Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision: "Introduction" (2007)
Institute for Sound and Vision in Hilversum, the Netherlands


Dutch TV and radio programmes originate in Hilversum, a town about 35 km from Amsterdam. Most of the country’s broadcasting corporations are concentrated in Hilversum’s Mediapark, a euphemistic name for a densely built-up industrial estate for television studios and offices. The Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision, which is housed in a building designed by Rotterdam firm Neutelings Riedijk, marks the main entrance to the estate. The building unites two totally different worlds. The cool silence of archives dedicated to image and sound fills the subterranean floors, where 700,000 hours of Dutch radio and television history lie motionless on shelves that extend for kilometres. Offices occupy the floors above ground, a zone that also accommodates the Media Experience, a colourful spectacle created to replace the rather stuffy Broadcasting Museum. An estimated 150,000 visitors a year are encouraged to read news from an autocue, edit a programme or descend a grand staircase like a TV star. The design of the building accentuates its functional distinctions. ‘The archives had to be a necropolis of sorts,’ says project manager Frank Beelen of Neutelings Riedijk, ‘with a red glow emanating from the openings, as from an inferno. Upstairs you have the glitter and glamour that many people associate with the world of television.’

The institute is meant to be Mediapark’s biggest public attraction. To fuse the two functions and to make the building as recognizable as possible to visitors, the architects opted for an unambiguous, compact volume. ‘The coloured-glass exterior envelops the two parts of the structure like a garment,’ says Beelen. ‘And a cavity at the middle of the building separates them from each other.’ ‘Cavity’ is an understated term for the spectacularly designed void at the heart of the square building. The unsuspecting visitor – not realizing that the part of the institute he saw from the street is just a bit more than half the total volume – walks in and not only sees at a glance that the atrium soars upwards a full 26 m but also finds, to his amazement, a 16-m-deep abyss blocking his way. The space around him unfurls in all directions, growing gradually narrower as it journeys to the heights and depths of the building. A bridge connects the entrance area to the hall on the opposite side of the chasm.

Looking down, the visitor catches sight of the archives. Here, all radio and television productions made by Holland’s public broadcasting corporations, as well as many programmes broadcast by commercial companies, are stored and made available for access. Tapering gently downwards are five stepped levels offering a cascade of terraces lined with endless rows of identical doors that lead to the archives. The naturally stable interior climate of such underground spaces allows them to be kept cool and dry with less sizable climate-control installations than those used for above-ground archives. Only four of the institute’s employees are authorized to enter this underworld. Visitors (most of whom are programme-makers, in practice) wanting to use the archives descend one level and recross the gap in the opposite direction. There they find a service area with cubicles fully equipped for watching or listening to the requested material. The fiery glow intended to conjure up visions of a necropolis was achieved with a coat of orange-red paint on all walls, ceilings and floors of the rooms behind the doors. Dark-grey slate on the floors and walls of the canyon reinforce the image of layers of earth being removed to create the catacombs.

Rising above the atrium, again in gradually narrowing steps, is the Media Experience. If the archives are a city of death, this is surely a paradise for play. A network of broad stairways and lobbies links a larger and smaller cinema to a small exhibition space and, at the top of the building, a good-sized hall that invites visitors to go wild. Walls and floors are the same brilliant blue – officially called ‘chroma key blue’ – that is used in television to superimpose people on animated backdrops. Thanks to the gradually tapering form of this part of the building, the hall features a number of levels, which are interconnected by stairs. The interior design is clearly not the work of Neutelings Riedijk. Audio booths resemble ears, and a larger-than-life printed circuit board serves as a ‘zap station’: compared with this manic vocabulary of colour and form, the rest of the building is an oasis of serenity. Hypsos and Northern Light CoDesign worked together to realize 15 themed pavilions with names like ‘Power and Media’, ‘Behind the Scenes’ and ‘All-Star Show’. After receiving a ring to wear, each visitor digitally enters name, date of birth and email address. What follows is automatic. The ring serves up TV programmes from his youth, deactivates shocking war-related images if he’s accompanied by children and allows him, at a later date, to download the personalized newscast from the institute’s website with the aid of an access code that arrives via email.

