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Fashion sense.

Wrapped in a sheer glass screen, this new building for a technical college in Utrecht by Erick van Egeraat is the outcome of an unusual, yet ultimately fertile, gestation.

The School of Fashion and Graphic Design is the latest addition to Utrecht's technical college. On a sprawling, suburban campus the new building comprises three low-rise horizontal blocks cranked around a courtyard. The largest block contains cellular classrooms for fashion and graphic design, linked to an interstitial wing housing a canteen, auditorium and facilities for a Montessori School. A third, smaller part containing classrooms and a gymnasium meets the ancillary link at an obtuse angle. Spatial organization is apparently unremarkable, based on cellular rooms and wide central corridors which double as breakout and social areas.

Yet the project had an unconventional gestation, owing to the Dutch practice of subjecting major new building proposals for independent scrutiny by panels of architects and designers. Although the panels act in an advisory capacity, their recommendations are generally acted upon by local councils. In this case, the original proposals (by Utrecht's own building department) for the new School were rejected by the local review panel and the head of the building department called on Erick van Egeraat to devise a more acceptable architectural solution. However, work on the project was far advanced - the concrete foundations were already in place - so van Egeraat had to accept the constraints of the original three-storey building form. Despite this stricture, and a frugal budget, he has responded to the apparently unpromising programme with characteristic invention.

Van Egeraat's response was to build the school largely as initially proposed, and then sheath it in a delicately transparent external skin. This audacious yet economic gesture affirms the building's independence from the original design and transforms the dull college blocks into objects of fascination and intrigue. Van Egeraat compares the glass envelope to a gauze veil, simultaneously concealing and revealing; a metaphor for the tantalizing vicissitudes of fashion. Positioned 150mm from the face of the building, the aluminium-framed glass wall is a uniform 12m high. Comprising a single layer of 8mm thick clear glass, it deliberately overshoots the two-storey volume of the Montessori block, further distinguishing van Egeraat's intervention from the original design. Behind the transparent screen, the contrasting textures of the building's innards - concrete structure, plywood sheathing and mustard coloured insulation - are clearly visible. These secondary elevations are animated by the syncopated rhythm of random window openings, perforating the dourly functional surfaces like a computerized punch card. At eaves level, the gap between the glazed epidermis and the inner skin is sealed by aluminium flashing; horizontal slits between the variably sized glass panels help to ventilate the cavity. Where the external wall meets the ground, glass gives way to protective, geometric steel grills.

Such a wilful expose of the mundanities of construction is undoubtedly disarming, yet also strangely compelling; moreover it aptly evokes the evolution of the building. Van Egeraat's glass screen and playful elevational treatments act as a determinedly piquant foil to the essentially stodgy building form. The outcome is an invigorating tension, similar to the ING Bank in Budapest, where an organic addition extrudes seductively out of an Austro-Hungarian palazzo (AR July 1995).

The only part of the complex where van Egeraat had a relatively free hand was at the north-east corner, where the orthogonal plan is fractured to create a luminous entrance atrium, which also functions as an exhibition space. The triple-height volume is enclosed by the glass screen wall and glazed roof. Within the atrium is a small auditorium, clad in translucent, ribbed fibreglass panels. Elevated on a random grid of spindly, angular pilotis, the cuboid volume of the auditorium is linked to classrooms and ancillary spaces by glazed bridges. Its gently angular underside is clad in smooth plywood sheets. The complex layering and fracturing of the semi-public atrium and theatre spaces contrasts with the orthogonal ranks of classrooms.

Light diffuses through the theatre's translucent cladding, infusing the surrounding atrium with a surreal, radioactive glow; a further variation on the continually surprising play of light and materials. The luminous cube is also an arresting, enticing presence in the featureless suburban landscape. Although fascinating to speculate what van Egeraat might have made of the commission had he been involved at the outset, his response to an apparently limited programme has proved just as enthralling.


Erick van Egeraat Associated Architects, Rotterdam

Project team

Erick van Egeraat, Maartje Lammers, Ard Buijsen, Boris Zeisser

Structural engineer

Strukton Engineering

Mechanical and electrical engineer

Sweegers & de Bruijn

Acoustic consultants

Lichtveld Buis & Partners


Christian Richters
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Glass and Transparency; School of Fashion and Graphic Design, Utrecht, the Netherlands
Author:Cleef, Connie van
Publication:The Architectural Review
Date:May 1, 1998
Previous Article:Glass concerto.
Next Article:Light box.

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