Interview

Ellen van Loon: Rijnstraat 8

22 December 2017

The OMA partner on the practice's new government facility in The Hague and bringing a sense of theatre to architecture

The day before we visit Rijnstraat 8, the recently completed renovation of a large governmental facility in The Hague, OMA partner Ellen van Loon gives us a tour of the firm’s Rotterdam headquarters and runs through of some her previous projects. They range from the campus for the German publisher Axel Springer, to a bridge in Bordeaux that doubles as a public event space, to a new concept for Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport that transforms it from a shopping limbo into a multi-functional, landscaped city that’s a destination in its own right.

Despite their diversity, her projects share one essential quality: the building is designed as if it were a city – a complex system in which different spaces and uses can alternate, overlap and interact. These buildings are tightly woven into the urban fabric and can even incorporate parts of infrastructure in order to connect, rather than separate, parts of the city. Thus, the recently completed premises of Centrale Supéléc, a large education and research institution near Paris, uses a system of internal streets lit through a giant glass roof. Situated between a future transportation hub and the campus’s other facilities, the scheme fits its Broadway-inspired diagonal indoor avenue into the existing network of streets to create a shortcut for commuters.

Rijnstraat 8, where we meet the next day, was originally designed by Jan Hoogstad for the Netherlands’ former Ministry of Housing, Spatial Planning and the Environment (VROM) and completed in 1992. Its upgrade is the first major step in the optimisation of the Dutch government’s real estate portfolio. The remodelled 85,000 sq m facility houses the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Infrastructure, Public Works and Water Management, the Central Agency for the Reception of Asylum Seekers, and the Immigration and Naturalisation Service, formerly scattered across four separate buildings totalling 180,000 sq m. Its 16 floors can accommodate 6,000 civil servants. Five lower floors – now accessed through a clearly visible main entrance – form a semi-public plinth that provides meeting spaces shared with all other ministries in The Hague, while the upper levels are occupied by offices.

One of the Netherlands’ earliest sustainable buildings, the former VROM headquarters was also the first test for Hoogstad’s “serres" concept. This budget-savvy solution for passive climate control and sound protection was made possible by combining a floor plan that resembled a double-sided comb with a rectangular glass enclosure. The resulting design had a series of glazed atriums between its inner and outer facades, which together formed a thermal shell that also shut out traffic noise, while allowing occupants to open the windows as desired. The conservatory effect helped maintain a comfortable interior temperature, while operable glass roofs allowed for natural ventilation.

OMA’s proposal, developed in cooperation with Hoogstad, builds on this idea while improving the building’s efficiency, connectivity, and the overall experience for residents and visitors. The newly-added structural spine allows for cross-sections through the alternating double- and single-height floors to increase visibility and encourage interaction between departments. Black metal stairs hanging over the atriums provide a healthier – and more thrilling – alternative to elevators. Conventional and somewhat depressing windowless corridors have been replaced by wide, naturally-lit walkways that stretch the entire length of the building, facilitate orientation and create space for relaxation or informal work, enhanced by the panoramic views of The Hague and beyond. The original side wall with loophole-style openings has made way for a fully transparent facade allowing generous amounts of daylight into the reconfigured, now largely open-plan, offices. Overall, some 20% of the original structure has been demolished, with 97% of the materials reused. The building also generates energy by turning waste into biogas and harvesting solar power via rooftop photovoltaic panels.

An existing public passage, enlarged by OMA to the size of a plaza and planted with trees, cuts through the 140m-long facility. This heavily-used pedestrian way connects the Central station in front of Rijnstraat 8 with the busy area behind it, and serves the many train commuters that work in the building. I meet van Loon in the Hofhouse, a glazed food court in the building’s ground floor annex that provides Rijnstraat 8 with an animated “city lobby”. We talk about just that: blending buildings into cities and getting the city inside the building.

