Black Pearl

June 21, 2012

Combining both old and new elements makes for a visually confounding puzzle in this renovation of a Rotterdam terrace by the owner-architect.

First published in Inside magazine 71: No Place like Home.

Playing existing and new elements off each other is a common enough strategy today when architects revamp an old building. Yet the
conversion of this modest terraced structure into a modern live-and-work unit takes the approach to a whole new level. Designed by Rolf Bruggink of Dutch practice Studio, the interior manipulates light, space and materials to define zones for all the functions without resorting to closed and contained rooms.

The renovated house is located on the southern side of Rotterdam, much of which is a vast expanse of terraced houses built in the 19th century for the dockers employed in the city’s port, once the biggest in the world. As employment moved elsewhere, many of the city’s southern neighbourhoods fell into decline, and vacant buildings became all too common. In an attempt to turn the tide, the city authorities recently came up with a plan by which dilapidated dwellings are sold for knock-down prices on condition that the buyers renovate them. In doing so, the city wants to attract higher-income residents to disadvantaged districts in the hope of kick-starting the process of urban rejuvenation. While old houses in cities are often divided into smaller rental flats, the reverse process happens here: the small living units on each floor all merge to form one spacious multi-level, owner-occupied apartment.

The building's exterior is covered in a shiny black oil-based paint.


Architect Rolf Bruggink was quick to spot an opportunity. “My girlfriend and I bought this house for the bargain sum of 35,000 euro,” he explains. “We then spent 230,000 euro on the renovation. That’s a very modest investment for a home of 180 square metres in the city.”

Modest the investment may be, but the process of renovation was a different matter altogether. That is apparent even from the street outside, where the architect makes his intentions emphatically clear. After the initial proposal to face the front and side facades in weathering steel was rejected by the local authority’s building aesthetics committee, Bruggink came up with an alternative, worked out in collaboration with Zecc Architecten, to retain the original front, but to cover everything (brickwork, frames and fenestration) in a shiny black oil-based paint to create what reads as a ‘shadow’ of the original facade.

Punched through that shadow are new openings, in precisely the places demanded by the new interior arrangement. The result is a remarkably poetic encounter between history and the present, between the original facade and the new world contained within. Hence the name Black Pearl. The scene is set for the game of old versus new.

Much of the original timber, especially the beams, was so rotten that it wasn’t worth salvaging, and so the architect decided to gut almost the entire interior, leaving just the outer shell and a space to play with, measuring five metres wide, 10 metres deep and 11 metres high. And play he did. Instead of the customary stacking of floors and walls, he divided the interior horizontally into three worlds: a ground floor studio (from where Bruggink runs his design office), an apartment above and a roof garden right at the top.

The study that leads to the floor of the bedroom. Bruggink has raised the floor of the walk-in wardrobe to spatially connect the study with the kitchen below.


The apartment is not divided into rooms in the traditional sense, but into zones for different functions, arranged around a single large sculptural installation in the centre that shapes and suggests spaces for living, dining, sleeping and so on. The installation – as well as the different stairs, the inserted floors and much of the panelling inside – is made of small timber laths that are bolted together. One side wall is left untreated and the other painted white, revealing traces of previous interior elements, among them the imprint of a handrail running up a staircase long gone, and the charred discolouration at the back of a fireplace.

A roof light directly behind the front facade and extending its full width floods the interior with plentiful daylight, allowing the architect to punch windows in the walls to precisely frame particular views rather than introduce natural light. Handrails are reduced to a minimum and attached to the party walls, and balustrades are avoided wherever possible, so as not to disrupt the sense of spatial continuity. On the study and sleeping level, the walk-in wardrobe is raised to allow the surrounding spaces to connect visually with those below. The colour scheme throughout is a restrained palette of black, white and three shades of grey that reinforce the composition and mark the transition from zone to zone. For example, the central installation is painted dark grey to match the dark steel floor in the dining/kitchen area, while the other side of the installation is painted a lighter tone to harmonise with the living room.

Limiting the colour range not only enhances the spatial characteristics of Black Pearl’s interior, but also allows the pieces of furniture to come into their own. A number of these are also the work of Rolf Bruggink. Although an architect by training, he has concentrated in recent years on designing and making furniture, lighting elements and other products, and a number of key pieces feature in the interior. His ideas for furniture design echo the approach he took in renovating this building. He takes existing pieces and gives them a twist by adding contemporary elements that not only suggest new uses, but also, paradoxically, enhance the character of the original. A case in point is Divorce, a cabinet he inherited from his grandfather. Bruggink sawed it in half and applied a new side panel of steel painted orange. The result is an arresting object in which old and new work off each other to effect. And the name? Dividing up household effects after a divorce is easy with furniture like this.

Bruggink's Wounded Table stands strong against the dining area's black steel floor, and overlooks the staircase that goes down to the front door.


Continuing the theme of new layers on old furniture, the Wounded Table in the dining area features a new top made of strips of felt soaked with artificial resin. The seat of the Repair Chair in the living room and study is made in the same way, and perched over the dining table is Protect Me, a pendant light that boasts a structure of barbed wire that is wrapped with antique lace dipped in artificial resin.

Another interior object of note, up another set of stairs on the study and sleeping level, is the washbasin and storage unit, finished in dark steel and designed by Roland Manders. “We asked whether everything contained in the standard bathroom really needs to be there,” says Bruggink. The answer was no. Hence the decision to distribute its contents to where they work best. In addition to the freestanding basin lining the route to the sleeping area, there is the pristine-white whirlpool that enjoys pride of place in the glasshouse up another level. From here, bathers enjoy a view not only of the roof garden, but also of the city itself. Filling the unglazed wall of the space is a hotchpotch of old framed photographs and religious imagery picked up from flea markets in France. “Once you’ve had enough of all that design downstairs,” says Bruggink, “you can come up here to escape it all.”

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