Steel Study House nr. 2
23 November 2010
To prevent any misunderstandings: I am certainly aware that the rigid, rational dream known as modernism is being shaken awake. Nonetheless, the tendency to imitate history arouses my suspicions. There’s a risk attached to every innovation, but things only become really dangerous when a culture no longer dares to take any risk. That what’s happening now in the Netherlands, and this is also becoming clear in our architecture.
Architecture discussions in the Netherlands quickly end up with a sharp dividing line that separates the domains of retro and modernism. The Dutch light does not refer not to enlightened minds now but rather to a gloomy landscape that leans towards dismal populism.
People often couldn’t care less if they live in a historical or a contemporary house. What people want most of all is to live in a house full of character and located in safe surroundings with an identity. Constantly narrowing the discussion to one about modern architecture versus retro, populism or fusion means that we are ignoring the real issues. Just as the average scenario for a musical apparently has to be an average commercial project, a bit retro and cheerful. That is probably a good collective term for the appeals from such figures as Vincent van Rossem, Wilfried van Winden and Sjoerd Soeters: ‘musical architecture’, and it is in harmony with the political soap opera in which we’re now living.
Of course one could query the thirst for identity. Apparently it compensates and turns into a theme the lack of direction in our existence now that the grand narratives no longer make much impression and can offer us no bearing in the smallness of daily life.
It is customary in our culture to distinguish between building in or outside a historical setting. This logic implies that building in a field of reclaimed land means neither history nor context. Obviously, what we call historical context is protected as cultural heritage. Such details in our thinking confirm our biased view of the world.
The identity that we want to distil from this construed history says a lot about our position in today’s world. The forced manner in which this occurs is characteristic of a culture plagued by doubt, does not know what it wants, and is scarcely aware that our history is constantly changing.
We live not only in buildings and cities but also in stories and emotions. The unambiguous manner in which we approach living betrays our emotional poverty. It is probably an explanation for the fact that in the Netherlands, despite the recent increase in material prosperity and architectural awareness, housing culture has remained so pathetic. More than anything else, it is ‘the will’ that turns a building into architecture, yet it seldom answers the question what we want to do with living.
A case in point is the story about one of the buyers of the elevated homes in Scheveningen. They were looking for a timber house in the woods, but when they saw the design for the steel penthouses that were to be built on top of a warehouse in the port of Scheveningen, they were immediately swayed: the historicising timber house was abandoned in favour of a steel house.
The Steel Study House No. 2 is probably even more extreme: steel, prefabricated modular orthogonal components, no traditional garden, no historical reference ... but a house that isn’t draughty but breathes instead. And a house with a story of its own that listens to its surroundings and the environment, and doesn’t build on what never existed.
Project description of Pesie House (Steel Study House No. 2)
Pesie House is built in a new district in Leeuwarden. A small zone for build-your-own plots was set aside next to the water. All these plots enjoy a wonderful view of the water – the Himpenser Wielen – and of the open agrarian landscape.
This unobstructed view, which contrasts with the closed character of the cramped plots in the rest of the neighbourhood, determined the layout and orientation of the house. Instead of designing a house in the centre of the site surrounded by a garden, the architects used the entire area of the plot to create a spatial construction with an empty centre. The interior and exterior spaces of the house are arranged around the patio.
The orthogonal volume is based on a simple grid structure of 6-x-6 metres and is differentiated into different linear zones with an alternating rhythm of exterior and interior spaces. The spaces turn their back on the town and open up to the unimpeded view of the water. The central space is the empty middle zone: the patio.
Pesie House is a big house with generously dimensioned rooms. Connecting the spaces linearly to a route with extended views around the patio was a deliberate design choice. As a result, each space is part of a larger spatial sequence and the empty centre with its open view of the water can be experienced from every room.
The house is accessible through a gently inclined footbridge, and a ramp leads down to the parking garages in the basement. (The bridge theme returns in the big steel loggia with a belvedere over the water and acknowledges client Jan Pesie, director of BSB, a firm specialised in steel construction and bridge building).
Just like Steel Study House No. 1 in Zoetermeer, the starting point for Steel Study House No. 2 was to make a house with a very distinct and personal character from lightweight prefabricated components. The client’s wish list was: a simple, orthogonal and sturdy house made of steel. From the start of the process there was a preference to assemble the house from components made in the client’s steel workshop.
The two steel floors are positioned above a concrete box that contains the basement. This extends beneath the whole house, including the patio. The concrete box also ensures heat accumulation. The house is connected to a heat pump for its energy supply for both heating and cooling.
In addition to the white facade components, various screens and shading strips are made of white aluminium. The entire ground floor — inside and outside — is finished with the same anthracite tiles. An acoustic wooden ceiling is used throughout the interior. Every area within this simple and clear structure has its own function and was finished by the residents and the interior architect. The highlight of this approach is the kitchen unit with an ingenious mechanism for opening the door, which came from a local bus.
The client wanted a simple steel house with right angles. We wanted to interpret that in a minimalist manner based on the location. A volume around an empty patio, oriented to the open landscape.
Date of 1st sketch
Start of construction
Involvement in the process
tot en met bestek
750m2 gross floor area
A house that breathes, but is not draughty in this gloomy climate dominated by traditionalism.
Do differently next time
Involvement in the process, also during construction and preparation of working drawings would have been more efficient.
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