11 May 2016

building from the inside out

The May issue of American Way magazine, in the seat pocket on my flight back from Amsterdam, had an interesting article on Jeanne Gang and Michael Halberstam. He is the artistic director of Writers Theatre in Chicago and Studio Gang just did their new building. The article describes their collaboration on the building program and design and quotes Gang as saying she builds from the inside out.

This trip to the Netherlands has included plenty of good architectural moments. Yesterday, I was at the Rietveld Schröder House in Utrecht. You can't study modern architecture without coming across this building and it's a World Heritage Site. It was a major collaboration between architect Gerrit Rietveld and client Mrs. Truus Schröder-Schräder who lived there with her children, then with Rietveld (after they were both widowed), and left the house to the rest of us after her death in 1985.
One of the comments I read on the house website mentioned that the house is small. It is, it is. When it was built, the lot was at the edge of town and looked out over polders and wild land. The introductory film describes the location as well as the collaboration. Rietveld and Schröder determined the spaces and then put walls around them. The plans, submitted to the city, were a bit less radical but the intention was to make alterations as the house was constructed. While the inside space and function were critical, the relationship of the house to the view was also important.

No studying of the text or pictures can quite prepare you for the raised highway which is now just East of the house. The roadway was built by the 1930s and then was raised some decades later.
Rietveld wanted to tear the house down when the outside space around the house had been so altered.

Two days before I was in Utrecht, I was in Hilversum to see the Town Hall designed by W.M. Dudok. Another of those buildings that pops up in any survey of modern architecture.
I went without doing research and figured I'd just be able to see the outside, weep at its beauty, and get on my way. Well, I was lucky to be there on one of the days that there is a tour. There were four of us for the tour and it was in Dutch. The guide was expressive and occasionally did a bit of English-language catchup for me. We even got to climb the tower and were up there at 3 pm when the carillon rang the hour.
The organizing outline for the tour was the route that a couple getting married would normally use. That is, through the front doors, up the marble staircase, through the reception hall to the marrying room. One thing I hadn't anticipated was the amount of color in the tiles and other materials, inside and out. We also visited the council chamber, mayor's office, conference room, and coffee room. On top of all that joy, the gift shop had a small walking tour booklet of a dozen other buildings by Dudok in Hilversum. So off I went.

I hadn't been to either of those buildings. I had been to the Gemeentemuseum Den Haag but not for 25 or 30 years. It was designed by Hendrik Petrus Berlage and built 1931-1935. It has wonderful spaces too though they may drive the curators and exhibition designers crazy. On the other hand, they put together an incredible installation of a Klimt and Schiele show featuring a portrait of Schiele's wife Edith and Klimt's Judith (as in Judith and Holofernes). The featured paintings were both in a gallery by themselves in a stunning setting.

As I was rolling around the thoughts from the article in American Way that started this post, I was thinking for a moment that all great architecture starts from the program and builds out. Yes and no. I can certainly picture funny little rooms in odd spaces in various buildings, just filling out the floor plan. In truth, of course, a successful building is a combination of form and function. Both of those factors, and our appreciation of them, change over time.

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