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Hertzberger on the slow track

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From the archive 1988: Francis Duffy in conversation with Hertzberger reflects on the leading and blunt edges that the Dutch ministry of social welfare headquarters represents

Often the thing you do best becomes a trap. The freshest metaphor becomes the cliché. This is hardly the problem with Herman Hertzberger’s great building Centraal Beheer. Undoubtedly the most innovative office building anywhere in the world in the ’70s, Centraal Beheer remains unique. The building’s originality is such that it defies replication and development.

Why is this?

The originality of Centraal Beheer lies at its interfaces, particularly three: between street and building; between architecture and interior design; and between individual and corporation. Analysis of these three thresholds of originality shows that each is partly the product of particular and local circumstances that are the opposite of universal. Opening the office to the street is certainly an experiment with a new kind of urban form, but it can be read as that which was possible for a benign organisation in a provincial Dutch city before the security consequences of the terrorism of the early ’70s were fully understood.

The division between all important architecture and minimal interior design is certainly a conscious statement about structuralism; it is equally the response expected from an architect whose work stands outside the Anglo Saxon culture of speculative offices and space planning, which tends to emphasise interiors at the expense of strong architectural form. The delicate balance between corporate and individual cultures is obviously a philosophical interest of Hertzberger’s but at Centraal Beheer, from a management point of view, it was also a pragmatic solution to a personnel problem- motivating and retaining hard-to-find staff during a difficult relocation from Amsterdam.

A very special moment

Centraal Beheer was the last of the great open plan offices (AJ 29.10.75). Hertzberger struck a magnificent balance at a particular moment of cultural and economic history. In 1972 people were dear and money cheap: hence the famous architecture. By the  late ’70s people were cheap and money dear: hence Centraal Beheees subsequent conversion of anonymous factory sheds for office use without the benefit of Hertzberger’s advice. The moment had gone (AJ 28.7.82).

Has Hertzberger in his most recent office project, the ministry of social welfare at The Hague, succeeded in finding a new imagery for the new range of office issues? If he has, is his new office architecture, still on the drawing boards, capable of replication and development?

On a grander scale

Time has certainly moved on. We know now that no ministry of social welfare can meet everyone’s expectations. The citizens of the Netherlands desire more than any ministry can give. Consequently the proposed building’s relation with the street cannot share the easy going permeability of the Centraal Beheer of the early ’70s. Access must be single and tightly controlled. What of the relationship between architecture and interior design? This is less clear because it is still impossible to predict exactly what the interiors will be like.

Certainly strong architecture has not gone away: even bolder and larger architectural forms are used. A vigorous diagonal structural grid shapes pavilions (or ‘islands’), which are the basic units of office accommodation linked on all floors by generous space, clear routes, and a series of interfloor openings that creates a dominant orthogonal grid shifted 450 from the pattern of the structure, 2-10.

Entrances, main circulation and atrium are on a larger and grander scale than Centraal Beheer. Escalators emphasise major movement between the lower floors; lifts are dispersed on the line of the main circulation route rather than concentrated in one place. The objective is to make circulation between floors as easy as possible.

The ministry project exhibits a far grander and more pronounced spatial hierarchy than Centraal Beheer as well as a sense of scale that transcends Hertzberger’s tendency to place too much insistence on small scale repetitive elements.

‘Corporate values have shiftedthe individual is king.’

The most interesting change is that the balance between individual and corporate values has shifted. The ministry is the kind of organisation that promotes and favours staff participation in matters that affect both operations and the quality of working life. It is also the ministry responsible for defending environmental standards for offices in the Netherlands and as such is taking a great interest in making sure that its own environment will be exemplary. The Netherlands is typical of those northern European countries where, because of real and increasing industrial democracy, there has been a major shift away from the open plan towards highly cellular, highly individualised, highly personalised office interiors. The individual is king and the individual office, totally unlike Centraal Beheer, is the chief unit of office design in the  ministry project.

The openness of Centraal Beheer symbolised democracy imposed from above. The cellular nature of the ministry represents another kind of social order - negotiated from the bottom up. Such thoughts underlay the questions I addressed to Hertzberger at an interview that took place in Amsterdam one sunny afternoon last year, 15 years after Centraal Beheer burst on the world.


Francis Duffy The method of funding can often determine the ultimate sanction over design, how is the building financed in this case?

