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Earth science.

Bearing the name of Marcel Minnaert, a renowned Dutch astrophysicist, the Minnaert building houses facilities for Utrecht University's geophysics department. It also forms an important constituent of OMA's masterplan for the university campus, consolidating and linking a disparate cluster of existing buildings on the northwest part of the site. As with the striking little building for Veenman Printers (p62), Neutelings Riedijk rework and redefine a standard programme to generate a sense of experiential diversity and surprise. Here, their approach also encompasses particularly inventive energy use strategy, in which climate control is exploited and expressed as an architectural theme.

Housing laboratories, lecture theatres and a large refectory, the building is logically organized, yet displays a perplexing eccentricity of form and materiality. Unlike Koolhaas' nearby Educatorium (p49) which manifests its internal workings through a delicately transparent skin, Minnaert is an inscrutable, opaque box. The blunt, rectangular volume is three storeys high, with an additional two-storey chunk clamped unceremoniously on to its west end. This part houses the building's two lecture theatres and the rake of their sloping floors is articulated in an angular cantilever. The entire volume is clad in a curious, knobbly carapace of reddish brown self-coloured cement. Sprayed on to mesh that intermittently bulges over steel tubes, the cement is petrified into skin-like folds that resemble the hide of some prehistoric creature. The monolithic form is barely relieved by rows of slit-like windows and an entrance porch cut into its south-east corner, where (as with Veenman), surreally oversized letters connote the name of the building's distinguished patron.

Minnaert's internal organization is based on the logical premise of consolidating undifferentiated space (the architects call this nebulous phenomenon 'tare space') for things such as circulation, services and plant into a single large hall. So the usual labyrinth of lifeless corridors and dead spaces is replaced by a pivotal, piano nobile volume that acts as common room, transit area and meeting place, connecting and defining each element in the programme. The hall also links Minnaert with two existing faculty buildings through elevated walkways that dock umbilically into its north side at first floor level. Laboratories are on the ground floor with view out to landscaped gardens (by West 8), and computer, study and lecture rooms are located on a mezzanine overlooking the central hall. Departmental workshops and the twin lecture theatres occupy the protruding upper storeys at the building's west end, while the triple-height refectory at the opposite east end is connected to a secluded roof garden on the second floor.

Each of these spaces has its own special character, from the bustling refectory with its blood red walls, Parisian cafe furniture, and columns wrapped in perforated mesh, to the calm private study room, capped by a ceiling of dark blue plasterboard which is perforated with light to resemble a starry firmament. But by far the most striking space is the cavernous central hall, its walls and floor clad in dark grey stone reinforcing the cool, subterranean ambience. Half of the space is taken up by a shallow pond, into which rainwater gently pours from concealed openings in chutes incorporated into the sloping roof above. A line of vaguely Moorish apertures cut into the ochre panelled wall on the south edge reveals intimate recesses containing red leatherette banquettes where students can meet, chat and have coffee. Part dank grotto, part Turkish coffee house, the hall manages to be both primeval and convivial.

The magical pool plays a key part in the building's ingenious environmental control strategy. The constant accumulation of heat from computers, lights and occupants means that the building does not need heating, only the removal of heat. This is achieved by collecting rainwater and pumping it through a system of pipes into spaces that require cooling, such as laboratories. Heated water is discharged back onto the roof, where it cools, drips back into a collection vessel and the cycle is repeated. Surplus water is simply channelled off, or, if the level drops too low, the system is replenished with tap water.

Despite its provocative weirdness, Minnaert's spatial complexity and richness cannot fail to encourage social and academic interaction. Its combination of theatrical placemaking allied to material invention and environmental responsiveness, represents an accomplished consolidation of Neutelings Riedijk's formal and programmatic preoccupations.

Architect Neutelings Riedijk, Rotterdam

Project team Willem Jan Neutelings, Michiel Riedijk, Jonathan Woodroffe, Evert Crols, Jago van Bergen, Gerrit Schilder, Burton Hamfelt, Chidi Onwuka, Joost Mulders

Technical design Bureau Bouwkunde

Structural engineer ABT

Services engineer Linssen

Landscape architects West 8

Photographs Christian Richters
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Title Annotation:Utrecht University's Minnaert building
Author:Van Cleef, Connie
Publication:The Architectural Review
Date:Mar 1, 1999
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