Roger Hawkins and Russell Brown’s inspiration: Koolhaas’s Kunsthal in Rotterdam
Russell Brown and Roger Hawkins explain how Koolhaas’s Kunsthal cultural building has been a starting point to much of their work
We were first working in London when the Kunsthal was being built and saw Rem Koolhaas talk about it at the AA. We came out to see it together in 1993 and were so bowled over that we brought the whole Hawkins Brown studio out here in 2002.
The area around the Kunsthal is very busy nowadays but when we first came it had a bleak outlook and there was the sense that the museum was being built in frontier territory, picking people off the street at the top of the site and delivering them into the park. Now the surrounding area feels very different, as if the building has civilised this part of Rotterdam.
The building is known for its structural gymnastics and its very particular use of materials. It’s an arts building so that approach is entirely appropriate, and Koolhaas has put extra thought and love into it. He achieves a lot with slim means. It’s not an expensive building but it shows that you can create big architecture with a little.
When he talked about it, Koolhaas gave the impression that the building was quite chaotic and full of compromise but really it isn’t – it’s serious stuff, witty without being a one-liner, knowing but naive, and human yet austere. It’s intriguing, sophisticated architecture yet carried out in sometimes what is quite a shockingly direct way for our English sensibilities.
In the drawings, the building looks small and fragile but in the flesh it is much more robust. The plan is really hard-working. There’s public movement through the centre along the ramp, while alongside within the building there’s private movement visible down a parallel internal ramp. The building keeps asking us what is inside and what is out, mirroring and contrasting movement but without wasting an inch of space.
Inside, the ramp continues steeply up through the auditorium or down to the café and exhibition hall, taking you on a journey and connecting up the public areas. The nature of the ramp changes depending on the space – it’s very rarely just used as circulation. It has to work hard.
I love the auditorium with its different coloured chairs and the beautiful Petra Blaisse curtain, which can wrap around part of the seating to give more privacy while not interfering with circulation up the ramp. It’s a complex space that takes risks, superimposing circulation and occupied space. At the top, the ramp turns and continues upwards, while overflowing right into the auditorium. There’s the sense that the rooms are never complete, with a complexity of levels and interpenetration of views into different spaces. From the café at the lower level you can see the edge of the bookshop above and the sloping ceiling under the auditorium. This encourages the visitor to explore, to go upstairs and find out what the spaces are like.
Clients in England just wouldn’t trust you to do what he did with each elevation
On the south elevation, alongside the road, Koolhaas uses a range of different columns as if forming a catalogue of types of modernist column like the classical orders in a pattern book. He needed to have the columns, but he didn’t need to have them all looking the same. It’s a really complex architecture, and is a taste of what’s to come inside. In the auditorium, there’s a row of angled columns coming down the slope and you expect them to continue, but structurally they aren’t needed so the row stops. Instead, suspended columns from the floor above protrude down into the space in the form of light fixtures.
In the main exhibition hall on the lower level Koolhaas uses hollowed-out trees to clad the steel stanchions – it’s a surreal reference to the park outside. The structure seems to arrive after the floor plans are drawn, almost as a form of decoration or another level of expression.
Inside, Koolhaas uses materials very directly, such as deliberately rough timber and shuttering ply fixed directly with screws onto the walls of the auditorium. In the café, there’s a raw concrete soffit with swirls of lights set into it and it looks fantastic. It took real confidence to leave it just at that.
It’s such an energetic building. The ideas here are so strong, built into the fabric so that you can’t “value engineer” these
elements or calm them down. We feel jealous walking around. Clients in England just wouldn’t trust you to do what he did with each elevation – each one has a different glazing system and different materials. Rem must really be very persuasive.
When I first saw the building I thought it was fantastic and I still do. I like architecture with wit and character and this is quite playful and full of surreal games.
It’s a very simple plan divided off centre into one large, one medium and two small spaces, with the tower to show you where the entrance is. There’s a lot going on – the building seems far bigger on the inside – but somehow it all works together. It has to operate a bit like a warehouse in that you need good access for the regularly changing exhibitions while keeping the rest of the building open. It’s very exciting, and it’s clear that this comes across to visitors, who really seem to enjoy being in it.
