The Netherlands Dance Theatre

(The Hague. Holland) 1984-87

A major problem in Europe, over the last twenty years or so. has been how to cope with the chaotic, derelict areas of cities on their peripheries and in their centres that the wanton urban development schemes of the post-war era have turned into no-man's-land. At a time when many architects were preoccupied with 'memory' or the 'sense of place' in historic urban areas. Rem Koolhaas was among the first to address the degree zero' urbanity of the fractured city edges and disembowelled inner cities. The Hague Dance Theatre was an ironically appropriate first commission.

A crueller case of urban blight, created by what Koolhaas has referred to as our contemporary culture of congestion', would be hard to imagine. Once the very heart of historic The Hague, the site for The Netherlands Dance Theatre is now squeezed between an elevated eight-lane highway, a major tram and bus interchange, the oppressive concrete slabs of the Ministries of Justice and Defence and a multitude of derelict two-storey buildings alternating with littered vacant lots (not to mention the claustrophobia induced by the zoning and planning scheme of the site chosen for the Dance Theatre). To make things still more difficult, the budget for the theatre was low.

Like the early-1970s followers of Robert Venturi's and Denise Scott Brown's Learning from Las Vegas, Koolhaas responded to the commission in a contextualist manner instead of approaching the problem with a priori architectural values, finding guidelines for design in the specifics of the site and its surroundings. In comparison to the so-called pop contextualists, the mood of his response was no longer so light-hearted; it had a hard edge because of the harsher urban realities. The result is the deliberately provocative and critical 'dirty real' quality of the building, the building's contextual reality in all its urban or industrial roughness. To the south-east, it lunges almost pugnaciously over the traffic lights at the intersection of the road and the tram and bus lines. Its consciously nondescript facade is that of a governmental building rather than a cultural institution, more suited to bureaucrats than art lovers. The corrugated metal walls at the back are garage-like. Finally, and most disconcertingly, the main entrance to the theatre looks distinctly like a side door.

(Left) A worm's-eye view of The Netherlands Dance Theatre building

Two views of the interior

(Opposite) The sky bar, balanced on a single beam, seen from the foyer below

(Below) The theatre, looking towards the stage

(Below left) The side of the building projects over the road

(Left) A worm's-eye view of The Netherlands Dance Theatre building

(Below) The theatre, looking towards the stage

(Below left) The side of the building projects over the road

Netherlands Dance Theater Section Oma

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Plans of the Dance Theatre

(Top to bottom) Section; floor plan at balconj level; ground floor plan

(Opposite) The main facade, with Madelon Vriesendorp's fresco, in its site context

(Above) The rear facade

However, the response of the Dance Theatre to the surrounding urban harshness is not just lo reflect it. The giant fresco of dancers by Madelon Vriesendorp that adorns the wall nsingabove the rest of the building is a vibrant affirmation of sensuality, as if to negate the abysmal surroundings. The same is the case r>ith the dominating visual effects in the interior of the building, especially the polychromatic explosion in the foyer in canary yellow, cardinal red, copper and gold.

As in an Alexander Calder mobile, in this setting for the celebration of the body in motion nothing is a strict geometrical form and everything seems somehow slightly out of joint, as if poised on the brink of imbalance. The concave shape of the coffee bar and the curve of the Dalcony of the first floor are not paraboles, just as the platform of the second-floor balcony, the sky bar, is not an ellipse but an ovoid. Seen from below, the two balconies above the foyer seem to float, or to rather dance. The sky bar literally does bob and dip in response to shifting movements of visitors, precariously balanced as it is on a single beam. In the theatre proper, painted black, the tension resulting from the buoyant, fluid effect is similar. The undulated ceiling, which is simply the underside of the roof, with insulation held between the two layers of corrugated steel, is swung up over a light truss spine, swaying rhythmically with the rippling corrugated metallic walls below.

The one indulgence of the extremely economical theatre is concealed: a suspended swimming pool, an element that became almost an emblem in Koolhaas's early paper designs, which is reserved for the dancers. In the imaginative provision of this amenity, as well as in several other small functional details, OMA, Koolhaas's Office of Metropolitan Architecture, demonstrates that it is one of the very few architectural firms today which continue to dare to think seriously and inventively about programme and programmatic innovation rather than just compositional newness. It is troubling that outside the refuge of the Dance Theatre, the dirty realities go on, a fact intentionally brought to mind as one slips back out through the 'side door' entrance.

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