“You have a real sense of freedom to do something in Rotterdam,” muses Reinier de Graaf, native son and Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) partner, as he talks about the Timmerhuis, the firm’s latest hometown project that opened in December 2015. Alluding to the city’s near-total destruction during World War II, he points out that the dearth of historic architecture means “there’s no cohesion here to spoil.” Yet Timmerhuis is just as well a preservation project, one that integrates the exterior wall of an early post-war building with modular steel-and-glass units—which de Graaf calls dubs “pixels”—assembled into a cloud-like, cantilevered structure that houses municipal offices, a city museum, and a public passageway on the first four stories, with apartments on the upper floors.
ARCHITECT asked de Graaf about his strategic approach to broaching historic and contemporary architecture, and the historical references that currently loom large for OMA.
ARCHITECT: How did you incorporate what you call “the monument”—the existing structure—into OMA’s final scheme for the Timmerhuis?
de Graaf: The monument was built shortly after the war, in 1953, and it was the building from which the reconstruction of Rotterdam was drawn. We approached the monument as a delineation of a site where the focus is on the bulk of the volume, which is the new building. It’s basically a wall we built up against.
This wall, this history is the decoration. It animates the new structure without us having to do a great deal.
Isn’t that a fetishistic interpretation of the old building?
Yes, quite deliberately so. The scale of the new is such that it has a tendency to be quite overbearing. But I wouldn’t say it’s fetishistic. I think our relationship to the existing building is a mix of respect and, primarily, opportunism. Decoration is a very difficult thing in contemporary architecture, so you take the decoration that you’re given to liven up the space. It’s not so much a fetish of the old building as it is the strategic use of its presence to fetishize the new. There are no mechanical rooms in the new building; all of them are in the attic of the existing building, so the existing building sponsors the transparency of the new structure. A lot of our interventions in the existing building allow the new to shine in a more pure manner, because a number of its obligations have been transferred to the older building.
Sometimes the new is nothing more than the well-forgotten old. We have an acute interest in Paul Rudolph, in Moshe Safdie, in almost all the modernists that persisted when modernism had become discredited. We are ourselves a form of late modernism, maybe even overdue modernism.
How did you develop the massing of the pixel-cloud that sits alongside and on top of the historic structure?
Even though it's a random, formless pixel heap, there are certain compositional decisions we made in response to the context. Out of all the versions, [the final result] was the most appealing in that it looks like a stack of containers from the Rotterdam ports, which have been implanted in the city. There's a strange appropriateness to it.
Yet for every realized version, there are about a zillion projected ones. What I describe as the aesthetic of chance and improvisation was actually a highly composed puzzle until everything worked. But we strategically like to understate our labor.
Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length. See more of Timmerhuis in ARCHITECT's Project Gallery.