Het politiebureau van Wiel Arets in Cuijk. Mijn foto van het politiebureau van Wiel Arets in Vaals vind je hier.
© 2012 Dennis Hambeukers
Het politiebureau van Wiel Arets in Cuijk. Mijn foto van het politiebureau van Wiel Arets in Vaals vind je hier.
© 2012 Dennis Hambeukers
© 2012 Dennis Hambeukers
Kunstacademie Maastricht van Wiel Arets.
Schunck Glaspaleis Heerlen door Frits Peutz, gerenoveerd door Wiel Arets en Jo Coenen
Hipstamatic-Architecture-Photography of Wiel Arets’ Indigo building in the Ceramique area in Maastricht.
© 2011 Dennis Hambeukers
This is the police station in Vaals designed by Maastricht-based architect Wiel Arets.
© Dennis Hambeukers 2011
This my photo of the H-House designed by Wiel Arets, located in a suburb in Maastricht.
Yesterday Roemer van Toorn, the former Head of the Projective Theory Program of the Berlage Institute, Postgraduate Laboraratory of Architecture, and current Theory & Media professor at the Umeå School of Achitecture at the University of Umeå Sweden, delivered a lecture at Schunck* in Heerlen as part of the exhibition ‘Stills’ about the work of Wiel Arets. He was invited because he made the publication ‘Stills’ for the exhibition. Together with the Schunck* team, the office of Wiel Arets and a graphic designer he assembled texts by, about and with Wiel Arets. Jan Bitter made a new photo series to document the chronological development of Arets’ work. In his lecture Van Toorn explains some of the choices he made during the development of the book. The book was made in a record time of three months. He wanted the book to have the feel of a sketchbook, hence the choice of paper and binding. According to Roemer a sketchbook of an architect is not made up of drawings but of texts, dialogues and thinking. He wants to show the complexity of the job of an architect by combining different types of texts.
I think they delivered a good book, but the most interesting part of the lecture was the second part in which he told us his take on the attitude of Wiel Arets. In the exhibition and in Arets’ lecture last week you could clearly see the gap between the thinking of Wiel Arets and his buildings. He has all kinds of thoughts and inspirations but they can hardly be traced in his designs. Roemer wanted to bridge this gap in his lecture. He said that the connection between his thinking and doing is his mentality. The mentality in his thoughts and his designs is the same according to Roemer. The mentality he found is: the quasi-object. A quasi-object is a concept invented by the French sociologist and philosopher Bruno Latour to think about the hybrid character of our world. About 200 years ago we started to divide the world in two cultures: social science, that looks at the ’soft’ projections onto objects by society and technical science, that looks at the ‘hard’ dimensions of objects. Roemer argues that this way of thinking is not adequate anymore when we want to analyze buildings like Wiel Arets’ University Library in Utrecht. We have to look at it from both social and technical point of view and even more points of view at the same time. If we say that this building is a quasi-object we can start to discover its true values.
When we look at the University Library the first thing that tells us that we are dealing with a quasi-object is the fact that we cannot see what it is from the outside. It is strange and it asks us questions. The object wants to tell us something. It doesn’t tell us how we should read it. We have to discover it for ourselves. The building challenges you to form an opinion. There is something uncomfortable about it, but still you feel at home in it. It’s not about the facts. It shows you a different view of the world. These are all characteristics of a quasi-object.
Roemer argues that the concept of the quasi-object is the essential characteristic of Wiel Arets’ way of thinking and doing. He says that you can see this quasi-object attitude in each building by Arets. He randomly picked a building to prove this: the University Library. By putting the Library as a pars pro toto for Arets’ work in the philosophical category of the quasi-object he places Arets in the sphere of the greatest contemporary architects like Rem Koolhaas, whose Seattle Library is also a rare quasi-object.
Object or projection? Or both?
I think the quasi-object way of thinking is a great new way of thinking about architectural objects. I agree with Roemer that it can form the basis of a new architectural critique that looks at buildings in a more personal-story-telling way. But I also disagree with Roemer on two points. On the one hand I disagree when it comes to arguing that this is the center of Wiel Arets’ mentality. And on the other hand I think he doesn’t go far enough in using the quasi-object way of thinking to explain the gap in Arets’ thinking and doing.
