- Article by Online Editor
- Photography by Ralph Kämena
- Architect Doepel Strijkers Architects
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The port of Rotterdam can be a pretty grim and depressing place. Over the second half of the 20th century, in response to the increasing size of ocean-going vessels, harbour activity in what was once the world’s biggest and busiest port gradually shifted westwards towards the North Sea. Left behind were docks, quays and warehouses deemed too small to serve any role for the shipping industry in the age of the super tanker. Urbanists and architects responded with urban renewal proposals to develop the once thriving waterfronts and quaysides. Abandoned industrial structures were converted to house new functions, or simply demolished to make way for something else.
One notable example of a disused industrial structure that has survived, infused with new life, is the HaKa building. Completed in 1932, to a design by architect Herman Mertens, this imposing structure was built as the headquarters of the Handelskammer (hence the abbreviation HaKa), a cooperative wholesalers’ society set up in 1914 to supply affordable and good quality foodstuffs to the working class. The HaKa building housed not only the society’s offices, but also the facilities for producing, packaging and dispatching the goods. Details such as the stained glass windows in the stairwells clearly reflect the confidence of the Dutch cooperative movement. Even the concrete-framed structure was the first of its kind in the Netherlands. The narrowness of the available site (just 15 metres wide) sandwiched between the road and the quayside prompted the decision to cantilever all upper floors by 2.3 metres on both sides, thereby increasing the width of the 100-metre-long building by 4.6 metres. Conveyer belts, lifts, slides and chutes carried goods from the factory and packaging spaces to the storage areas on the ground floor, which is level with the loading height of the freight trains that used to stop right in front of the building.
For three decades, the wholesalers operated from the building, but by the 1960s such companies that served the needs of workers were in decline as the modern day supermarket started to emerge and replace the corner grocery stores everywhere. The society ceased operations in 1962 and the building became just another industrial structure that had seen better days, a reminder of a bygone era when the city’s harbour was a bustling centre of transhipment and industry. Renovated in the late 1980s, the building continued to be partly occupied by various companies, but its heyday had long since passed. Even so, it remained a powerful monument to Dutch functionalist architecture.
A new chapter in the life of this landmark building started in 2009, with the launch of a plan to turn the HaKa building into a new campus for clean-tech companies. The building’s owners joined forces with Stadshavens Rotterdam, an agency set up to promote innovative and sustainable businesses, as well as urban transformation in the city’s harbour area. Together they set up Clean Tech Delta, a joint venture involving public and private agencies active in the area of clean technology. Elaboration of the plan for the HaKa building was entrusted to Urban Breezz, a firm that specialises in breathing new life into industrial, heritage-listed sites and inner cities. Real estate expert, Ben ten Hove of Urban Breezz, came up with a plan to turn the building into a ‘Living Lab’ for start-up firms, agencies and authorities active in the field of water, energy and clean technologies – so that they could effectively share expertise and pool their resources.
The project encompassed a complete fitout of the building’s ground floor and reception area, an exhibition space, auditorium, kitchen/pantry, various meeting rooms and a large, flexible office space. Given the brief, the knowledge-driven workforce and the demands of such infrastructure, the building now allows its multiple tenants to focus on their core businesses and objectives.
According to ten Hove, it’s a way of working that would seem to be the way forward in today’s economy. “The old style economy was all about strictly hierarchical organisations, clear division of tasks and following commands from management,” he explains. “This initiative is all about the ‘new world of work’ in which people and organisations need to be far more adaptable. I want to gather enthusiastic people here to form a breeding ground for new thinking. And that calls for an atmosphere conducive to creativity.”
This creative flair is interestingly reflected by the space that has ultimately been redesigned by Doepel Strijkers Architects, a forward-thinking practice run by architect Duzan Doepel and interior architect Eline Strijkers. Both designers spent a period working at MVRDV in the early 1990s before opening their own independent offices. In 2007, they joined forces, and began covering more ground as a design duo, taking on projects from interior design to architecture to wider-reaching urban strategies. Research, particularly in the area of sustainability, quickly became – and to this day remains – an integral component of their work. Given the opportunity to conceptualise around this particular brief offered them the chance to use strategies and tactics seldomly used in mainstream, traditional practice, but the overall concept clearly embodied their own ethos to re-think as a design team. It was carte blanche.
