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prematurely complex

During my studies, Herman Hertzberger gave a series of memorable and educational guest lectures. With a mix of architectural travel photographs and his own work, he convincingly illustrated the importance of spatial design that balances the focus on the individual and the collective.

His most iconic work is the office building for 'Centraal Beheer' in Apeldoorn. It consists of a grid of small, square floor fields linked with bridges: an office building like a city. Indeed, this office city was the epitome of the then prevalent belief in the makeable society. Moreover, this intricate structure of open work islands could easily be given another function in the future, such as housing, Hertzberger assured us.

The documentary The Proof Of The Pudding, now playing in movie theatres, shows Hertzberger's struggle to make the latter a reality. After the insurance company left in 2013, the building fell into disrepair, that's how unruly the transformation task appears to be. It is a building with a huge footprint, many indoor spaces and interior streets with more than 3.5 kilometres of now-leaking skylights.
According to US author Stewart Brand, buildings are a "prediction of use and social trends". Unfortunately, not only do we prove notoriously poor predictors, we continue to design specifically and 'prematurely complex' - another of Brand's terms. I fear that even the masterful design of Hertzberger's 'Centraal Beheer' suffers from premature complexity. In granular size and design, it is entirely geared towards the socialist ideals of the 1970s, which makes it unsuitable for a residential function today. Not to mention that it can handle today's sustainability requirements and technological changes.

At the end of the documentary, Winy Maas tries to convince Herman Hertzberger that the building only has a future with a romantically overgrown, cracked-open heart. Let us strive for architecture that pairs the spatial quality and beautiful balance Hertzberger managed to achieve with a high adaptive ability.

Ronald Schleurholts
architect-partner cepezed

Cobouw, 29 March 2023

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