The University Library in Utrecht can be seen as a quasi-object. It has a strangeness that sparks the creation of your own story. When you see it, you cannot put your finger on what it is. It invites you to explore (also read my article on the Universiry Library). But I don’t think this goes for all buildings by Arets. Most apartment complexes and office buildings just look like apartment complexes and office buildings. There is nothing quasi about them. Arets’ best buildings (The University Library, the Academy of Visuals Arts and the Hedge House) can be qualified or viewed as quasi-objects, but for the others this is problematic. So Roemer only bridges part of the gap. I also have a hard time tracing the quasi-object way of thinking in Arets’ inspirations or texts. To really bridge the gap you not only have to prove that his buildings are quasi-objects, but also that his thinking is centered around the idea of quasi-objective thinking. In his own lecture Arets’ said that the basis for his work is text, and thinking in general. If you really want you can draw a line between using text as the basis for the work and the text that you use to describe the story that is sparked by looking at objects in a quasi-objective way. But this is far fetched.
Latour’s theory of the quasi-object also speaks of the quasi-subject. I think that Latour wants to blur the difference between objects (things) and subjects (people) in his theory. When he speaks of quasi-objects he argues that sometimes objects act as if they were subjects. They tell you something, they guide you, they tell you what you can and cannot do, they influence social interaction. So they are not really objects in the classical sense anymore in that they are only determined by their dimensions, color, shape etc. If you look at the other end of the equation we see that subjects can also be perceived as objects sometimes. An object like an art piece has a certain openness in that it has certain dimensions and color and a certain shape, but at the center of it is an emptiness that can be filled with the interpretations, views and beliefs of the viewer. A subject can also be like this. When you perceive a subject like Wiel Arets you see his designs, you hear and read his thoughts, but it doesn’t tell you how you should interpret this. You could perceive these elements as the building blocks of an object. It has a certain empty space at its core that invites you to project your own ideas into it, make up your own story. There is no clear story but a gap. Because of this Roemer van Toorn was able to project his own vision into the gap of the quasi-subject Wiel Arets. I think the more a subject becomes a star, a starchitect in this case, the more space is created for interpretation. So arguing whether Roemer’s interpretation of the gap between Wiel’s thinking and doing is accurate is a very subjective enterprise. The fact that not only Arets’ buildings are quasi-objects but that Arets himself is a quasi-subject makes it possible to even discuss this. And this also explains why even Arets himself cannot bridge the gap.
Latour in relation to art and architecture is definitively worth exploring further. More later.
Roemer van Toorn published his quasi-objective analysis of the University Library already in 2005, you can read it here: www.roemervantoorn.nl/quasiobject.html.
Learn more about Bruno Latour on his own website: www.bruno-latour.fr
When does architecture become art? When a building moves me. Number one on my list of most moving buildings is Tadao Ando’s conference pavilion for Vitra in Weil am Rhein. This building clearly articulates a vision on life: there is a little resistance, a lot of sensitivity to material, a great spatial organization, a superb interaction between inside and outside. For me there is a link between this Ando building and Wiel Arets’ University library in Utrecht. While I was standing outside the Vitra conference pavilion, being totally impressed, a former employee of Arets pointed me to Arets’ building. He said that if I appreciated this building by Ando so much, I would surely like Arets’ library as well. It took me about four years untill I finally visited it.
I recently saw a movie where someone lost his memory. Someone else was with this person in his apartment and looked at his book collection. He was jealous because he would give a lot to be able to read one of his favorite books again for the first time. I have the same feeling with great buildings. The first discovery is magical. Afterwards you can revisit it, but you already know the plot. You can reread books, as I have done often, and you discover new things, but it’s just not the same. The visit to Arets’ library was magical.
In dutch there is a great word for architecture: “bouwkunst”, which means building-art. Making art has to do with mastering your material: the physical and the conceptual. This library shows that Arets is a master of his material. His choice of material is glass, concrete, steel, spatial organization and light.
A few years ago I attended a inspiring lecture by Peter Sloterdijk at the Jan van Eyck Academy in Maastricht. The concept that stuck me with all this time is that he called architecture “creating boxes for boredom”. For me he addresses two mayor problems for architects in this concept. The first is to create a interesting spatial concept: the inside. The second is to escape getting reduced to a facade decorator for a boring – thirteen in a dozen – box: the outside, and thereby separating the connection between outside and inside of a building. In his library Wiel Arets tackles these two problems with great craftsmanship.