A development that creates additional public space or "gives back to the city" in some other way, rather than simply fulfilling its core function, is what the architect expects to create with every project she is involved in. When designing for a private client in a city with limited budget for public works, she feels "almost obliged" to try to open up part of their building for public access."At first, they are scared, but we explain that, as soon as they connect their project to the city and add other functions, they, too, will benefit from this. And they do," says van Loon, who is happy to invest time and energy in the diplomacy and persuasion this requires.

The extra challenge of designing a contemporary governmental facility lies in combining a sense of transparency with the necessary security arrangements. Today, when the design of public buildings has to address the potential threat of terror attacks, architects are challenged to enable the layers of security that could be added when necessary, rather than making people feel as if they were inside a fortress. "A building should be flexible enough to adapt to different circumstances," she says.

Increasing security measures are proving a delicate issue in the Netherlands, a country that has a long-standing tradition of openness. "Here, the prime minister goes to parliament by bike. We are still considering how much of this should be implemented so that the people who require special protection would still be able to enter the building just like anyone else, because in Holland we don’t want this differentiation [between the prime minister and a regular citizen]. We want everybody to be treated in the same way."

In Rijnstraat 8, a sense of openness would have hardly been possible without van Loon’s previous work for the Dutch embassy in Berlin or the Rothschild bank in London. "To open such buildings towards the city, you have to provide what I call invisible security,” she says. “But, to be able to do that, you need some experience because you can’t just hand over your design to security consultants and let them put things on top of it. I had big discussions with security consultants in Rijnstraat 8, but now we have only one security barrier in the main lobby. All other arrangements are invisible, which gives you the freedom to move around the building."

Developing "an architectural concept of how a country represents itself" was another challenge, as Rijnstraat 8 is also the seat of the foreign ministry. To this end, a number of classical elements, such as old Dutch paintings found in the ministry’s archives, were integrated into the contemporary interiors. Van Loon is interested in how a few carefully selected items can shape your perception of a place, as well as in how design can create tension and provoke emotional response: "Rather than working in a building where your emotions remain flat all day long, isn’t it more exciting to move from a dark space to a light-filled one, and have your emotions go up and down? You can take an elevator, but you can also take the stairs that hang over a big atrium. That, I think, makes buildings dynamic."

This is where her expertise in designing theatres and governmental buildings come together. An occasional fragment of the acid yellow staircase sticks out of the orderly rectangular block. Meticulously planned circulation flows and optimised workspace layouts coexist with the trees that grow straight out of the office floor and with curved zig-zag walls that define a group of interlocked meeting rooms (an insider joke using a scaled-up schematic element from architectural drawings). Soaring ten-floor-deep views down a transparent atrium translate the project's structural capacities into a visceral experience.

She traces her insights into the sensory aspects of architecture back to the Casa da Musica in Oporto, her first project as lead architect that was also her first theatre project. "The theatre made me realise that, with minimal tools, you can create a temporary dream world in any building. Every building is, in a way, a theatre; you just set scenes for certain things to happen. In a larger building, you create many scenes, and all these scenes together become like a movie with its own plot."

Another lesson gleaned from designing performance venues, whose function switches from a rehearsal studio during the day to a dreamworld at night, was the importance of creating spaces with an ambience that changes over the course of the day. This brings us back to buildings acting as cities – continuously changing and therefore staying alive throughout the day.

The cafés and bars at the Hofhouse open early in the morning and will soon extend their working hours until 2am. To van Loon, a perfect public building would be the one that remains open around the clock: "It’s never easy, but we always try to stretch the opening hours for as long as possible, so that people could experience the space at different moments during the day."

There are many ways to blend the life of the building into that of the city. In OMA’s ongoing project for Factory, Manchester’s flagship performance venue, the rear wall will be able to open up, turning the city into a backdrop for the show. “A performance that transits into reality is a beautiful way of getting back to everyday life,” says van Loon. In Rijnstrat 8, architecture becomes a means to blend performance and everyday life into a new kind of reality.