The Meaning of Form

Lelystad has been developing its town centre since 2001. The master plan by West 8 comprises housing, office space, various public buildings, and plenty of public green areas. The eye-catcher of the plan is the Agora theatre by UN Studio, the office run by Ben van Berkel.

If you suspect Ben van Berkel of being biased when it comes to architectural forms, you’d be wrong. The buildings of UN Studio spring from ideas, fascinations and concepts. The more complex these are, the more complex the forms. During a lecture at the Berlage Institute on January 15, Van Berkel presented the Agora theatre to explain how his office creates buildings.

Van Berkel emphasised the importance of discussing the Agora theatre within the context of other buildings, because a project never forms an isolated entity. He therefore showed three buildings that were useful in shaping or formulating new concepts.

In Seoul UN Studio completed the Galleria Department Store. The high-tech façade of LED’s can take on different colours. The façade is like a skin wrapped around the department store. The exterior and interior of this project have little to do with each other. Van Berkel also discussed the recently burned-down VilLA NM (2007, US). In the house, composed of two volumes with an internal split-level organisation, Van Berkel mainly tried to design places where people can reveal or conceal themselves. Spatial dynamism in the house is the result. The spatial experiences of the places where occupants can encounter one another are very explicitly designed by UN Studio.

For the Mercedes-Benz museum in Stuttgart, Van Berkel deployed the single surface concept. Blank expanses of façade stem from the geometric model that inspired the entire building.  The glazed expanses of the façade fill up the intermediary spaces. The façade of this building has no direct relation to the programmatic, structural or architectural structure.

For the Agora theatre Van Berkel chose an abstract theme. The drab city, the polders and the Dutch skies generate a multitude of grey and brown tones that vary, intensify and accumulate over time. In response to this scene, UN Studio designed a building with a contrasting colour palette of orange, red and pink tones that literally adds colour to the town centre.

Agora is, to some extent, a combination of the first two UN Studio buildings mentioned. The façade generates a multitude of colours, and the building possesses a number of explicit spatial elements. There is no question of a single surface concept because the façade stretches around the skin of the internal programme (two auditoriums). In contrast to Seoul, where a high-tech solution generates the colourful façade, in Lelystad Van Berkel uses daylight to achieve the desired effect. The faceted façade means that light hits each plane at a different angle. The composition of many layers of perforated steel creates a moiré effect so that the observer, depending on his position in relation to the theatre, sees continuously changing colours. The most important space in the building is located between the two auditoriums. The place where visitors encounter one another has been designed with plenty of architectural fireworks as a ‘vertical foyer’. This atrium, surrounded by a stairs that unfolds upwards, culminates in a rooflight that casts daylight onto the pink walls.

In the subsequent discussion author Philip Nobel wondered why the new theatre had to be given such a strange shape and bright colours. Did the response to the drab, alienating town really have to be a building that represents the complete opposite?

A session of clever argumentation followed. Van Berkel’s answer was that the meaning accorded to the forms of buildings is hugely overestimated. Architecture has to be liberated from all values and meanings foisted upon it from outside. Architecture, according to Van Berkel, is simply a decor that communicates in a certain way with its surroundings and provides quality to certain activities. The architect alone can attribute meaning to forms during the design process. The forms of the buildings by UN Studio may look recognisable, but they always emerge from evolving complex ideas, concepts and fascinations. With this argument, Van Berkel implies that the discussion should not be about whether his office ought to be more restrained in the design of forms but about the concepts his office deploys to arrive at explicit forms.

Nobel did the former and seemed to be unaware of the trap into which he had been tempted. He repeatedly argued that the Agora theatre was a typical formalistic UN Studio building. Every remark of this kind validated, rightly or wrongly, Van Berkel’s point and made it impossible to have an intelligent dialogue about the building. The argument enables Van Berkel to fend off all questions for now on about the appearance of his buildings, as long as they don’t address the meaning attributed to them by Van Berkel. And that is darn clever.