Frame: "On goths & gables" (Sep/Oct 2007)
Sint Lucas art academy in Boxtel, the Netherlands (FAT)
FAT has created an identity for an anonymous school building by concealing it behind a decorative screen.
Words David Keuning
Photos Sint Lucas
The architects of London architecture firm FAT are often faulted for being superficial provocateurs. The name of the agency has something to do with this indictment (FAT stands for Fashion Architecture Taste, placing a discipline that takes itself extremely seriously between two more lightweight concepts), and the criticism is further reinforced by the firm’s humorous and yet cynical manifestos (including ‘How to Become a Famous Architect’). To be labelled a provocateur may come in handy at the beginning of your career, but when you want to be taken seriously, too frivolous an image is not terribly helpful. And all indications are that FAT, now ten years old and with a small number of buildings and a slightly larger number of interiors in its portfolio, wants respect. Yet the most recent FAT project does not forsake its origins: when even a student at a school for set design dubs your renovation of that school ‘superficial stage scenery’, you have not yet lost your talent for provocation.
The institute in question is the Sint Lucas Art Academy in Boxtel, the Netherlands, a vocational school for ‘creatives in training’, as the nameplate next to the entrance on Burgakker Street indicates. Besides courses in spatial design (of which set design is a component), its approximately 1250 students can also select courses in media design, interior design and restoration. As for the school buildings, they are a mishmash of styles and periods: two detached volumes date from the 19th and early 20th centuries, and the main building is composed of sections from the 1950s, ’60s and ’90s. The most recent expansion in 1999 provided the school with an accommodation that, while it served its function outstandingly, had the anonymous look of your average provincial hospital - hardly inspiring for creatives in training.
When alumnus Erik Kessels of the Amsterdam advertising agency KesselsKramer devised a new communications strategy for the school in 2002, he advised the school board to hire FAT for the architectural adjustments to the building. The architecture firm, which had also designed a new interior for KesselsKramer’s offices in an old church in 1998, was asked to merge the individual buildings in Boxtel into a unified whole and to give the school a distinctive identity, all with minimal resources. Architecture as representation - right up FAT’s alley. The firm is adept at imparting meaning to nondescript places or buildings with simple means. The architects derive their visual idiom from disciplines outside architecture, and the iconography of advertising (and of communications in general) is one of the more important among them. The message in Boxtel had to be: Here is an open institution with a rich history and great creative potential.
The vector of FAT’s message, on the outside of the building, consists among other things of a striking, partly Gothic and partly modern palisade snaking its way across the site, mainly in the form of a screen that conceals the existing buildings. FAT created unity in the interior by applying a Gothic-inspired design to the friezes along the ceiling and by incorporating, in the floors of the main public spaces, a geometric pattern derived from a graphic design by Dutch monk and architect Dom Hans van der Laan. This pattern has also been applied to part of the outer walls and in the new fences. Spatial interventions are modest: the most significant is the conversion of the old gymnasium into a multipurpose hall, whereby the architects shifted the changing rooms to the adjacent hallway in order to create a spacious corridor. Most of the decoration, including furniture from Artifort and Gispen, was selected by a group of seven students and is not FAT’s work.
Architect Sean Griffiths of FAT takes great pains to emphasize that his interventions are not an example of superficial postmodernism or cynical provocation, and that they are anchored in the historical setting of the school: the project is contextual in many respects. ‘The screen is a reference to the ecclesiastical origins of the school,’ he says. ‘Hence the name Sint Lucas. It also refers to the convent that was originally on the site, and to the tradition of collegiate architecture common throughout Europe. The form is therefore appropriate to an educational institution.’
There are many more such references. According to Griffiths, the screen is also a response to the physical context of the building. ‘It is a series of gables, which is a common form in many of the town’s most important buildings, such as the castle, the town hall, the library and St Peter’s School,’ he says. The screen reorients the building towards Burgakker, an important historic street that leads from the castle to the church. At the south end, where the context is more suburban, the building is treated to look like a small factory in the suburbs. This is where the administration and workshop blocks are. ‘Thus it refers to two different aspects of the school,’ Griffiths explains: ‘An educational institution with religious origins whose ethos is about teaching design in a vocational way, with strong links to industry. The idea is to create a kind of narrative to suggest that the school has been built amongst the ruins of a strange amalgam of monastery and factory – although the ruins are, of course, entirely false.’ The treatment of the screen at the front is also a nod towards Goth fashion, which is worn by some of the students.
The question remains whether FAT, with this project, has proven it has outgrown the status of superficial provocateur. For those who ascribe a timeless character and objective values to architecture, a building that seems unable to surpass the ephemerality of a theatrical backdrop is probably difficult to swallow. The interventions in Sint Lucas are also undeniably provocative: they revive the traditional debate about the relationship between function and meaning. But they are certainly not superficial. FAT has woven multiple layers of meaning into a clear message, which has been interpreted positively by many of the students. And for that one student to whom the project is nothing more than scenery, Griffiths has an answer that denotes a postmodern sense of perspective: ‘From our point of view, the screens are much more than mere decoration. But if people read them as such, that’s okay too.’