Archis 1995 #12

Hans van Heeswijk

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His imperative demand for craftsmanship and absolute belief in finished detail as conditions for architectural quality took on increased significance during our conversation as his desire to achieve a lucid yet layered architecture. His interpretation of the Vitruvian triumvirate of commodity, firmness and delight, emerged as a guiding principle.

Van Heeswijk has no visionary or speculative ambitions. He prefers to channel his energy into matters for which he is able and willing to bear responsibility and limits himself to that part of the architectural universe that is manageable. The architect should concern himself – and here he quotes a remark by Herman Hertzberger – with making good shoes and not with the direction they walk in. His contacts with his teacher and mentor Hertzberger and his early work experience with Carel Weeber and then the Van Eyck/Bosch office decisively influenced his approach to the profession. After Weeber’s hierarchical style, and strict separation of design and execution, the creative involvement in the design at Van Eyck/Bosch, which extended beyond completion, was a chastening experience.
Although he worked there for over four years, the concepts and architecture of that office left few traces in his own work, at least from the time he set up on his own, except possibly for the principle of positively assessing that which already exists. Van Heeswijk’s prime focus is not the place as architectural theme, but the pursuit of transparency and lucidity in the spatial organization, a lucidity that for him has a social significance. This explains his liking for steel and glass, which is inevitably accompanied by a fascination with the designs and products of the offshore industry, (luxury) shipbuilding and aviation. He regards the products of these worlds as far superior to those of the building industry. In this he agrees with other architects classified as Hi-Tech. He too sees architectural quality as following directly from the sensitive use of contemporary materials and construction techniques. In this sense he regards his wide-ranging practice as a laboratory: each project builds on an earlier one and is an attempt to take the insights and skills gained a step further or to transfer them to a new field. Thus, the infills in Amsterdam’s Dapperbuurt are an experiment in applying office construction techniques to social housing, in particular working with prefabricated concrete elements and cladding systems. Rather different, but no less illustrative, is the influence in his work of (luxury) shipbuilding. Through his contacts in this field Van Heeswijk discovered that there it was quite normal to use one’s thorough knowledge of production potential and techniques to invent construction elements and have them specially made. Thus when working on showcases for the art lending library in Breda, he designed attractive bolts and found a manufacturer for them. Because of the small number produced, they turned out to be an expensive proposition, but in later projects they were used in larger numbers which served to bring costs down.
Here the architect breaks free of the builder’s catalogue and building conventions and makes the battle for appropriate detail one of the chief concerns of his work. So it is all the more surprising that in Van Heeswijk’s architecture construction and detail, rather than draw attention to themselves, withdraw in favour of space and the filtering effect of the facade. In this respect Foster is a more important reference point than Calatrava, though the occasional entrance canopy and his still half-completed bridge to the KNSM island in Amsterdam might suggest otherwise. The latter project ties in with his experience as regional supervisor and designer for the State Department of Roads and Waterways, a function where the engineer’s role is much more central.
He himself suspects that his work is held in high esteem by his colleagues (an ‘architect’s architect’), in that several of his commissions came to him through fellow architects. These briefs often had a history of rejected designs proposals, and some way of avoiding an impasse had to be found. Van Heeswijk’s modest attitude to the context and the elegance of the architectural images devised repeatedly proved time and again a successful solution to the problems, as in the case of the offices next to Mart Stam’s Geïllustreede Pers building on Stadhouderskade in Amsterdam and the VSB offices on Houtplein in Haarlem. Both illustrate his efforts to achieve slender, lightweight construction with simple, refined detailing, and show a preference for symmetrical facades freed from the adjoining buildings. The autonomous glass lift shaft – a recurrent feature of Van Heeswijk’s designs – has a part to play here, though it more generally underlines his desire for maximum transparency. That a glass lift shaft or stair tower set on the street enlivens up the street scene doesn’t seem to be the main consideration. The motive is rather to render the spatial organization as transparent as possible and to subdivide the building down to the structure into served and servant areas.
It is remarkable that Van Heeswijk is so successful in what are restricted situations, infill projects, for instance. His liking for uncomplicated solutions, linearly organized if possible, would seem to refute this. These projects exhibit a certain tension between the building as object and as part of a greater whole; because of the inevitably two-dimensional nature of a facade and the restraint of the architecture, it doesn’t come to a foreground conflict. It only becomes visible in some of the free-standing designs: the form then turns out not to be an independent category in the design, and this is reflected in buildings which are, as it were, an extrusion of their cross-section, with or without round ends to give them an ‘object-like’ look. The Dapperbuurt housing project occupies an intriguing intermediate position. The sequence of ‘dwelling bays’, which marks the project as a component part, is carefully separated from the adjacent premises through set-back balconies at the ends, thus emphasizing the building’s autonomy. It shows that the aspect most instrumental in reducing the contrasts between the modernity of Van Heeswijk’s work and its historic context to modest proportions is his respect for and appreciation of existing architecture. In this way these infill projects meet – deliberately or otherwise – his own criterion of delight.