Archis 1999 #6

De tempel en het zwarte gat. Twee recente cultuurgebouwen in Nederland / The temple and the black hole. Two recent cultural buildings in the Netherlan

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While anything can be architecture these days, virtually no building task (with the exception perhaps of museums) insists on architecture. Realizing architecture under these conditions is a most individual undertaking. Two recent buildings radically different in both theme and brief – a rock temple and a funeral centre – show just how much leeway there is.

A funeral centre and a rock centre.
Apart from sharing the neutral term ‘centre’, their country of origin and the year of completion, the two buildings have little in common to suggest critiquing them together. True, death is a recurring theme in rock music, and as regards presentation, personal appearance and lifestyle, death plays more than a marginal role for many performers. And just as surely, the funeral business has its theatrical aspects. But links like these are far too flimsy to warrant a comparison. Of greater substance is the role the two phenomena play in our culture. Or perhaps, what they reveal about our culture. Because if there is potential anywhere for architecture, then it is surely here.

A funeral centre and a rock centre. Apart from sharing the neutral term ‘centre’, their country of origin and the year of completion, the two buildings have little in common to suggest critiquing them together. True, death is a recurring theme in rock music, and as regards presentation, personal appearance and lifestyle, death plays more than a marginal role for many performers. And just as surely, the funeral business has its theatrical aspects. But links like these are far too flimsy to warrant a comparison. Of greater substance is the role the two phenomena play in our culture. Or perhaps, what they reveal about our culture. Because if there is potential anywhere for architecture, then it is surely here.

COUNTERCULTURE
Times were when pop music, particularly the rock variety, was closely linked with the idea of a ‘counterculture’. Pop music was itself the counterculture. Rejection and manifesto alike: against mainstream culture and at the same time the alternative way. Crowbar and beacon. Pop music was the manifestation of an attitude, and of a content. However, as is the way in this country, pop culture has got itself embedded in official culture (although this took longer to achieve than recognition of its economic importance; witness the export prizes awarded to Dutch pop/rock groups back in the early seventies).

In the meantime there are subsidy flows, training institutes, facilities, prizes for new and established talent, even a university professorship. Sadly for the counterculture, today pop/rock culture – like immigrant culture, homeless culture, women’s culture, junkie culture, youth culture – is one of the policy areas of the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science (and sometimes of that of Welfare, Health and Sport), and a point of special interest for local councillors.

And so it was that at the end of last year, the first rock music centre built entirely for that purpose opened its doors in Tilburg.013, as the complex is officially known, is a building with a whole range of auditoria and rooms for different types of performance, for practicing and for recording. It has been built entirely to the standards of the Occupational Health and Safety Act, the building decree and all the other legislation and instruments of control designed to protect the individual citizen from danger and nuisance, while employees and users can expect the optimum working conditions.

The whole sits at a strategic site in the city centre (near trains, bars and a parking garage) and was designed by a highly acclaimed and popular architectural office. In short: Dutch rock music now has its own Concertgebouw, even though it is not sited in Amsterdam in a major square or on an imposing stretch of water. Because, for all the pride and euphoria, some qualification is required. To be sure, with this complex pop/rock music, accustomed as it was to recycling and dual use (clubhouse, café-with-shed, disused cinema, redundant church, gymnasium and so on), has gained a facility tailored in every respect to its wants and needs. All the same, the cultural pecking order is still opera house, concert hall, playhouse, theatre and only then pop centre.

A BUILDING WITH CHARACTERISTICS
Immediately after its inauguration, the complex got the thumbs-up from the music press, which was not surprising because the spaces had, by and large, been designed in accordance with the views of the local though sophisticated pop/rock scene: black, vandal-proof and with all the necessary technical equipment.

The eye-catching, raked ‘podium floor’ of the main auditorium derives directly from the former accommodation of Noorderligt, one of the participating organizations in the new complex. In truth, the building didn’t require that much designing and perhaps this is why Benthem Crouwel Architects were chosen for the task. It was a challenging task for all that.

Pop music does not yet possess its own building type and there are few precedents in neighbouring countries. The multifunctional hall Le Zénith in Parc de la Villette in Paris (and a number of clones in the French provinces) was originally built partly for holding pop concerts. But there the isolated location and the purely technical approach have generated a ‘typeless type’. Hardly a source of inspiration for a central city site. On the other hand, the architecture of the bunker-like rock centre in Vitrolles is too way out for Tilburg.

The practice of reproducing pop and rock music live left little room for design, closely recalling in its requirements a cross between an (old-fashioned) football stadium and an avant-garde theatre: the space is a ‘black box’, the public has to stand, and the organizers earn most from beer sales. So all the more ingenuity was called for to organize the hefty programme compactly on the chosen site. Problems for which a solution had to be found included the possibility of using various of the rooms both independently and simultaneously, having separate circuits for the public and performers, foyer and café in one, flexibility as regards capacity (800, 1600 or 2200 fans in the main auditorium, depending on the performance), the site just across from housing for the elderly(!) and, of course, the problems attendant on sound transmission and noise pollution.

Yet it was designing ‘space’ within an envelope determined by local urbanism and the noise contour that proved particularly difficult. Taking the classical example of opera house and theatre, this was found in combining the (main) staircase with the modest cloakroom/foyer. It leaves little room for intermission strolling, an important feature of other cultural temples, but maybe in the pop context this is irrelevant. Here, the logistics of the flow of people is what matters most. The task, an autistic one in planning terms, of keeping the sound inside the building was expressed to the maximum by situating the ‘pop shop’, bar and foyer at ground level on the street side. In that respect, the interactive video art by Gerald van der Kaap is intended to compensate for the lack of visible activity.

The complex is thus the outcome of imitable bedrock decisions loosely held together by an eye-catching skin. Sheathing the volume in a black quilted spread – rubber roof and façade cladding (epdm) filled with glass wool – proved a felicitous choice. Colour and texture are in perfect keeping with the aesthetics of the building’s users who, for the most part, dress uniformly in black. The addition of CDs to the attachment points of the cladding is rather too literal and anecdotal. It is, however, successful from a decorative point of view and a brilliant parody of the flashing lights (theatre!) of a glitzy Las Vegas night club. The complex distinguishes itself from more ‘refined’ cultural buildings while steering clear of a vacant banality.

Nevertheless, it must have been a strange sensation for Benthem Crouwel Architects to find that their manifesto of light, elegant constructions, minimal use of materials and expression through functionality and technique, was of absolutely no avail in this project. They had to take one aesthetic decision after another in a project which had at first seemed solvable without aesthetic intervention.