Zonnestraal: Healthy Body in a Healthy Building
It was with great pleasure that I noted the announcement yesterday that the World Monument Fund had given its Knoll Modernism Prize to Zonnestraal, the mirage of white and glass volumes hovering in the woods outside of Hilversum, the Netherlands. Not only does the building and its renovation deserve the prize as an example of Modernism, but so do the designers, Huber-Jan Henket and Wessel de Jonge, who have been among the most active initiators of DOCOMOMO (documentation and conservation of buildings, sites, and neighborhoods of the modern movement), the organization dedicated to the preservation of modernist buildings. Finally, the very fact of the existence of the prize, given this year for the third time, is crucial in that it gives notoriety and attention to the often fragile and ignored legacy of that movement.
Zonnestraal was designed in 1926-1928 and built by 1931 by Bijvoet and Duiker, architects central to the “New Building” movement in the Netherlands. It was commissioned by the diamond workers’ union in Amsterdam as a place where those with tuberculosis could come to recuperate. According to the theories of the day, that meant as much contact as possible with the fresh air of the forests 20 miles from the city, so that patients would often sleep in wards or rooms open to the outside, and the learning of trades that might get them out of the world of diamond dust and hunching over benches, so that Zonnestraal had workshops and farm buildings where patients could tend pigs or build furniture.
The architecture was as minimal as possible, but also clean and simple so that it would be easy to maintain and to be sanitary. It consisted originally of three connected pavilions composed of white walls and expanses of glass, tied together with semicircular stair towers and balconies. Each volume was implied, rather than defined, by the planes that slid by each other horizontally or vertically and slid out towards the woods. The building was the very model of Modernism because form and function, but also reality and aspiration, came together: The new world the union and its architects were building was to be clean, healthy, rational, dedicated to collective and productive work, elemental in form and open about the technological nature of modern society.
When I first saw Zonnestraal, as a kid living for a year in the village that bordered the sanatorium, it was already almost a ruin. Over the subsequent years, it deteriorated. In 1982 the Dutch government commissioned Henket and de Jonge to come up a way to not only save Zonnestraal, but also put it to good use. It was their experience on this project that helped inspire them to co-found DOCOMOMO. The eventual use seems obvious today, though it was not three decades ago: Zonnestraal now houses a variety of health-related activities, from small clinics, to occupational therapy gyms, to apartments for those in need of constant medical care.
Images: Courtesy of Knoll
The process that Zonnestraal has undergone traces the development of both Modernism and medical practice. Conceived as a shining example of the making of a better world through technology, design, and social practice, it faded as those ideals did, only to reappear as something that represents a new world attained through the self-conscious recall of those ideals, as well as through the restoration and renovation of the human body.
The architects of the renovation, meanwhile, have gone on to establish two of the most thoughtful practices working on the design and addition to modernist buildings. They have shown that not only can these structure live again through the replacement and enhancement of original elements, but they can stand and even become better through thoughtful additions.
I do miss Zonnestraal as a ruin a bit, as nothing preserves ideals in form or idea as well as their failed or abandoned remains, and I do wonder about the less-than-open form that some of the new uses have demanded, but the complex today does stand as an example of everything that still makes me enthusiastic about Modernism, and I am grateful to both its original and its restoration architects for that built fact.