Tag Archives: carchitecture

Carchitecture #2 The Urzeit

The Nissan building (now owned by a different company) by ZZ&P architects

I was surprised, when I looked for information on the Nissan building next to the A4 just outside Amsterdam, to find it was finished as late as 1991. It was this building that struck me as the first building that truly made something out of its location right next to the highway. The rectangular slab of the building is positioned at a 90 degree angle to the road, making the entire facade a billboard that carries the company logo. A whimsical blob emanates from the edge, near the top – a board room probably – and gestures at the passing cars. The blob seemed to me a rather transparent quote from the vocabulary of OMA (the architecture firm that everybody now knows from the CCTV building in Beijing). This office made, much earlier, a true piece of Carchitecture.

The building I’m thinking of is the 1980 project for the “Boompjes” in Rotterdam. Its complicated and contradictory shape (a slab made out of towers) is further rationalized by the view it presented from the road that went past the building. A beautiful piece of OMA bravura, it was a project for a site that didn’t exist, precariously ambushed by water and a curving bit of highway. Driving on this highway meant that just when you would arrive at the building you had to make a sharp turn and right after that another, to prevent crashing into it – a fantastic cinematographic experience that was preserved in the flight of the little renderings (perspective views of the approach) that hover in the left panel of the triptych made for the presentation of the project. So here, for the first time, there was an awareness of the quality that a roadside location could have, not only because it was so conveniently placed to the means of access, but also, and very much so, because the building itself could advertise, just as the car salesmen had found out before.

The Boompjes building was a watershed because, for the first time in decennia, it celebrated infrastructure and the highway. By the end of the 70’s you could find the ruins of the big infrastructural dreams of the previous decades in almost every city in the Netherlands. Stretches of highway looking forlorn in the still standing fabric of the old city around it. In Amsterdam a 4-lane road stopped right before a venerable remainder of the Golden Age, the 17th century residence of the Pinto family. The frail old building proved to be stronger than the stream of asphalt. In Delft a highway speeded gingerly towards the medieval centre – that is, before the value of the old brick and mortar was judged to be greater than a smooth transition by car. And so the highway stopped right in front of a row of 19th century houses; dramatically, incomprehensibly. Something similar happened in The Hague. A wide lane, lifted on concrete pillars, abruptly had to go down on its knees and bow down before the neighbourhood it all but had destroyed.
Of course the buildings that would line these dreams of swift connection and frictionless transport didn’t sport the complicated forms of Carchitecture. They were reticent boxes, quiet (or should i say “boring”) containers for the offices and shops that would bring the old city back to life. Most of these buildings are now torn down.
This was the state of things by 1980: a ban on highways within the boundaries of the cities, preservation and reconstruction of the old city centres, a move of businesses to locations outside the city, and a new effort to provide the existing highways with enough capacity to connect the cities with these new locations.

The Boompjes project never made it past the beautiful presentation. The “impossible” location turned out to be a quite possible location for a rather bland building, that didn’t do anything with the highway but addresses a bend in the river at that point, supposedly. It took another ten years for the Nissan building to appear, the first built example of car driven architecture: Carchitecture.

Carchitecture #1 An introduction to Carchitecture

Whatever the driver sees from his car on the highways of Europe has always been the subject of concern for designers. Obviously the place and shape of road signs is decided after careful consideration about visibility on high speed approach. Beyond that there is the attempt at a selection of what is visible in between the road signals, beyond the lines on the tarmac. The design of the parapets of a bridge over a river is a trade-off between road safety and the view of a beautiful landscape. And then there are the designations of what is a scenic view, not just for a specific point but on a whole stretch of a road – the green lines indicating a ‘parcours pittoresque’ on the Michelin maps may serve as evidence.

Grossglockner Hochalpenstrasse 1935

That highways are more than a rational means of mobility has been clear. But is is only in the last thirty years that a dedicated kind of architecture appeared alongside the road. Ever since my studies in the early eighties, when the commute from Amsterdam to Delft had me stare out of the car window day after day, I couldn’t help but notice how the shape of whatever building stood by the road changed because of the road. The design of these buildings I like to designate with ‘Carchitecture’

Autopon Amsterdam 1961

Carchitecture started with cars. It was with the car dealerships that the awareness dawned that, with these businesses typically being on the fringe of town, the traffic jams, that other typical phenomenon on the approach of a city, could turn into a slow moving line of window shoppers.

The oldest occurrence that I can think of now, of a businessman realizing the potential of his location on top of the road, is this well known building in Amsterdam. It was finished in 1961 after a design of Ingwersen and De Geus (and I am pleased to reveal that my father was involved in the design for this project). The building is a rather surprising appearance, on the border of old Amsterdam, of design elements of the ‘Unité’ that Le Corbusier built in Marseille, but with the addition of a typical Carchitecture element: the dramatic ‘hand’ cradling the latest model car.

Autopon Amsterdam 1961

In the seventies car dealers moved to the fringe of town. The buildings that had locations next to the highway evolved from the simple sheds that contained the showroom into true shopwindows that gave out on the road – not the access road but the highway at the back of the building. A new type was born.

showrooms alongside the highway

The highway became an attractive location for office buildings when Holland changed into a commuter country. The inner cities of Dutch cities were closed off increasingly from car traffic when the post war projects for wide car friendly city streets were aborted and reversed. Since accessibility by car was perceived indispensable for business the new locations for office buildings moved to outside the city. The proximity of the highway was initially no incentive for a dedicated kind of design. The moving principle for office design came from the internal functioning of the building and the successive schools of thought about the optimum lay-out for work places. However, near the end of the eighties here and there a building emerged that had a design that took the view from the highway into account.

The building pictured here is of a recent date, but it is an example of how a need for gesturing came about to emphasize the location on the road. This is what Carchitecture is about.

gesturing at the passers by

Not all buildings on top of the road follow the rules of Carchitecture design. Following Venturi’s famous typology, this building for IKEA should be called a ‘decorated shed’. However, Carchitecture is not a decorated shed – it would be closer to what Venturi would call a ‘duck’. The buildings that would be grouped under this name and Carchitecture don’t completely share the same characteristics though.

IKEA shed

Carchitecture has evolved into a whole array of building forms. It’s a necessary development, because the Dutch highways change, and new demands provoke new insights with the road designers.
Here is an example in which the necessary noise barrier – that usually blocks the view from the highway – is meshed with the needs of Carchitecture.

presence on top of sound barrier wall

The building depicted below shows how the influence of the highway can extend to quite a distance from the actual axis of the road. It shows the character of the Dutch highways as a ‘mycelium’ – an organism of its own, of which Carchitecture is its spontaneous fruit.

mushroom pops up

I would like to develop an Atlas of this fascinating set of building shapes. Carchitecture has its own typology and spatial system – for instance, there is a typical way of how the actual access to the building is combined with the demands of the highway location. This blog post is not the place to give the whole story, but I hope to come back to it in the future.