Koolhaas spent more time designing the inside than the outside, and I don’t think enough architects really do that. In the late eighties, when he was evolving the design from competition to finished drawings, you can see he was continually working on the section – the promenade of how you go through the building, whether externally via the ramp, or internally, or under the ramp at the south end. It’s really considered.
A lot of attention is given to the idea of promenade and the way that different parts of the building relate to each other – there’s the real impression that Koolhaas was creating a series of theatrical stage sets rather than a building. I’ve never seen such a steep sloping floor before – it must be 1:12 and health and safety officials would be horrified now, but here it really works. The design of the Kunsthal is also all about the internal quality – his use of daylight and attention to detail such as the balustrades, the wonderful curtain in the auditorium, the different types of columns. All are playing games with the space.
Koolhaas has been tremendously influential for us over the years, although maybe less so now that he works on such huge projects. We like the way he talks about his buildings in relation to art, using his background as a filmmaker and a journalist.
Like the Kunsthal, we think our Corby Cube civic centre seems bigger on the inside – it’s a very simple plan but we’ve put a lot in there, using a ramp to promenade through the building and wrap around the spaces. I’m also interested in his use of materials.
Koolhaas spent more time designing the inside than the outside – I don’t think enough architects do that
There’s a temptation for a lot of buildings, probably influenced by the quantity surveyor, to apply cost indices evenly so that everything is dumbed down to a mid-range. But you don’t have to be mediocre all the way through. Rem pushes the boundaries on the Kunsthal, using really expensive materials next to low-cost ones such as travertine alongside corrugated plastic on the exterior and really cheap plywood next to Petra Blaisse’s daring textile in the auditorium.
Our Dalston Culture House is almost a homage to a lot of this thinking. We used a similar plastic sheeting screening but in a finer grain. We were working on a design for a Maggie’s Centre in Sheffield when we went to visit the Kunsthal in 2002, and that was directly influenced, including a polycarbonate wall with a Victorian wallpaper pattern – shame it didn’t get built.
The Kunsthal also shows that with a bit of thought, you can represent cheap materials as something more. In the New Art Exchange in Nottingham, which at £3 million was a really economical building, we borrowed the way the light fittings at the Kunsthal are embedded into the concrete soffit by recessing slots into the concrete ceiling, which meant we could use cheaper light fittings. By putting it together in a thoughtful way, the effect is far more architectural. We’re currently building a student centre in Coventry where we’ve composed lines of columns, some structural and some not, as a wayfinding technique to draw you through the building as Koolhaas did here.
We often look to Koolhaas’s work and Kunsthal in particular as a starting point in our work. It’s such a clever ambitious building, one that really benefited from being crafted over several years. We love it and we will keep coming back.
A building full of surprises and inconsistencies
The Kunsthal was one of OMA’s first major built projects, completed in 1992 in collaboration with the structural engineer Cecil Balmond. The cultural centre provides 3,300sq m of exhibition spaces for temporary shows arranged over three halls and two galleries.
The 7,000sq m building is located along Rotterdam’s busy Maasboulevard expressway on top of a dike, with the Museumpark neighbourhood to the north. A pedestrian ramp slopes down through the building from south to north while a road runs east/west beneath it at the top of the site.
Its square plan is divided into four parts connected by a continuous, spiralling route through the levels which creates views up, down, across and out as required, sometimes framing views of the park, sometimes offering glimpses of other levels.
The building is full of surprises and inconsistencies. There is no single clear main elevation and each receives completely different treatments.
Columns are seemingly eccentrically arranged – they slant in the auditorium to remain perpendicular to the sloping floor slab and refuse to conform to a grid in the exhibition halls.
Koolhaas’s presence looms large in the building and not just in the form of the building itself – a large photographic portrait of him looks down unsmilingly on visitors as they walk up through the building.
Russell Brown and Roger Hawkins were speaking to Pamela Buxton.