Campus Centerpiece

Dutch architect Wiel Arets provides a monolithic place of contemplation—and community—for students at the University of Utrecht.
August 11, 2010

The Uithof university campus southeast of Utrecht is famous far beyond the borders of the Netherlands for its modern architecture. Over the years, a number of spectacular buildings had been created in a loose arrangement. Based on a master plan by Rem Koolhaas, the density of the development was also increased. All that was missing was a central focal point.

Since last summer, the architectural nucleus has been formed by a darkly shimmering, powerful, cubic structure of massive appearance on the outside: an eight-story, 36,250-sm library at University of Utrecht by Dutch architect Wiel Arets.

Despite the physical dominance of this building, it was possible to avoid any impression of an isolated monolith. This was achieved by linking the library via bridges with the neighboring structures and by incorporating it in a design ensemble that includes the new parking block.

A lecture hall, shops, and an espresso bar help to integrate the library into life on the campus. But above all, the events space within the up to 33-meter-high reading room—which remains open until late in the evening—makes the building a popular meeting place at a central point of the university.

The structure is by no means hermetically sealed off by its enclosing skin, either. A stylized image of willow branches lends the relief-like concrete surfaces a haptic quality. The same image in the form of screen printing creates a sense of depth in the glazing.

Koolhaas's model of a casbah—a high-density North African citadel—has been transposed by Arets from an urban planning context to the spatial layout of the building.

The huge storage area that was required is distributed over a number of cubic elements that seem to float like clouds between the reading platforms within the volume. The black coloration of the interior is an aid to concentration. The open space and large areas of glazing help to ensure a pleasant, communicative atmosphere.

The team considered using colored concrete throughout the building, but instead chose to paint the concrete surface after it had set. Colored concrete was deemed too costly and would have posed challenges in achieving a uniform black tone for all the elements, given the long construction period and enormous amount of concrete used in the building, according to Stephan Toonen, project engineer with structural engineer ABT.

The concrete structure is composed of high-performance poured-in-place concrete for the load-bearing structure and precast panels for exterior façade. To replicate the 3-D tree-like pattern etched into the exterior glazing, the team created a molded rubber mat based on the artist's original design that was laid in the concrete formwork.

This article originally appeared in our sister publication Detail, a German-based architectural review journal now available in an English version. For a subscription, visit:www.detail.de/english.