Netherlands. This headquarters for the country’s largest insurance company, the kind of building usually reduced to an intolerant machine aimed at maximizing productivity and projecting a slick corporate image, is instead endowed at every point with human volition for its thousand workers. The building’s monumental size is broken down by multiple scales of joints and cracks, beginning with its division into four multilevel quadrants, between which runs a continuous spine of multilevel pedestrian streets, all pulled apart from and opened partially to their neighbours. It is loosened further by an assemblage of modular units, their square platforms detached from each other and linked by short bridges, establishing smaller corners within medium-sized platforms within larger domains, and leaving cruciform light wells between the units. The structure is inherently porous horizontally, diagonally and vertically, as well as both externally and internally, constituting a small city made pervious to action by a complex network of sightlines and pathways. Places for work and rest are semi-sheltered by parapets, columns and incomplete walls, keeping their opportunities partially accessible rather than isolated or invasive, and producing a world of mutual interaction that is extensive yet respectful.
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Contributing to the finely tuned balance of refuge and outlook unique to each part of the building is a carefully modulated size, position and clarity of transparency. A revealing instance of this equilibrium is found in the corner boundaries between office and street, where translucent lenses ensure a degree of discretion while vaguely connecting the worlds on each side. The diffusive veil is slightly opened by slivers of clear glass at the sides and a band of semi-transparent blocks at the height of the seated workers inside. The cafeteria, another small masterpiece of free will, contains a constellation of attractive places for people to dine, expanding on ideas broached in Hertzberger’s student housing in Amsterdam, completed in 1966. Diners are faced with an abundance of options, some orientated back to the room and others gazing out through windows, perhaps sitting alone at a bar or joining a group at one of the differently sized tables. They can gravitate to each of several different floor levels or towards a cozy alcove sheltered within concrete piers or a panoramic bay in the folds of glass, and seek brightness under a rooflight or shade beneath a ceiling.
Herman Hertzberger, Centraal Beheer (1972), Netherlands, lightwell between office and interior street (above right); interior street with office corner (top left); cutaway axonometric of portion of cafeteria (top right); Jan Verhoeven, Montessori School (1979), Netherlands, plan (above left)
A more dynamic and public freedom is found in the building’s pedestrian streets, their skylit channels overlooked by aerial walkways and mezzanines. At multiple levels is a diverse mixture of stairs, lifts, escalators and pathways, which are lined with seats and benches, cafes and restrooms. Inside this vast honeycomb of space, a person can detect hundreds of intriguing possibilities, each somewhat varied in ambience and furnishings. The ‘profusion of invitations’, to use William Carlos Williams’s term, empowers people to survey and then freely select from a surplus of agreeable options, an interplay continuing through the entire structure and out to the routes of entry, and from offices out to roof terraces, also folded into alcoves and plazas lined with benches.
Opportunity for many at once is the undisguised motive in Hertzberger’s work, which in recent decades has struggled to conquer the amorphous character that can stem from repetitive and anonymous parts. Other Dutch Structuralists such as Piet Blom and Jan Verhoeven (p. 248) have pursued similar humanist values, while searching for their own way out of the modular dilemma, the former through analogies to the Islamic kasbah and ‘pole dwellings’ and the latter more successfully through fractal-like, crystalline structures that echo in ways the richly clustered concentric space of Bramante’s plan for St Peter’s
An especially promising vision of the spatial field taken to urban size is the ten-storey vertical campus of the University of Engineering and Technology (p. 252) in Lima, Peru, by Dublin-based Grafton Architects. Conceptual models indicate the way masses and cavities are repeatedly, and diversely, interlocked in plan and section, recalling the ‘constructions’ of the De Stijl sculptor Georges Vantongerloo and especially the houses of Rudolph Schindler, assembled from voids that are bent and spliced to clasp each other, ensuring that each spatial moment is inherently doubled and unfolds into new future. Courses of action may open wherever one looks, but their prospective trails are continually tucked around corners, zig-zagging into uncertainty, empowering people to launch spontaneous explorations, whose destinies are not preordained but under each person’s control.