Herman Hertzberger: By the government, but not in the normal way. Because of the large expense, the money is coming for the first time from a big pension fund and the government is going to lease the building from them.

FD But presumably the ministry can still determine its own programme?

HH Yes. This has nothing to do with the fund. The ministry is our user client. Being the ministry of social welfare makes them quite special people. The users are very co-operative and very involved. They are writing their own brief very precisely. The committee of employees has very serious rights as far as environmental conditions are concerned. They can say, ‘No, we don’t want it’. And if so we can’t do it, whatever it is. They want a lot of room. They want a view. They want windows that will open. They don’t want air-conditioning because of headaches. They want good lighting. All these people have studied physics; they don’t say we want light, but tell you how many lumens for how many hours. We are squeezed between the influence of professional users at one side and very professional authorities for the building, which was the real client, at the other. It was all the more difficult because costs were cut: the building is very cheap compared with normal administrative buildings.

FD The cost crisis was when-about two years ago?

HH Three or four years ago they stopped the whole thing. Then the telephone rang and they said, ‘We have a way out. Come next week and we will discuss it.’ It was obvious that they were cutting the budget by 30 per cent but the users are still working with the higher budget in mind. You may guess what the result is: things that are not quantifiable are cut because you need all the money for the quantifiable issues.

FD One thing I have observed in Sweden and Germany as a result of this process of user consultation is the increase in closed offices, perhaps up to 80 per cent of the usable area.

HH More, over 90 per cent. I don’t know how this soup will be eaten in Holland. Personally I have taken up the  challenge to make an office building which is not open.

FD A typical room would be 12m²

HH Something like 8 m² per person and if two share 14 m², so it’s 7 m² per person. The idea is that there are tricks to open it up. We are still in the middle of the process and I am not sure whether this will work. Anyway the idea is that there is not going to be much of a corridor nor too much of a change of atmosphere between rooms and corridor. One of the primary issues of the design is not to make long corridors.

FD The question of furniture-what level of furniture?

HH In May we used a full scale mock-up. Some 100 employees out of 1500 visited the mock-up, which was furnished, and we had their comments. We learned a lot from that. The mock-up was completely furnished with three or four different types. The people were asked which furniture they preferred. It was very significant that when there were two similar rooms, it was the furniture that determined the choice. But we are not going to design the furniture . As you know from the Centraal Beheer experience, I leave that as much as possible to the people so that they can put in the furniture they want. I am not going to control the whole environment.


FD How much influence do you feel you have as architect?

HH I’m influential in the sense that the client listens to me sometimes. I talk quite frequently to the top civil servant and one of the things I have achieved recently is a budget for works of art. I have proposed that staff should have a big influence over which pieces are selected. This is the opposite of the DEGW approach, that is, choosing the style or colour for IBM. I want the taste of each individual and each group to be represented.

FD Naturally I agree with the importance of individual discretion, but I don’t believe in variety if it is merely at the level of a green or a blue floor.

HH Most people perceive that being in a big office building makes them a number. In the US there isn’t very much democracy at the workplace. You have a two week holiday and when you come back find that you aren’t in the firm anymore. You see big offices without any daylight; you have all these screens that are open at the top. People don’t have the guts to make any comments because it might be the end of their stay.

FD Which do you prefer, the culture of the ministry or that of Centraal Beheer?

HH I don’t know what to say. I have to work like a doctor with the social structure that is in front of me. Centraal Beheer was a fantastic experience with fantastic people, but, looking back, it was the big managers who were listening carefully to the people but deciding themselves. Whereas now in the ministry it is the people themselves who have much more idea about what should happen.

FD One characteristic of organizations with widely distributed power is that they are often quite conservative.

HH In the ministry they are and I suffer very much from this because when people get more power than they are used to they tend to want to have the image of the rich. In fact, there are a lot of people who would have liked to have had a flat glazed office building, a box, because that is the image that belongs to very rich office buildings. However, when you provide a good simulation of what is wanted the situation is turned round . Initially people wanted only to talk about the odd square metre extra here and there. But now they have seen the rooms in the full scale model, no one talks about such trivia any more. They become much more inventive. People are conservative about things they haven’t eaten before. No one wants to take the risk. I’m always looking for people who are prepared to take responsibility. For example, when I am working at night at home on the project I telephone a person in The Hague who is head of the group looking after conference rooms and say, ‘Listen, could we make a sliding door in that place? What do you think?’ And he will say straightaway, ‘I can’t see any objection. Go ahead and do it.’


