Fighting the Urban Sprawl

In the Netherlands, SeARCH seeks architectural solutions to long-standing urban problems

No one-liners, no corporate office buildings, and no single, definable style. When you discuss SeARCH, the 32-person firm founded and led by Dutch architect Bjarne Mastenbroek, you talk as much about what it does not do as what it does do. “Rarely do we work on a tabula rasa,” Mastenbroek says firmly. “Ninety percent of our projects are transforming existing buildings, or new construction on existing sites. That is the Dutch way: We’re good at refurbishing and remodeling what has gone before.”

Like the principals of BAR Architects, the other Dutch firm in this year’s Design Vanguard, Mastenbroek first drew attention with a winning project in 1991 for Europan, the Europe-wide competition for new talent. With his then-business partner Dick van Gameren, Mastenbroek designed an apartment building for the Dutch city of Nijmegen with rooftop parking, a novel concept at the time. After a few years at a large firm, Architectengroep, Mastenbroek launched SeARCH (Stedenbouw en Architectuur) in 2002.

Mastenbroek is passionate about the need to conserve the country’s cities and the open space around them by building within or at the edge of the existing urban fabric. “Not only bigger cities like Amsterdam and Rotterdam, but middle-size ones are expanding outward,” he says. “Sprawl is great for the individual, but disastrous for the collective.”

No surprise, then, that the firm is focused on several housing projects. “The housing market here has been privatized, and architects who want to build anything out of the ordinary really have to invest an inordinate amount of time and effort in persuasion,” Mastenbroek says. “Many firms have given up courage and begun building 1930s-style villas. The market for neotraditional styles seems to be insatiable, but I feel that housing is too important for Holland to give it up.”

The firm’s biggest housing project to date is in Leidsche Rijn, outside Utrecht. The program called for a traditional apartment building of eight floors with parking behind it. SeARCH shifted the components around, opting for two three-level blocks with all the parking beneath. This plan freed up room for a courtyard between the two boomerang-shaped structures, and doubled the capacity of the garage.

A different take on housing was the renovation and expansion of an old farmyard’s scattered outbuildings into a single-family (nonfarming) residence. Here SeARCH shows it has a good feel for adapting historic buildings. The roof of the original house remains thatched, but a livestock barn was replaced with a skewed extension covered with timber lathes from its steeply pitched roof down to the ground. The means are simple and the results legible without seeming banal.

Now under construction are several schools and a museum for regional culture and textiles in Enschede, near the Dutch-German border. The site’s context was literally blown away when a local fireworks factory exploded in 2000. The museum is part of the city’s attempt to recover some of the local culture lost in the accident. Here you see how SeARCH excels—fitting a complex program into a context in a way that is sensitive, imaginative, and nonliteral. The team’s architecture is muscular but compassionate, complex but uncluttered.

Date founded: 2002

Design staff: 32

Principals: Bjarne Mastenbroek, Uda Visser, and David Gianotten

Education: Mastenbroek: Technical University of Delft, M.Arch., 1989; Visser: Technical University of Darmstadt (Germany), M.Arch., 1996; Gianotten: Technical University of Eindhoven, M.Arch., 1998

Work history: Mastenbroek: Practice—Architectengroep, 1993–02; Van Gameren Mastenbroek architecten, 1991–93; Enric Miralles & Benedetta Tagliabue, Barcelona, 1990–91; Mecanoo architecten, 1988–90; Academic—Academie of Architecture, Amsterdam, faculty, 1992–93; Technical University of Delft, faculty, 1991–92; Visser: Architectengroep, 2001–02; Mecanoo architecten, 1988–90; Gianotten: Gideon Consult, 2002–05; van Keulen & van Zutphen, 2000–02; Projectbureau Leidsche Rijn, 1998–2000

Key completed projects: Scherf 13 housing, Utrecht, 2006; Schijf housing, Utrecht, 2006; Westergasfabriek clubhouse, Amsterdam, 2006; Dutch Embassy, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, 2005; Wolzak House, Zutphen, the Netherlands, 2004; K-buurt urban planning, Amsterdam, 2003; Posbank Pavilion, Rheden, the Netherlands, 2002

Key current projects: Urban planning for office and commercial complex, Leuven, Belgium, 2010; 215-apartment complex, The Hague, 2007; apartment and retail complex, Almere, the Netherlands, 2007; 130 single-family houses, Rotterdam, 2007

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