4 / 2018 - new history, UU AA 4

In the Finnish architectural context, history is often approached as a practical, knowledge-based and experiential database which contributes and is closely related to the design process. Also, the benefit of teaching history of architecture has been justified especially with the growing needs for restorations and renovations. At the same time, from an international perspective, research topics in architectural history are deviating far beyond design knowledge.

What’s new in history? asks the third issue of the year. It collects different approaches to the history of architecture and brings out topics, that are only recently gaining more interest. In the issue, history becomes visible as refurbishment projects, and a source of inspiration for new openings, from charting the development of service stations to tracing influences of Finnish architecture in the USSR.

UU AA, a project exploring the new form of our publication continues with casual explorations on what we should discuss and write about within the field. The project continues in all issues of the magazine throughout 2018.

Contents

The National Library of Finland, Helsinki
Carl Ludvig Engel 1845
restoration 2015: LPR-arkkitehdit

Zero Waste Bistro, pop-up restaurant, New York, 2018
Linda Bergroth

Töölö Church, Helsinki
Hilding Ekelund, 1929
renovation 2016: Käpy ja Simo Paavilainen

Hotel St. George, Helsinki
Onni Tarjanne 1890
conversion into a hotel 2018: Pervin Imaditdin

A condemned suburban apartment building from the 1970s was sold for one euro and
renovated. This project ended up receiving the most prestigious architectural award in the EU. However, for architect Xander Vermeulen Windsant the main goal was not to defend the heritage of the building but to provide good housing.

One year ago, the Mies van der Rohe Award granted by the EU was for the first time given to a renovation project, namely the apartment building DeFlat Kleiburg in the Netherlands. The reactions were somewhat surprised. Some were openly wondering what the architects had actually done to the building to deserve the award.

“This question comes up every time I take people on a tour. I take it as a great compliment.”

Xander Vermeulen Windsant is a 38-year-old Dutch architect whose works focus on an area of architecture that is rarely shown in public – reasonably priced housing. His firm, XVW Architectuur, was responsible for the architectural design of the DeFlat Kleiburg project together with NL Architects.

In addition to the Mies van der Rohe Award, the two firms have also received Dutch Design Awards in the Habitat and Future categories. After winning multiple prizes, Vermeulen Windsant has travelled all over Europe talking about the project – also in Helsinki at the People-Driven City seminar last September.

Even though DeFlat Kleiburg has brought the architects fame and glory, it is hard to see it as an ego project. The building is located in the neighbourhood of Bijlmermeer in southern Amsterdam. The area was built in the 1960s and 1970s for migrant workers. Different parts of the area have simply been named with letters and Kleiburg is located in K-Buurt. The feeling of anonymity is highlighted by the monotonous buildings as well as their distance from transport and other street life.

Over the decades, Bijlmermeer almost became synonymous with a disreputable neighbourhood where crime, drug use and unemployment were out of control. Even though the reality was not as black and white as it seems, Kleiburg was certainly not a dream project for architects.

“Very few of our colleagues even wanted to take a look at this building,” Vermeulen Windsant says.

NL Architects and XVW Architectuur’s plans did not offer a lively colour scheme or imaginative projections to brighten up the greyness. Instead, they wanted to solve the economic equation related to the project.

The previous owner’s renovation plan for the 400-metre-long and 11-storey-high building was estimated to cost 70 million euros, making it too expensive even before the economic crisis. As a solution, the architects proposed that only the necessary shared spaces would be renovated. The residents would be responsible for the actual apartments. In return, they would be given an exceptional amount of freedom to fulfil their renovation wishes.

At the Mies van der Rohe award ceremony, Kamiel Klaasse from NL Architects described Kleiburg as “a joint effort by many people to enable individual dreams”. This standardised building almost became the opposite of what it used to be.

“Kleiburg is not so much an example of building protection but rather an example of how the challenge of reasonably priced housing could be solved today”, Vermeulen Windsant says.

***

We are sitting on the lovely terrace of a restaurant built inside a small hangar in the middle of an uninteresting office cluster. The restaurant is part of a monastery brewery, established in Kleiburg after the renovation.

“It’s not bad to be involved in a project that results in our own beer”, Vermeulen Windsant says smiling.

Kleiburg has the makings of a good story. For a long time, it was the ugly duckling of its area as it was the only building remaining with its original appearance. In the early 2000s, the City of Amsterdam approved a proposal regarding a luxurious new building. Kleiburg was to be demolished and according to Vermeulen Windsant, the municipality “felt no attachment to the old building”. Then the 2008 financial crisis struck, closing the door on the plans but opening a new window elsewhere.

