Text by Ruud Brouwers Maaskant’s Provincial Government House articulates openness With a few astute interventions in the horizontal block of the North-Brabant Provincial Government building, the area for public presentation, the original layout of the structure has been freed of the wellmeaning though intrusive security measures that had muddied it. A disruptive compartmentalisation has been undone. What is more, the partitions between politicians, administrators, civil servants and citizens have been removed. The building invites chance encounters and exchanges. For this reason, the provincial administration refers to it as the ‘House of Brabant’. The office floors in the tower have been brought up to date for the digital age, and again this has been achieved without compromising the original concept.
When the provincial seat of government opened its doors in 1971 it had a balanced design by architect Huig Maaskant (1907-1977). Initially the building was unpopular; it was too big and too expensive, the critics cried. Over the course of 40 years that building has grown into a trusted symbol that stands for active public service and an entrepreneurial community – and even the embodiment of conviviality. The office tower is a striking landmark while the horizontal low-rise for administrators and the public is a gesture of welcome. The building’s strong character speaks through grand gestures and small details. It can be found in the balustrade of the grand staircase to the State Hall, which seems to epitomize the large hands of the imposing figure of Maaskant himself, and in the subtle soap dishes next to the sinks in the lavatories. Leave it all as it is, change nothing – this is a logical initial response when confronted with comprehensive renovation plans.
Reality subsequently imposes a more considered second response. The cloak of a digital world has been slipped over the linear world of half a century ago, when internet was unheard of, let alone social media. These upheavals create different relationships and different ways of working that make changes to spatial configurations necessary. The programme of requirements therefore impelled the renovation towards one that reflected a multifaceted picture of Brabant: ground-breaking and traditional, worldly and homey, proud and modest, exuberant and contemplative, possessing business acumen and socially connected. An important extra incentive for the intervention was not so much the needs of a changing world, but rather the recognised value of the building’s original plan. With a good understanding of the significance of meetings and making contact, architect Maaskant opened up the potential for vertical movement over all three levels of the public face of the building. Inadvertently over the years, this access had been blocked by security barriers. The public character of a space that naturally allows interaction between administrators, politicians, civil servants and citizens was thus lost. By reinforcing the original arrangements, the founding principles of the House of Brabant have found their voice anew.
KAAN Architecten has not tried to imitate Maaskant in any way. Rather, they have rooted their approach in their own convictions about architecture while respecting the spirit of the design that lies at the heart of the Provincial Government House. There is commonality in the way of working, yet the design signatures differ. Clearly we can say there is a kinship that is expressed through the ‘monumentalisation’ of everyday things, the use of materials for colour, the uncommon proportioning, the estrangement of scale, the ambiguities, a fascination with material and craftsmanship and with innovation in terms of technology and materials.
The central reception hall is now permanently accessible. The State Hall and the Bois le Duc Hall had always remained accessible to the public when in session. Now the public has access directly from the entrance area to all three levels of the broad horizontal block with its unusual skylights. New, wide, lowrise steps lead down to the lower ground level, and decoratively curve along the cloakroom walls installed by Maaskant and now moved downstairs. Security has been allocated a place within this layout without disturbing the spatial arrangement. Following on from this intervention, subsequent alterations are logical. There is sufficient cloakroom capacity for the events hosted in the House of Brabant. The various rooms and halls on the upper levels for appointments, discussions and exchanges can be joined up for meetings involving politicians, civil servants, administrators and public. The facilities appropriate to reception and engagement are strategically placed. And, importantly, the accommodations for administrators and political parties has remained unchanged.
In the office tower the subdivision into rooms has been undone and new units of three link up by way of stairs and recesses. Fixed workspaces have been eliminated. Appropriately this enhances internal communications and fits with the insight that moving about more is good for the mind and body. Every cluster is provided with open and closed workspaces that are tailored to the new way of working. It also serves the efficient use of surface area: 8 chairs for 10 employees, since everyone is always within reach though not always physically present. This allows more employees to use the office space, making the satellite locations obsolete. Enough access is provided – with the same number of lifts – by servicing the clusters rather than the floors with stops. Clustering the office floors and providing internal stair access has made swifter lift traffic possible.