words Oliver Wainwright"It's not quite Psychedelic Brutalism, but it's aspiring to be something like that," says Sam Jacob of FAT, the London-based purveyor of Fashion, Architecture and Taste responsible for "The Villa", a new community centre on the outskirts of Rotterdam, which blends flamboyant civic ambition with prosaic budget reality. Deep in the industrial hinterland of the city's sprawling port, sandwiched in a reluctant buffer zone between the world's largest chemical plant and an ailing 1950s suburb, FAT has been working to develop a new civic hub. Party hall, conference centre and community cafe in one, the souped-up Wendy house sits in its own expansive grounds in a surreal interpretation of the Dutch heerlijkheid, or feudal manor, appropriated in cartoon style for the common good. "It's a stately home for the community," says Jacob, "but it's built out of tarmac and grass in the cheapest way possible." And it looks a bit like the lord of the manor went to Ikea on LSD.
The project is the largest and most visible part of the regeneration of the dull suburb of Hoogvliet, a failed modernist experiment in utopian New Town planning, now run-down, fractured, and racially divided. Over the past six years, the challenge of rethinking this moribund place has been choreographed by Wouter Vanstiphout and Michelle Provoost of Crimson Architectural Historians, who came together with others to form WiMBY! ("Welcome into My Back Yard!") in a provocative take on the ingrained "NIMBY" attitude of the region's white, middle-class suburbanites.
"We have this strange, almost perverse, interest in conflict, in contradictions and in stories," says Vanstiphout. Fascinated by the successive mutations of Hoogvliet from a small fishing village to an industrial dormitory town, then from a white suburb to an immigrant melting pot, they were keen to promote the resulting patchwork of convoluted fragments as the town's main strength. "We were attracted to it because it had failed. If a New Town works, it's a one-liner, it's completely monocultural. But through its serial failure, Hoogvliet has become an incredibly rich place."
From the beginning, it was their ambition to reflect this heady mix of stories, of failed ambitions and frustrated dreams, in a brave new form of civic architecture. FAT caught the attention of WiMBY! in 2000 with its New Civic art project for King's Cross, an exploration of civic values for the new millennium, and its polemical exhibition Kill the Modernist Within, which trumpeted a revival of vernacular iconography. "FAT is all about narrative, and we wanted an architecture that tells a story, a kind of Bible for the poor," explains Vanstiphout. "The idea was to monumentalise our idea of Hoogvliet as a city that is interesting because of all its conflicting identities, forms and ideologies."
With this direction, FAT began a programme of cultural observation by drifting through the dilapidated streets of Hoogvliet in the mode of suburban flâneur - somewhere between Baudelaire's "botanist of the sidewalk" and Dame Edna's Neighbourhood Watch - looking into people's front gardens and analysing the artefacts of their domestic dreams. "We were trying to recognise the narratives of occupation, the layers of stuff that gets applied by people living there," says Jacob. "Somehow the project would have to be embedded in this kind of stuff."
Through this process, it attempted to distil an essence of Hoogvliet's hybrid urban condition and develop a visual language that would reflect the town's innate contradictions between pastoral and industrial, rural and urban, ambitious utopia and banal reality. "But we're not image consultants," Jacob argues. "We're more like Wordsworth, wandering down the hard shoulder of the motorway."
Early ideas for both the form and programme of the building were tested though a series of annual summer festivals, in which the town's innumerable disparate groups were brought together by WiMBY! in a collective mêlée of pony-rides and model boat demonstrations, reggae bands and ageing crooners, set against a FAT-designed stage set, a bright red plywood cut-out in their emerging style of abstracted Hoogvliet iconography. "The intention was that it would become a kind of social condenser, to counteract the distance that normally exists between these various groups," says Jacob. "It was also a means to promote and sell our architectural language to the public," their buy-in being essential for a project with such broad social ambition.
The resulting Villa and Heerlijkheid park are a distillation of the activities of successive festivals, providing a permanent home for the eccentric clubs and ephemeral cultural events of the town which lay dormant and hidden, tucked away in garages and classrooms, in neighbourhoods listed for demolition. "It was a process of looking for all the little clubs and foundations in Hoogvliet," explains Vanstiphout, "then bringing them together in a kind of parallel alternative urban centre, with its own cultural vitality."
As the climax of six years of exhaustive consultation, the building is bursting at the seams with rhetorical content. Essentially an industrial shed - the predominant local vernacular - the blue blockwork box is wrapped in a monumental super-graphic facade, depicting the story of Hoogvliet in an abstract collage. A rustic timber frieze envelops the upper storey in a tour de force of symbolism, where cut-out domestic rooftops merge into cartoon tree canopies, which in turn meld into vertical structures referenced from the port and refinery, and back into the monotonous strip-window world of the New Town, while a ridiculous riot of trees and clouds extruded in golden polyurethane trumpets the main entrance. It's a Venturian "decorated shed" taken to the extreme. "The sign has enveloped and grown all over the architecture," says Jacob, "like a mould obsessed with graphic design."
The interior is a much more prosaic, but equally coded, affair. Greeted by an exposed steel frame and bare blockwork, it is clear that much of the building's €2.4 million budget went on the facade, yet there is still acute attention to visual association. The stair is a cheap metal affair, but articulated with the sweeping ambition of a much grander civic building, while the steel cross-bracing of the walls recalls the mock-Tudor cladding of some of Hoogvliet's more aspirational residences. Exploiting the site's troubled context, a strategically placed double-height window allows the spectacular nighttime theatre of flames and flashing lights from the nearby refinery to provide a dramatic backdrop to parties. Open only for a few weeks, this flexible space has already hosted Antillean raves, Turkish and Moroccan weddings, a chamber orchestra and a circumcision party.
The inflated cartoon Villa sits within an equally stylised landscape of caricatures: an impossibly curvy comic book hill (built with surrounding toxic landfill) frames a new lake carved in the shape of the Netherlands, while rustic log benches with bright pink inserts dot the shore. An ecological kids' playground has already seen toddlers wrestling with wattle and daub, while plans for a pet cemetery were foiled by the Tree Knights, a militant group of arboreal activists, which has taken the site for its arboretum - just one of the many squabbles of the park's development. "We were dealing with a real community," recalls Vanstiphout, "in that they also hated each other."
The first of a series of "hobby huts" is in place, a miniature palace in yellow profiled steel and plywood, to house the model boat-building club. Soon to be joined by other bespoke huts with glamorous aspirations, the motley jumble will form a kind of miniature model urbanism, providing homes for Hoogvliet's weird and wonderful societies along the edge of the park.
Already embraced by a complete cross-section of the town's diverse demographic, there is hope that this whimsical intervention, driven through by a model of considered long-term consultation, will change the fortunes of this maligned New Town and help to welcome more people into its backyard.
All images: Rob Parrish