Critical Visions, 2008 RAIA National Conference

With typical Dutch frankness and charm, Francine Houben delivered an interesting keynote surveying a series of Mecanoo projects. Citing her influences as Charles Eames and her background in the Dutch Delta, Houben said she stays connected to the site by “keeping her feet in the clay”. She aims for innovative, human scaled, sustainable projects integrated with the landscape.

Each of the projects presented demonstrated a similar design approach of a folded ground plane or space “carved” from a solid block.

Library light tower, Delft University of Technology (photo by muchachuco)

by rucativava
Facade screening and soffit detail, Delft University of Technology (photo by rucativava)

In the library at the Delft University of Technology, the ground plane is folded up over the main space and “pinned” by a central cone providing natural day light to the reading area. Houben called it a “happy building” that doesn’t want to be a building but a landscape. In a similar vein, the podium of the FiftyTwoDegrees at Nijmegen is connected to the landscape by a folded plane, however, an office tower at one end serves as a counterpoint to the flat Dutch landscape. As if to defer to the horiziontality of the Dutch Delta, the tower is bent yet still retains an efficient commercial floor plate.

FiftyTwoDegrees, Nijmegen (2001–2007)
FiftyTwoDegrees, Nijmegen (2001–2007)

Based on the notion of a “carved” block of cityscape, Houben creates voids in the solid buildings in response to function and form requirements. The Municipal Offices and Train Station in the historic city of Delft is a mixed use public building where a city hall sits atop an underground rail station. Houben spoke of creating “an unforgettable space for the people visiting Delft” and indeed the main public area of the rail station hall has an undulating soffit entirely lined in striking Delft Blue tiles. Contrasting this historic Dutch building material is a digital information “ticker” running around the building.

Likewise, the Palace of Justice, Córdoba, Spain is a city block with a huge corner hewn out to create an entrance and the internal spaces are organised along a spine. Other features are the series of outdoor terraces (or patios) providing light and ventilation to the interior and the perforated facade – a reinterpretation of the traditional architecture of Córdoba. The perforations create a detailed light/shade effect on the interior. spaces. With both of these buildings, the use of a contrasting colour on the areas conceptually “cut” from the solid, accentuates the solid/void effect.

The design of the Wei-Wu-Ying Centre for the Performing Arts in Kaohsiung, Taiwan seems to be a hybrid of the folding ground plane and solid block concepts (make sure you check out the high-res competition panels links below). A very large program of a 2,300 seat concert hall, 2,500 seat lyric theatre, 1,000 seat playhouse, 500 seat “black box” and open air theatre is accommodated in a “functional sandwich”. The organising system is via layers (the sandwich) where the public spaces are the central layer sitting between the back of house spaces (underground) and an undulating, perforated roof. Interior spaces are seamless as the floor/wall/ceiling merge into one surface. Unusually, this plane is lined in steel plate that reflects the former boat building in the city. Colour lighting is a key element of the interior design, creating temporal effects and moods for the different spaces.

Competition rendering of the Wei-Wu-Ying Centre (source:e-architect)
2007 competition rendering of the Wei-Wu-Ying Centre, Taiwan from 2007
Prototype of the Banyan form from the Wei-Wu-Ying Centre for the Performing Arts by China Blu
Prototype of the Banyan form, Wei-Wu-Ying Centre for the Performing Arts (photo by China Blu)

Houben’s buildings all have textural quality about them, where site context is reflected in the building materials (Delft Blue tiles, Spanish limestone), form (the Banyan tree in Taiwan) and planning (patios in Spain, breezeways in Taiwan), although it could be argued her approach focusses too heavily on surface at the expense of function.


Mecanoo’s 2007 Wei-Wu-Ying Centre for the Performing Arts Competition Panels

Additional Mecanoo Resources

Also in this series… Christoph IngenhovenBrigitte ShimChris Wilkinson and Billie Tsien