Beyond Buildings


Dutch Light

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On May 13, 2000, an explosion destroyed a large area of Enschede, a provincial town in the Netherlands near the German border. Fireworks that had been improperly stored ignited, setting off a chain reaction that killed 12 people and leveled a whole area of former textile factories and the homes around them. Now the neighborhood, Rombeek, has become a model for urban redevelopment according to a plan by Pi de Bruijn and with buildings designed by some of the Netherlands’ best architects. I will speak about the plan more later, but the project is also a little bit personal: I was very happy to recommend Bjarne Mastenbroek of the firm SeARCH to my friends Marcoen and Truus Scholten, both doctors who recently relocated to Enschede. They had bought one of the plots in the “disaster zone” and were looking for a designer.


A month ago, they moved into their house. The building is a marvel of major effects achieved with minimal means. It is no more than two white-painted concrete slabs defining three levels of living space that are clad with a gray ashlar stone interrupted by large windows of colored glass. The slabs undulate slightly according to the house’s loads, and the lowest one extends to shelter a carport, but other than that there are no grand gestures. What is most remarkable are the orange, red, blue, and green windows (or rather, strange shades of those colors) that enliven an otherwise rather drab collection of villas along a new axis de Bruijn carried through the middle of the zone.


Enschede house exterior

All images courtesy Marcoen and Truus Scholten.


What is even more remarkable is that those strong fields floating in an abstract grid just about disappear when you look out from the inside. There they appear as slightly muted, but clear panes giving views to the surroundings and the sky. During the day, the Scholtens can walk around without any fear of being observed and can yet enjoy expanses of framed vistas.


Color reappears only selectively in the house, most notably in a lavender splash on the wall and ceiling between the entrance stairs and the living room. The latter looks out over a rear garden, while clerestory lights let more light in. A U-shaped bookcase encloses a little reading nook. The kitchen is an expansive space that shoots up to the second floor and contains the switchback stairs, making it the house’s active heart. Your eye is drawn up through the geometries of the circulation elements and the large window, which appears orange from the outside, at the landing.


The most spectacular element in the house is the master bathroom. Its two outside walls consist of floor-to-ceiling, milky, and tinted glass. Depending on the angle of the sun and where you stand, these continuous planes go from a greenish blue to a reddish orange. They bathe the space and your body in an otherworldly light, while screening out the street below. The Scholtens have their own light installation every day, which changes continually.


Enschede house interior 1


Enschede house interior 2


This is a simple house, though somewhat large by Dutch standards (it has four bedrooms, though three of them are quite small), but Mastenbroek has made the most both of its prominent location and of the capacity to activate the activities of everyday life, from moving up and down, to bathing to reading a book, with form, sequence, color and light. He has done so without overwhelming the inhabitants or the neighborhood. It is an act of gentle domestic brilliance.




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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.