Het Ketelhuis: An Abandoned Movie Prop
As you pass the windows on the western side of the Ketelhuis, a converted boiler house on the site of the former Westergasfabriek gas works in Amsterdam, you may catch a glimpse of thing made of wooden strips. It gives the impression of some object casually left behind. Inside the building, it turns out to be bulky structure which rises through the interior space and stands free from the surrounding walls. The inner volume contains two 50-seat film auditoria at ground-floor level with a larger, 143-seat auditorium above them. The connection between these two levels is provided by a freestanding steel staircase that climbs outside of the volume. It is secured by only mountings at top and bottom, apart from the first landing which receives additional support from a tension rod. The strips of wood visible from outside are of larch, and form a cladding that smoothly envelopes the bulging form of this huge piece of furniture. Wrapping the three film auditoria into a compact volume, widening upwards, left ample space all around and the whole western end of the Ketelhuis building empty. Bearing this in mind, Ramin Visch´s remark that "Our biggest problem was that we had no room for the scheduled functions" sounds rather ironic, although he meant it seriously.
The earlier interior, finished in 1999 and intended as a temporary solution, was actually no more than a box clad in perforated panels. It was ripe for replacement by something more permanent considering the popular success of the Het Ketelhuis cinema. This meant incorporating not only two additional auditoria and hence two additional projection rooms, but also extra toilets and more room for the bar - all in the same space. The quantity of plumbing for the heating, fresh air supply and air extraction also tripled. Above the film theatres, hidden from the view of visitors, the roof supports an 8-ton heating and ventilation apparatus. It draws in fresh air through three large grilles in the east wall and delivers it through openings under the cinema seats. The grilles also serve for the expulsion of stale air. The success of a cinema auditorium depends heavily on an absence of extraneous noise, so every effort had to be taken to avoid ventilation hiss. To reduce the air delivery velocity to a minimum, extra-width channels were needed, consuming yet more space. The auditoria are completely acoustically decoupled from the outer shell and from the other spaces. In the former design, Het Ketelhuis I, Ramin Visch endeavoured to leave the original boiler house interior exposed, including the roof structure of steel lattice trusses with tension rods and hangers which dates from 1903. He achieved this by tilting the 6-metre high film auditorium and positioning it in the middle of the space. In this sequel, Het Ketelhuis II, the trick could not be repeated because of the additional auditoria. Instead, the volume was shifted further to one side making it necessary to sever two tension rods of the original roof structure; one tension rod remains, hidden in the void under the floor of the upper auditorium. The upper auditorium is narrower than its predecessor and just fits between the roof trusses. Something that has survived from the previous design is the effort to keep the spatial character of the original Ketelhuis as intact and as visible as possible.
In Ramin Visch´s work, the design approach he has taken to this ostensibly spatial problem exemplifies his ideas on how to deal with existing buildings. An extensive analysis of the programme motivates him to accommodate the required functions in identifiable volumes. He positions these in such a way that the spatial effect and the architectural quality of the existing space is still palpable. This approach also appears in his renovation of the former Post Office by Michel de Klerk in Amsterdam, in the interior he designed for the Ogilvy advertising agency in a former bicycle factory, converted by Neutelings & Van Riedijk, and now again in Het Ketelhuis II. His design outlook is simultaneously modest and audacious. On the one hand, the designer acts prudently so as to respect the building´s original industrial origin and spatial individuality. The incorporation of spaces into a single volume allows daylight to enter from all sides; the steel lattice structure remains exposed and the age of the building is legible from its flaking walls. On the other hand, the inserted object reveals itself unabashedly as a modern intervention. The wooden cladding gives it a modest look, perhaps, but the overall shape is dominant. The cladding forms a continuous envelope and presents a large, soaring, unbroken surface at the point of entry to the building, producing an impressive monumentality. The sheer bulk of the object makes you all the more conscious of the space in which it bathes. The blue kitchen area behind the bar at the eastern end is similarly uncompromising. This contrast operates to the benefit of both old and new. The effect is maximal in such cases when the inserted element is kept as compact and as isolated as possible. For example, the components of the staircase - two flights of stairs, the landing, the handrails - are formed out of a single sheet of steel. For the film auditoria, the designer sought a strong contrast between inside and outside, achieving it by lining the walls, floors and ceilings with the same warm, red carpeting. This also generates a highly intimate atmosphere even when the audience is sparse.
A cinema designer generally aims to give the entering visitor an illusion of entering another world as a prelude to the film itself. In Het Ketelhuis, however, the experience of the real world remains partly intact: the generously admitted daylight mutates along with the weather outside. Instead of illusion, we are regaled with a historical experience. This is evoked by the contrast between the venerable age and the unpolished industrial bluffness of the original interior and the permanent temporariness of the inserted auditorium cluster. It would be a pity if someone came along to take the thing away again.
06 September 2006