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Articulating the Genius Loci

A Methodology on Architectural Re-Use



In the past decades, architecture has regained its interest to relate to the past and the genius loci. When designing interventions in an historic context the main question to be answered is how to preserve the existing qualities within the new intervention? “A successful intervention gives an old building or ensemble a new impulse, without touching its soul or spoiling its ambience. The trick is to let buildings change, while they still remain themselves.” 1

This essay is a critical reflection on different approaches in the design of interventions for built heritage. On the basis of a number of example projects, I will illustrate my approach to the redevelopment of heritage. The main question to be answered in this essay is: how to deal with conservation and change in the redevelopment of build heritage?

Different approaches of different architects

The approach of landscape architect Michael van Gessel

Articulating the strength of existing features and removing all the clutter, to create a clear, serene and spacious landscape. This is the way Michael van Gessel works as a landscape architect. With his strong sense for historic qualities, Van Gessel transforms the landscape in a way that makes it seem like nothing has changed.

One of his projects is park Twickel, a centuries old park in the east of The Netherlands, which was neglected and grown out of proportion. Van Gessel studied the history of the park, to learn why it developed into what it is now. The park shows a layering in time; the layout of the park was altered several times in history, from Renaissance to Baroque, followed by Rococo and Romantic landscape styles. Van Gessel took the next step in which he proceeded from the last design, which dates from 1887, and investigated how much he could incorporate from previous stages. He describes his task as: “articulating what is already there, making things even more distinct and leaving some things out” 2. This means increasing certain features while taking others away.

Van Gessel remains a curious and modest man, with a very down-to-earth approach to his practice. He hates adding things just to show you have been there as an architect, this, he says, has to do with the ego of the architect.
The approach of Van Gessel for the Twickel park in The Netherlands is quite similar to the approach of David Chipperfield Architects for the Neues Museum in Berlin. Which will be discussed in the following chapter.

The approach of David Chipperfield Architects

With the renovation of the Neues Museum in Berlin David Chipperfield Architects won both the Europa Nostra Award for European cultural heritage and the Mies van der Rohe Award for contemporary architecture. It is remarkable for a restauration project to be evenly successful as a contemporary architecture project.

The Neues Museum (New Museum) sits in the middle of the Museum Island in Berlin. It was build as an extension of the Altes Museum (Old Museum) designed by Friedrich Stüler between 1841 and 1859. Extensive bombing during World War II left the building in ruins with some sections severely damaged and others completely destroyed. The building was not re-erected during the DDR period like all the other museums on the island. Neither was the ruin removed. So it stood for more than sixty years, almost half of its life, as a ruin.

When considering the way forward, it was clear that the ruin should not be interpreted as a backdrop for a completely new architecture but neither was an exact reconstruction of what had been irreversibly lost in the war seen as an option. Chipperfield in an interview with De Kort Van Schaik 3: “The worst thing in my opinion would have been trying to recreate the original building with all the decorations. It would not only leave the war out but also a hundred years of historical intellectual development. You would go back to a sort of heroic simplification of history as a linear thing on the walls.”

Alexander Schwarz, design director at the Berlin office of David Chipperfield Architects and responsible for the design of the Neues Museum, explains 4 that there are three different realities of the Neues Museum, which could be possible points of reference for the redevelopment of the museum:

  1. The original idea of the design of the museum reflected by the first masterplan of the Museum Island; an acropolis like structure in a flat Berlin, with the Neues museum as a freestanding extension of the Altes Museum, linked by a bridge.

  2. The state of the museum just before World War II; a treasure house with grand collections.

  3. The reality of the ruin; the state of the building in which the architects found the building.

The presence of the ruin was the most thrilling starting point. The ruin was a powerfull physical space with a raw material quality. The genius loci of the ruin fascinated the architects. However, the task was not to preserve the ruin. The task was to rebuild the museum. This meant the task of the architects was to intergrate the ruin into a new structure, working as a museum, no longer being a ruin. The key aims of the project were to recomplete the original volume and to repair and restore the parts that remained after the destruction of World War II. A single continuous structure that incorporates nearly all of the available damaged fabric while allowing a series of contemporary elements to be added became the preferred path.

The restoration and repair of the existing elements of the building were driven by the idea that the spatial context and materiality of the original structure should be emphasised; the contemporary reflects the lost but without imitating it. The original sequence of rooms was restored with newly built sections that create continuity with the existing structure. All the gaps in the existing structure were filled in without competing with its brightness or surface. But architecture always has a material, with an expression, it is not neutral. The main issue to be tackled by the architects was: how to recomplete the volume of the building? And with what material?

