Wednesday02 September 2015

Stephen Witherford and William Mann’s inspiration: Utrecht City Hall

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The eclectic collision of old and new in Miralles Tagliabue Architects’ Utrecht City Hall creates a unique spirit that has made a strong impression on Witherford Watson Mann

Inspiration Utrecht City Hall
Architect Miralles Tagliabue Architects (EMBT)
Completed 2000
Location Utrecht, Netherlands

Stephen Witherford: We first came to Utrecht City Hall in a spirit of enquiry rather than expectation – we were researching town halls for a competition shortly after we set up. It hadn’t been extensively published, though we did remember an engaging lecture by Enric Miralles, and we were really taken aback. We were struck by the deft way of working with existing spaces, and by Miralles’ “ferocious invention”, and inspired by the way the project renewed the institution by working with its past.

The city hall was an assemblage of houses at a bend in the Oudegracht canal, close to the ruined gothic cathedral. The council took the radical decision to make the city hall smaller, moving some services to an administrative centre and leaving just the representative functions on the old site. Although the city is growing, they’ve shrunk the town hall, to make it more personal – that’s counter-intuitive and quite visionary. It’s good to see that the intended spirit of openness still holds eight years later: there’s an intimate buzz about the place, and a welcoming spirit I can’t remember coming across in a British town hall – and some of that is down to the architecture.

Miralles Tagliabue’s project re-establishes the grain of the houses, their cross-walls and gardens twisting around the bend in the canal, making this institutional building both intimate and porous. The practice moved the everyday entrance to the back, away from the canal, breaking the building open, demolishing the 1930s wing, and extending the square towards the heart of the building. The grain of the houses flows out, forming a relaxed set of steps infilled with clinker bricks and stone. It’s an informal approach to the entrance, which is at the junction of the classical facade with the houses – it feels like a back door, in the best sense.

Alongside the new entrance the practice faced the new wing with a “ruin”, using pieces of the demolished 1930s building. On the lower levels, it’s left as a standalone structure but the new building merges into it above. Other architects might have left it as a fragment but Miralles never allows himself to leave it at the purely picturesque level.

The idea of the grain comes through particularly in the stair to the offices. The stair runs across the grain, so the walls it breaks through are left hanging and sticking out, and the treads alternate between wood, steel and concrete. It shows the invention, versatility and doggedness you need with existing buildings: the stair needs to run this way, and potentially undermines one of the key ideas – but the theme is picked up with a kind of improvisational ease in the detail.

The council chamber works the civic and domestic scales very nicely: it combines four rooms over two levels into a single volume. The intermediate floor beams are left hanging, picked up where the cross-wall used to be by two large steel portals. So there’s a sense of scale and openness but also of intimacy in this little amphitheatre.

The furnishing is very quirky and personal, and that’s consistent with the themes in the building. This comes through in places such as the small wedding room where the benches are made from a variety of typical Dutch household chairs, the lights are deliberately mismatched, and there’s a domestic dresser when you come in. This room was done by the artist Jurgen Bey, picking up the architects’ intent; the objects have been borrowed from the city museum – they give a feeling of historical depth, but in a way you might find in someone’s house. It’s similar in the entrance foyer, where the medieval hall is exposed over its full height and used as a collective memory wall: it’s hung with painted and photographic portraits, and sculpted heads, of ordinary citizens as well as eminent ones.

The redesign de-institutionalises everything. It refuses to be a claustrophobic environment with generic corridors and spaces. Instead, there is abundant natural light from all angles and directions throughout the generous communal spaces – it’s strangely like the Glasgow School of Art in this sense. Because it’s a collage of structure, furniture, surfaces and artefacts, it doesn’t get exhausting in the way that institutional buildings can. It’s a joyful place to carry out your repetitive daily job.

It’s quite a challenging building; almost overladen with ideas. But that spirit of restless enquiry is maybe why it’s still alive for us. These issues of public space, historical depth, collective life keep confronting us in our work, and there aren’t that many projects that address them with the seriousness and the confidence they deserve. This is definitely one of them.

It’s good to see that the intended spirit of openness still holds eight years later

William Mann: There’s a beautiful passage at the beginning of The Architecture of the City where Aldo Rossi writes about the pathos of houses ruined in the war, how they evoke “the interrupted destiny of the individual… his often sad and difficult participation in the collective”.

At Utrecht City Hall, Miralles Tagliabue worked with ideas of house and ruin to break open a closed public building. It was completed just before Enric Miralles’ death, at the shockingly young age of 45. But the spirit of ruin is exuberant and playful, it’s not a mournful building at all. You can feel a living intelligence in every corner.

