Going Dutch

Rotterdam-based firm BAR brings a humanist approach to Modern architecture

Can architecture be useless? The question is only half-rhetorical when posed by BAR, the Rotterdam-based architecture firm of Klaas van der Molen and Joost Glissenaar. The pair has repeatedly explored the purpose of architecture, and in particular the interaction between the building and its user. Look at its Bridgehouse for the southern Dutch town of Middelburg: useless! Only six times a year does anyone step inside to open the bridge; the rest of the time it is merely a transformer station. “We call it a folly in the water,” says Glissenaar. But what could have been a boring technical facility has been designed by BAR as a piece of urban sculpture, making it “useful” in a new way to the surrounding city.

Glissenaar and Van der Molen, who have known each other since architecture school, set up shop in 1999 as BAR (Bureau voor Architectuur Rotterdam) after winning first prize in Europan, a European-wide competition for young talent. (Their design has yet to be realized, to their chagrin.) One of their best-known designs so far is a building for the printer Plantijn Casparie on an old industrial waterway. It presents itself to the passerby as a long, crisp wall of double-height glass panes between 18-foot-high wooden supports. Behind this facade, the building extends as a series of three linked boxes, from a transparent front office to a printing shop in the middle and a binding, storage, and shipping facility in the back. Glissenaar says, “The processes that unfold inside are a kind of hidden treasure from which we derive the exterior.”

On one of the most exclusive streets in the historic center of Utrecht, BAR designed a project with a uniquely Dutch social agenda: a hostel for aging junkies. In a landmark building from 1910, the architects created living quarters for 28 homeless, hard-drug addicts, with a communal living room and kitchen. At the core of the deep building, the architects clad walls in formica sheets imprinted with an almost three-dimensional image of juicy green ivy, adding at least the suggestion of a whiff of fresh air.

Contrasting old shell and new interior was a key part of BAR’s first commission: a contemporary arts center called BAK, also in Utrecht. Here it inserted a plane of perforated-metal stair treads 6 feet behind an old facade, dating from 1650. “We created a vertical foyer of perforated metal and glass floors that articulates the transition between old and new,” explains Van der Molen. “It is, in fact, one continuous space spread over three stories, containing a library, a reception area, and a gathering space.”

Dutch architecture captured the public’s eye in the 1990s with its daring approach to form and program. Now, however, Dutch clients are more inclined to play it safe. This is especially true of housing, long a playground for young architects but now largely market-driven and neotraditional in style. “Young firms have little presence in the developers’ world,” says Glissenaar. “We’re more at home in the world of government and culture, and we’re cheaper and more patient than the big offices.”

With its emphasis on the user’s experience, BAR finds itself moving in the direction of postwar Dutch luminaries like Herman Hertzberger and Aldo van Eyck, who took an intensely humanist approach to the built environment. Young though it is, BAR is grabbing attention by wrapping its predecessors’ social sensibility in unapologetically strong and confident forms.

Founded: 1999

Design staff: 5

Principals: Joost Glissenaar and Klaas van der Molen

Education: Glissenaar: Academie van Bouwkunst Rotterdam, 1997; Van der Molen: Academie van Bouwkunst Rotterdam, 1996

Work history: Glissenaar: MVRDV, 1994–99; Sybrand Fukken, 1989–93; Van der Molen: Akropolis, 1996–99; Kraaijvanger/Urbis, 1995–96

Key completed projects: Just In exhibition, Netherlands Architecture Institute, Rotterdam, 2005; KEI office space, Rotterdam, 2005; Bridgehouse, Middelburg, 2004; Junky Hotel, Utrecht, 2004; Plantijn Casparie printshop, Utrecht, 2003; BAK center for contemporary arts, Utrecht, 2003

Key current projects: Krasinski Pavilion exhibition space, Warsaw, 2006; BNA interiors, Amsterdam, 2007; Kokerloods media center, Utrecht, 2007; Wijkwaard neighborhood center, Alkmaar, 2007; KLPD police stations, Assen and Maasbracht, 2008; Music House, Utrecht, 2008; Glauberweg apartments, Amsterdam, 2008

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