Biq and Korth Tielens’s housing at Leidsche RijnSource: Stefan Müller
New housing at Leidsche Rijn, the Netherlands’ largest Vinex estate, offers an urban counterpoint to the surrounding development
In his new book, Town Planning in the Netherlands since 1800, the architectural historian Cor Wagenaar concludes that the construction of the Vinex estates is likely to be the last concerted housebuilding campaign that his country undertakes.
Fast approaching its target of delivering 828,000 homes, Vinex — a contraction of Vierde Nota Extra (Fourth Memorandum, Extra), the 1988 legislation that brought the programme into being — has decisively addressed the housing crisis that the Dutch faced two decades ago.
Now, Wagenaar suggests, “it is not expansion which appears to be the main challenge of the future, but the prospect of declining economic and demographic growth”.
While most Vinex projects had the good fortune to complete before the downturn took effect, Leidsche Rijn, which lies to the immediate west of Utrecht, was always going to require a longer delivery period. By far the largest of the Vinex schemes, this community of an anticipated 80,000 residents was initially scheduled to be built by the year 2025, but given Dutch developers’ current rate of production that goal now seems optimistic in the extreme.
In fact, just about the only housing currently on site at Leidsche Rijn is that being built by housing associations. There is some irony in this. Vinex’s mission was never simply one of hitting housebuilding targets — it was also intended as a tool to help sever the Netherlands’ long-held attachment to rental housing. In support of a decidedly Thatcherite vision of a nation of owner-occupiers, the proportion of public housing allowed in any Vinex development was capped at 30%.
These tensions are clear to see at Grauwaart, one of the neighbourhoods at Leidsche Rijn currently in development. The overall masterplan for the estate is focused on a large, centrally located park. The area to the west of the park is intended to present a quasi-rural quality, while that to the east (which adjoins Utrecht’s periphery) is to be more urban. Grauwaart lies within the urban half. Its Franz Ziegler-designed plan — each neighbourhood is the subject of its own plan developed by a different architect — establishes a matrix of closed perimeter blocks, the scale and grain of which are intended to evoke the character of 19th century Rotterdam. To date, however, the only completed block is one undertaken by the housing association Bo-Ex; all else is open field.
This block is the work of two architects, Korth Tielens and Biq, each of which has designed an abutting building with a C-shaped plan. Korth Tielens’s is a three-storey terrace that fronts onto the green corridor that forms Grauwaart’s western boundary. Biq’s is two storeys taller and addresses the trafficked boulevard that forms the neighbourhood’s spine. Grauwaart is almost exclusively a development of houses, but both of these buildings also incorporate apartments.
Ziegler has generally sought to emphasise the house over the block, by restricting plot sizes and employing a large number of architects, but quite what those expectations implied in the case of the Bo-Ex block was far from clear. Certainly, Biq and Korth Tielens were resistant to the idea of introducing a more picturesque massing than the typology demanded. In the discussions with Ziegler, the architects pointed to the presence of hospitals and prisons in 19th century Rotterdam as evidence that Grauwaart could survive the presence of at least one block of a more monumental scale.
Biq and Korth Tielens were resistant to introducing a more picturesque massing than the typology demanded
With that conviction in mind, they have employed an essentially common palette of materials: the same beige brick and anodised aluminium window frames, with precast concrete being used for balconies. As Gus Tielens puts it: “We made different meals from the same ingredients.” And yet, if the overall effect is more unified than Ziegler anticipated, the block’s elevations are by no means unmodulated.
What impresses is that each change of scale and depth is clearly the product not of a scenographic impulse towards visual busyness but rather a desire to communicate a legible urban hierarchy. Even with no neighbours in place, we can already surmise from these facades the kind of spaces that they will one day address.
It is also notable that the elevations’ expressivity is rooted in the complexity of the internal plan. Biq’s building employs a particularly rich variety of apartment types. Its longest range comprises a run of maisonettes, above which three different apartment types are loaded to one side of a 90m-long corridor.
On these bones, a symmetrical elevation of four quite distinct conditions has been hung. The first is the central bay, focused on the double-height opening by which the block’s interior is accessed. Then, to either side, a more expansively fenestrated section has been teased forward, extended a storey above the adjoining parapet and further distinguished by the laying of its brick in an ornamental stack bond. Next, we reach a section crowned by a parade of monumental windows — a register of the second-floor corridor here expanding to double-height. And, finally, the bookends — these again climb to five storeys but are minimally fenestrated, the better to emphasise the double-height entrances by which the residents of the upper apartments gain access.
