Calvinist complexity

Calvinist complexity – theater design

Peter Buchanan

Herman Hertzberger’s latest building, a theatre complex in Breda, reflects both his current preoccupations with form and materiality, and the wider concerns of Dutch architects faced with increasing constraints on creativity.

The Chasse Theater complex in Breda, the Netherlands, bears testimony to how much Herman Hertzberger’s architecture has changed since completing the Ministry of Social Welfare in The Hague (AR March 1991). Up to and including that building, his designs were tightly disciplined by the repetitive patterns and elements he used to generate them. Now his designs are much more loosely organised, often below wavy roofs whose curves are only loosely related to the spaces below. But with the Chasse Theater, the change reflects not only a shift in his general design approach, but was provoked also by the constraints Hertzberger faced in designing and constructing the complex.

The Netherlands is no longer the architectural Utopia and bastion of civic and social virtues it once was. Instead, an extreme form of Thatcherite barbarism is rampant. Civic buildings are no longer built on prime sites, but on residual ones unattractive to the private sector. Budgets for public buildings are not only meagre, but every cent must be accounted for in non-aesthetic terms; for instance, as necessary to achieve such technical performance as fire-ratings or insulation standards. There is no room for frivolities like ‘architecture’. (Though this has now reached an extreme, it accords well with Dutch Calvinism and the view of Dutch Modernists that they were not arty architects but bouwkundingenieur.) To ensure all this, project managers dominate, controlling purse strings, dictating materials and finishes, and even keeping architects in the dark as to the available budget. In such circumstances, the architect can pursue no elaborately coherent vocabulary, but must design in a way that is loose and as tolerant as possible of change (during and not just after construction).

Historically, Breda was of strategic importance in defending the Netherlands from the south, and much of the inner city’s built fabric and open space was dedicated to the military. But the army is now moving out, vacating historic buildings and freeing up land for redevelopment. In place of the army, there is a rapid influx of new business and residents. To serve these and attract yet more, the city council has invested in new cultural facilities, in particular a new library (also by Hertzberger and completed in 1993) and the Chasse Theater (named after a swashbuckling nineteenth-century general born in Breda). The latter building actually comprises three theatre auditoria, each different in size and approach to flexibility, and two cinemas, with foyer space and bars for all of these.

Though the site was a residual one, squeezed between a hideous new town hall and an abandoned barracks, it also had considerable potential. Despite being set back behind an overly amorphous ‘civic piazza’ (from which can be seen the nearby library) it is fairly prominent on the road that rings Breda’s compact historic core. Behind and to the south is a huge tract vacated by the military, for which a redevelopment masterplanned by Rem Koolhaas and OMA is proposed and to which the theatre can probably make connection. And against the site’s west side is the courtyard of the U-shaped barracks, a building of some character. This consists of the remains of a thirteenth-century monastery and later additions, hence its name: the Kloosterkazerne. It is now proposed that this be refurbished as a four star hotel, thus ensuring yet more life in the area at night. Also, the hotel’s restaurants will supplement the cafes in the Chasse Theater and its catering resources might serve the parties and banquets that can be held in the two most flexible auditoria.

When Hertzberger was commissioned, the basic plan for the auditoria had already been fixed by theatre consultant lain Mackintosh. Besides fixing the size and broad character of each hall, the crucial determinant of this layout was ease of unloading and installing props. Hence the stages of the larger theatres and the small ‘black box’ hall all abut a single loading bay. This inevitably had to be on the eastern edge of the site, opening onto a parking lot behind the town hall. As a result, the back-to-back larger halls, with the smaller one between them, fill most of the site from the eastern boundary inwards, leaving the architect with only a residual area to the west in which to plan the foyers and cinemas.

As well as designing these and working up the schematic proposals for the theatres, the commission presented another challenge: how to deal with the fly-towers. These tend to be prominently intrusive elements in the urban scene, and here there is an awkwardly close-spaced pair. This specific concern coincided with a more general one that largely accounts for the recent changes in Hertzberger’s architecture: how to better integrate his buildings into the city. He has always seen his designs as urban microcosms, with the repetitive, more private spaces arranged around a communal focus that was analogous to a street (Centraal Beheer, AR January 1979, and the Ministry of Social Welfare) or square (Apollo, AR January 1985, and De Evenaar schools, AR July 1987, De Overloop old age home, AR April 1985). But his early works were generated from the inside outwards, with the exterior a mere product of the interior and so inadequate in terms of urban neighbourliness. More than a decade ago he learned to compose buildings, without any compromise to the integrity of the internal arrangements, with very satisfactory, even sophisticated, facades.

Yet this was not enough for Hertzberger. He wants the internal communal spaces to not just be visibly expressed on the exterior, but to be also a welcoming extension of the public realm outside. And he wants the buildings to fit into place in a way that he feels cannot be achieved by facade design alone, now that the neighbouring buildings tend to be so dissimilar from each other, and often so distant too. In several recent competition projects (such as the 1993 ‘Gebaute Landschaft’ offices and housing for Freising, Germany, and the 1994 Rome Auditorium complex) his response to the latter problem has to be to cover the buildings in a wavy roof, or roofs, which are either a visual analogy of landscaping, or are actually planted up as an extension of the landscape. The Chasse Theater is the first built example to explore this theme.

Here, the wavy roof was originally adopted to cover the tall fly-towers and lower auditoria within an integrative form, in much the same way, in Hertzberger’s analogy; as a car bonnet covers the engine with an identifiable form. In this instance, though the auditoria are in a sense flexible machines, the actual mechanical plant for air-conditioning and so on is housed between the wavy roof and the tops of the auditoria and fly-towers. So, though the design is no longer generated by the disciplined additive vocabulary of his earlier Structuralist works, Hertzberger stretches a point to argue that it remains true to the principle of creating forms that can accommodate varying functions.