At first the residents became active and started a popular movement to preserve Kleiburg. The movement attracted the interest of a journalist and soon the media started to produce articles supporting the movement.

Bottom up activism is usually presented through a “David and Goliath“ situation where the will of the “people“ will ultimately prevail. According to Vermeulen Windsant, the Kleiburg case shows that resident-driven activities need organisation and links to those in power. Without structure, the momentum of the movement would be lost.

“As architects, we added credibility to the argument and in a way pushed the matter forward. However, the most crucial aspect was the fact that there were building and urbanism specialists among the residents and they were able to give reasons for preserving the building”, Vermeulen Windsant says.

A consortium was developed around Kleiburg and it bought the building with 500 apartments for exactly one euro. The requirement was that the building must be renovated for housing use.

***

Kleiburg was designed by town planner and architect Siegfrid Nassuth who worked for the City of Amsterdam. He served as the project manager for the development of the entire Bijlmermeer area, drawing inspiration from Le Corbusier and especially CIAM. The ideals of modernism were conveyed through the massive scale and simplicity of the buildings.

“We wanted to look at Kleiburg as it is, without judging it as ugly or old-fashioned. We didn’t see the building as a problem that needed fixing, but instead found the solutions during the design process while examining the building,” Vermeulen Windsant says.

One of the first things the architects noticed was the effect of changing perspectives. From a distance the building seemed harsh but when observed from nearby, in other words from a resident’s perspective, they found several details that made the experience more humane. For example, the wooden railing parts were pleasant to touch and the doors had window segments that allowed light to penetrate them.

“Many of the details are in a way unnecessary and therefore they can be appreciated. The architect could not decide on the scale of the building but he did his best within the given setting”, Vermeulen Windsant says, adding without hesitation: “Kleiburg was designed well.”

When examining different parts of the building, the architects noticed that problems only existed on the first two floors and in the connection between the building and its environment. The reason was the Modernist dogma regarding the separation of functions. While the building’s architecture still worked, the urban planning solutions were behind the times. The architects opened up the underpasses and other routes that were considered unsafe. The connection to the metro was also made clearer.

Inside the building, the architects focussed on the shared spaces such as hallways where they increased the amount of natural light and introduced energy-efficient solutions through motion sensors.

The apartments were based on the klusflat model, raw space or do-it-yourself housing, where the residents had a chance to choose a home of almost any shape by combining units both horizontally and vertically. Row house style apartments with yards were built on the bottom floors. On different floors residents wanted, for example, cross and T-shaped homes.

The innovative and individual solutions challenged the original structures that had been created strictly with cost-effectiveness as the first priority. For the staircases within apartments, the holes on the floors had to be reinforced with – quoting Vermeulen Windsant – “very high-end solutions”, which resulted in additional costs. The limited electrical wiring also came as a surprise to those used to modern life saturated with technology.

“One resident wanted six sockets in their bedroom. As an architect, I never would have even thought of designing something like that, but now the resident got what they needed.”

The most visible part was, of course, the facade. The architects first considered painting the concrete with a light colour, but after examining the material more closely they realised its quality was excellent. Sand-blasting produced an elegant surface, equal to travertine. The beauty of the building was found from within it.

***

In recent years, brutalism has gained defenders and buildings that for a long time were considered the biggest failures in the world of architecture have restored their reputation. Kleiburg can also be seen as one of those. Romanticising is foreign to Xander Vermeulen Windsant.

“We supported the idea of sensible and functional housing that Kleiburg, in our opinion, was still able to offer. We didn’t want to do a restoration project and from the perspective of pure preservation we made many overly radical changes to the building.”

According to the ideology of Modernism, the task of an architect was to design all living facilities from kitchens to playgrounds. Industrial production duplicated the solutions and questioned the need for an architect individual housing projects.

According to Vermeulen Windsant, a new role is now opening up for architects.

“In our diverse society, the time of paternalistic design is over. There has to be room for people’s differences in private spaces. However, design work is needed between public urban spaces and homes. In a way, an architect’s new place is between the door of someone’s home and the door of the apartment building where people meet and communities are built.”

This new place also means that one has to give up control. Kleiburg has made the headlines locally because there has also been some unwanted activity in the independently renovated apartments. Vermeulen Windsant regularly visits the building and feels that it is natural that there are problems. He believes that architects do not create utopias.

