words Kieran Long
UN Studio’s latest building is, perhaps, typically Dutch. A staid, cool exterior, and a bleeding heart interior – a kaleidoscopic courtyard as a metaphor for the repressed human desires of the office worker. Or perhaps it’s just a clever bit of material innovation that has been extended over the skin of a boring building type.
Either way, UN Studio’s office building is very beautiful, and probably creates the most characterful place in the whole of Almere.
The calm-to-the-point-of-bland silver perimeter block is perhaps more what Almere is used to. The new town is in the Flevopolder area near the edge of Amsterdam, and was planned in 1976 with a very suburban grain. The residents’ desire to have single family houses added to the highly divided transport system (separate street systems exist for buses, cars, bicycles and pedestrians) meant that the town lacked any kind of public realm. A new masterplan by OMA is now under construction, which attempts to densify the town centre and to provide cultural facilities and public buildings, such as a theatre designed by Alsop Architects. The office is UN Studio’s second project in Almere after their waterside apartments, completed in 2001 as part of the housing expo in the town.
This office building, undertaken by a private developer on a previously unoccupied site, provides 23,000sq m of office space, and 500 parking spaces on two levels below the podium of the building. The project occupies a whole block near the central station, and mediates two markedly different zones of the town. One is a classic business park layout, with streets meant only for cars and broadly anonymous corporate curtain-walled architecture. The other zone is characteristic Dutch suburban housing – rows of pitched-roof semi-detached houses punctuated by cycle lanes and sensitive street furniture. It’s all as dull as ditchwater.
UN Studio’s building appears as a kind of citadel in relation to the housing, with its strong perimeter and elevated podium. This perimeter is broken twice, and both entrances to the inner courtyard involve grand ramps or stairs, taking you up to the courtyard level. It plays the fortress to the smallholdings of the suburbs outside.
In plan, the building consists of two interlocking blocks, one C-shaped and the other E-shaped, creating a meandering courtyard. The middle arm of the E-shaped block has a monumental rectangle cut out of it at ground level, leaving an island block in the middle of the courtyard that is linked to the perimeter at a higher level. The development thus laid out has been sculpted and cut to mediate the light falling into the courtyard, and to relate in scale to the three-storey height of the housing facing the east and north side of the block and the higher office buildings to the south. This is expressed in the faceted roofscape of the building, which forms attic-like pitched roofs in some of the top floor office spaces, giving a certain character to the otherwise ordinary office floorspace. However, one of these pitched sections creates such wicked reflections that the building opposite has to pull down its blinds.
The material used for the inward-facing surfaces of the courtyard is absolutely extraordinary. Developed in collaboration with high-tech materials manufacturer 3M, it consists of stippled glass with an adhesive film that changes colour as the sun moves around the building, and as you observe the building from different angles. The colours are probably even brighter than they appear in these pictures. The material is 99% reflective, and even throws coloured shadows onto the grey courtyard floor.
The cladding material is like glass with a veil of virtual taffeta behind it. It looks at once computer generated and holographic, with colours ranging from aquamarine to vermilion as the sun travels across the sky. Caroline Bos, with her characteristically whimsical narrative about the project, describes how the intention is to make people keenly aware of time passing, and to attempt to give the habitual life of the office worker a degree of ceremony or ritual: “Eight-thirty in the morning, red time: men and women enter their offices. Eleven o’clock, orange time. Seven, meetings start. Two-thirty, blue time – a few later eaters are enjoying a company lunch,” and so on. The buildings track the sun, and reflect the weather – on dull days the building’s character changes again. The passage of time is dramatised and represented on the walls of the courtyard, and the passage of the sun is represented on the courtyard floor, where subtle shades of grey paint have been used to mark the places where certain shadows fall at certain times of the year.
The colourful cladding panels are combined with bronzed windows, although with the reflections from the colours all around it, you wouldn’t notice it as the bronzed glass of 1980s office buildings. Directly above and below the windows are coloured panels that cast an iridescent purple light into the office space.
The courtyard is a special place. It’s like walking into a kaleidoscope – just sheer colourful beauty for its own sake. The planning of the building has created strange eddies of wind that twirl stray leaves around surreally, as the background shimmers. It is hard to tell from the evidence of one visit whether the acid-trip of the courtyard would get wearing if you had to look at it all day, every day. But from inside the light is attenuated and, while colourful, it doesn’t seem overwhelming. The comparison with the outer facade is stark, and looking out of the clear glass of the perimeter is like suddenly taking a coloured filter off a camera – both revealing and a relief.
UN Studio has used this material again on a building in Seoul that is shortly to be completed. However, whereas in Seoul the skin is an array of discs used as the eye-catching billboard of a boutique, the inner courtyard of this speculative office building is pure indulgence. The question is to what degree the courtyard will remain open to the public and become a regular detour for the residents of the surrounding areas. This courtyard is a wonderful secret – like the pearlescent interior of a seashell. It is a noble attempt to make a gratuitous piece of decoration in a town with little soul.