The foyer is also covered with a wavy roof that peels away from and is lower than that over the theatres. This expresses the presence of the foyer on the outside, while the stairs that reach up from the foyer across the front and back of the building grasp the auditoria in a graphically tentacular embrace. Moreover the foyer is a street, punctuated by the brick gable of the Kloosterkazerne, that extends off the piazza in front and towards the back opens out to link with the new spaces and uses proposed here. Balconies overlooking the street, and bars on them and the ground floor, make it a lively place. Hertzberger had hoped that the shop space he provided fronting the piazza would enliven it with cafes and kiosks, but all of it has been taken by a furniture shop. But, besides the bars in the foyer, there is already a cafeteria in the building’s north-west corner, where it overlooks the Kloosterkazerne’s court into which may one day spill the hotel restaurant.

To keep costs down, construction and detailing are kept simple. The auditoria, which are structurally separate so that even sounds of 100dB are not transmitted between them, are walled in in-situ concrete and roofed in precast double T-beams. Steel props standing on these and concrete columns in the foyers support wavy steel beams at 4.5 m centres. These support the ribbed metal decking of the outer roof, over which is the insulation and a waterproofing membrane.

Outside, the auditoria are rendered white, and fly-towers and the space above them and the auditoria are clad in ribbed metal siding in grey and dark brown respectively. Around the base of these parts is a wall of black cement bricks. Up to a certain height, the foyer and the stairs rise to the auditoria where they are enclosed in white rendered walls. Above these had been intended clear glazing reaching to the roof. But this could not economically achieve Dutch insulation standards, so Hertzberger introduced, floating in the clear glass, ‘clouds’ of double layers of glass channels with translucent insulation sandwiched between them. This gave a green cast to the light inside, which did not flatter the raw concrete columns. So these have been smoothly rendered and painted in deep and glossy warm shades – all except one, which is discovered after the long processional from the street and up the stairs at the far end, as terminating this long axis like some inscrutable totem that fails to live up to the anticipated revelation.

A canopy roofed in clear polycarbonate reaches out to guide you, past billboards that project down from it with considerable panache, to the foyer and the box offices which are immediately to the right of the front door. Access to the 800 seat, middle-sized auditorium is from the ground level foyer or from another overlooking the piazza in front. This is a very flexible hall, with all seats except the top four rows on retractable bleachers, some of which are moveable on an air cushion. So as well as with a conventional proscenium stage (with or without an orchestra pit) below the fly-tower, it can be used as a flat-floored hall for social events, or with a centre stage using the facilities for flying scenery, curtains and screens in all parts of the hall. When used for concerts, an acoustically reflective screen closes off the volume of the fly-tower. With this adjustability, the acoustics suit all use-options very well.

The stalls of the large 1200 seat hall are again entered off the ground floor of the foyer, the asymmetry of access being reflected in the way the rear wall and balconies above step in plan. And the two levels of balconies are reached from the broad stairs that ascend the southern end of the foyer, by narrower stairs that fold from here across the back of the auditorium. Here again there is an adjustable orchestra pit and proscenium, which can be varied in height and width, but the acoustic reverberation times are adjusted with an electronic system.

The up to 200 seat ‘black box’ cinema hall is entered off the largest of the balconies that bulge into the foyer at the same height as the head of the grand southern staircase, which provides one of the routes of access to it. The view from the head of the stair and back down the length of the foyer is one of the best in the building. The slowly tightening curve of the balcony edge is just right from here, while above and below are the bridges that span across the foyer to help animate it. Above everything is the curving black acoustic ceiling against which lights sparkle like stars in a night sky, and the coloured columns have an active presence that inhabits the space so that it never feels desolately empty.

Dutch architectural critics have eulogised about the Chasse Theater, asserting that Hertzberger has at last found his language as an artist. But this underestimates the superlative achievement of much of his earlier work. It also ignores the point that, probably because it marks a new direction for him, the building is also quite raw in its formal decisions and detailing, lacking the surety of judgement displayed in the nearby library which seems by comparison to be by a much more mature architect. The cheap detailing also means that the building is not welcoming or pleasant to touch, especially in such crucial places as the rails of balustrades overlooking the foyer or the handles of the main sets of doors.

That said, the building is not as ugly as it looks in photographs, or more precisely, some of the more problematic formal decisions (such as the shapes of the clouds in the foyer glazing) are not really noticed when you are there, especially when inside. Hertzberger’s earlier designs, though they depended on subjective decisions about form (as much as anybody else’s), were guided by a set of rules so that even if the results were a bit ponderous they always seemed entirely convincing. Here because his new language is more obviously dependent on subjective judgement, architects are also more likely to question these judgements. This is especially so in that, as well as obviously influenced by Koolhaas (the wavy roofs of the Nexus housing, the coloured columns in the foyer of the Dance Theatre), other apparent sources are the supremely graceful Van Nelle factory (the conveyor bridges and projecting stairs reflected in those embracing the outsides of the auditoria) and the curvaceous free-planning of Oscar Niemeyer.

For all these quibbles, the Chasse Theater undoubtedly represents an enormous achievement in the face of almost nightmarish circumstance. But though Hertzberger has served Breda brilliantly, this is not one of his most brilliant buildings. Hertzberger is surely right in anticipating that this will come when he learns to marry his current explorations with the approach he had earlier consolidated over so many years.

COPYRIGHT 1996 EMAP Architecture

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group