Within the grounds of Herinneringscentrum Kamp Westerbork the old commandant’s house still stands. The now uninhabited building is dilapidated. The Herinneringscentrum has decided to conserve the wooden villa as it is now, thereby giving it the status of museum piece. In 2012 we entered into a closed tender for the design of a glass conservatory or shell for this unique heritage. The intended pavilion would both conserve the building and present the emotionally charged history of the house. Our design was not selected.
Photography: Sake Elzinga
Analysis of the assignment
Conservation of the wooden house is a complex matter. Temperature differences, humidity, expansion as well as shrinkage of materials and prevention of disastrous condensation all have to be taken into consideration. This concerns the exterior, but mainly the interior of the house with all the objects that are still in it. In consultation with experts2) a clear overall view was achieved. The house is the only original building in the grounds that directly refers to the Nazis, in the shape of commandant Gemmeker. The monument represents and symbolises Evil. The history of the holocaust is on the mind of everyone who visits the Herinneringscentrum. The emotions the holocaust evokes lie close to the surface. No-one feels at ease in the presence of Evil. In our view, the new pavilion should be used to experience the history of this emotionally charged place.
We wanted our design to speak to the visitors on an emotional level, so they would get a more personal experience from it and remember it better3).
We captured the house in a dark, enclosed, conserving shell, in which a protective cage is installed that keeps visitors at a distance. Discovering the hidden house thus becomes much more exiting; it does not immediately come into view and when it does, it appears unexpectedly. There is a very sudden transition from outside to inside because light intensity, acoustics and temperature are closely controlled. Inside, it is dark and dank.
The surrounding volume is placed in the green space like a dark sculpture and dressed with parts of dark wood. This refers back directly to the other constructions on the site: the fence posts and watch tower of black, tarred wood. It is a significant role reversal. The watch tower and fence were erected to keep people in, but now it is the oppressor’s home that is kept under lock and key.
On entrance, it seems as if the commandant’s residence is twisted. This has an alienating effect. There is very little room around the house; visitors have to look up at it.
The house reveals itself slowly in the dark. The Westerbork film, in which commandant Gemmeker is seen standing next to a leaving train, is projected on the wall. The flickering film light heightens the mysterious atmosphere in the darkened room. A light burns in a room on the first floor, creating an air of suspense; it suggests someone is at home.
Through the large window of the adjoining building subdued backlight shines from the north into the space, generating a silhouette of the house as a first impression.
The concrete walls reflect every sound. Each noise will have a lingering effect because of the echoes. The floor, consisting of steel grates, floats above the garden that is left untouched. Walking over the floor will produce a very specific sound.
To keep visitors at a distance, we have designed cables or bars for the roof, from which the turning floor is suspended. It seems very open but it is impenetrable. But does the cage protect the house or the visitors?
A separate room with a more comfortable atmosphere has been created for lectures or performances in more pleasant surroundings. This is the only room with a view of the wood. Visitors can look outside here and there is room for contemplation.
We designed a concrete space, isolated on the outside, where the desired constant climate is regulated naturally (cathedral model). The mass of concrete creates a heat buffer that slows down any fluctuations in temperature or humidity. A heat pump provides climate control.
2) We talked to: Mark Stappers of “Rijksdienst Cultureel Erfgoed”
Marco Martens of “Martens Klimaat Advies”
Marco Martens – Martens Klimaat Advies
Frits Weijers of “Bureau 1232”
Piet Meinen of “Centrum Hout”
3) More information about this subject can be found in the book
Universal Principles of Design William Lidwell, Kritina Holden, Jill Butler John Benjamins, ISBN 9781592535873