With two separate buildings, Holland's National Heritage Museum bears witness to the singular talent of Mecanoo Architecten
Cindy Coleman -- Interior Design, 5/1/2003 12:00:00 AM
In the middle of the Arnhem forest, some 60 miles southeast of Amsterdam, stand two radically different buildings. One is long, rectangular, and faced in brick. The second takes the form of an oblate spheroid, clad in copper panels and partially sunken in the ground. Both, however, represent the vision of a single firm, Mecanoo Architecten, for a single cultural institution, the Nederlands Openluchtmuseum or National Heritage Museum.
Mecanoo's concept for the dual design is nevertheless more of-a-piece than it might first appear. Taken together, the buildings unite nature and architecture to tell the story of a national culture. Natural wood, clay, and copper mingle with man-made brick, glass, steel, and concrete. "We used materials to represent the landscape and history of Holland as well as the craftsmanship unique to this region," says Mecanoo cofounder Francine Houben, the project's lead architect.
The rectangular building, the museum's main pavilion, features a 470-foot-long front facade that pays homage to local bricklaying traditions. "The wall is composed of 40 different styles of Dutch brick, varying in color, size, and structure. It's a retrospective of the innovative joint techniques and patterning done by famous Dutch architects," explains Houben. These include Hendrik Petrus Berlage and Willem Marinus Dudok, known respectively for the DeBeurs stock exchange in Amsterdam and the Utrecht Municipal Theater.
In contrast to the brick, the entire rear elevation of the main pavilion is glazed, offering views of the surrounding meadow and the museum's 18th-century windmill and farm buildings. To minimize glare inside the glazed wall, Houben built an awninglike structure of Douglas-fir beams that extend outward 5 feet. "It's like holding your hand above your eyes when looking toward the sun," she says. The interior portion of those same beams forms the semi-open ceiling for the multifunctional ground floor.
This 8,700-square-foot double-height space comprises a lecture hall, areas for individual research, a café, and a gift shop. Addressing flooring for this vast expanse, Mecanoo embedded found objects, including Dutch coins and beads, into poured concrete—a process similar to the terrazzo technique. "The randomly placed curiosities function as reminders of the past," says Houben. Adjacent to the gift shop and café, cobblestones are sunken in the concrete, like a fossilized carpet.
Above the gift shop hovers one of the interior's most striking elements. It's the varnished oak-veneered plywood "box" that holds the museum's 540-square-foot administrative offices, reached by painted-steel stairs. The gift shop and adjoining café are enclosed in another "box," this one composed of red-lacquered MDF mobile partitions. Set on wheels that glide over recessed tracks in the floor, the partitions allow the box to open during peak visiting hours and close at less busy times.
The ground floor also serves as a visitor center and an open-plan lecture hall for large tour groups. For students and others investigating the museum collection in more depth, Houben placed a custom reading table in the center. Most visitors, however, proceed directly down to the museum's 8,900-square-foot lower level, where textiles and jewelry are displayed.
Devoid of natural light—a boon to textile preservation—this level is divided into two rooms. Both have 13-foot ceilings, adjustable lighting, and flexible freestanding display fixtures. The smaller houses the permanent collection's traditional Dutch clothing and jewelry, which once belonged to Queen Wilhelmina. The larger is for temporary exhibits on current social issues.
From this lower level, an underground passage leads to the museum's second structure, the copper-encased multimedia theater kitschily named HollandRama. Black fireproof polyester drapes the interior walls and ceilings of the 6,900-square-foot space. Custom plywood benches stand on a platform that rises, shifts, and rotates during the 20-minute presentation.
This original show further explores the cultural heritage of the Netherlands, drawing on theatrical lighting, sound effects, and fluctuations of temperature and scent. "During the presentation, the audience hears familiar sounds, smells familiar smells, and experiences shifts in comfort levels, both physical and psychological," says Houben. "Peace, nostalgia, cold, fear, discomfort, beauty, and sorrow—emotions that color our history—are all experienced." Images of World War II strike a somber note, while happier years are conjured by the aroma of coffee brewing or even the metallic scrape of skates on ice.