In search of form

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A nursery school on the museum island of Hombroich 
by WILFRIED WANG, Cat. Oliver Kruse, Kinder Insel Hombroich, Cologne 2000

Against a background of ever-changing circumstances, whether natural or man-made, all wishes for permanence on the one hand and modernity on the other must invariably be regarded as expressions of our contradictory society. And it was, perhaps, such basically conflicting aspects which were central to a seemingly insignificant project for the design and construction of a nursery school on the outskirts of the city of Neuss. In a topographical context like that of the museum island of Hombroich, however, such aspects are altogether worthy of mention, for they represent those necessarily opposing forces which are the essence of a self-contained yet internally dynamic work of art.

The Stiftung Insel Hombroich now has at its disposal two areas for the exhibition and execution of works of art: the original »island«, an idyllic stretch of meadowland and woodland on the River Erft, with its sixteen buildings, most of them designed by the sculptor Erwin Heerich, and the newly acquired »Rocket Station«, a disused NATO rocket launching site which, through gradual development (likewise with buildings mostly designed by Heerich), is becoming an equally important vehicle for the museum’s activities. After a development phase of almost two decades, the Stiftung Insel Hombroich has now become a centre of international culture and scholarship. The Stiftung Insel Hombroich was founded on the initiative of a group of art collectors, artists and art lovers, led by Karl-Heinrich Müller, at the beginning of the eighties. This unusual partnership of like-minded individuals succeeded in giving this former opencast mining and steelmaking region, totally drained of its resources today, a completely new lease of life. Every visitor is immediately aware of the contrast between the bleakness of the surrounding industrial wasteland and the charm of this natural riverside sanctuary. If we were to describe the Erft countryside in the language of the art historian, we might say that it corresponded, generally speaking, to the now classical notion of a symbiosis of nature and its cultivation by man, or even, in those particular instances where man has creatively intervened, to a synthesis of painterly landscape architecture with just a sprinkling of French rationalism, whereas the former rocket station is still very much a disturbing symbol of the Cold War, testifying to an Anglo-Saxon pragmatism which makes such directly clashing activities as agriculture, which is earthbound, and defence, which is airborne, seem like two autistic neighbours, each ignoring the other, here an anachronistic Garden of Eden, there a hitherto prosaic, internationally strategic plot of land of no beauty whatsoever.

It is in this juxtaposition of two seemingly disparate tracts of land that the many different cultural activities of the Stiftung Insel Hombroich have given rise to a local and regional community, the continual growth of which represents the actual cultivation of this terrain. Central to the Stiftung Insel Hombroich is the art collection. Existing alongside a rich fund of contemporary European art are archaeological finds from Ban Chiang, Mesopotamia and Amlash. Numerous artefacts from the Khmer Empire and the Han and Tang dynasties, as well as ritual objects from Africa and Oceania, enter into a cross-referential dialogue with works of western art.

The concept of mixing together objects which are normally kept apart because they belong to different genres or cultural contexts is also reflected in the arrangement of the exhibition buildings, dwellings, studios and workshops. Likewise intermingled with the visual arts, albeit temporally rather than spatially, are concerts, readings, formal dinners and banquets, and the summer festival.

This cultural mix of art collection, studios, workshops, laboratories, concerts, readings, dinners, banquets and, last but not least, the natural setting in which they are offered, has brought forth a circle of users, visitors and inhabitants who, in turn, have attracted further users and inhabitants. Located at the westernmost edge of the museum island of Hombroich is the Children’s Island, a nursery school designed to accommodate approximately 20 children. It was completed in October 1999 after taking approximately five and a half months to build. The nursery school is the ideal starting point for an exploration of the surrounding countryside and the works of art that are there to be discovered. Thus Gotthard Graubner’s concept of art running parallel with nature can be experienced at first hand by even the island’s youngest inhabitants and visitors.

This is not the first time the sculptor Oliver Kruse, who designed the nursery school, has been active on the Insel Hombroich. Back in 1995, together with Katsuhito Nishikawa, he planned and built the one-man house on the Rocket Station, a single-cell guesthouse whose simplicity of form, clarity of function, ideal proportions and such structural details as the verandah with its plain wooden posts supporting a raised, flat, projecting roof anticipate the architecture of the nursery school.

A particularly important feature is the relationship between the main room and the adjoining rooms, this being clearly expressed in their spatial proportions. The unity of the one-man house is underpinned on the one hand by the membrane character of the roof and, on the other, by the fact that each room, as a single unit forming part of the whole, expresses itself, quite literally, outwards. Thus there is a constant interplay between the axes formed by the rooms, either in the ratio of three to one or between the centre of four axes and the spatial symmetry of three axes. It is this interplay which also expresses the dynamic interaction between the ideal notion of the »primaeval cell« as a single room for one person and the reality, that is, the necessity, of the adjoining rooms. The one-man house is, as it were, a cell in a state of existence immediately preceding division. Cell division has clearly taken place in the case of the nursery school, for a further number of adjoining rooms has now been added, such that these rooms take up virtually half of the entire volume of the building. The cellular concept of the building also finds expression in the fact that the two adjacent units are staggered, are facing in opposite directions and are each topped with a slightly sloping, raised roof, as featured on the one man house. The central section, glazed on both sides of the building, further underlines the common identity of the two adjacent units. This is where the kitchenette — in other words, the very heart of the building — is located.

