Revisiting and reviewing OMA’s Kunsthal

One of them witnessed the completion of the Kunsthal in Rotterdam as a decisive event, while the other views the building as a given, like Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye in Paris. To mark the release of Tibor Pataky’s OMA’s Kunsthal in Rotterdam: Rem Koolhaas and the new Europe, Jurjen Zeinstra (1961), Giovanni Bellotti (1987) and Alessandra Covini (1988) discuss the significance of the Kunsthal (1992) for design culture and their practice.

Spread from the book: OMA’s Kunsthal in Rotterdam: Rem Koolhaas and the new Europe, by Tibor Pataky

Spread from the book OMA’s Kunsthal in Rotterdam: Rem Koolhaas and the new Europe, by Tibor Pataky

The Kunsthal is undoubtedly an architectural icon of the 1990s. I remember the excitement that surrounded the genesis of this building and its completion in 1992. Although OMA had realized projects before, the spatial inventiveness and radical, somewhat surrealist modernism of the many competition entries of earlier years had now finally found expression in what remains my favourite OMA building, although I admit I haven’t visited all of them. The Swiss architect and writer Tibor Pataky recently reworked his PhD on this building into a publication. He not only gives the Kunsthal a central place in OMA’s architectural oeuvre but also carefully reconstructs the genesis of its design through many interviews and archival research. For an architect like me who started an office in the 1990s, it makes for highly interesting reading, yet I wonder what this building means for younger architects. To find out, I invited two young architects for a conversation. Giovanni Bellotti and Alessandra Covini operate together as Studio Ossidiana, a young Rotterdam-based firm that won the Dutch Prix de Rome in 2018 and that seems to approach architecture and building quite differently to most Dutch practices. I was particularly interested in their views on the Kunsthal because they designed and realized M., a miniature ‘kunsthal’ in Almere, a few years ago.

JZ: Pataky’s book shows how the design process of the Kunsthal was driven both by the loss of a competition for another project (the nearby architecture museum), and by a radical critique of the formalism of monumental museum buildings designed by colleagues at that time. What did the Kunsthal mean to you before you read the book by Pataky?

SO: We first stepped into the building much later than you did, without all the baggage of the architectural discourse of the late 1980s. But even if you were unaware of its novelty upon completion, the building still felt very much alive, showing just how revolutionary it was. The Kunsthal is both a gateway – connecting two worlds, the museum park and Rotterdam’s traffic – and a vitrine for the city, where glimpses of the exhibition can be seen by passers-by, demonstrating the true public character of the building.

Spread from the book: OMA’s Kunsthal in Rotterdam: Rem Koolhaas and the new Europe, by Tibor Pataky

Spread from the book: OMA’s Kunsthal in Rotterdam: Rem Koolhaas and the new Europe, by Tibor Pataky

JZ: The spatial lay-out of the Kunsthal remains a genuine invention: an internal circulation loop that cleverly uses both the ascending outside ramp that cuts through the building and the descending floor of the auditorium. For me, the resulting spatial complexity, with all the visual relations between the various rooms and spaces, is one of the building’s great qualities.

SO: There is something magical about this spiralling loop, an architectural trick that lets you return to the starting point, but with a changed experience. This tension of the infinite spiral, from the forest of the park to the sky, has always reminded us of Giuseppe Terragni’s unbuilt project for the Danteum, in which a spiralling route, starting from a thick dark forest of columns, leads to the sublime glass columns representing paradise. The Kunsthal relates to this poetic character of the Danteum as an ode to ‘modernity’, while incorporating collage-like surrealist views.

JZ: In that sense, is there a relation between the Kunsthal and your project in Almere?

SO: Our project M. in Almere is very different to the Kunsthal. It is small and essentially a composition of three rooms – the museum, the water square, and the terrace. Still, there are some lessons that we learned from OMA’s project, which we think will always be of substance. We also strive for an architectural project to work at many scales. In M., we transformed part of the interior circulation into a public pier, creating the outdoor ‘room’ which makes the pavilion itself more like an event along the circular promenade. This urban move established a hierarchy in the building: the plinth/pontoon as a permanent element, and the pavilion above it as light as a greenhouse, a warm shelter for events along a route on water.

Art Pavilion M., Almere, (Netherlands, 2021) / design Studio Ossidiana / photo Riccardo de Vecchi

Art Pavilion M., Almere, (Netherlands, 2021) / design Studio Ossidiana / photo Riccardo de Vecchi

JZ: The Kunsthal can also be read as a struggle with deconstructivism. On the one hand, Koolhaas rejects a “naïve, banal analogy between a supposedly irregular geometry and a fragmented world” (RK quoted on p. 272). At the same time, he looks for a “precarious entity (…) to organize in a single building the coexistence of (…) autonomous elements without doing any injustice to their specificity” (RK quoted on p. 274). The seemingly straightforward facades of the Kunsthal represent this attitude: all facades are assemblages, conceived as “images of collages” as Pataky puts it. Consistency in tectonics and composition seems to disappear the moment you turn the corner.

