Amsterdam 3: Kraanspoor
It takes the ferry twenty minutes from Amsterdam Central Station to get to the NDSM wharf. When the weather isn’t too bad, it’s quite a convenient tour. The ferry moves passed the Silodam building by MVRDV and docks next to an old Soviet submarine.
At the NDSM wharf, the city seems distant. There is an old warehouse now occupied by MTV Holland. There is a bigger warehouse inhabited by artists. There are container-dwellings for students. But most of all there is an upfront emptiness. Large stretches of land lay bare, waiting for something to happen.
A long building stretches over the horizon. It is one of the most remarkable buildings to have been realized in the Netherlands in the past year. It is called Kraanspoor, ‘crane rail’. With effectively three floors of office space, it really isn’t that big. But being placed on top of a concrete structure, it now towers over most of the surrounding structures. A landmark.
Kenneth Frampton would probably be tempted to call it a ‘megaform’, a massive structure that inscribes a moment of order on the city. With the form of the building following the form of the quay, it is however not so much the building that imposes an order, but the quay.
The appropriation of the old concrete frame is an interesting case. Years ago steel cranes drove the structure up and down on a set of rails. Now it is just… architecture. I am hesitating to write this, because: does architecture require functionality? That is a serious question. The concrete structure here decreases the functionality of the office building. It is inefficient and expensive.
I wonder, is this pure representation? Might this be the single biggest ornament integrated in a design last year?
I believe so. In the nineteenth century ornament was mostly applied to emphasize the importance of a building. The iconographic ornament was used to illustrate the program, it’s content, but often also to relate the building to its context. The concrete frame of the Kraanspoor building does both: it raises an otherwise small building from the ground, making the building more visible, increasing its importance; the iconography of the concrete frame points to its industrial roots (the harbor), thereby relating the building to the landscape.
The double representation of the concrete frame (importance, context) leaves the slab on top with only the third representation: the program. Although it seems like such a representation is missing, as there is not one specific user of the building that is illustrated in the façade or the form of the building, we could argue that the building looks like an office building (double glass façade, no loggia’s) and that it also certainly looks generic, because it is generic.
I don’t agree with Willem-Jan Neutelings’ somewhat rigid argument that iconography should only be applied to (future) monuments, but I do think he has a point in his claim that there should be a architectural hierarchy between buildings that are important in a city (like public buildings) and buildings that are not so important (like generic housing or offices). In the case of the generic office building at the NDSM wharf the representation seems to be simply overdone. The architecture is overwhelming, the program banal.
The Kraanspoor building is a prototype of a new architecture that is emerging all over the world. In this architecture historical artifacts are used as ornament. It is Interesting to see that these artifacts often weren’t designed to be representational in any way. The concrete frame of the Kraanspoor building wasn’t. The re-appropriation of the artifact changes its meaning.
One now can imagine any modern architecture attached to any historical artifact. Herzog & de Meuron’s Caixa Forum in Madrid and Philharmonie in Hamburg are great examples. In both cases the old buildings were/are completely emptied. The façade is the only thing remaining. All functionality is removed, all that is left is ornament.
The case of the Kraanspoor building is also intriguing, because it’s a pure example of the ‘decorated shed’ that Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown recognized in Las Vegas. The three-story office slab is the ‘honest’, utilitarian, Modernist box Venturi and Scott Brown have always adored. The ornament, in this case the concrete frame, is ‘honestly’ separated from the box, also just how they liked it. One could even say the ornament ‘sells’ the building to people visiting. The big difference is off course that the ornament here isn’t a billboard, but a historical artifact.
I have been wondering for some time now why the ornament in architecture still isn’t been applied more than it is, not even by young architects. I suppose change takes time. But it also seems I was looking in the wrong direction. Ornament is on its way back into architecture through the backdoor. With ‘preservation’ as the perfect excuse, architects turn historical artifacts in ornaments.
As it is not so much educated at schools, ornament often still equals ‘sin’ in many offices. But ornament is also fashionable. The appropriation of historical artifacts is a way out of that dilemma. As architect you can always say: I wasn’t me who designed this ornament, it was history.
Somewhat related: Goooood!