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Revisiting Herman Hertzberger and the Dutch Structuralists

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An exhibition of Herman Hertzberger’s archive coincides with the re-emergence of Structuralism in The Netherlands. Rakesh Ramchurn reports

Architects rarely have much say in the legacy their works may enjoy once their careers are over. However, Herman Hertzberger – one of the main proponents of Structuralist architecture in The Netherlands, together with Aldo van Eyck and Piet Blom – has clearly decided to give some thought to his own legacy by bequeathing photographs, models and more than 10,000 sketches to Het Nieuwe Instituut in Rotterdam.

Hertzberger also worked with the institute to design and curate an exhibition of his work, which forms the main part of a season focusing on Dutch Structuralism, while a separate display of archive items including works by Hertzberger’s contemporaries adds context.

The exhibition makes much of the socialist ideology that defines Structuralism, and its role as a critique of post-war reconstruction. Het Nieuwe Instituut’s director, Guus Beumer, describes Structuralism as being a ‘collectivist movement’ with a ‘deep humanistic language’ that had its heyday in the 1950s and 1960s. ‘After the war there was a notion of “us” building the city,’ Beumer says. ‘But by the 1980s, the economy became more market-driven and negated the passion for a collective aesthetic.’

Hertzberger’s Central Beheer. Image: Aviodrome Luchtfotografie.

Hertzberger’s Central Beheer. Image: Aviodrome Luchtfotografie.

Hertzberger’s works are divided into four ‘streets’ which focus on different aspects of his practice. The first gives an overview of completed projects; the second looks at the design process through sketches and models; the third explores Hertzberger’s inspirations; and the final section, named ‘Studio for all the ages’, centres on a workshop where visitors can experiment with geometric shapes to create their own designs.

Hertzberger's Drie Hoven retirement home. Image: Willem Diepraam

Hertzberger’s Drie Hoven retirement home. Image: Willem Diepraam

Among the exhibition’s more striking aspects are the photographs taken of the buildings as they opened. A grainy black and white shot of Central Beheer head office, completed in 1972, shows businessmen marching through the central atrium as colleagues enjoy a game of chess one level above; while images of the Drie Hoven retirement home show residents playing cards or relaxing in the sunshine. The photographs have the quality of film stills, capturing moments in the lives of the buildings while in use, and they played a part in relaying Hertzberger’s ideology.

‘The photographers were chosen by Hertzberger and had the same agenda,’ says Beumer. ‘They focused on the social use of spaces and the social bonds the buildings would encourage.’

Sketch by Herman Hertzberger. Image: Herman Hertzberger.

Sketch by Herman Hertzberger. Image: Herman Hertzberger.

The collection of sketches, paintings, photographs and magazine cuttings that give an insight into Hertzberger’s inspirations tell a similar story of a need to put social spaces at the heart of his work. Here you will find a print of Van Gogh’s The Potato Eaters juxtaposed with a photograph of people eating at a street restaurant, or images of pilgrims at Mecca opposite scenes of busy Mediterranean piazzas. There is nothing in the way of commentary – visitors are left to absorb the selections and the way pictures are grouped together to form their own view of Hertzberger’s motivations.

Architects will particularly enjoy viewing the numerous models on display, from competition entries to models of key projects such as the TivoliVredenburg music centre in Utrecht, completed in 2013. It’s sobering to know that they were all produced by the same dutiful modelmaker, Marijke Teijsse, who worked with Hertzberger for almost 50 years, and who also produced models for van Eyck, making her one of the unsung heroes of Dutch Structuralism.

Although Structuralism in The Netherlands became less prominent in the 1980s, a move that Beumer attributes in part to increased neoliberalism, mirroring the economic and cultural changes that took place in the UK, it seems the financial crash has led to a resurgence of interest in the movement.

‘People have rediscovered an interest in Structuralist buildings and we are seeing new projects with clear references [to the movement],’ Beumer says, though he adds that often the inspiration is more related to form than to ideology.

West facade of Stadskantoor. Image: OMA

West facade of Stadskantoor. Image: OMA

He points to OMA’s Stadskantoor, a municipal and residential block in Rotterdam, as an example of a new building inspired by the Structuralist projects of the last century. ‘But does it take just formalistic inspiration from Structuralism, or does it take ideological inspiration too?’ he asks rhetorically. ‘I will let you decide for yourself.’


Het Nieuwe Instituut, Museumpark 25, Rotterdam, The Netherlands
Until 11 January 2015


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