Live and work by the water, partake of a maritime setting, and all in a renovated building steeped in history. Derelict harbour districts have a flair all of their own. Urban planners have been addressing this flair for a couple of decades now in an endeavour to breathe new life into brown sites with revitalisation measures. The navy barracks in the port of Amsterdam carry just such potential. And in the north-easterly most corner, where two urban worlds collide, lie the district offices of the Dutch military police, the Koninklijke Marechausse (KMAR). Right by the water, right by a bridge, a stone’s throw from the ancient city centre.
The locational factors, therefore, are ideal for the new KMAR premises. But that would be making it too easy for Cologne architects’ firm Wansleben. It was a national police building, after all, that was to be erected here, a building whose significance also needed to be reflected in its outward appearance. No mean task, but one that Wansleben tackled in a way that was as ingenious as it was straightforward.
The building’s outer facade stands out by dint of a seeming sobriety indicative of a defensive nature. You initially feel you’re facing a massive, dark complex – square, plenty of windows that nevertheless look small in their deep recesses, and with a facade texture like that of a woven carpet, partly due to the windows. These are positioned in geometrical perfection one above the other and at slightly larger intervals next to each other. The building’s outer shell comprises a sequence of panels with 16 window openings in each (1,750 in all) that have been meticulously fitted together. The outcome is a singularly monotonous pattern with a few exceptions.
Look a bit more closely, though, and you will notice countless architectural highlights. The nigh-on fortress-like character of the office building, for instance, is broken up by a large glass cutaway that provides a view in onto the stairwell and, what’s more, onto the far more vibrant and colourful interior courtyard. A further special feature that doesn’t strike the eye immediately is the colour contrast between the dark facade elements and the bright window recesses, the latter giving rise to an interesting illumination effect after dark in combination with light from the windows. The monolithic building does not permit anything more than blurred images behind the window panes by day but really comes to life at night.
Thus, while the facade mirrors the importance of the building’s use, communicates this to the city, deliberately foregoes showiness, the interior is by no means gloomy and foreboding. Clearly it is the interplay between the facade’s sobriety and the veiled spatial, programmatic and technical complexity of what lies behind that gives the building its special appeal. It is almost as if hidden behind protective armour – a feasible interpretation of the additional shell in dark grainy basalt and labrador – is a different world altogether.
Once in the interior courtyard, the friendly atmosphere hinted at when gazing through to the glazed stairwell is confirmed. Colourful solar protection panels in shades of blue, green, yellow and white and a verdant interior courtyard with a convivial wooden terrace cause the initial impression gained of the building to be instantly forgotten. Likewise, the interior design makes a friendly rather than a non-welcoming impression: bright surfaces, fair-faced concrete, timber panelling, glass lift, futuristic looking stairwell with white spiral staircase, none of which suggests a building with anything to hide. And as already mentioned, looked at closely, the outer facade doesn’t come across quite as it is billed either. As soon as a ray or two of sun strike the fissured black basalt of its rough surface, a dazzling play of light emerges from the wall stacked perilously high by the very edge of the canal.
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