MVRDV’s New Autumn Collection

Hagen Island is a residential area designed by MVRDV in the new suburb of Ypenburg just outside The Hague. The housing looks hip, as if it was made for a film. Amidst the endless sea of new dwellings stretching out from The Hague, the layout here seems innovative. So plenty of reason to take a look behind the scenes at life on the set of this film.

The houses huddle stiffly, like a colony of migratory birds, on the muddy flats under a stark autumn sky. A wonderful sight, the perfect setting for a film by Alex van Warmerdam (director of de Noorderlingen, een halve eeuw later). An architectural hit no doubt, to be featured in Domus and GA. Hagen Island offers an attractive image, for consumption by a broad range of people. Clearly, the project does not aspire to appeal to just an elite group of artistic souls ‘receptive’ to such housing. Almost half the houses are for the rental sector, while the rest are for sale at prices of between 3.5 and 5.5 million guilders. One section of the neighbourhood is now inhabited and signs of domesticity are already visible – flower pots, paved paths, lace decorations. MVRDV styling, it would seem, has not influenced residents’ preferences. The large sliding glass doors on each floor reveal the interiors ranging from curving plastic bedroom kitsch to Scandinavian timber cosiness. The greatest quality of these houses is just how smoothly they accommodate the everyday. Personal touches do not detract from the overall picture, as so often happens with housing schemes that aspire to the title Architecture.

The neighbourhood resembles a line of sports clothes, for young and old, made for those keen to project the right image. Enquiries as to the views of residents are met with: ‘it’s certainly different, makes a change’. That just about sums it up and no harm in it either. Nonetheless, the unusual appearance here has necessitated some cut-and-paste detailing. Cladding the roofs and walls in the same material, without any interrupting gutter or roof edge, meant paying scant attention to quality detailing. Little seems to suggest that these houses can survive a decade without tearing at the seams. The fold line of the aluminium sheeting between roof and wall is welded. The frames of the sliding glass doors are concealed within the wall cavity, but the aluminium closing the cavity promises little hope of longevity. It is off-the-peg clothing not to be washed too often.

the detailing is visible while the facades are being clad

The urban layout seems innovative at first glance. The houses are arranged in twos, threes and fours, leaving continuous open spaces between the clusters. The intention is to separate the plots from one another by hedges so that views at eye-level remain unrestricted. But when the living room of one house overlooks the dining room of the next less than six metres away, a hedge will not suffice. Either tall fences or lace curtains will be installed for seclusion.

images seen from the pathways

Cars are restricted to the edges of the neighbourhood. From there one proceeds on foot, a nice throwback to the early twentieth century. But the paths are of coarse gravel, as difficult to traverse as a Greek coral strand. Children who want to play safely here will have to leave their tricycles and go-carts in the backyard. Grandmothers will have to get the taxi driver to carry their walking frame and walking sticks, and a Saturday night out on high heels will be a thing of the past. As so often, while the image is appealing, the details have been elaborated a little too simplistically.

the scheme as proposed by MVRDV

The average floor-area of each house is 130m2 – 50m per floor and another 30m under the pitched roof. A toilet off the entrance hall, open kitchen, open stairway to the bedroom level, washing machine in the attic – it couldn’t be more traditional. It slowly dawns on me that these archetypal houses reflect the ideas of Heinrich Tessenow, who returned to the basic elements of the house: pitched roof, front door, bricks and roof tiles. MVRDV’s answer is from the 21st century, suitably attuned to consumer taste. Is Hagen Island a cynical response to the fussiness of new Dutch residential schemes, a well-intended joke, a response to an architecturally elitist debate? If so many people buy pullovers from H&M, then what’s the problem with a house by MVRDV?