This project was once a must-see building for students, historians and theorists of architecture. It has, more recently, fallen out of visibility but is still relatively well-known. The ideas on which it was based emerged over the latter part of the 1950s and the building became emblematic of a shift in modern architecture during the 1960s. So as ideas change the importance of the building rises and falls. Perhaps it should wane now, at least as an emblem of theory, but as a building, as something to be in, it is as good as it ever was. For now, I want to write about the building and not its theory, though it may be difficult to separate the two.
I studied in the orphanage for about 6 months in 1991. Half of it had been converted into an architecture school (the Berlage Institute) while the other half continued to operate as an orphanage. It’s a good deal of time to get to know a building and a unique privilege when it’s one as significant as this one. I wasn’t hugely knowledgeable about Team 10 or structuralism at the time so my initial response to it was as a place to work and study. I was asked once by a tutor during my undergraduate study in NY whether I had ever been in a building or space that changed how I thought about or saw space. At the time I didn’t have an answer. The tutor’s own answer was the Salk Institute. Mine is now the orphanage.
It is, for me, a beautiful, gentle, supple and profound space. Un-heroic, but clear. It cradles, supports, and invites you to explore and wander. This is because of the interaction between its labyrinthine movement pattern and well-defined ‘rooms.’
An excessive use of glass and collapsed spaces used to create layered spaces can sometimes lead to an overly busy or ‘noisy’ feel to architecture. The layering that occurs at the orphanage is never overwhelming. The visual spatial extensions of the orphanage are somehow rooted and never upset the stability of space you are in. It might be said that van Eyck has figured out a way of layering spaces without creating ambiguity. You are in one space, between two, or in another, but you always tend to know just where you are. Vistas sometimes extend through six spaces or more through alternating inside and outside spaces yet they remain distinct. I think that this is immensely difficult to achieve; much more so than a complex, dynamic, ambiguous, indefinite and destabilising space. These last few adjectives are not accidentally the same ones that so much of today’s architectural pedagogy seems interested in embedding in the minds of students.
Minimalism, details and materials
The limited palate of materials (concrete, glass, brick and render) suggest a minimalist approach. And indeed the detailing is subdued but I would never call the orphanage minimalist. There is a tendency in minimalist architecture to erase things – as if the architecture wishes to become a drawing. This tends to create an artificial exaggeration of details –, exaggerated even in their absence or fetishistic precision. Put another way, minimalism screams ‘DESIGN’ while detesting elaboration. The materials and detailing at the orphanage tend to just ‘be’ – columns sit on a concrete plinth, windows abut columns. There is neither a celebration of the joint nor a repression of detail. Bits of reflective materials or coloured tile are scattered about in a decorative motif, but one that feels more like a folk tradition than an architect’s polished aesthetic. Elsewhere thresholds are sculpted encouraging sitting or pausing while being no more than concrete discs, all the while avoiding a lapse into brutalism. Neither brutalist nor minimalist, perhaps the orphanage is simply style-less.
My account cannot be taken for that of a lay person. I was there as an architecture student. But I wasn’t there specifically to study the building – it was a place to work. And as a place to work I found it very satisfying but also mysterious. The spaces were designed for children but not in such a way that adults felt like giants. It was nevertheless domestic and cosy in scale. The building adapted well to use as studios, offices, lecture spaces and exhibit space. But as we were only 16 students and had about half the building, there was more space than we could use. I used to enjoy wandering around the internal street, into spaces that were empty, not yet converted or re-inhabited. It never felt like a ruin but more like a walking around a quiet village on a Sunday. Curiously, this is the kind of feeling evoked by many of the archival images, even when populated by children.
Materials and Structure
It’s hard to avoid studying a building you spend a lot of time in and I did try to take account of how the building was made and designed. The restricted palate of materials was allied with a straightforward structural system. Concrete columns support vierendeel concrete beams. These support one of two differently sized concrete domes. The domes are either solid or punctured with circular openings. The spaces between the columns are filled in with brick, transparent glass, or glass blocks. The floor is either carpeted (always in ‘rooms’) or paved in stone (circulation areas). Generally the brick is plastered (always in ‘rooms’) or left bare (circulation areas). Windows are punctured, square or rectangular openings that frame limited views, or are entire walls of glass, bringing the exterior inside. One of the more beautiful details is the frosted glass inserted in the concrete beams. These glowed, even in overcast weather. The French architect Henri Ciriani observed that this detail made the building lighter in two ways – the glowing light magnified the general sense of visible light while it also made the joint where the wall and roof met less solid and hence made the roof appear to float and seem lighter.
Background and Everyday
Many of the aspects I’ve described tend to make the building underwhelming as a thing to look at or as a ‘thing in itself’. It is a building that retreats into the background and lets you get on with what you have to do. But if you are sensitive to beautifully made spaces it can blow your mind. Then when you start to realise the simplicity of the means used to achieve this it feels like a real achievement. To be clear, the domesticity, everydayness, un-heroic materiality and detailing are never cheap. It is, however, a solid and clear place. It makes one understand what van Eyck meant when he said that he was more interested in place than in space – though by this he meant the idea of space understood as a purely abstract idea and substance. It is, for me, the tactility of space that makes this place what it is.
So, how did this project change my mind about space and architecture? It made me realise that too much architecture was (and is) made to be looked at. It also made me question the idea of a ‘critical’ architecture intended to destabilise expectations in order to question the status quo. Again, this kind of architecture puts a lot of energy into making its inhabitants look at the architecture and be continuously aware of it. The orphanage was neither critical nor status quo – it offers the possibility of an architecture which supports without resorting to nostalgia, pastiche, or the visually familiar. The project reassures me that modern architecture was a worthwhile project – and remains so.