Onix Sheds Space

De Mikkelhorst in Haren is an agricultural complex that combines ecological farming techniques with social care facilities. Designed by Onix Architects, the farm building is now nearing completion. Platform GRAS organised a tour, lecture and discussion about the project, and Luc de Vries sent this report.

The farm building houses numerous facilities, among them changing rooms and a canteen for handicapped people who ‘work’ on the adjoining nursery. Other facilities include a kitchen, teashop, educational space, shop, warden’s house, children’s farm with playground, and also staff rooms and stables. The building thus provides amenities for handicapped people, neighbouring residents, children and passers-by. All the different activities are grouped under one roof and enclosed by a single material: wood. The linear building is oriented on site perpendicular to the lines of what remains of an old sewage treatment plant. These remains are incorporated into the site layout.

In his introduction, Haiko Meijer discussed the farm building as one in a series of sheds or barn structures that Onix has completed or is currently working on. He showed numerous structures from the Netherlands and abroad to explain the building’s form. Most important, however, is the way the barn or shed functions as an extra room. Like an attic, cellar or garage, the shed is used for various activities that do not have a space of their own in a standard building programme, or that are not suited to standard building layouts. A shed is thus something that embodies a degree of anarchy and unpredictability. And because the shed is not designed for any particular purpose, each activity has to find its rightful place within the available space. An important aspect in the architecture of Onix is this search for extra space within the programme. In De Mikkelhorst, Onix achieves exactly this by eliminating corridors and, hence, creating space for activities that are not foreseen from the outset.

Two propositions were put forward to steer the discussion, chaired by landscape architect Wim Boetze. The first was that it is possible to design a flexibly dividable space that has a character of its own. In the discussion, however, it became clear that this was not a case of flexibility in the sense of a large space divided by movable partitions. Freedom of use is in the minds of the users who, in the strictly defined space of a shed, face the challenge of doing whatever is considered necessary.

The second proposition was that the farm building forms a hinge between town and countryside in terms of location, architecture and function. The discussion sparked by this proposition never lived up to its promise because time ran out. But another reason was because the words ‘rural’ and ‘urban’ mean different things to different people. Some would even question whether there is any difference at all between the two in the Netherlands. Often, the desire to distinguish between ‘urban’ and ‘rural’ is greater in the minds of designers and public officials than the everyday functioning of such areas actually justifies.

The discussion about flexibility and about the distinction between ‘urban’ and ‘rural’ doesn’t do justice to Onix’s design. The architecture of De Mikkelhorst demands that it be assessed on its own merits. It is a unique architectural project that meets the programme of requirements in autonomous fashion, and it deserves admiration for the consistent quality of materials and details.