The ingenuity at play demands proper study of the plans, but I have said perhaps enough to suggest that the architect has steered a course between the relentless and the capricious. The facade is a composition of parts but a unified conception too.
The return elevations address park rather than street, a shift registered by their more pronounced modelling. Full-height bays in stack-bonded brick alternate with recesses within which balconies of pointedly massive expression have been wedged. Each is formed of a single piece of pre-cast concrete, coloured to approximate the brick’s sandy tones and profiled in a way that brings to mind a classical stylobate, levitated into the air. The closed form arguably makes more sense when employed on the courtyard elevations, where overlooking is a consideration, but its origins are evidently as much ornamental as functional. After years of experience of the design-and-build culture of Dutch housebuilding, Biq has a strong sense of which details will necessarily accord with a contractor’s usual practice and which might offer an opportunity for more bespoke design. As in its housing at Lakerlopen (Building study April 30, 2010), it is the pre-cast concrete elements that here serve as the cherry on the cake.
As with all the buildings that address the boulevard, the ground floor of Biq’s scheme has been set 600mm above road level, so as to lend it a more urban character. By contrast, Korth Tielens’s terrace, which addresses parkland on all three sides, stands directly on the ground. Its facades pick up on the notched profile of Biq’s side elevations but invest the treatment with a finer scale.
Each of its 21 houses presents two bays, one set a metre forward of the other, establishing a particularly insistent rhythm when the facades are viewed lengthways. An important characteristic of these views is the extent to which glazing is concealed. The top storey appears entirely blank — windows having been tucked into the recesses — which places added visual emphasis on the brick’s massing and texture. As with the neighbouring building, changes of bond have been employed to strike a note of sober ornamentation. Lintels are faced in vertically oriented brick, as too is the more substantially dimensioned parapet, providing the composition with an emphatic termination.
At the corners, the same essential language has been deployed in freer form for two small apartment buildings. These have been designed to serve the needs of people with psychiatric and drug-related problems. The 24 units comprise about 40sq m each — well below the standard dimensions of a Dutch apartment — but there are communal care facilities on the ground floor of one block. The charity that manages these buildings is renting the space from Bo-Ex, but there is an understanding that this programme might change. The architect points to student housing as an alternative.
All parking is accommodated in the courtyard — one space per apartment — with amber fruit trees subtly extending the range of tones employed by the architecture. A monopitched roof lowers Korth Tielens’s terrace by a storey on this side, with only the corner buildings retaining their full height. Add to this mix the five storeys of Biq’s facade and a run of single-storey brick bike sheds around the perimeter and the space takes on a markedly informal quality — a sense reinforced by the relaxed placement and sizing of the windows on Korth Tielens’s block’s facades.
From outside, however, the block appears to belong firmly within the tradition of buildings such as Vienna’s Karl Marx Hof or the Adam brothers’ Adelphi in London — projects that make palaces of mass housing. For all the compact city rhetoric that attended the Vinex programme’s development, the built reality has proved overwhelmingly suburban in character — a sea of villas and short terraces, peppered with occasional point blocks. The Bo-Ex block certainly offers a compelling counterpoint to much of what has been built at Leidsche Rijn. If we in the UK ever get around to addressing our own housing crisis, it could even offer a model for a different vision of housebuilding entirely.
The masterplan for Leidsche Rijn was developed by a team led by Rients Dijkstra and presented in 1995. Dijkstra’s team included an unusually wide variety of disciplines, with BD columnist Wouter Vanstiphout offering advice in his capacity as a Crimson architectural historian.
The plan identified a series of “deregulating elements” as a means of lending the scheme specificity. Some derived from the existing landscape while others, such as the park at the heart of the scheme, were newly introduced. Among the key strategic decisions was the relocation and roofing over of the A2 motorway to allow an easy connection between Leidsche Rijn and Utrecht.
The plan states: “It took a city like Utrecht centuries to gather the wealth it has today. Naturally, this richness acquired through the ages cannot be found in new housing estates and this lack weighed heavily in the decision of whether to build Leidsche Rijn in its present location or somewhere farther away.
“The easy access to Utrecht is, in fact, a major feature in the image of Leidsche Rijn.”
When completed, it is anticipated that the development will constitute a city on the scale of Breda, accommodating a population of 30,000.
Architects Biq (high-rise and inner court, site management); Korth Tielens Architecten (low-rise block), Client Bo-Ex, Urban design Franz Ziegler, Contractor Bouwonderneming Van Bekkum, Structural engineer Konstruktieburo Krabbendam-Boerkoel, Services engineer VIAC installatie adviseurs, Cost consultant Bouwhaven
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