Thuistezien 253 — 02.05.2021
Everywhere around the world the United States is looking for new sites for their embassies. This is also how the American embassy in The Hague was moved to Wassenaar, which is now an office complex with a terrain around it. As an introduction to ‘Dag van de Architectuur 2019’, architecture historian Wijnand Galema tells the story of the building: the previous American embassy from 1959, designed by Marcel Breuer, where West is located now as a museum in.
‘Form follows function, but not always’ is the slogan for this building. The history of the embassy building starts with the search of the United States to find places of representation and housing personnel in different countries, among which The Netherlands. After the Second World War there was a desire to expand American ideas, as a beacon of democratic and progressive values. Around 1946 the location at the crossing between the Korte and Lange Voorhout was spotted, yet it was only realised in 1959. There was a first design on paper, one with a facade made completely out of glass, and a transparent first floor that radiated openness and a contrast to the historical context. The delay was marked by reservation and apprehension; the government apparatus was scrutinized and replaced, among which the department responsible for the building, out of a fear for left radicalism. The examination of buildings was revised. Going forward, the design would be modern, but considerations should be in place according to local factors, such as climate. The style would become more moderate, but still fit democratic values.
When Marcel Breuer received the assignment, as one of the names on a list of the new generation of architects endorsed by the department, he did not know how the rest of Korte/Lange Voorhout would be built (what later would make up the ministry of Finance or the French embassy). Therefore, the embassy is a collision between on the one hand an anticipation of future architecture, and on the other a response to historical context. From the city of The Hague the only condition was that the building should not exceed the cornices of the royal theatre. There came two wings with a transparent connecting part: one wing for the chancellery, and one for offices and the public information centre, meant to educate on American culture, made up of a library and auditorium.
As a development from Bauhaus heritage to a ‘nuanced modernism’, Breuer employs a combination of closed and open volumes, where particularly the materials are highlighted. Fascinated by modern production techniques, raw concrete, natural stone and teak wood form a stable whole throughout the building. One of his trademarks is the geometrical shape of a hexagon. Subsequently he took the trapezium shape (half a hexagon) as leading motif for, among others, the windows and their relief panel on the facade. As clear leftover influences of Bauhaus, the materials, geometric shapes and lines of sight act as expressive ornaments for the otherwise sober-looking building. Later obstructed by the set up barricades, the lines of sight were designed in such a way that you could look from the entrance into the yard, and from the street into the open spaces of the long corridors. Another trademark of Breuer is the bodybuilding, the annex with a small connecting hallway, which is the auditorium. This space has a typical ‘Breuer’-ceiling, i.e a grid that again continues the trapezium pattern. The interior, moreover, had its own ‘diplomacy’, and focused on modernist principles, inspired by Scandinavian wooden furniture, and particularly traditional comfort. So the meeting rooms had no Breuer chairs.
As such Galema notes on the many characteristic elements that add up to the distinctive look of the embassy, or rather what it used to be. After renovations and safety measures, and perhaps the changed public opinion of the United States, the building became known as a ‘bunker’ and lost its democratic appearance. In this way the perception of architecture is inevitably linked to the way something manifests in a city.
Wijnand Galema is architecture historian and does cultural-historical research and consultations for diverse clients. Hij regularly publishes on different themes within the history of architecture, lectures, moderates debates and organises exhibitions related to his discipline. Galema is a member of the committee ‘Welstand en Monumenten’ of The Hague and Utrecht. He is also a member of the advisory board for Art History at Rijksuniversiteit Groningen.
Text: Yael Keijzer