The brick volumes that were missing on the outside of the building were recreated by a continuous material, which is reclaimed brick. The recycled handmade bricks have a slight color range, complementing the preserved sections.
The new exhibition rooms are built of prefabricated concrete elements. The original layout of the main staircase was recreated, because the circulation only made sense with this diagonal movement. Formed from the same concrete elements, the new main staircase repeats the formal idea of the original without replicating it.

For every room in the museum the question was asked: what to do to bring forward the material that survived? This one question let to very different results for every room. Sometimes the walls were plastered, sometimes they were not.

Within the design approach of David Chipperfield Architects the emphasis was on bringing forward and recompleting what is already there, rather then on inventing a new quality. This approach is similar to the vision of Michael van Gessel of ‘articulating what is already there’. Just like Van Gessel, David Chipperfield Architects build out of what excisted. However, the new additions remember what was there, but do not recreate it. The new is not copying the old, but remembers what is lost in a new form. Furthermore, David Chipperfield Architects is not so much interested in the border between new and old, like Carlo Scarpa, but in the transition between new and old: how does new and old make a new whole thing?

An approach which is in my eyes completely the opposite of Van Gessel and Chipperfield is the aproach of Benthem Crouwel Architects within the design of the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam.

The approach of Benthem Crouwel Architects

In 2004 Benthem Crouwel Architects was tasked with redeveloping the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. The old Stedelijk, a red-and-white-striped late 19th-century Neo-Renaissance brick building, designed by Adriaan Weissman in 1895, no longer satisfied modern requirements. It had to be expanded and renovated at the same time.

The museum pioneered the collection of modern art and design in postwar Europe. In 1938 Willem Sandberg stripped the interior of decoration and painted it white, putting exhibits into stark contrast with their setting. The white-box interior was widely imitated. This reality was the starting point for Benthem Crouwel Architects for the design of a new extension to the old building which appears from the outside to be an entirely smooth white volume, known by the nickname “the bathtub”.

Benthem Crouwel started the design process by examing if the old building could remain unchanged and if the entrance of the building could remain in the same location. Because of the requirements and whishes of the museum it became clear that this was not possible. Because the architects did not want to “create a pavilion in the backyard” 5 of the old building, the entrance was radically relocated from the Van Baerlestraat to a new building at the Museumsquare. This would transform the undefined corner at the Museumsquare into a public space. That is why the new building has a large canopy. That is why all public functions, such as the entrance desks, museum shop and restaurant are located in a large open, transparent space from which the floor continues to the outside square.

Since its re-opening, the new extension by Benthem Crouwel receives both praise and criticism. The new building is unmistakably different in appearance from the original structure. It is completely the opposite of the old brick building by Weissman which is restored in its original state as much as possible. In the entrance hall opposites collide with each other ruthlessly, just as Sandberg had transformed the interiors.

Furthermore the exterior and interior of the buildings do not have any relation. The new ground-floor and upstairs galleries flow imperceptibly into the old Stedelijk’s rooms, which got the same interior finishing.

The approach of Benthem Crouwel for the Stedelijk Museum is clearly different from the approach of Van Gessel and Chipperfield. Whereas Chipperfield’s and Van Gessel’s emphasis lies on bringing forward an recompleting what is already there, Benthem Crouwel’s emphasis lies on inventing a new quality. The new extension is deliberately contrasting with the old in stead of completing it or working together to make a new whole thing. The old building has become the decor of the new building as the new building stands in front of the old.

My own vison on the approach

My own approach would be more like the approach of Van Gessel and David Chipperfield Architects; putting the emphasis on bringing forward and recompleting the genius loci that is already present in the excisting, rather then on inventing a new quality.

I developed a scheme which illustrates the design process of a redevelopment project. This proces starts with the analysis of the existing, its history from context to detail. The second step is to quanitfy the results of the analysis. Making a thorough value assesment and identifying the different realites of the project. Once these conclusions of the analysis are drawn, the interpretation starts. Questions that have to be answered are: What is the main question within the project? What is the most important reality of the project? This is the starting point of the design proces. Within the scheme this is illustrated by a chain, which connects analysis and design. During a design project there is a constant alternation between design and analysis. The conclusions drawn from the analysis are the driving force behind the design process. However, the design process is bigger than a direct translation of the results of the analysis. Design solutions are assessed against the results from the analysis and can raise new questions. In both the analysis and the design process the different scales of context, object and detail are present.

  1. Job Roos, De ontdekking van de opgave, 2007
  2. Michael van Gessel in Dutch Profiles
  3. Link
  4. Lecture by Alexander Schwarz, 30-03-2015, Eindhoven University of Technology
  5. The New Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam

“A successful intervention gives an old building or ensemble a new impulse, without touching its soul or spoiling its ambience. The trick is to let buildings change, while they still remain themselves.”

Job Roos, 2007