-out timber that changes on each facade of the building). On one side, the timber is cut into the image of the towering smokestacks beyond the site; on another, it pretends to be structural. It’s a picture of the skyline of Hoogvliet, a way of compressing the dispersed nature of this Modernist town into a single place to be shared by all.

Of all FAT’s works so far, this one is the most explicitly connected to the work of Robert Venturi, American architect and author of Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (1966) and the more-famous 1977 follow-up Learning from Las Vegas (with Denise Scott Brown and Stephen Izenour). FAT’s project is an archetypal decorated shed, using sign-like popular imagery to communicate to its audience. It would surely satisfy Venturi’s desire for an architecture with a ‘social aesthetic’, or even a ‘vital vulgarity’.

But Heerlijkheid’s message is ambiguous and charming, while being emphatically contextual. The values of this building are not abstract or imported. They are not about giving instruction or pressing people into action. It is about creating a new vernacular for a place. This is a populist, beautifully realised, authentically Post-Modern work of architecture that deserves credit.

Austrian architect Adolf Loos, in his furious little essay ‘Ornament and Crime’ (1908), wrote that ornament is ‘the culture of the poor’, but that, eventually, a stripped-down, pared simplicity would come to be loved by ‘uncultured folk’, even if they would never fully understand it. In the centenary year of the essay’s publication, FAT has completed a decorated building and landscape that embody the histories, dreams and desires of an economically underprivileged community.

Simplicity, abstraction and lack of adornment could never communicate the stories of the residents of Hoogvliet. FAT’s new vernacular for the town can dream of all those things, and more.

Hoogvliet’s regeneration is documented in WiMBY! Hoogvliet: Future, Past and Present of a Satellite Town (Netherlands Architecture Institute, 2007, £32.50)

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