When I approach the building on the University campus I see a huge black box. It strikes me as a strong building, because it doesn’t have a problem with being a box. It doesn’t resort to fancy trickery to disguise that it is ‘just’ a big box. It turns its boxiness into a strength. The strange thing is that the black box effect is created mainly by glass. We usually don’t think of glass as being a black material. But it is. When it’s used in a facade of a building and you look at it from the outside from a distance in daytime, it’s usually black. Windows are black holes in a facade. But a whole glass facade doesn’t make a building black, because the windows reflect the environment and the sky so before you know it you have a blue building. Among other things, It’s the sensitive dialogue with the other facade material in the library that makes it black: the black concrete. The patterns on the glass and the concrete show Arets’ sensitivity to another important material: light. The qualities of the plant relief in the concrete are clearly visible in the building, because there are also pieces of concrete without relief in the facade. The relief transcends the decorative function by far. The relief totally transforms the material. The concrete takes on some of the qualities of the rubber mold it came from. Almost like Michelangelo can transfer some of the qualities of the skin of David to the marble. It becomes more black and softer. Through the relief the concrete becomes matter, thus darker, thus blacker. It also seems softer, more flexible. The softness relates totally different to the glass than the hardness of untreated concrete. Also the qualities of the glass change through the application of the plant image. The glass changes into a active working membrane. In some way or another it becomes more skin.
Next to the material sensitivities the other great thing about the facade is the naturalness of the connection it seems to have to the inside of the building. The distortions of the facade made by setting back and pushing out sections feels totally non-artificial. The composition of the facade seems to reflect the inner organization and shape of the building without revealing the mystery of what’s inside. A little bit like a piece of cloth covering an object: you can see that the form of the cloth is determined by the underlying object, but you cannot totally see the shape of the object. The connection of a facade to the inside of a building might look obvious, but unfortunately it’s not when you look at the majority of architectural productions today.
The first thing I did when I entered the library was go to the toilet. Not because the dean of the Academy of Architecture in Maastricht once told me that you can judge the quality of a building by looking at the toilets, but because I had to use it. Nonetheless the quality of the toilets in this building reflect the qualities of the entire building. Toilets are usually not the place where the architect expresses his architectonic vision and are generally just white tiled nondescript rooms. In the library toilets you can already see the sensitivity to material and space come to live. The painted concrete, cute urinoirs, non-standard sinks and lighting showcase the architect’s love of nice things. It also looks like no two toilets look the same in this building. In the entire building no two spaces look the same. The variety of spatial experiences that the concept of the building creates is fully utilized. There are long narrow spaces of one level and short high spaces of seven levels and every option in between.
I enter the building in what looks like a side entrance. This leads me into a low dark corridor. This corridor opens sideways into broad high stairs that take me up into the light of the massive entrance hall. Like in the classically inspired old libraries you find in America, you have to climb up the knowledge the library holds. You have to put in some effort to get there. This is the Japanese inspired resistance Arets loves put to good use. The architectural trick of starting in a small dark room that leads you to a large bright room to impress the visitor also works well here. Trough the corridor-stair construction it feels like you enter the library trough the belly. The entrance hall is surrounded by a myriad of stairs, levels and rooms. This magnificent composition of architectural elements reminds me of the ‘carceri’ drawings of Piranesi. The building feels rich in space. It is generous with its space. The multilevel spaces invite me to stroll around in the labyrinth without direction or goal. The way-finding signs are small, but for all I care there could have been none at all. I want to get lost. By walking trough the building I loose myself like I loose myself in a good painting or book.
There is a spatial concept at work here that allows the architect to create a spatial sequence that is like watching a movie with its scenes, cuts, flashbacks, flash-forwards, and differences in speed. But the other fascinating concept, that goes hand in hand with the first, is the innovative use of the elements of a library in this age. In this age of internet, who reads books anymore? Why should we keep all these books in a library when a library becomes a place to work or study, alone or in groups? The genius in this library design is that Arets takes qualities of books, other than that they are for reading, at puts them to use in a new way. He treats the books as objects, that don’t necessarily require reading to enjoy. To start with books create an atmosphere of silence, intelligence and class. That’s the reason many people have bookshelves full of unread books in their houses. Secondly he uses the bookshelves as room dividers. Because the bookshelves separate the vast amount of study/work places in the library a natural subdivision of the space is created. Thirdly book work great as sound-absorbers. They create silence. Hard surfaces reflect sound and this library would be an acoustic nightmare without the books. So the library needs the books. Although I saw only 3 people actually taking a book from the shelves during the whole day I was working in the library. This mixture of book and study/work places is a better solution than the library of my alma mater, the Delft University of Technology, designed by Mecanoo. In Delft the book-space and study-space is separated. In Utrecht Arets adds another layer of meaning to books in the library, an architectonic meaning. Next to concrete, glass and steel, books become the 4th main material that is used to create this building. This conceptual and material weaving of form and function is, in combination with the fantastic spatial composition, the greatest achievement in this building.
