OMA’S NEDERLANDS DANS THEATER AND THE BOOMPJES TOWERS
Since you have asked about the two small sketches from Luce van Rooy Gallery attributed to Zaha: they are my drawings from the very early stages of the Nederlands Dans Theater project. The original site was not in The Hague but in Scheveningen, just down the road near the beach. The site had an unusual shape. These studies show an arrangement of the practice studios and a swimming pool for the dancers. At that stage it was only Rem and I working on it, later more people joined the team. Rem briefed me about the programme, we sketched and discussed ideas, and eventually I drew them up. In this respect, since you asked, it is necessary to dispel the myth that Rem doesn’t draw—he is an excellent draughtsman. His sketches are really beautiful. One of Rem’s great qualities is taking the role of an art director. He draws people around him whose work he appreciates and who he can work with, combining their talents to the best result. But when I joined OMA in 1979, I was the only person working with Rem in London. Then, as the work increased in Holland, Rem opened the office in Rotterdam with Jan Vorberg and more people joined us. Eventually we had a fantastic team that included Alex Wall, Kees Christiaanse and Willem-Jan Neutelings.
The Boompjes project, commissioned by the city of Rotterdam, started as a proposal for a small, awkward site entangled in infrastructure. The lack of zoning limitations and the pivotal location suggested a far greater potential than the apologetic back-slanting, receding skylines that had typified interventions until then. Rem saw the chance to expand the footprint by including the infrastructure, instead of dealing with the left-over tatters. It shifted the focus of the work from designing facades for a predetermined building to redefining a massing envelope that would operate at an urban scale—an appearance in the landscape. There was no programme, there were no plans. It was a tectonic exploration of form, articulation and presence—the gratification to work on a form by virtue of its own rules: scale, proportions, aspect, consistency.
Then came the commission for the bridgehead of the old Willemsbrug which was to be scrapped, next to the site. The bridge consisted of three sections—each one a steel truss—and Rem instinctively pivoted one upright. From then on the project took up the whole Boompjes, including the waterfront on the Maas, the remaining building sites, open spaces and quays, and its connections to the city.
About the story of the drawings themselves and how they were produced: as always, there were a number of ideas that Rem and I exchanged, we sketched and discussed them and then I continued with drawings, variations and alternatives. The production of the drawings was almost entirely my work. They were all at 1:500, with a few exceptions. Along with that I made models at 1:500. There was a whole series of plasticine models that I understand haven’t survived because someone dropped them. So the external traits of the project, for the building and the bridge, developed in London. It was there that I started making the first projections. These were just A3s at different angles putting in evidence the effect of cuts, openings, and the relation with the context. I still work very much in three dimensions, mostly axonometric or perspective, to test ideas and check how they would evolve or could be expanded.
When I moved to Rotterdam where I spent some six months to work on the NDT, I kept going back to the drawings for the Boompjes refining the design. Kees had a fantastic network of creative friends in Rotterdam, working out of a disused waterworks called Utopia. They made an exquisite metal model of the bridge. We worked with Hans Werlemann who made black & white photo studies of it. There was also a huge, bloated model of the Boompjes slab/tower that highlighted all its shortcomings more than its qualities. And there was a city scale model, maybe 1:2000, showing half of Rotterdam, that provided the distant view. These were all great tools to study different aspects of the project. Together with logistics, feasibility and engineering the design evolved. In a series of perspectives I started showing the ambience in and around the building—they made the cover of l’Architecture d’Aujourd’Hui and MODO.
We made all these proposals and presented them to the city of Rotterdam who were very enthusiastic about our approach. There was a “beauty commission” who assessed the visual impact and merits of projects. They were concerned about the scale of what we were proposing, but once we presented the project—Kees and I attended—they were very happy. It was an encouraging moment, so we kept going. At this point in time, this project was the catalyst that provoked the re-emergence of Rotterdam as a city.
The triptych itself started with an A3 drawing of the building, gradually expanding it with the growing context and plot. Rem came with the idea of featuring different aspects of the whole project in one drawing. I devised a series of overlays floating over the main image to visualize all kinds of information. An otherwise classic aerial view became a multilayered panoply of information, a mash-up of scales and techniques.
To begin with, the drawing focused on the slab/tower and the raised bridge. Next, it included the entire context of the Boompjes: from Noordereiland to Scheepmakershavn, both bridgeheads of the scrapped bridge and the new bridge with its crazy chicane, the original harbor of Rotterdam—the Oudehaven with the Witte Huis, the tallest building in Europe in its day—the connection to the center. I drew the Boompjes as a new site, the existing and planned structures as ghost images, and only the new interventions in 3d. The water, the vast filthy majestic Maas is the setting, and the project reclaims it for the city, with a series of interventions planned for the whole waterfront, with the recharged quayside and the floating pool. At that point the drawing started to reach the limits of my drawing board. The addition and editing of all these elements was part of the montage-like working process.
