Thursday, April 20, 2006

l'architecture d'aujourd'hui

The bimonthly magazine l'architecture d'aujourd'hui, issue march/april 2006 has two spreads of Observatorium: Otium Leinewijk (2002) and Observatorium Nieuw Terbregge (2001).
Both projects have appeared in magazines from Canada, Germany and France. Historian and journalist Christian Welzbacher is the only journalist who actually visited the site. Read his article from 2001.

The public side of the private – and vice versa
An observatory in a new development near Rotterdam is both a lookout and an art object.

It is doubtful whether there is even such a thing as private space in The Netherlands. Except for a few areas in the province of Friesland in the northeast, where farmers live in the midst of their extensive tracts of land, about 16 million people live right next to each other on man-made land won from the sea. Both the industrialised cultivation and the density of development that have still not solved the housing problem have been the themes of architecture and landscape architecture in The Netherlands for some time. What the MVRDV office showed at the World’s Fair in Hannover with its artificial sandwich garden is only one of many possible images of the environment that determines what the people in The Netherlands are like. There is no such thing as privacy, even though the Calvinist way of life exposed to view without any curtains is often draped by now and many residents seek at least visual protection from their neighbours.

Nieuw-Terbregge, in the northeast of the Rotterdam conurbation, is no exception. The property was long one of the dumps of urban architecture, a derelict leftover space between the motorway and the little River Rotte flowing five metres higher up. Now that a large part of the total of 850 standard single-family homes is completed, the dominating element is the series. Not two or five but dozens of identical houses appear in a row. The principle of chronic repetition evokes another image in turn: that of a society of people who are all the same, even if only to the architects responsible for the design. Even the idyll of outdoor space between the houses is planned: narrow stairs lead across the newly built canals; parking spots are hidden under wooden beams and metal rods that are meant to be overgrown soon. The interwoven aspect of Dutch cultivation is thus simulated in the heart of the development in a purposive optimistic manner. If this had not been the case, the community would have corrected this distortion in favour of something like private or free or open space. One would almost expect that horror vacui would automatically set in amongst the residents.

The test tube village just doesn’t want to have anything to do with the outside world. The grounds are about six metres below sea level and separated from the motorway by an eleven-metre-high noise barrier embankment made of contaminated rubble. It reduces the traffic noises to a dull minimum. Only the sparkling silvery pavilion that the Rotterdam Observatorium group of artists set up on the summit of the embankment breaks up the illusion. The structure shifts the perception of both residents and drivers. It becomes a visual centre of attraction for both, and it abolishes the boundaries between the traffic-restricted centrifugal world behind the hill and the turbo-dynamic linear world in front of it.
The enclosed garden with a view, on the borderline between architecture, art and landscape design, that the group of artists and architects working together since 1995 was able to realise here on the invitation of the developer, consists of three parts. Arising like the ruins of a medieval fortress is a medium-high tower with an adjacent small shelter that is also used for temporary exhibitions. The successes of duurzamen, sustainable building, whose fundamentals were worked out in Brussels and determined the housing development, were presented on backlit panels in this part of the pavilion made of guard-rails in 2001. The horizontal counterpart to the tower is a sweeping ramp. It leads straight out towards the motorway from the summit of the hill, which is levelled to look like an adjacent square. Right next to it, hugging the steeply sloping terrain, is the third part of the ensemble that also serves to frame it: a rectangular hortus conclusus made of layers of asphalt slabs framed by stone gabion walls.

In a bizarre way the monument-like pavilion and its small rough front garden on either side of the summit of the embankment reflect a long-forgotten Dutch dream of dreams: a single-family home at a distance to the neighbours, a solitaire in the landscape. However, the Observatorium reverses this wishful thinking of privacy: the pavilion is open, accessible to everyone. It is not an isolated home but an architectural sculpture that seeks contact with the world around it. The structure confronts unsuspecting residents behind the noise barrier visually with the spoils of the motorway that they would rather be spared, though they use it to get to town every day nevertheless. The pavilion is spotlighted until late at night, inviting people to admire its guard-rail construction, to saunter along the ramp, and to watch the cars rushing by or the notorious traffic jams. Thus its creates a link between here and there, providing every happy homeowner in cosy Nieuw-Terbregge the opportunity for a brief recovery from the loss of reality at night.
Through its materials the ensemble also uses the setting as its theme, concentrating the building materials of the embankment and the motorway into a work of its own. The theme is therefore not the urbanisation of the landscape as such but the particular artificiality of a certain unique place in a completely reshaped landscape. Works by the Observatorium group first expose the essence of the context, reduce it to its essentials and finally re-assemble it. In this way the structure bridges the gap between the disparate opposites that have long become interconnections in the densely settled Netherlands. In a peaceful state of balance, like a temple in a landscape garden, the Observatorium radiates outwards into its surroundings and declares everything around it part of a large park: the noise barrier, the new development, the motorway, the historical course of the Rotte, the Terbreggseplein motorway junction, and the grand view in the shape of the Rotterdam skyline. And just like in the pavilions in old pictures of the Garden of Paradise, everything comes to a standstill inside this building too. The folie of Nieuw-Terbregge thus becomes a public place that invites private retreat. Making such self-generated paradoxes visible and enjoyable in other parts of the country as well, heightening them without aiming to change them, characterises the work of the Observatorium group.

Christian Welzbacher
Critic, Berlin

Friday, April 14, 2006

Framing the view

Observatorium visited the slag-heap Halde Norddeutschland yesterday.
For the first time our work was constructed and placed without being present. Arriving on top we thougt we were hallucinating. It's huge and delicate. We could do nothing but walk around it and shoot pictures.
By the end of May a press conference and an opening ceremony will be held.
By the way, from here you have one of the best views on the cities of the Ruhrarea, cultural capital of Europe 2010.
We welcome any suggestion for events, shows, gatherings or feasts in the Hallenhaus of Halde Norddeutschland.

Looking south

Looking north west

Looking north

Looking east

Framing the view