Conflict and context in Schijndel. The Glass Farm by MVRDV

A personal victory, a much-discussed building, and a heated debate. The Glass Farm by MVRDV opened its doors in mid-January. It took many years and plenty of words before the building was completed in the village of Schijndel in Brabant, birthplace of the architect Winy Maas. How the process unfolded and what themes it touched on are highlighted in an exhibition entitled Waar?! at the local Jan Heestershuis museum, a stone’s throw from The Glass Farm.

‘Not in Schijndel.’
‘Won’t make any money.’
‘Impractical. You can’t wash the windows every day.’
‘Load of rubbish.’
‘Doesn’t even have a roof-gutter.’
‘But you can look through it — that’s nice.’
‘H’m, it’s got something.’

Those are just some of the comments from locals in Schijndel on a random Saturday afternoon. A fine piece of modern architecture rises up amidst the market stalls and shoppers. The smooth, glazed volume reflects the snow-covered market square and the church opposite. From a distance it looks like a huge, completely transparent farmhouse. Seen up close, the farm turns out to be an image printed on glass. Housed within the glazed volume, and appearing through the skin in places, are shops, offices and cafés. It’s an object at once familiar and strange, which even the trained observer probably must grow accustomed to.

Luckily, the how, what and why of the building are extensively explained a short distance away in the Jan Heestershuis museum. For the exhibition, entitled Waar?! (‘Where?!’ in Dutch), guest curator Winy Maas designed the layout for the former house of artist Jan Heesters and, in the process, made use of every single corner. What could be conjectured from the responses on the street is confirmed in the kitchen: The Glass Farm wasn’t realised without a struggle. As early as 1980 Maas had written a letter to the then Mayor Scholten with his idea to do something with what Maas saw as the oversized and empty market square in Schijndel. Now thirty years and seven designs have passed, and a political party was even set up specifically to oppose the project. After a special commission drew up a list of conditions, Maas quickly realised that a farmhouse met all the requirements perfectly. But a replica farm building would not have been acceptable to the architect, and so it became the image of a farmhouse, in glass.

What followed was the search for the ‘average’ Schijndel farmhouse. The hallway of the Jan Heestershuis museum features drawings of some 110 historical farmhouses. In the dining room we learn how 84 of these farmhouses were selected and then the average determined according to certain parameters. Since the average farmhouse was smaller than the permissible volume on the market square, the whole thing was blown up 1.6 times its original size.
In the former studio of Jan Heesters the true masterpiece of the project is showcased: the detailing of the façade. Artist Frank van der Salm selected façade components of the Schijndel farmhouses he photographed according to authenticity, state of preservation and personal preference. But it didn’t stop with a simple collage: look carefully at The Glass Farm and you’ll discover many layers. The print itself varies in degree of transparency, revealing glimpses of the interior in places. The many details in the photos of the façades and of the interiors of the original farmhouses allow you to continually discover something new in The Glass House.

In the exhibition, however, Maas doesn’t confine himself to explaining his design for The Glass Farm. In the front and back rooms of the house he poses critical questions about retro-style architecture and copying in architecture. For instance, there’s a copy of the as yet unpublished book Copy-Paste from The Why Factory and a selection of photographs of retro farmhouses. People long for retro style, is the implication, and copying is becoming increasingly common. But, as Maas asks in one of the rooms, doesn’t this kill the urge to experiment, the curiosity, the zest for living, and even life itself? He simply poses these questions, but leaves it to visitors to offer answers.

Although the exhibition with the story of The Glass Farm and the discussion about retro architecture could have provided sufficient content, Maas goes a step further. Waar?! is about ‘truth and context’. This theme is illustrated with work by MVRDV and by three artists who grew up in Schijndel. On display in the pavilion — an annex to the museum — are sixteen models of contextual designs by MVRDV. What the designs express most of all is the ambition of the office to unite opposites. The work of Schijndel artists Jeanne van Heeswijk, Jeroen Kooijmans and Hester Oerlemans is presented in different places around the museum, but the relation with the rest of the exhibition is unfortunately difficult to discover.

A visit to The Glass Farm and the exhibition is certainly worth while, even if you have to travel all the way to Schijndel. The Glass Farm is a carefully made building in which traditional appearance and modern technique merge in spectacular fashion. The exhibition Waar?! explains the building clearly and offers a balanced and thorough account of the architectural statement that Maas made on the market square in Schijndel.
Both the building and the exhibition provoke interesting questions about context. Definitive answers are not offered, however, and discussion about this theme is therefore far from finished. All the more interesting to follow developments in Schijndel in the coming years. Is retro architecture really what people want? And can that also take a modern form? Will the people of Schijndel eventually take The Glass Farm into their hearts? Or would they still have preferred a brick version?