The structural bias in architecture remains strong, as it does in so many aspects of our culture. Beauty is only skin-deep, most architects seem to think, but what really matters is the bravura with which you manipulate structure. For this reason, the changes in computer and commuting technologies that have so transformed the world around us have led to the production of forms that are fluid, blob-like, and convoluted: fun forms and daring-do structures often with little relation to function, context, or the framing of human activities.
I have long felt that architects were missing the boat by not realizing that these new technologies are reducing form, and in fact making it ephemeral. This void—the context architects ignore in pursuit of form—is full of imagery that is our daily reality: the flood of pictures that are now everywhere, filling our computers and pasted on our buildings alike. If we can take care of actual construction with ever-greater efficiency and in an almost automated manner, should we not be free to make things appear in a manner that offers a critical contribution or alternative to this Empire of Signs?
The Glass Farm in the small Dutch village of Schijndel answers that question in a perversely beautiful manner. Designed by Winy Maas of MVRDV, this mini-mall shows the way towards Photoshop architecture.
Maas grew up in Schijndel, and so was an obvious choice when the village decided it needed to continue the line of its shopping street, which runs by the now underutilized main square, with stores. MVRDV was also a scary option, as their work is, in they eyes of most observers, “modern” and thus alien to a village that, though a hodgepodge of different structures in different styles, thinks of itself as traditional.
Maas’ answer was to collage together the existing farm structures that give Schijndel its character and make the new building look like them. He did this by commissioning Dutch photographer Frank van der Salm to document 140 of these structures, and then use Photoshop to create a blending of all of them. This image was then printed on glass panels assembled into an abstraction of a barn. The building was constructed as a steel skeleton over which the panels were placed flush, that is a 160%-larger reproduction (that is the other thing about Photoshop: just push a button to change the scale) of the most common farm building in the area. You could call the result thoroughly modernist, as it is an abstraction, a collage, and a scale jump–three of the most common techniques in modernist art and architecture. What matters is that it still looks familiar, though in a strange manner. The Glass Farm fills out the gap in the shopping street, anchors the square, and offers room for half a dozen shops and restaurants. Offices and a fitness center occupy the barn’s upper floors. All of this new activity only barely shimmers behind a veil of familiar images and forms.
What makes the Glass Farm work is the sophistication of that veil. It is technically advanced, creating an illusion of brick and wood that stands up to all but the closest inspection. The blending of the imagery is equally slick. Van der Salm gives you the illusion of looking not only at, but also through the building, recalling images from one façade to the other. He also built in little anomalies, ranging from household objects seemingly forgotten on a sill to a photograph of a tree devastated by the Hiroshima atomic bomb.
Because of this use of collage, the building’s Pop Art scale, and the very oddness of an object that is never quite what it seems, the Glass Farm both fits into and anchors its immediate and general context, and offers an alternative to its pseudo-oldness. Like all good pieces of architecture, it works, in every sense of that word, but also opens up new perspectives on its site, reframes the functions it houses, and makes us realize where we are in a new manner.
What MVRDV have left out is structural bravura, creative form-making, and spatial complexity (though they can’t help themselves in the last category, offering up a nice double-height space in the café portion of the Farm). What they have produced instead is a beautiful and troubling building that has become instantly beloved by the local inhabitants. It offers an important way forward for contemporary architecture.
Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.
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