SO: The Kunsthal is a building but, at the same time, it is many buildings, every space has a different character, and each facade follows its own logic, like the scenes of a script: from the park the facade emerges as a ‘continuous monument’ of travertine, fluctuating from the canopies of the trees. Towards the Natural History Museum, the facade reveals the ramped auditorium; under the sloping dike it seems to be a grotto, while above it, facing the city’s busy Westzeedijk street, the building opens up as a civic loggia, a place to look from and be looked at. And finally, the inner facades of the building, towards the ramp, have two different transparencies: an oblique gallery, displaying artworks of the museum, and a translucent polycarbonate ‘dress’.

JZ: The “image of collage” and the desire to deviate from convention also determines the materialization and detailing of the Kunsthal. OMA shows an intense preoccupation with detailing here. Knowing they lacked both the experience and the budget to develop a range of beautiful details and finishes, the office chose a radically different strategy. There is a clear acceptance of the building being assembled out of predefined materials and components, shown in their most crude and uncovered state. Fuminori Hoshino, OMA’s project leader at the time, formulated in an internal memo a number of detailing principles for the fenestration to avoid the “risk of arbitrary multiplicity” following from the heterogeneity of the design (p. 331). This clearly illustrates the continuous tension between heterogeneity and arbitrariness, and between complexity and unification that can be found on all levels and scales of the Kunsthal. And perhaps this defines its architectural quality and ongoing relevance to the present day. Knowing that not only the role of the architect but also the whole culture of building has radically changed since the 1990s, I think it’s safe to assume that a building like the Kunsthal, with all its experiments and radical inventiveness, is unlikely to emerge today.

SO: A lot has indeed changed in terms of tenders, contracts, client relations and so on, so our approach to the construction of M. was of course different to that taken with the Kunsthal. It is not different in the sense of being the opposite; it is different because the inventiveness needed to work in a different system at a different time has changed. We often seek to find ways around the limitations of drawings as the basis for communicating with a contractor: terrazzo insertions, niches on countertops, six or seven variations on recipes that could have spooked a building party, but were in fact rather simple to address by producing certain elements ourselves, parts of formwork, or smaller precast elements, and finding ways to insert these into the production chain of a company. The making of details in M. was very much about the making of relations with the builders, and about relation between our small workshop and a large manufacturer; we could make them much more easily than we could draw them, explain them, and have them priced in a tender document.

Spread from the book: OMA’s Kunsthal in Rotterdam: Rem Koolhaas and the new Europe, by Tibor Pataky

Spread from the book: OMA’s Kunsthal in Rotterdam: Rem Koolhaas and the new Europe, by Tibor Pataky

JZ: With regard to its detailing and materialization, do you agree that the anti-aesthetics of the Kunsthal have become almost a cliché, appearing in the interiors of restaurants, schools and even architecture schools? And how do you position your work in relation to this?

SO: We wonder if the idea of ‘anti-aesthetics’ actually holds at all. Aesthetics, in a literal sense, is the way we perceive things, and has nothing to do with something being pretty or not. The projects we have done so far are rather small, and maybe because of this, every project played with a limited number of materials and techniques. However, we also see all our work as one project, of which each model, building, piece of furniture or installation is a fragment. And in this overall composition of fragments, the materials and techniques, as well as the processes that led to them, are very varied, and the relations between the parts become more complex, even contradictory.

We see materials as storytellers, as vehicles of expression and playfulness, as occasions for the unexpected. OMA taught generations of architects, including us, the idea of buildings as scripted narratives, designed spaces that provoke the visitor: in the Kunsthal the orange arrow railing guides visitors to the entrance, a forest of ‘museumified taxidermic’ trees engages in paradoxical conversation with their live relatives in the park, the two circular ‘oculi’ in the ticket office look playfully at the visitor queues, and a slit eye in the auditorium reveals the space of the control room. The building thus comprises a catalogue of elements, a list of things. Eco’s The Infinity of Lists distinguishes between form and list. The form is a complete, concluded, finite representation, made of order and hierarchy, which does not encourage us to see other things than those it represents. The list, or catalogue, is used when the boundaries are unknown and when the things to be represented are in infinite numbers or contain infinite properties. In this sense, the Kunsthal is a manifesto of possibilities, an ‘opera aperta’ bound together by a liquid, potentially infinite, spiralling path.

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