Citadel reflects vain hopes

The Timmerhuis began as a grand plan but there have been many compromises on the road to the building's completion. (Ossip van der Duivenbode/ OMA)

The Timmerhuis began as a grand plan but there have been many compromises on the road to the building's completion. (Ossip van der Duivenbode/ OMA)

A pile of white glass cubes has landed in the centre of Rotterdam, teetering like a stack of shipping containers airlifted from the city’s sprawling port. It rises to two uneven peaks in staggered pixels, like something from the game Sim City abandoned midway through construction.

This is the Timmerhuis, the latest gift to the Netherlands’ second city by its most celebrated architectural practice, OMA, headed up by Rem Koolhaas. Two years ago he completed the country’’s biggest-ever building here, momentously named The Rotterdam – another enormous stack of blocks that looms on the riverfront (with most of its luxury flats still unsold).

The Rotterdam may be the biggest, but the Timmerhuis is of greater significance – for the direction that both Koolhaas and the entire city are heading in.

Tucked behind the city hall and the old central post office, it stands on the site of the 15th-century Stadstimmerhuis, once home to the city carpenter and storehouse of building materials for major public works. Flattened by bombs in World War II, like most of the city, it was rebuilt as the central planning office and became the very place where Rotterdam’s ambitious post-war vision was laid out – a seminal plan that would inspire similar modernist urban plans around the world.

It seems only fitting, then, that the pixelated glacier that now rises from the site is the perfect reflection of Rotterdam’s current predicament – a place of bold ambitions, vain hopes and spectacular failures. The €100-million building is a typical public-private partnership. Commissioned by the city, it contains five floors of offices for municipal departments, a base of cafés and shops (soon to be joined by the city museum), and a crown of 84 luxury apartments that help to pay for it all.

The flats are some of Rotterdam’s more spectacular. Many come with huge patios on the rooftops of their neighbours, and they provide thrilling mid-level views of the city.

“It literally feels like living in a village in the sky,” says Ossip van Duivenbode, a photographer who was among the first to move in. “I’ve met more of my neighbours here in the past few weeks, waving across to their patios, than I ever did in my previous apartment building.”

From inside his flat, it feels like being in a glass-and-steel treehouse, a world of platforms and ledges staggered below, with privacy provided by white ceramic fritting on the glass. It recalls the wild visions of earlier Dutch “structuralist” architects such as Herman Hertzberger. But Reinier de Graaf, the OMA partner in charge of the project, wants to shake off such references.

“I’ve never been a fan of Hertzberger,” he says, standing in the atrium where a 3D grid of steel columns and beams criss-cross over our heads like a gigantic Sol LeWitt sculpture. “I see this as more Eisenman meets Farnsworth House” – a mash-up of Mies van der Rohe’s seminal modernist villa and the hair-brained illogic of deconstructivist Peter Eisenman. It’s an unexpected marriage that has produced an odd love child.

The hefty steel structure reappears throughout the building: big exposed columns thrust through the office floors, bolted together in the middle as if cobbled from leftovers like a cut-and-shut car. There are some of OMA’s trademark angled steel struts too, shooting through the meeting rooms, which are decked out with carpets printed with Delftware patterns and clinical rubbery curtains. The interiors mine the office’s back catalogue, with glowing resin cupboards, backlit safety glass and corrugated plastic sheeting, all of which were deployed with more finesse first time around in the Rotterdam Kunsthal in 1992.

Elsewhere there’s a rough-and-ready palette of metal floors and exposed ducts, with suspended ceilings crashing into the retained wing of the 1950s building. The guts are revealed here and there, recalling Koolhaas’s installation of an exploded office ceiling at the Venice Biennale last year.

How much of this is intentional, and how much an inevitable product of the design-and-build contract (which puts the builder in charge) is unclear. In typical OMA fashion, everything is explained with a knowing wink, crude details justified as making a point. “We don’t hide the imperfections,” says De Graaf. It might have made sense for their G-Star headquarters in Amsterdam – a marriage of brands that revel in crudeness – but here it sometimes jars. It is most painful on the outside of the building, where what was meant to be a misty fog of frameless glass has been translated into a clunky glazing system of inelegant grids.

Timmerhuis, Rotterdam’s village in the sky. (Ossip van Duivenbode/ OMA)

But the illusion of the whole building was destroyed long before it was built. When the competition was launched by the city in 2008, the plan was for a new beacon of transparent governance, a Stadswinkel (or “City Shop”) where citizens could come face to face with their civil servants to sort out their council tax or renew their driving licence in a thrilling 21st-century space. OMA’s proposal won because it went to improbable lengths to achieve the city’s aim, by lifting the entire building up in the air and creating a “cloud” of offices to hover over a heroic public forum.

The building acts as an enormous bridge thanks to its Vierendeel truss system. “It enables us to liberate the ground almost in its entirety,” declared Koolhaas. The vast expense of this structure, which contains half the steel of the Eiffel Tower, was justified by the promised wonder of a column-free plaza at ground level.

The cloud was to be topped with affordable micro-flats, catering to young urbanites, which would help to pay for the public sector outlay below.

The only problem is that public priorities are prone to change. Having demolished most of the existing building and fixed the design, the city got cold feet in 2011 and decided it was too expensive to move the City Shop here. With a private development partner already on board, it was too late to put the brakes on, so it would simply forge ahead and find something to fill the ground floor later.

The museum is an awkward fit: the staggered floors of offices, intended to look out on to the public area, will now look into exhibition halls – or more likely be blocked up.

“We were left with our hovering cloud, with its entire raison d’être removed,” says De Graaf, who was furious about the decision.

The controversy added to what was already a hotly contested project. A number of embittered rival architects launched legal action against the city when OMA’s scheme was chosen, claiming there was no way their floating citadel could be built within the budget.

Their claims were dismissed, but it was a revealing sign of the animosity aimed at the building – and the city’s resident architect. Koolhaas has since taken a back seat, declining to comment on the project.

“The whole thing is an absurdity,” says Wouter Vanstiphout, professor of design as politics at Delft University of Technology. “It reveals the total vulnerability of the city’s model of development, and this desperate moving around of civic functions to try to fill the holes in its own failed public-private partnerships.”

He points to the fact that The Rotterdam building had to be occupied by city departments to avoid it standing vacant,and another long-stalled OMA project, the Forum, toyed with housing the city museum when other tenants dropped out. Planned as a centre for luxury brands, it will be home to the Netherlands’s biggest Primark clothing retailer.

“The failure is that the city has made itself dependent on the market for its civic activities,” adds Vanstiphout. “It always expects too much from it – like the City Shop and the intended affordable housing in the Timmerhuis – then there is always the same disappointment.”

What could have been a beacon of civic pride has turned out to be a hollow symbol of compromise. – © Guardian News & Media 2016

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