Just like when I visited the Ando pavilion I didn’t take any pictures of the University library. The architectonic experience cannot be photographed. Parts of the experience can be put in words, parts of it in photographs, parts in video’s, parts in drawings and parts in models. They all point to the architectonic experience, but they are not the architectonic experience.
The exhibition of Wiel Arets, Stills in Schunck* Heerlen, has two faces. It’s made up of four parts. The first part is an exhibition in the cellar of the Glaspaleis and shows photographs, models and presentations of projects on Imacs. The second part is on the first floor and shows video interview portraits of Wiel Arets on various subjects, filmed on various locations, shown on Imacs. The third part in in the staircase and shows Wiel’s inspirations in small photographs and small texts. And the fourth part is in the display window and shows products designed by Wiel. You can divide the exhibition in two parts: one part about the buildings and products and one part about the person behind the designs. One part is very successful in telling the story, one part is very unsuccessful.
The successful part is the part about the person behind the designs: Wiel Arets. In a series of wonderful and well executed video portraits by George Vogelaar, accompanied by a great soundtrack, we get to know more about the thinker Wiel Arets. He shares his thoughts on architecture, education and life in general while being filmed in HD on great locations ranging from his own house to Tokyo to Berlin to Heerlen. We don’t get to see the knowledge of Wiel Arets, but his thinking about things. Every minute of it is inspiring and fascinating. He speaks about the three things that are necessary to be a good architect: you have to weave your identity into your work, you need to master the craft of turning ideas into projects and you need to be able to sell your ideas. And that is exactly what he does, Wiel Arets sells us Wiel Arets, in a good way.
In the basement, where the exhibition of his architecture is, nothing is sold. The material I was looking forward to see: the superbly skillful architecture drawings from the early days with Wim van den Bergh and the magnificent photographs by Kim Zwarts. They were sort of there, but the presentation was so bad that even the good images were killed. The choice of images, the printing, the size and composition of the presentation did not sell the projects, to say the least. There were also Imacs with animations about different projects. They didn’t posses any cinematographic quality. They didn’t sell anything either. Neither did the models. The only thing that worked in the basement were the A3 size booklets on various projects. In these booklets the photographs looked good. On the wall they didn’t. There is no story, no concept that works. The title of the exhibition, ‘Stills’, tells us that the curators wanted the viewer to stand still and take the time to reflect on the projects. Well, that’s the goal of any exhibition I guess. But here there is no still. There is just a chronologically ordered row of images the size of a decent coffee table book. Why would anyone want to go to a gallery to see exactly what you can see in any book on Wiel Arets, in the same quality, in the same size, in the same order? I’ve seen how good photographs of Kim Zwarts can look, if they are printed en presented well at Jo Janssen’s exhibition in Eindhoven in 2008. At Janssen’s show you could also see how a model can work if it is presented next to sections and plans. At the Stills show the models are lost, presented as sculptures, which they aren’t. Wiel speaks to us about the cinematography of good architecture in his video portraits. In the exhibition in the basement I couldn’t find any of that. For the first time the space on museum level -1 looked bad. One of the best things about the current Francis Alÿs show in the Bonnefanten is the room with the colored floor mats on the floor (read my article on the Alÿs exhibition). Because of this intervention you could see the spatial quality of Aldo Rossi’s room. The same goes for the ‘Spiral’ mural by Sol LeWitt in the museum’s tower. The exhibition in the Glaspaleis shows us what an uncomfortable space the basement really is.
Wiel Arets is a good architect. His feeling for concept, space and material are great and can be experienced in his buildings. The problem for any architecture exhibition is to communicate the architectonic experience. This is a hard task. You have to visit the projects to to this. There have been successful solutions to this problem and hopefully there will be more in the future. The exhibition must add something to the experience of visiting the projects. It must show you something new. It must show you something worth the trip to Heerlen.