Together with Van Gansewinkel, a waste disposal firm, the designers sourced wood, glass, metal and plastics from newly demolished homes, glasshouses, factories and schools in and near Rotterdam, and then developed a series of interior objects that could be made cheaply and easily – created with as minimal a carbon footprint as possible. In the former factory space, to one side of the main entrance, are platforms made of the timber formwork from a brick kiln factory. Perched on these platforms are the workstations of the first pioneering tenants in the building. Sheets of glass framed in aluminium profiles, all salvaged from greenhouses, enclose the adjacent kitchen. Then there’s the main, and quite surreal, meeting room – with four walls made of nothing but old, reclaimed doors. On the other side of the main entrance, in what was the old office area of the wholesalers, is an exhibition space featuring display cases made, just like the kitchen, of glass sheets and aluminium profiles from the greenhouses, along with a series of benches made of sandwich-panel doors from a demolished pre-war housing scheme nearby.
In the auditorium, rows of seating as well as the stage and retractable lecterns are all made of timber construction beams. Separating the auditorium and the exhibition area is a partition wall – made of repurposed and colour-coordinated clothes stacked on panels with wheels. The idea for this design element was to enable flexibility and repositioning when needed. That said, all objects could be reconfigured over time in response to the changing demands of tenants, according to Doepel Strijkers Architects’ new scheme.
Still, going beyond the intent of good functionality, it is the sourcing and applied use of the materials that makes this space stand out as it does. Almost all of these materials were taken from structures demolished close to Rotterdam, thereby reducing the energy required for transport. Indeed, only the timber from the brick kiln factory had to travel a distance that, at 188 kilometres, can be considered long by Dutch standards. The greenhouse materials travelled fewer than 30 kilometres, wood underlayment just six kilometres, and the clothing a mere 650 metres from a depot just around the corner. The architects also worked with Van Gansewinkel to calculate the effects of using demolition material, the transport costs and all final processing costs. After calculating the carbon footprint, the analysed technical aspects of reusing these materials allowed the designers to assess the potential of applying these strategies to the building sector at large.
The notions of ‘Cradle to Cradle’ and the logic of Waste=Food have fundamentally altered how designers think about materials and waste, and perhaps not only as an experiment, this project clearly illustrates that certain resourceful capacities are within reach. That is, of course, if a resourceful team is at work and fully behind the concept and implementation. The knowledge acquired by the architects and other partners in this case offers insight into the potential of re-applying this strategy in many other projects.
Today, the redevelopment of the HaKa site is part of a much wider initiative, advocating an alternative strategy for the spatial, economic and social transformation of the 1600-hectare port area in the city known as Stadshavens (Dutch for ‘city docks’). And, although case specific to Rotterdam for now, the lessons learned and the ideas developed by Doepel Strijkers Architects could easily be applied elsewhere.
If the design and conceptual intent weren’t enough, the social dimension of this work is even further reflected in how the objects were handmade – almost everything was carried out on-site by people on rehabilitation programs, including prisoners supervised by their probation officers. The architects in this case ensured that all interior elements could be made by people with minimal building skills or training. “Reusing building components and ensuring that inexperienced people could assemble the objects dictated another vocabulary of forms and easy assembly techniques,” explains Strijkers. “In fact, things like the acoustic separation wall were so labour-intensive that they wouldn’t have been possible otherwise. Here, we were able to maximise quality at minimum expense.”
The ambition of this project to promote the recycling of material and adaptive reuse tactics has significantly boosted the practical expertise of Doepel Strijkers in realising such an innovative design approach, which to date has been rewarded with several nominations, including a string of high profile design awards locally in the Netherlands (the Dutch Design Awards, the Great Indoor Awards and the Lensvelt de Architect interior prize). And now that the ground floor has been so warmly received, Urban Breezz is turning its attention to the floors above, which will all be fitted out by other architects for firms working in the field of clean technology.
Yet, for all the noble ambitions of social responsibility, eliminating waste and fostering a new work ethos, the new interior of the HaKa co-op convinces simply on the strength of the sculptural and textural quality of the big pieces arranged inside this old industrial shell, as if they were artworks in a museum. The warm tones of the woodwork, the see-through kitchen framed in aluminium, the grid of fluorescent tubes extending overhead and – most striking of all – the colour gradients in the soft, sound-absorbent walls of old clothing… all bear evidence to the fact that our environments are effectively changing for the better, if we so choose them to. In doing so, however, Doepel Strijkers Architects here proves a fundamental capacity to not only seek efficiency, but indeed provide a high degree of excitement and aesthetic appeal in the process.