Zaandam Façade Festival

It won’t have escaped anyone’s attention that the Intell Hotel in Zaandam opened recently. The cheerful stack of little Zaanse Schans houses by WAM architects looks so delirious that all the media, the main evening news included, jumped on it immediately. And that’s understandable, for the exuberant merriment of this design is, at a time dominated by sombre visions, more than welcome.

In a culture such as ours, where even acting normally can be considered odd, the Zaanse Hotel is an exception. The only previous convincing example of such a postmodern collage of local motifs in this country was the Circus Theater in Zandvoort by Sjoerd Soeters. And even that building is over 20 years old now. So it’s no coincidence that nobody but Soeters himself drew up the master plan for the new centre of Zaanstad, in which the hotel, together with a new town hall by Soeters, forms the central element. Construction of this new centre right beside Zaandam train station has just reached the mid-way stage, but it’s already clear that the green-painted Zaanse Schans houses will envelop the visitor on all sides, in greater or lesser degrees of abstraction and at all sorts of scales. In the end, however, the hotel will form part of a district featuring an intricate infrastructure and new watercourses, raised pedestrian routes and a high building density. In that new context, it will be much less conspicuous than it is at present in its temporary position as a solitary tower. So a judgement on this hotel should actually be deferred until the context within which it was designed has been completed and functions. But that’s not how the today’s media work. The architect is aware of that too and is giving his interviews and press conferences now. Attention therefore focuses on what is now visible: the façade.

Besides, the spatial and functional composition of the hotel is not particularly noteworthy: an orthogonal 12-floor volume, standard floor plans with a service core at the centre, and collective spaces on the ground floor and part of the first floor. Dominating the double-height foyer is a big curved steel stairs that rises to the planned meeting rooms next to the hotel tower. Designed by Feran Thomassen, the interior is dominated by famous local products (biscuits,  
mustard) and brands (Verkade, Albert Heijn) and — of course — the 
village of Zaanse Schans and its little houses. In line with common practice in the ‘hospitality sector’, each room is designed differently and boasts references to the Zaan region. Pleasant rooms, that’s for sure. But whether the foyer and restaurant are fine places to be in will only become clear once the surroundings are finished, water flows past two sides of the building, and the terrace is built.

So all the media have to go on, and what’s generated all the attention, is the treatment of the façade. Because of the direct reference to the traditional Zaanse Schans village house (and no doubt because of the ‘Wow!’ factor of the drawings) the design is cited now and then as an example of traditionalism — whether ‘new’ or ‘contemporary’ or otherwise. Mistakenly I think, because apart from the use of the Zaanse Schans houses as an image, there is nothing traditional about the architecture of these façades. It is unthinkable that such a building would have been built 30, 130, or 430 years ago. First, the materials used (fibre cement and synthetics) and the techniques of today. That may seem a trivial remark, but it’s not. Owing to the use of synthetics, the sheen is stronger and the colours more saturated, more intense than those of the original houses. The copy therefore appears to be ‘more real than real’. Paradoxically therefore, it is actually understood as ‘not real’. Place the copy beside the original and every layman will spot the difference. This game with the ‘real’ and the copy (or authenticity versus kitsch) is a quintessentially contemporary game that’s also played in different ways in other fields of art. In fact: the artificial colour and sheen make the houses in the hotel façade appear more like a virtual computer rendering than the real wooden houses in Zaanse Schans. This sense of alienation is reinforced by the suggestion of a stack of houses — as if those fragile wooden houses are piled up into a mountain eight to ten rows in height. You don’t have to be a structural engineer to understand straight away that it’s impossible. So the experience of the ‘unreal’ is a deliberately staged effect that is exploited with verve. And that’s to commit a sin, both in the old tradition and in the modern.
The adopted collage-like method of decorating the façade reinforces this ambiguity. The approach is the result of the neutrality of the function contained within. Little variation can be achieved in a series of what are essentially identical hotel rooms. Nevertheless, anyone who wants to let the façade ‘speak’ has to resort to something that lies beyond the normal spatial or iconographic translation of function into form. In such cases, the application of a collage of repeating decorative or pictorial motifs has come into vogue. In the work of everyone from Herzog & De Meuron to Neutelings Riedijk we can find comparable examples of photo-collages printed on glass, as repeating texts or punched or cast images or hallmarks on the façade panels. So in that sense the hotel façade explicitly conforms with a contemporary trend, although in this case it’s been done in a very sophisticated way. Just like the cited examples, the planar graphic collage wraps around the building volume to form an uninterrupted screen. The four façade planes thus merge to become one continuous entity, and in that regard the corner as an edge between two planes is negated. But in the hotel façade a third dimension is then added, which is perceptible in the profiling of windows and decorative frames that only become visible close to the façade, and the seemingly ‘flat’ motif of the house façades suddenly acquires a third dimension at the corners. The end façade shifts a metre out from the façade plane and a side façade is added. That puts the observer on the wrong track all the time. Is it now a continuous, flat façade plane, or a decorative curtain? Or is it maybe a stack of volumes? What’s more, one particular corner house is painted blue in a casual reference to the painting ‘The Blue House’ in Zaandam by Monet. The architect introduced this exception as a visual anchor point, a method of nevertheless making the different façades distinguishable from one another. The question is whether it works like that. More likely it is an additional form of alienation, because you suspect a special function here (bridal suite, meeting room), but that’s not the case. Behind the blue are exactly the same hotel rooms as behind the dominant green.

Repetition, spatial and functional ambiguity, and poking fun at the rules of the craft and modernist traditions alike: in this façade design it is all played with skill and pleasure. It is therefore a sign of little understanding to view this design as an example of new traditionalism or as a critique of modernism, as Vincent van Rossum and Cees Dam recently did in a television programme. This design could just as easily, or even more so, be seen as indebted to the formal games of someone like Peter Eisenman, for whom form bears no relation to function (‘function is not an issue in my designs, which doesn’t mean that they don’t function’). Eisenman argues, in reference to modernist literature, music and painting, that architecture has in fact never truly become ‘modernist’ precisely because it clings to a meaningful relation with function. In that sense the hotel façade is truly modernist. That in this case we are dealing with a local building motif (just as Eisenman chose to play games with the motifs of the modernism of Le Corbusier) is irrelevant. If Van Winden had opted for a different Zaandam motif —like chocolates, mustard or biscuits — then no-one would confuse this design with any form of traditionalism. What it’s all about, quite apart from possible stylistic choices, is the question what architectural devices are used, whether these are deployed in a suitable and possibly innovative manner. And that, to me, is the case. A discussion about this design that professes to be of any depth — certainly among design colleagues, historians and clients — should primarily be about the deployment of these architectural devices and go beyond the spectacle, no matter how mediagenic (and probably also profitable it is for the client) that spectacle is in this case.