FD Can an architect create an architecture without such a close working relationship with the user?

HH Well of course there are architects who can, but not me. This way of working is my specialty. It must be easier to be otherwise because I go through terrible struggles every day.

FD I was thinking in particular about Mies van der Rohe.

HH He made a precise organisation of where the lifts are, and so many square feet, and that’s the prototype of the office.

FD The logical conclusion of that point of view is that all organisations and all buildings are the same.

HH The building by Michael Graves, the famous Portland building in Oregon, is in fact the same box, the same lifts, the same space and just some wallpaper around it. Norman Foster is different. He is changing the mechanism. But

not Graves. It must be quite easy. An architect of the Miesian type must be able to design a building over the weekend and then you leave it to your big organised office and they put all the pipes in it and do everything to it. Then you are on to your next building. Whereas I am, year after year, sleeping or not sleeping, always going to bed and getting up with this project. If they asked me to make another building of the same size for similar people I would find a pretext for not doing it. I couldn’t make a copy.

FD It seems vitally important to escape from the American model of the office building, which is so uniform and so unimaginative.

HH Well there is the point Kenneth Frampton made about critical regionalism - there are in each part of the world specific things which are sufficiently rich and important which allow one to escape from the same style which is spreading all over the world because we have the same technology.

The difference between Centraal Beheer and the ministry is that in the former they wanted very communicative spaces and in the latter very secluded individual spaces. But when people ask me for secluded rooms I am not just going to give them a box full of cells. This is merely jumping from the frying pan into the fire-from total open planning to totally cellular offices. Perhaps the big mistake I made in Centraal Beheer was that there isn’t one very big space where, for example, they can hold a party.

FD To me an office building has to accommodate not only a static organisation but the enormous vitality and inventiveness of organisational life.

HH I can tell you the enormous advantage of the ministry building compared with Centraal Beheer is that it can be opened up whereas Centraal Beheer cannot be closed.

FD But what kind of information technology do they use? Does everyone have a terminal?

HH This is one of the discussion points. It seems that it is still possible to live without air-conditioning, but we need a lot of heat absorption so that a certain number of partitions have to be solid, which is a disadvantage in terms of flexibility. You can open the windows and the ventilation system stops, and when you close the windows the ventilation system takes command. So we have dual systems. It is the same thing with public transport and private cars. The city starts to give priority to public transport but at the last moment, as soon as we have all agreed to the priorities, someone says that individual transport must remain possible. Democracy always asks for more conditions, more technology.


What seems extraordinary from a British point of view about Hertzberger’s ministry building (and incidentally about other big new Dutch projects such as the massive and Steineresque NMB Bank headquarters or the more sedate new Amro Bank building) is their relative innocence in terms of information technology. The full implications of a changing, dynamic, greedy technology do not seem to have captured the Dutch architect’s imagination.

Hertzberger has certainly escaped from what had become the somewhat. lonely and even sterile uniqueness of Centraal Beheer. He has addressed problems of change in a large organisation. He has attempted to create on an almost urban scale a coherent and controlled pattern of interior circulation. Of the three thresholds mentioned, the one that is most potent to Hertzberger is the balance between the individual and society.

The intricate balance between group spaces and individual rooms between grand public and intimate private circulation seems as confidently handled as ever. But the new threshold, which could have provided yet more stimulus, seems relatively neglected. This is where information technology hits the organisation. This neglect is curious because information technology is the most powerful agent of change in the office of the late ’80s. And yet the ministry of social welfare will not, for budget cutting reasons, be provided even with an access floor let alone air-conditioning capable of dealing with randomly located concentrations of heat-producing equipment.

 Despite, and perhaps because of, Hertzberger’s primary concern, the individual in relation to society, he has failed to calculate the inevitable and terrible stresses that information technology will generate inside this building. The balance of the individual and society is no longer enough. A three part base composed of individual, society and technology would have provided a firmer base from which to explore the office architecture of the twenty-first century.

The ministry of social welfare is an advance, but it has not gone far enough. It is a fine building, but it is not the leading edge.


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