December 1, 2008
Home Sweet Hideaway
Marc Koehler builds a bulwark against troubled times in an Amsterdam suburb’s architectural theme park.
In IJburg, an 11-year-old planned suburb of Amsterdam, nearly every home strains to be iconic. Raw-wood brutalism is next door to traditional redbrick, white-trim suburbia, while wild forms with multicolored panels sit nearby. “Everyone’s trying to make a statement,” says Marc Koehler, an Amsterdam architect. Tapping into a more anxious national mood, he recently designed a very different kind of building for the neighborhood: a simple, imposing box made of black brick and split apart by a single, snaking band of glass. “The only way to be original was to be boring,” he says. “Rather than having a variety of materials, we have one material. Rather than having lots of windows, we have one continuous window.”
Koehler’s house is a somber reflection of the changes that have taken hold of Dutch society since IJburg was founded more than a decade ago. After September 11, 2001, the economic downturn and sour political climate cooled the optimism of the 1990s that had spawned IJburg’s architectural theme park. The house is only a few miles from where the filmmaker Theo van Gogh was assassinated by an Islamic extremist. Today’s shaky global economy hasn’t helped matters. Lately, people have been nervous to build anything at all, especially anything provocative. Architectural fads aren’t good investments. Today, Koehler says, people want stability, even monumentality, in their architecture. “The nineties were an era of glass boxes,” Koehler said. “Now we’re thrown back into the stone age.”
The house, which is still unfinished (though the facade was completed last fall), is built like a fortress in a panicked land. An angled slice through its middle makes it look like a solid cube cut in two. Deep cupboards lining the interior (designed by Koehler and Made.up Interior Works, a local studio) give the walls extra thickness, and as they’re pulled out for storage, they echo the snakeskin-inspired brickwork that ripples across the exterior like a rough black coat of armor. “We wanted a more influential facade,” Koehler said, “so instead of a perforated box like the other houses, we have a sculptural mass, almost like a cave.”
Should the worst happen, the house comes with a built-in stockpile for its residents: the textured-brick skin doubles as a vertical garden. “They can eat from the house like Hansel and Gretel,” Koehler says. It is already seeded with grapes, kiwi, hydra, and other plants, which, as they grow, will soften the building’s hard edges. That gives the architect pause. “The garden looks good now,” Koehler says of the wispy vines beginning to sprout, “but soon it’ll hide all that beautiful brick.”