New-generation motorway architecture

The Utrecht architecture café organised an excursion on June 4 to two of the city’s most prominent new projects: the motorway buildings by Kas Oosterhuis and Fons Verheijen in Leidsche Rijn.

Acoustic barrier building by ONL, click to enlarge

Kas Oosterhuis, a pioneer of computer architecture, achieved world-wide fame with his organic Saltwater Pavilion. Its construction, however, was poor. Once the magical light went out, all that remained was a shoddily built shed. As ONL (Oosterhuis and Lenárd) he has done some learning. He extended the 'Wall' by Fons Verheijen alongside the A2 with an acoustic barrier that is deep enough to accommodate the Hessing luxury-car showroom. The metaphor used by ONL is that of 'an antelope that's been swallowed by a snake'.

The extensive and highly technical presentation by Kas Aalbers and Sander de Boer of ONL – it had the character of a computer crash course – taught us why construction of ONL buildings has improved so much. It's the firm's designers, not manufacturers, who supervise preparations for construction. Using the Pro-Engineer software – 'we've gone beyond Maya,' jested De Boer – we can control all building data. This data forms the basis for all manufacturers and that prevents mistakes. If something changes, a height for example, everything else changes in response. Instead of plans, sections and elevations, the designers work with a building model composed of data.

Such a working method is essential for buildings like the kilometres-long acoustic barrier-cum-showroom with its 40,000 different steel profiles. But there is a downside, stresses De Boer. 'When I first entered the building it wasn't as I had imagined, even though I'd studied every part of it on screen.' The computer simply isn't the right tool to create the experience of a building, De Boer admitted. Turning off the computer now and again and undertaking more excursions is his solution.

The two projects have much in common. For a start, a preference for car designs with their supple forms, stylised lines, and smooth appearance. Both projects also show that in complex buildings of this kind the architect must do more than design. He has to control the flow of information and draw on his knowledge to guide the whole production process. But the main strength of both projects lies in the development of a new type of motorway building. No longer in response to a fear of the motorway but to a search for ways to connect motorway and surroundings. 'Mom, are we headed for that red building?', they ask from the back seat. That's how Fons Verheijen envisages the future of his red 'Wall'. The existing development flanking the motorway looked even shabbier as I drove back to Rotterdam. Demolish it all! And allow motorways to once again become part of the built environment and life itself, as they were once intended.

My drive to Utrecht last Saturday took me along the A12 motorway. Strewn thoughtlessly along both sides of the roadway were miserable-looking boxes decorated with signage that clamoured for attention, interrupted occasionally by stretches of acoustic barrier. A sorry sight. Viewed from the road, the Randstad grew ever more crowded in an orgy of careless architecture.

The projects by Oosterhuis and Verheijen are the first results of a new take on roadside building. It's true that in recent years various attempts have been made to integrate buildings and acoustic barriers. But these efforts invariably reveal a defensive approach, a fear of the motorway. The presentations by the architects also shed light on the architect's role in complex buildings as supervisor of the data and production process. Fons Verheijen of VVKH architects acknowledged that with his 800-metre-long scheme called 'The Wall' – a terrible name he admitted – he was entering unfamiliar territory about which there were few references available. The original urban plan for Leidsche Rijn featured a typical acoustic barrier with office and retail development behind. Verheijen wanted to integrate the two in a combined building and acoustic barrier, a landmark for the motorway and the neighbourhood.

You don't draw a building this long; you animate it. The dynamics of movement, not the perfect façade drawing, determine the building. Verheijen designed the façade with Maya animation software, also used in the production of films like Finding Memo. A series of tiny adjustments turn the flat plane into a folded façade that seems to move for the 28 seconds it takes a car to race by. Hundreds of animation films were used to generate the final image of 'planes and folds that respond to movement'. 'The smooth lines and sharp edges of cars were the main source of inspiration,' according to Verheijen. But Verheijen is not content with a pretty picture. It has to look good in reality too and – importantly – stay looking good. For example, the backlit red panels overlap one another to create the semblance of one continuous surface. Pragmatism like this distinguishes Verheijen from many 'computer architects' for whom construction matters are subservient to lofty ideas. The barrier is currently under construction, while the residential and retail block will follow in 2007.