For the Dutch architect Herman Hertzberger the structure of a building is not an end in itself, it is literally the framework for the life that goes on inside it, a life that is determined by its users. This goes for a school, a home or an office – all building types that he has transformed in a 50-year career in architecture.
Herman Hertzberger was one of the leaders in the movement away from functionalism in the mid-20th century. Influenced by semiotics, linguistics and structural rationalism, he sought to identify an underlying order in a building's construction that is not related purely to its function. He saw this as analogous to the deep grammatical structures in language explored by Claude Lévi-Strauss; just as grammar is brought to life in speech, so the fundamental tectonic order in buildings is given social meaning by the way in which they are inhabited. Because for Hertzberger inhabitation is all.
Structurally, Hertzberger's buildings are characterised by a clear articulation of the supporting lattice. This creates a series of cellular zones within which minor elements like sills, benches and thresholds are used to prompt human occupation. His debt to anthropology is manifested in his particular concern for these defined territories which are both joined and separated by liminal or threshold elements. These 'in-between' pieces set up a dialogue between adjacent spatial orders, as well as encourage social interaction.
As a discipline, architecture is a continuous unfolding dialogue between tectonic organisation and social meaning. The user of a building is encouraged to change its underlying organisation by occupying it creatively. So although the construction does not in itself have meaning, it creates a space where meaning can be defined.
Hertzberger took his spiritual leadership from the work of Aldo van Eyck, one of the team X (along with Jaap Bakema, Giancarlo De Carlo, and Alison and Peter Smithson) – the movement that led to both structuralism and the new brutalism. Between 1959 and 1963, with Bakema and Van Eyck, he edited the journal Forum, which became the mouthpiece for structuralism in architecture. In his books, based in part on his lectures at Delft University of Technology, Lessons for Students in Architecture (1991), Space and the Architect: Lessons in Architecture 2 (1999) and Space and Learning (2008) he not only outlined his ideas and principles, but also discussed his sources of inspiration such as the Egyptian pyramids, the ancient Greek theatre at Epidaurus, the benches in the Parc Güell of Antoni Gaudi, the Pueblos in Arizona, the Piazza Anfiteatro in Lucca, Diocletian's Palace in Split, as well as Le Corbusier's early work. In one of his earliest buildings the Student Housing in Amsterdam (1959-66), designed while he was still a student himself at the Polytechnic of Delft, his admiration for the roof zone of the Unité d’Habitation in Marseille is clear. Meanwhile his pre-occupation with the city as the highest manifestation of the socialisation of mankind is evidenced by his co-founding and acting as the first Dean of the Berlage Institute in Amsterdam, an architecture school set up as a laboratory for urbanism and the built environment.
His first completed building, however, was an industrial laundry in Amsterdam. This he perched on top of an early 20th entury building, marking the start of a lifelong concern with extending the life of buildings, by others and his own - for example, the Vrendenburg Music Centre in Utrecht (1973-78), which is currently being rebuilt from the outside in. That said, his primary concern is not for a building's form, but its structure and its inner world and workings. Every Hertzberger project contains a strong idea, and his principles are best illustrated by the many schools that he and his studio have built in the last 50 years. The stairs and corridors are not isolated elements, but are essential to the life that fills the building; to see and being seen are the first steps towards a more satisfactory and fulfilling existence. His celebrated Montessori School in Delft (1960-66), an ongoing work in progress, rethought the way classrooms are laid out – L-shaped rooms creating different zones, all linked by wide, zig-zagging corridors. The images of children sitting, conversing and playing on broad wooden steps in the Apollo Schools in Amsterdam and in the conversation pit in the Delft school have inspired many architects of schools across northern Europe and across the decades.
His early masterpiece is an exemplary workplace known as Centraal Beheer (1968-72), offices for an insurance company in Apeldoorn, a workers' village based on a three-dimensional grid, put together and inhabited with bee-like assiduousness. The larger structural matrix is interwoven with smaller strands inviting occupation; workers have even been invited by the firm to introduce their own pieces of furniture. Centraal Beheer is most notable for its success in empowering the individual, even if it is sometimes at the expense of economy.
The textile character of Hertzberger's early buildings is strongly reminiscent of Frank Lloyd Wright's Larkin Administration Building, which itself leads us back to Le Duc and Semper. In that sense, Hertzberger's ideas, interpreted from innovative 20th century disciplines, are embedded in an older architectural order. In Utrecht and Apeldoorn and in the Ministry of Social Affairs and Employment in The Hague (1979-90) the use of standardised elements is clear both in plan and in elevation. His social welfare building was one of the first to develop the idea of the internal street, or elongated atrium, to encourage social interaction in the workplace and to get light into all the rooms. Another trope of late Modernism, the over-sailing, all-embracing roof, was developed for the Chassé Theatre, Breda (1992-95) whose fly towers, auditoria and foyers are all tucked under a split undulating roof form.
Throughout his architecture Hertzberger employs a grammar of elements that enables people to define their own habitat within the structure. For him all buildings should adapt themselves to different needs. This is best expressed in his housing work, as is his humanity as an architect. In the early experimental skeleton houses Diagoon, Delft (1969-70) the indefinite plan allows the purpose of each space to be designated by the occupants, while the section allows for diagonal views. The LiMa residential building in Berlin (1982-86) extends the principle of flexibility to mass housing, with the buildings arranged around a sun-filled courtyard and communal staircases forming vertical streets. And in Middelburg in 2004, he turned his attention to the very Dutch issue of living with water and designed an experimental floating house, which, in theory at least, can be re-orientated to catch the sun.
In his later work he constantly re-visits the themes addressed in his earlier writings: Coda Shelter for Culture in Apeldoorn (2000-04), with its courtyard, its inviting glazing to the street and its undulating interior landscape; Waternet Head Office in Amsterdam (2000-05), two towers with their tapering ribbons of glazing, which re-rehearse the ideas of the open workplace, the central social space, and a building's capacity to accept change; while in the Faculty of Science at the University of Utrecht (2006-2011) he translates the cuboid circulation and break-out platforms separated by light wells of Centraal Beheer, into the more fluid architectural language of the early 21st century.
What Hertzberger wants is an architecture that can be interpreted and used by the inhabitants in many ways. He is an advocate of the open society in which encounters are not planned, but occur in a spontaneous, natural manner. His architecture facilitates such a use and stresses more the sight and contact lines than the representational character of the facades. For him architecture is not only a social activity, but should also stimulate the user into finding his or her place in society. It has to give meaning and it has to be able to receive meaning. Hertzberger's architecture always has a strong didactic component. This can also be said for his writings. His architecture contain lessons that have nothing to do with representation or image-making, but that have much to do with the manner he perceives the way people live together. His architecture permits a flexible use and can always accommodate the unexpected.
Hertzberger borrows the word 'polyvalent' from chemistry to propose that buildings are open to multiple modes of inhabitation over time. In doing this he admits our changing needs, but insists on the continuity of deeper patterns of dwelling. This was a powerful challenge to Modernism's linking of form to use. Although he never accepted that flexibility was intrinsic to functionalism, he did resist the idea that building form is in itself significant. In so doing he set architects the challenge of finding constructional rhythms to frame the fundamental patterns of human inhabitation. This was not only a powerful criticism of early Modernist assumptions, but it also set contemporary architecture a stern challenge.
Medallist Peter Cook wrote in 1967: 'Architecture is a social art, the value of a building must lie chiefly in its ability to create environment out of human situations. The architect can set himself the limit of the existing pattern, but most good architects would not be content with this'. Hertzberger has never been content with conventional thinking; despite the continuity of his architecture he is constantly re-inventing his own solutions.