The entrance area takes the form of a large cloakroom featuring a low, L-shaped bench for the twenty children and a two-flighted staircase flanked by vertical, room-high planks in lieu of banisters. The storerooms and the sanitary block are accessible from the cloakroom. They take up exactly one third of the rectangular ground plan, with the result that, together, the cloakroom and the staircase ideally form a square. Located on the first floor are the staff office and the rest-room, both accessible via a landing which, like the staircase, is flanked by vertical, room-high planks which separate it from the adjacent two-storey-high communal room. These planks lend the landing the character of a separate, self-contained room and, by the same token, are conducive to peace and quiet in the adjoining areas. They also readily permit parents to observe their children in the communal room below as they await their turn to talk to the head of the nursery school.

For its part, the two-storey-high communal room is divided into rest and activity areas. It is here, moreover, in the interior of the building, with its main and adjoining rooms, that the device of combining open and enclosed constructional units can be fully appreciated, for the exterior of the building provides only an inkling of this. As in the one-man house, Kruse plays here with the point and counterpoint of static and dynamic sensations of space. If we stand in front of the main entrance, all we see is a four-axis frontage divided into a three-axis enclosed part and a single-axis open part (this pattern in repeated, with axial symmetry, on the other side of the building and is featured similarly in the one-man house). Kruse then picks up and develops this theme of spatial and structural interplay for the interior of the building.

Thus, in using as his starting point the basic external structure of the building, that is to say, the two staggered, totally enclosed structural units and their roofs, Oliver Kruse has developed a complex, highly differentiated, dynamic system of internal divisions. The result is a building which is entirely in keeping with the tradition already established by Heerich’s exhibition galleries and pavilions. If one compares the nursery school with Heerich’s Tower of 1989, or even with his Tall Gallery of 1983, one cannot but sense the ideals of space and form which underlie the architecture of the nursery school. Understandably, considering the ideality of their purpose, the exhibition rooms manifest a high degree of conceptual purity. More detailed comparisons reveal further parallels. What was already a feature of the one-man house — namely the use of standard-sized plywood panels as the smallest modular element, just as bricks are the smallest modules in the exhibition galleries and pavilions — has been repeated by Kruse in the nursery school, though obviously more stringently, for here the panels and their frames have been constructed from the same material: both the glue-laminated beams and uprights forming the skeleton framework of the building and the triple-ply panels are of Douglas fir. The dimensions of the triple-ply panels dictate — in much the same way as in the one-man house — the rhythm of the skeleton framework. Unlike the one-man house, however, the nursery school’s inside and outside walls are made of the same materials, thus strengthening the effect of homogeneity, simplicity, fundamentality. There are parallels, too, with the present-day relevance of minimalism, such as the minimalism of the sculptor Donald Judd, or with the functional, fundamental architecture of a Heinrich Tessenow. Thus permanence and modernity here lie closer together than is at first glance apparent. The differently structured wooden surfaces and the uniform gaps of 1 cm wherever joints have had to be made in the woodwork are Kruse’s subtle way of underlining the respective functions of the structural elements.

Here Kruse meets the ideal of material uniformity, an ideal which plays an important role in architecture, and not just in the architecture of today. On the one hand, this uniformity of material heightens the sensation of space, for the more homogeneous the surrounding, space-defining surfaces are, the more they convey the impression of space; on the other hand, it represents a kind of self-discipline, an intellectual challenge, for it proves that it is possible to create an infinite number of different shapes and spaces with just one material, albeit processed into different structural elements (gluelaminated beams and uprights, plywood panels). This, too, testifies to Kruse’s search for cognitive permanence, an essential aspect of the contemporary discourse on art and architecture.

Finally, mention must be made both of the particular location of the nursery school, this being, for practical reasons, close to the western, private entrance, and of its orientation, for together they are instrumental in establishing the rapport between the architectural gesture of the building — the two staggered cubiform units — and its topographical context. On the side facing the island, the terraced recess formed by the staggered configuration constitutes an important part of the building, affording a kind of shelter — in both an architectural and a psychological sense — against the idyllic landscape that can be viewed from it, whilst on the other side of the building, on the side facing the boundary of the property, one can see, looking from the halflanding of the fire-escape across the main road towards the rocket launching site beyond, the harshness of reality.

Whereas the interior of the nursery school represents a bipolar world of give and take, its exterior serves, contextually, as the mediator between the world of art and the world of rational reality. Neither of these two co-existing worlds is ignored in the nursery school, for everything and everybody find their way into it, whether children, grown-ups, sunlight, rain, wind, harsh reality or benign utopia, the latter being known, in this case, by the name of Insel Hombroich.