Anyone passing by Wageningen’s Arboretumlaan up until mid-2011 would probably have been unable to resist peering through the fence which surrounded the former university botanical research complex for so long. Former students were of course familiar with the site, as they had been frequent visitors to the library, the old building of the adjacent Botanical Centre or the adjoining extension which contained various laboratories. And we mustn’t forget the Arboretum: this splendid tree garden really is a true arboreal library.
Over the last few years Wageningen University has completely withdrawn from this educational complex. At one point it even looked as if some of the buildings would be demolished. The rescue of these buildings by Het Depot is of considerable architectural significance: the library and the extension of the Botanic Laboratory are both buildings that can be considered examples of late 20th-century neo-modernism, a style represented by Mecanoo as well as architects such as Jo Coenen and the duo of Claus and Kaan. The library and the extension building embrace, as it were, the somewhat inconspicuous original building where botanical education was given for three quarters of a century.
Chief Government Architect G. C. Bremer
With this original building, Chief Government Architect G. C. Bremer created an unpretentious ode to what was described at the time as ‘objective expressionism’. This style, which comes with its own cubistic form language, is unmistakably related to the equally austere Bauhaus movement. However, Bremer was not objective enough to refrain from adding a few frivolous details to his design.
For example, instead of using plain red brick for his outer walls, he chose a fine yellow variety, even though it would be used on a plinth of purple-red brick. This differently coloured plinth also appears to be carrying the long rows of windows of the ground-floor rooms. The building itself comprises different cubic capacities. Large and small cubes together form an extended side, front and rear facade, which is recessed at the entrance lobby.
The building did not appear especially welcoming, particularly when viewed from the central entrance on Arboretumlaan 4. But anyone looking through the fence could see that the entrance under the tower was being substantially rebuilt to form a welcoming foyer that would extend into the rest of the building. Visitors to the Sculpture Gallery enter under the tower, where they will find information about the art in the rest of the building, or they can visit a small-scale presentation on the ground floor providing information about nature and the Arboretum.
Kinderatelier Villa Vleermuis
The former library has now been renamed ‘Kinderatelier Villa Vleermuis’. This new name, meaning ‘Bat Villa Children’s Studio’, is a reference to the bats present at the rear of the original building. The special status of this building at the front of the site of the complex led Het Depot to decide to establish an educational centre for children here. The Delft-based firm of architects Mecanoo created what was at the time a remarkable design for the library. In 1986, a pleasant-looking box of brick, aluminium and weatherboarding came into being. The construction year is interesting, as at that time Mecanoo had only just started. The company was formed in 1984 under the leadership of Francine Houben by four graduates of the Delft Institute of Technology. The front and side facades appear to be equal in size, and the small bands of windows at the corners embrace each other and are recessed beneath the extended eaves. These eaves project sharply over the building, extending well beyond the corners and giving the building its striking appearance.
The extension to the Botanic Laboratory, including the new building whose curved shape quickly earned it the nickname of De Banaan (‘The Banana’), is in quite a different class architecturally speaking. Unlike the former library, this is not a stand-alone building; it was linked to an existing building as extra building volume. De Banaan, which during its lifetime was home to various laboratories, was also included in the Masterplan drawn up by Mecanoo in 1988 and was realised by Mecanoo through the work of co-founder Chris de Weijer. The building, which was handed over in 1991, was the last part of the project and is located literally on the project’s outer edge, with its largely glass rear aspect looking out over the arboretum. The distinction between the front and rear aspects of this gently curving building could hardly be greater: on the street side the architect seems to have wanted to continue the yellow wall of the old university building, in both colour and scale.
For this reason, the new building has a yellow brick wall on the street side, punctuated only by the window strips.
It is still too early to say whether Het Depot has succeeded in acquiring a monument of neo-modernism in De Banaan and the former library, as the buildings are still too young: it is less than 25 years since the project was completed.
On the other hand, the renown of the Mecanoo company is beyond dispute. This may be an early example of its work, but the company was quick to gain attention with its innovative designs.
Bas van Hille
During the renovation in 2010-2012, architect Bas van Hille completely adapted the buildings to make them suitable for their new purpose. In its original plans, Mecanoo had designed a new entrance hall for the original building by Bremer that connected to a passageway leading to an extension which dated back to the 1960s and ’70s and which has since been demolished. Van Hille completely redesigned and relocated the entrance, creating a spacious reception area for groups of visitors. Once they have passed the cloakroom, visitors can go to the shop, the concert hall or a smaller room with information about the surrounding natural features, or they can walk through the corridor leading to the temporary exhibitions. An enclosed water feature providing a pause for meditation is also clearly visible from the entrance hall. Water, which seems to flow over the blocks of stone in an eternal rhythm, is an essential component of the surrounding natural features.
When Van Hille first visited the botanical laboratory in the summer of 2007, De Banaan was still being used by the university. The first thing that visitors to De Banaan see today is the restaurant, which acts as a sort of gateway on the ground floor. From here there is access to the exhibition rooms, which are separated on the short side by a monochrome wall. The glass on the Arboretum side ensures that the building makes optimum use of natural light and that there is always visual contact with the surrounding natural features. Direct sunlight is avoided by the use of permanent (static) vertical wooden blinds. These ensure that most of the time the sunlight entering the building is pleasantly filtered, but they cannot always prevent the occurrence of bright areas of light on the floor. Visitors wishing to judge De Banaan on its aesthetic qualities do well to exit the building via the attractive paved terrace and to view the full curve of the building from the tree boundary. This will enable them to see the building ‘stretching out its arms’ to invite the visitor, while simultaneously revealing the principal treasures behind its windows. Anyone coming from Villa Hinkeloord and crossing Generaal Foulkesweg to take the path through the arboretum will be treated to this first view of Het Depot.
One thing is immediately obvious when visiting Het Depot: colour is a prominent aspect of every room. And no two colours are the same; there are variations of blue and red, ranging from bright and light to deep, dark shades. Light oak flooring has been used throughout the building (one of the conditions for a ‘breathing’ art space) except for the entrance hall, where a stone floor leads in from the outdoor area. The walls in the original and new buildings make optimum use of the natural light entering the buildings by reflecting it. This effect can be seen most clearly in the elongated ground-floor rooms in De Banaan. There, the colour blue is an essential component in admitting the light filtered through the surrounding trees. Moreover, the colour reinforces and contrasts with the visual axis. And the coloured walls act as a clear reference point.
In order to strengthen the connection with nature that visitors will no doubt experience, the architect decided on a mainly white colour scheme for the restaurant, with green featured on the seating elements. The white makes this intimate space looking out on the tree-filled park almost lucid. Visitors will have an experience akin to being lifted to a higher plane of enlightenment. It is good to know that there is an outdoor seating area, but even when looking through the glass facade from indoors you will have the feeling that the nature is streaming in. In this way the restaurant also acts as an exhibition room, only here the accent is on nature rather than art. With this feature Het Depot joins an illustrious list of art venues providing exceptional views of the surrounding natural features, such as Museum Louisiana in Humlebaek (Denmark), Museum Kurhaus in Kleve and, closer to home, Museum Belvédère in Heerenveen and the Museum for Modern Art (MMKA) in Arnhem with its Rijnzaal.
The usable floor area of the total complex on Arboretumlaan which is now occupied by Sculpture Gallery Het Depot is 8000 m2. Of this, 4700 m2 is taken up by De Banaan, while the reception building (the original building by Bremer) covers 2700 m2 and Kinderatelier Villa Vleermuis takes up 600 m2. Villa Hinkeloord on Generaal Foulkesweg offers 1200 m2 of space.
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