The visual bombardment of the space as a whole is in stark contrast to the subdued design of the cinemas, for which Neutelings Riedijk has gone back to the grillwork of loudspeakers used on vintage radios. Behind a screen of three-dimensional wood stars, cloth stretched across the walls conceals LEDs that gradually change colour. The outside of the volume housing the Media Experience is clad with small, purpose-designed squares of aluminium that are attached to the supporting construction with springs. The staff at Neutelings Riedijk call them ‘Paco Rabanne tiles’, in reference to the fashion designer whose mid-’60s creations resembled armour made of articulated plastic plates. The tiles reflect colours that appear on the outer skin of the building. A star-shaped motif reminiscent of a microphone has been punched into the metal squares to provide the atrium with good acoustics.

A great deal of computation went into the realization of this part of the building. At first glance, the stepped construction of the Media Experience seems to be relatively self-evident. A closer inspection, however, reveals an apparently unsupported volume: exterior walls on both sides of the atrium are made from glass, and columns are nowhere in sight. The ‘secret’ is a 56-m-long, over 8-m-high steel truss, which is clamped between the concrete side walls of the volume. Only in the large exhibition hall are the uppermost diagonals of the truss visible; everywhere else they are hidden from view. ‘We are not interested in construction or in using structural components as decorative elements,’ says Beelen. ‘Our focus is on having the construction support the design. No pun intended.’

The most conventional section of the building is the office wing. Located on the opposite side of the atrium, offices are screened off by a 26-m-high glass wall that doubles as a ‘wall of fame’, which consists of stylized portraits of famous TV personalities. The wall is the work of graphic designer Jaap Drupsteen. Composed of sandblasted dots in two gradations of tone, his portraits require a certain amount of distance between wall and viewer to be recognizable.

Jaap Drupsteen is also responsible for the most eye-catching exterior feature of the building: a colourful skin of glazed panels displaying scenes from the history of Dutch television. ‘In the initial design, which dates from 1999, we had drawn a Mondrian-like pattern for the façade, but that didn’t do justice to the uniformity of the television images that comprise the exterior,’ says Beelen. ‘We wanted the images to contribute to the monumentality of the building, rather than making the institute into a sort of kiosk covered in signboards. And we weren’t looking for a piece of glazed and mirrored technology, but for a tactile surface much like an article of clothing.’ Ultimately, Drupsteen and Neutelings Riedijk, together with Hans van den Berg of Sound and Vision, selected 748 images from the archives. To create an amalgamated entity, Drupsteen used a computer program to blur the images, while also grouping them according to colour. His approach heightened the holistic appearance of the building, while also reducing the onlooker’s ability to identify certain scenes. Passers-by eager to find the hidden faces of TV stars sometimes complain about the fuzziness. As a designer of banknotes, postage stamps and passports, Drupsteen is no stranger to this type of criticism, which he tends to ignore. ‘Allowing the public to influence your work can lead to a frumpiness that I don’t advocate,’ is his laconic response. ‘What you’d get is a building that looks something like a biscuit tin.’

To those familiar with the work of Neutelings Riedijk, the Institute for Sound and Vision comes as a surprise. Sculptural forms play a major role in the oeuvre of this firm. Many buildings are defiant works of sculpture that the architects like to call ‘gnarled’. Sound and Vision is a plain square box. The atrium is a negative of the sculpture that in previous buildings was carved out of the body of the building itself. And that makes this building a Neutelings Riedijk design turned inside out. Nor does the highly refined and subtle materialization have a precedent in the work of this firm. Admittedly, other buildings sometimes have striking cladding, but they are coarser and soberer. The Institute for Sound and Vision is more refined. The façade is as transparent as a reel of celluloid and as colourful as a test card. This is a side of the architects that we hadn’t seen before.