Friday04 September 2015

Grote Koppel, Amersfoort, by Fat

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Fat’s new building in the Dutch town of Amersfoort is good enough to eat writes Ellis Woodman.

I like Fat’s buildings but nervously so. They present themselves as a joke at the expense of someone who sounds worryingly like me - the delusional sap clinging to the idea that the architecture of the 21st century might still be capable of embodying values of cultural continuity, urban propriety and tectonic expression. Of course, the vast swathe of current building really does treat such concerns with complete disregard. What gives Fat’s work its sting is that it not only acknowledges those bien-pensant expectations, but - in its own twisted way - sets about answering them.

The approach of the artist Jeff Koons is perhaps analogous. Take a work like his famous 1988 ceramic sculpture Michael Jackson and Bubbles. Its imagery is found and abjectly kitsch, and yet the craftsmanship of the hired artisans that Koons employed to realise it immediately invests it with value. Further authority is bestowed by the centuries-old sculptural tradition to which the composition adheres. The roles of Madonna and Child have here been taken by a surgically altered pop star and his pet ape but this remains a kind of Pietà.

And so in Fat’s work one finds an unimpeachably architectural imagination at play. The practice describes its latest project, Grote Koppel, a mixed-use building in the Dutch town of Amersfoort, in terms of a palazzo. Sure enough, it offers a classically tripartite expression: three storeys united in a common rhythm of solid and void but distinguished by the level of refinement that each presents. It is an image on which numerous banks, embassies and gentlemen’s clubs have been modelled but is here applied to a structure that accommodates a two-storey restaurant and a third floor of office space.

The site is an extraordinary one. The medieval town centre is of broadly circular plan - an arrangement enforced by multiple concentric canals. Fat’s project stands immediately beyond the outer ring. It is the first building of an otherwise 19th century terrace that fronts onto the Kleine Koppel, the principal canal that feeds those of the town centre. The moment where the Kleine Koppel enters the old town is marked by a magnificent historic water gate, a structure to which Fat’s scarcely less splendid building beckons energetically. And yet, sadly, this is an affair destined to go unconsummated - an elevated railway cuts across the canal forming an unpassable obstacle between
Fat’s building and the object of its affections.

Last year marked the 750th anniversary of Amersfoort’s foundation, a milestone that the project’s developer hoped the scheme might somehow celebrate. He asked his architect for “a building like a wedding cake”, an idea that Fat interpreted nothing if not literally. Each of its elevations’ three storeys has been treated as a pronounced tier - although stepping successively outwards rather than in - while the precast concrete sandwich panels from which they are assembled have been modelled as if by a master pâtissier letting fly with the buttercream icing.
Fat conceived these elements as akin to rococo window surrounds that had expanded to the point that they had literally become the wall.

The surface is characterised by a busy graphic of grooves and profiles that distracts the eye from the actual construction joints but also emphasises the panels’ impressively substantial nature. Here, ornament is presented not as an appliqué to structure but rather as one and the same thing. In keeping with the desired mood of celebration, the aluminium window frames have been polyester powder coated gold, while the year of completion - or at least of intended completion as the contract overran by a few months - has been emblazoned on the principal facade. So far, so festive.

And yet the image presented is not quite the wholesome one the developer must initially have had in mind. For one thing, the white concrete of the lower two storeys is exchanged for black on the top - the sorry effect, one imagines, of a catastrophic fire. Meanwhile, sporadic windows are sliced across by concrete diagonals of mysterious purpose. Diagonal motifs often appear in the elevations of Fat’s buildings, characteristically as a kind of graphic negation like the red line through a cigarette in a “no smoking” sign. The ones at Amersfoort certainly operate in that way but also suggest a more particular association, namely the timber struts installed in dangerous structures to save them from collapse.

The architect has piled on the pathos through the use of a pseudo-digital font for the “2009” inscription, a choice that at once offers a calculatedly absurd counterpoint to the entropy evidenced elsewhere while providing the date’s twined zeros with a form slyly redolent of the cancelled windows.

To top it all off, the dutch gable-like profiles from which the building’s jaunty parapet is composed are deployed in inverted form at the first and second floor levels as if the whole thing were in the process of melting. Not since Richard Harris had his heart broken in MacArthur Park has a cake been so hideously besmirched. “We like to think of it as a wedding cake for Darth Vader,” Fat director Sean Griffiths explains helpfully.

There is an interior but annoyingly not the one the architect had hoped for. Originally, it was intended that the restaurant might occupy all three floors, distributed on galleries overlooking a central atrium. Fat concocted a madly regimental arrangement of mirrored staircases that climbed up one of the atrium’s sides - a configuration it likens to “a dystopian set for DW Griffith”.

However, when the developer realised that there was no market for so large a restaurant, the scheme was revised to the current arrangement. The restaurant interior has been based on a Fat design but only very schematically: rather than waiting for the architect to undertake detailed design, the proprietor simply issued his builders with print-outs of Fat’s sketch-up model and told them to get on with it. The monumental in-situ concrete stair that occupies the centre of the plan is terrific but little else bears much scrutiny.

No, the achievement here all lies in the facades. In their heady combination of preposterously fertile decoration and rank decay they strike a note that an architect like Giulio Romano would surely recognise. For readers who remain unconvinced, it may be worth asking whether the elevations of the Palazzo del Te - with their slipped keystones, purposeful mis-scalings and rampant rustication - are any less wilfully grotesque than those at Amersfoort.

Nonetheless, I am sure there will be many who do feel they lack the sweet tooth required to stomach this particular pudding. The reassuring tone of anguished Calvinism that passes for proof of seriousness among many of Fat’s contemporaries is certainly not on offer here. And yet behind the japes one does sense a seriousness, an ethical intent even. Jeff Koons has talked of his primary creative goal as “the lifting of cultural guilt and shame”, and something of that mission surely guides Fat’s practice too.

The promise of succumbing to its buildings’ strange pleasures is a liberation from the straitjacket of taste. Fat wants you to enjoy the world for what it is - comic and tragic, fantastic and pathetic - and its buildings are here to
teach you how. There is medicine in this cake.


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