The Dutch National Archives by Van Eijk & van der Lubbe

The Hague

12 November 2013

The website of the Dutch designers Niels van Eijk & Miriam van der Lubbe describes them as creators of furniture, products, exhibitions, interiors and “spatial concepts for public buildings”.

“Spatial concepts” is a nebulous definition, but its breadth is perhaps the best way of capturing the studio’s recently completed work on the Netherlands’ National Archives in the Hague, a holding facility of 125km worth of archive material from Dutch history. The studio’s redesign of the space spans from large-scale reimagining of layout, through to detailing and accessories such as pillows and tiling. A definition as generous as “spatial concepts” seems apt.

“This archive is the main location for Dutch history, with everything relevant to Dutch governmental history archived there,” says van der Lubbe. “It’s an institute with seven floors of depots filled with beautiful old book and maps. They’ve got the declaration of independence of Holland. But up until now the archive has just focused on, well, archiving.”

Van Eijk & van der Lubbe were approached by the Archives to oversee a redesign of the space, fuelled by the institute’s desire to reimagine itself as a civic tool – a resource that the public would feel as welcome to use as its traditional audience of researchers, historians, writers and journalists.

“They wanted to change the focus of the organisation and present the history it contains to younger generations,” says van der Lubbe. “This building in The Hague was literally a concrete block. Dark, low ceilings and a very close introverted place. If you tried to study there for a day, it must have been like hell.”

The studio’s approach focused on introducing greater warmth and human scale to the archive, a sprawling complex that contains close to 800,000 maps and 1.4m photographs.

Much work centred around the cloister that surrounds the complex’s central courtyard. Van Eijk & van der Lubbe created satellite installations focused on topics documented by the Archives' collection, including genealogy, photography, geography and parliament.

An anarchic arrangement of 25 digital photo frames set in the cloister displays examples from the archive’s collection. Genealogy is approached through a stand modelled after a tree and an installation detailing parliamentary documents is decorated with faux sealing wax. The approach is light, dictated by the project’s democratising brief.

Yet the redesign also feeds into use of the archive. The books stored by the facility are available to the public, but are old and precious. To protect the spines and binding of the books during use, Van Eijk & van der Lubbe designed pillows to rest them on. Mixing modern and historical patterns, the pillows' fabric was developed together with the Netherlands’ Textile Museum.

The emphasis on materiality continues throughout. The archives workshops are outfitted in a mixture of 18th-century Makkum ceramic tiles and modern versions from the Mosa factory in Maastrich, while sunset coloured felt strapping surrounds both the information desks and marks out private space within the complex’s study halls.

“We wanted the building to be approached from a human rather than architectural scale,” says van der Lubbe. “So we tried to get details in there that people can relate to. This felt is very outspoken, it has colour, materiality and a textile expression. You need to feel comfortable in order to study well.”

Alongside such detailing the project also addresses larger issues surrounding layout, just as the studio did in its 2010 redesign of the Muziekgebouw Eindhoven concert hall. Visitor flow through the building is meticulously planned, guiding guests from the central cloister and its satellite exhibitions through to study rooms and workshops.

“We start from the position of the visitor,” says van der Lubbe. “What would they like to experience visiting this building? You divide up the experience you would like them to have and then put that over a floorplan – what’s happening where to this person as they move through the building?”

This focus on the visitor underlies a project aiming to open up one of the Netherlands foremost resources to a wider public. Accessibility is the watchword behind the project, fuelled by the Archives' desire to supplement its rarified existing audience with a more casual user. Van Eijk & van der Lubbe will hope that their spatial concepts are enough to cut through the facility's past fustiness, introducing it to a younger and fresher demographic.