Rem wanted to show the building as you drove past it. Following the curves you would see the building from many different angles. From there I invented a set of perspectives that I called ‘autograms’. They show the building unfolding and collapsing as you drove toward it and swerved away over the bridge. Another diagram explains the transparency of the slab/tower and how the slanted towers reflect the water back into the city. In addition there was the idea of mapping all different footprints and all the various typologies from minimal accommodation to entire villas and public facilities that were in the building. A somewhat cryptic diagram explains how the bridge could be raised once the necessary crane could have made it up the river. There was only one crane in the world that could perform this operation and there was only one time of the year when it would be back in Rotterdam—and bringing the crane down the river could only happen when there was a high tide. These were few but specific parameters which Kees was good at figuring out. Together we climbed up one of these cranes. He had the details and the moon phases for the tides. I put it all together in a diagram in one corner of the triptych.
The city of Rotterdam also commissioned the artwork “Maasbeld” by Auke de Vries that is hanging along the river from bridge to bridge. It is a magnificent piece of work, made of all kinds of bits of scrap metal hanging like a colossal laundry line in front of the quayside which also made its way into the triptych. All these pieces came together by that time.
At this stage the drawing consisted of loose A3-size pencil drawings laid out on this gigantic drawing board. It was still fluid and we could test how the whole composition would develop. Eventually I ran out of space on the drawing board and had to add two pieces of cardboard either side so I could patch together the drawing and begin to ink it in. The inking sheet was one colossal sheet of mylar—this wonderful material. I had a roll of mylar at one end of the table, and it went over the entire table and I rolled it up at the other end to make the whole drawing fit. That was all happening in Rotterdam and it was summer. I spent at least two solid months working on that drawing, just inking it in. The whole process of producing information—the pencil work—took over a year between things, so it had time to sit there and mature.
This ink drawing was to be printed as a silkscreen and that is when the conversation with Bernard Ruygrok, the printer, started. His place in Amsterdam was amazing. We had several meetings to discuss colors because he had to do everything by hand. At some point I had a smaller version of the ink drawing printed on clear acetate so that I could have the line drawing on one layer and apply color behind it—like they would do with 17c and 18c paintings on glass. So I could leave the line drawing on one side and work on the background, it made it more flexible. I played around with that and eventually gave a grey background to the whole thing and developed it from there, with a mixture of Letraset patterns, Pantone adhesives and acrylics.
I took that smaller version to Bernard who printed the first tests. They took quite a while because he had to cut all the stencils by hand, like redoing the whole drawing with a knife. It became clear it couldn’t be printed as one drawing, so it was decided we would print it in three pieces and that is how it became the triptych. We had reached the limits of the printing process. By making it a triptych we pushed the boundaries. But it was also appealing to make a triptych, to adapt such a classical form to this story—the idea of a subject and its supporting material. A triptych was perfect.
The first proof copies came back and we looked at them. There were Rem, Jan, Kees, Willem Jan, maybe others. We agreed there were too many colors, particularly around the building. I stuck some white tape on it and then it went back to Bernard who made a print run and that was the silkscreen. I think there was an edition of 200. There was also a limited edition of the grey-tone version of the central part of the triptych that we showed at the Max Protetch gallery in New York in 1982, together with the whole project.
That is pretty much how it went; the project had its own dynamic. As for its realisation, the city was very keen but they wanted us to find a client and that didn’t happen with our project. There was a potential investor who would have wrecked the project with a strange cocktail of requirements, so those discussions didn’t lead anywhere. By now I’m talking about the third year of the project. I was almost exclusively dealing with design, producing drawings, models, presentations, preparing exhibitions—while Kees was more involved in the logistical side of things, feasibility studies, consultants, talking to authorities and clients. Eventually the city sold the site to Shell. They had their own architect who exploited our envelope and produced a building without any of the qualities that had made our project such a groundbreaking proposition for this site, and for the city.
As far as the bridge was concerned, Kees knew an excellent fish restaurant in The Hague. Rem, Kees and I had quite a few meals there talking to people who were excited about the prospect of a spectacular restaurant in a glass box hanging off the raised bridge. The discussions progressed quite well. There was also talk about a music club in the bridge head at water level. But the port had a deadline for scrapping the bridge—they had to remove it—the deadline wasn’t met, we didn’t have a firm offer to realize the project and the bridge was gone. All three sections of the bridge were removed and cut down to size. The moment this happened it was in the news—it was a momentous thing, because everyone knew about this project. Someone called the office and said had he known about this he’d have done it—typical. So the whole thing survived as a project.
At some point we had many consultants especially for the bridge. The idea to raise the bridge was simple—put a hinge at the bottom of the bridge and lift it up. But how could we make usable space with this? A few additional elements came along and the access to the suspended glass box would have been a lift with a fire escape. The lift was going to be a diagonal thing—a strut to hold the bridge. Kees and I went to Switzerland for four days in the fall, to talk to cable-car manufacturers and see what they would make of it. They saw no problem at all. We went on to the only place that had snow at the time, Zermatt. We showed up in suits and raincoats with briefcases, and like that we went skiing. Fearless as he is, Kees who had never been on skis before, followed me down from the Matterhorn—he was furious but he got it in no time. A first adventure in bridge/towers.
It was a very exciting time, sharing a supercharged biotope with all the wonderful people in the office. The pressure was often intense. But the issues on the table were unimaginable, the discussions brilliant, and I had the privilege of concentrating on producing, of creating things, visualising and projecting an image, a possibility.
– Stefano de Martino, Naples, December 2018