You certainly can’t describe the project as restoration – it’s more “creative destruction”. The core of the city hall had been wrapped in a classical skin in the 19th century, and its courtyard closed off by a 1930s block. Miralles Tagliabue took this closed arrangement and stable appearance, and tore it open, demolishing most of the thirties block, cutting into the classical “wrap”, carving the medieval hall at the heart of the building free from this dignified but mismatched facade. A lot of the spaces work this tension between the core and the outer skin.

Miralles talked in an interview about traces of the past and his idea of time “as if instead of having it behind your back, you had it before you”. I think he meant that by breaking open or scraping back, you can feel or see the depth of time beneath the present, rather than the past just being buried. I think we can learn from this attitude, and this example – but it’s not for the faint-hearted. As he says of urban processes: “In the coexistence of architecture, project and society, there is a fundamental need to destroy.”

Open figures – or ruins – run through the project, from strategy to detail. By demolishing the thirties block, the strategy turns a closed circuit, an “O”, into an open “L” – a head (council chamber and medieval hall) with a long, twisted tail (offices). The details echo this: T-shaped beams, concrete gallows brackets, strips of plaster chiselled off to expose the brick underneath, mats like shafts of light projected from doorways – nothing is self-contained, everything is incomplete, imperfect, interlocked.

The design sacrifices the strength of the new for the harmony of the whole. That’s something we strongly believe in – it’s a responsible, collectivist attitude, but also a great challenge for the Houdini in us. It’s a way of working that takes a particular visual and constructional intelligence – there is no linear path between strategy and detail, they are more flexibly linked. The overall strategy has to adapt and distort to many local conditions, while still keeping its coherence. The project achieves this elusive aim very convincingly, because strategy and detail talk about the same things – openness, ruin, the domestic scale, homeliness.

Every bit of the building that you look at has been thought about and loved. And how many of us, hand on heart, can really say that of our work? For example, above the medieval hall there is a foyer which serves the mayor and cabinet’s offices. There are strong horizontal cuts that break it open, and passages stretch off each corner, with windows out to the square and a view through the void of the council chamber to the cathedral tower. It’s a delicate balance, but the focus of the old hallway is kept: wide reclaimed wood boards line two facing walls, echoed in broken form in the backlit veneer panels and the wooden doors to the offices. It’s furnished with a huge dining table, which carries the newspapers, and a large glazed dresser on one wall.

The language of collage that the practice uses is both liberating and demanding – you mix different pasts with the present, but you have to pay attention to the discipline of these different materials, and you have to have an impeccable picture of how these things meet in three dimensions. You can imagine this foyer being the subject of one of Miralles’ trademark fold-out drawings, with each of its 12 faces drawn. The project’s ambition is supported by a real craft in the making, particularly the joinery; that is unusual for the Netherlands.

It’s all part of a vision that was shared between architect and client, to make local democracy personal. They call it their “house of democracy”. As we were walking round last week, a man came out of the office of the Leefbaar Utrecht party – everyone seems to keep their door open, and the communal spaces are full of conversation. “Yes,” he said, “this always was a special place to work. But after Miralles, it became extra special.”

In a way the building combines the best of the Netherlands – its lively, open democracy – with the more Mediterranean sense of a civilisation built up bit by bit over time. Miralles Tagliabue’s slow, rich sensibility is very suited to this complex assemblage in one of the oldest Dutch cities. It’s a relatively rare example of international architecture effecting a kind of cultural exchange.

Rehabilitating history

Enric Miralles was appointed to “rehabilitate” Utrecht town hall in 1997 after impressing competition judges with the respect his approach showed for the existing buildings on the site.

The town hall was made up of not one building but 10 conjoined medieval houses and halls, unified superficially by a 19th century neoclassical facade and then further extended in the 1930s. Charged with making the town hall more open and inviting, Miralles chose interventions that made the older buildings more legible internally while radically re-orientating the site.

The 1930s registry extension at the rear was demolished and a new entrance created that looks onto a new landscaped square on Korte Minrebroederstraat. New facilities for civil servants were built behind a “ruin” that incorporates elements of the demolished building. Internally, other reclaimed elements reused include timber boards used as flooring and wall cladding.

Internally, the council chamber was redesigned to create an 8m-high space overlooked by the mayor’s office, the original beams exposed by the removal of the ceiling. The main hall, a medieval house, has been preserved in the heart of the building. Miralles designed most of the furniture and light fittings as well as a water feature in the square. The new wedding chapel was furnished by Dutch designer Jurgen Bey.

Miralles died, aged 45, shortly before the completion of the building in 2000.

Stephen Witherford and William Mann were speaking to Pamela Buxton


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