The enduring Dutch legacy of a socially committed architecture tempered by strong functionalist beliefs found in Herman Hertzberger one of its most eloquent practitioners. Admired as much for his pedagogy as for his built work and theoretical writings, Hertzberger has maintained active participation in all three disciplines. He has taken the term codetermination as a sort of creed, one that speaks of the duality of structure and infill as well as the need for inhabitants to participate in some meaningful way in the construction of their individual habitats. As for the latter, Hertzberger has written, “The architect's task is, above all, to apply more than cut-to-fit, readymade solutions and, as much as possible, to free in the users themselves whatever they think they need, by evoking images in them which can lead to their own personally valid solutions.”
Hertzberger began his career as a follower of Aldo van Eyck during the latter’s early days with the Team X (10) group. The two architects, along with Jaap Bakema, shared editorship of the prominent Dutch architectural journal Forum from 1959 to 1963, four fertile years in which a new approach to architecture, one promulgated most publicly by the Team X group, was detailed and comprehensively theorized. Characterized by a nonhierarchical design layout and fiercely polemical writings (many by the editors themselves), the Forum of these years emerged as one of the most important and singular voices in opposition to the instrumentalized functionalism of prewar architecture as characterized by Walter Gropius, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and Le Corbusier.
Hertzberger's experience at Forum played a pivotal role in the creation of the Dutch School of structuralism, of which he was to become the principal proponent. Following Team X's attempt to triumph over the functionalist divisions of CIAM (Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne), structuralism proposed an integrative approach to a building's functions, emphasizing a multiplicity of elements in a loose, complex pattern, with the whole subordinated to a single, homogeneous structural principle. The legibility that results would exist within the discrete units as well as throughout the entirety of the building. Patterns of relations between the user and the built environment, allowing for an interweaving of functions, also characterize the structuralist paradigm. Despite concerns that structuralism’s infinite flexibility served to blur the programmatic distinctions between buildings of different functions, architects such as Hertzberger were able to subvert the deterministic ideals of functionalism by positing notions of an archetypal human and his or her community while still acknowledging the inexorable press of history on the effects of human interaction with built form.
Hertzberger’s Centraal Beheer Insurance offices (1972) in Apeldoorn offer a textbook example for the democratic organization of building components. A regularized grid of floors, supporting columns, and service ducts provides a framework for the irregular clustering of offices and conference rooms. The modularity of the interior allows for infinite reconfigurations through the deployment of furniture and cabinets; the interior atrium recalls Frank Lloyd Wright’s Larkin Building (1904) in its interwoven fabric of tectonic elements, yet it opens up the latter's more regulated symmetry through Hertzberger’s deliberate attempt to infuse the space with the needs of the inhabitants to individually modify their own workspaces. Workers are thus provided with personal areas whose participation in a collective environment avoids any sense of psychological alienation; interpenetrating top-lit voids from both natural and electric sources enhance the drama of the interior and tie together the cellular workstations.
The Central Beheer offices also represent the ways in which Hertzberger’s practice maintained the humanistic investigations of van Eyck with more structurally rational forms handed down from the Dutch architects Hendrik Berlage and Johannes Duiker. This insistence on corporeality and human scale while maintaining structural integrity is at the heart of this enterprise; Hertzberger has written, “Structure is the minimal order necessary to make possible the maximum liberty and even stimulate this effect.”
The Diagoon Houses (1971) in Delft, a set of eight prototype houses originally designed in a larger formation for the city of Vaassen, aptly embody the aspect of self-determination that Hertzberger considered so crucial to the development of meaningful living conditions. Referred to as “half-works,” the details of each dwelling unit are left deliberately ambiguous: window openings that can receive glazing or infill, depending on the needs of the inhabitant; carports on the lowest level to be either used as garages or converted into additional workspace; and roof terraces that can become greenhouses, children’s play areas, or additional penthouse space.
Hertzberger’s Chassé Theatre (1995) in Breda showcases the more Expressionistic side of Hertzberger's neohumanism. Reversing the orthogonal ordering of his earlier work, the undulating roofline of the theater announces itself over the rooftops of surrounding houses, a gesture echoing the parabolic arch from which is suspended the roof of his project for the Bibliothèque de France (1989), and the curved ramps and balustrades of the foyer carve out interior space much like in the central hall of his Ministry of Social Welfare and Employment (1979-90) in The Hague. This latter work, spanning almost a decade of effort, embodies both the modular and the Expressionistic, where curvilinear staircases and elevator shafts meet the strict orthogonals of the Centraal Beheer’s offices.
The exterior pays homage both to Le Corbusier's Plan Voisin with its cluster of cruciform towers and to Gropius’s Fagus Werk with its glazed corner stair towers, but the interpenetration of masses and volumes, the oblique positioning at the site, and the hinged capitals that seem to allow each block to pivot against its adjoining member recall such forms as are often affiliated with Hans Scharoun, especially his Philharmonic Concert Hall (1963) in Berlin. Such varied elements of influence, integrated with the utmost integrity and conjoined with the ability to balance the necessary realms of structure and freedom, are the hallmarks of Hertzberger’s style.
Sennott R.S. Encyclopedia of twentieth century architecture, Vol.2 (G-O). Fitzroy Dearborn., 2005.