“As an architect, I try to design buildings in a way that allows people to see the connections between different solutions and thus understand a building as a whole. At the same time, a building should be able to absorb a certain amount of life without losing its core”, Vermeulen Windsant says.

In the early 1970s, around the same time as Kleiburg, another major housing project was completed, namely Robin Hood Gardens in London. It was not spared from demolition in spite of many preservation attempts.

It is, therefore, hardly a coincidence that in its reasoning the Mies van der Rohe jury quoted Peter Smithson, the architect behind Robin Hood Gardens, stating: “Things need to be ordinary and heroic at the same time.” ark

 

Katja Lindroos is a Helsinki-based producer and founder of Urban Practice Ltd, an office for citymaking and production company for Lähiöfest and People-Driven City seminar.

Restoration and extension of Lauttasaari Manor
architects Minna Lukander, Mari Mannevaara
address Otavantie 10, Helsinki
gross area main building 1 070 m2, Red Villa 285 m2,
new workshop 50 m2
completion 2018
original building main building 1837, Red Villa 1791–93

photos Tuomas Uusheimo
commentary Esa Laaksonen

Serpentine House refurbishment and renovation, 1st phase
architects Mona Schalin, Marica Schalin,
Kristina Karlsson, Varvara Protassova
address Mäkelänkatu 86, Helsinki
gross area 3 988 m2
completion 2018
original building Yrjö Lindegren 1951

photos Kuvatoimisto Kuvio Oy

In May 2018, Owen Hopkins, Senior Curator at the Sir John Soane’s museum in London, claimed that postmodernism is back.1 This statement was not without ulterior motives, as Hopkins recently curated The Return of the Past: Postmodernism in British Architecture, an exhibition on show earlier this year at the Soane Museum. Yet, Hopkins was right: a series of books, exhibitions, symposiums or conferences recently historicised or theorized postmodernism. Contemporary to this new tendency, seventeen postmodern buildings were recently listed in the UK, while, in the USA, architects have protested against the demolition or transformation of some important postmodern gems such as the Portland Building by Michael Graves, the AT&T tower by Philip Johnson and John Burgee and, most recently, the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego (MCASD) by Venturi Scott Brown & Associates and David Singer.

The revival – following a somehow natural cycle and happening immediately after the massive reappraisal of brutalist architecture – doesn’t solely apply to historical research and building preservation. It also contaminates contemporary production, especially that of the millennial offices. Since the 2011 Style and Subversion exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, we witness the apparition of a growing number of young practices who would, without any shame, claim to take part in a form of return of postmodernism. Apart from FAT – who is from a previous generation and who has now claimed they did it because they hated it – we can name Fala Atelier, Point Supreme, Studio Weave, Parasite 2.0, Fosbury Architecture, Design With Company, Piovene Fabi, Space Popular, (Ab)normal, Animali Domestici, and many more. Indeed, as architecture critic Edwin Heathcote recently wrote in the pages of the Financial Times “a new generation, more accepting of design deviancy, has embraced [postmodernism] pastel colours and its references, its humour and its irony.”

Postmodernism is back, but under which form? Challenging Heathcote’s swift diagnosis, I would say that, while in academic research the new attention for postmodernism is rich and extends across a broad spectrum including aesthetics and forms of representations, but also ideological debates such as those proposed by Jürgen Habermas or Fredric Jameson, and the genesis of today’s society, we can wonder how postmodernism’s heritage is truly influencing architectural design. Is it as an architectural approach interested in the local and the vernacular, in the return to history and a more human scale for the city? Or a tendency towards architecture as narrative, merely a style or language, favouring colour, geometrical forms and ornament? What I see mostly is postmodernism as a form of visual reference – the fun and the pop, the colourful, the excess and the baroque – more than the return to the street and other public spaces or the historicist language, that is truly resurfacing in the work of young architects. More of Hans Hollein, Michael Graves, Memphis and Nathalie Du Pasquier and less of Charles Moore, Paolo Portoghesi or Ricardo Boffill. More neon and palm trees, less columns and gables.

The history of architecture is one of action and reaction and Postmodernism was a strong reaction against the monotony of the International Style – a form of return of the repressed or the end of prohibition, as Paolo Portoghesi famously put it. In other words, if, in the 1970s and 1980s, there was a clearly identified monster to be fought and the movement was in clear reaction from what came before, what is today’s monster and what are young architects transgressing? ark

Léa-Catherine Szacka researches the history and theory of
architecture exhibitions and postmodern architecture.

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Linnoituksesta historialliseksi muistomerkiksi. Viipurin vanha kaupunki 1856–1939

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