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Aluminium forest: poised above a lake on a forest of spindly aluminium columns, this eye-catching building is an unusual collaboration between design and industry, calculated to demonstrate the metal's versatility.

As I drove into Houten near Utrecht I asked a local tradesman the whereabouts of the Aluminium Centre. He replied, not unkindly, 'drive out of town, you can't miss it'. He was right. Set on the edge of an artificial lake, the building glistened seductively in the evening sun. Its slim tubular forest-like structure supporting a single deck of accommodation reflected in the water below.

The building is the result of an architectural competition to create a working showcase for aluminium. Architect Micha de Haas' initial notion was derived from the typical Dutch polder landscape where groups of trees are planted in a square arrangement. An early model took the form of a matchbox propped up on pin-cushions.

This concept envisaged 1200 aluminium columns at 500mm centres. During the initial development stage, in an unusual search for the smallest span possible, the supporting structure was reduced to 368 tubular columns approximately 6m high ranging from 90mm to 210mm diameter. As in a forest, where the trees would not always stand straight, some of these columns rake, so not only stabilizing the structure but also acting as drainpipes and service conduits to the accommodation above. The resulting structure is lively, particularly in high winds.

Built almost entirely from aluminium components, the building embodies an evident powerful symbolic value. Functionally, it is used to host conferences and meetings for the aluminium industry and to inform the public of the multifarious creative uses of assorted aluminium products. It also represents an unusual degree of collaboration between design and industry in that some components have been specially developed for this building. For instance, the I 4m long triangular roof trusses were assembled from extruded tubular aluminium chords and cast aluminium nodes glued together using aerospace technology. Even the rough pink pebbles on the edge of the lake are not what they seem. They are in fact chunks of bauxite from which aluminium is smelted.

Access to the building is by lift and two aluminium staircases both of which are hinged from their half landing to the ground so that when the building is empty it can be secured by raising the stairs.

Accommodation is arranged to give a maximum effect of volume and light, using internal patios to create a stimulating interplay of interior and exterior space. Views of the sky and landscape, glimpses of the aluminium columns and light reflected on the aluminium ceiling from the water below, all contrive to endow the building with a sense of playfulness.

The facade is made from Alcubond cassettes, the windows forming a deep reveal which leads to a sense of mass compared with the fragility of the supporting stilts. It is this combination of poetic effect and technological innovation which gives this building its formal interest. Micha de Haas has said that the last thing that technology should be is an aggressive and overwhelming fetish'. Both building size and budget are modest (1000 square metres and 6 million guilders, around [pounds sterling]1.7 million, respectively) yet de Haas has (in his architectural debut) been able to produce an eye-catching and technically interesting building that should serve his clients well.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Aluminum Centre, Houten, Netherlands
Author:Brookes, Alan
Publication:The Architectural Review
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:4EUNE
Date:Jun 1, 2002
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