Amid Zero Protest, OMA’s Netherlands Dance Theater Meets Its End
The demolition of a key OMA work prompts questions about the civic value of innovative architecture.
Completed in 1987, the Netherlands Dance Theater (NDT) in The Hague was architect Rem Koolhaas’s first seminal building.
Photography by Hans Werlemann
The Netherlands Dance Theater, the first major project built by Rem Koolhaas, was demolished earlier this year to very little note in the architectural press. It was a strangely hushed finale for a building that had drawn immediate praise when it opened in September 1987 and earned the esteem of dance audiences, performers, and architects during its relatively short existence. At the behest of The Hague municipal authorities, who plan to build a much larger performing arts center on its former site, bulldozers reduced the theater (known locally as the NDT) to debris between October 2015 and January 2016.
Koolhaas learned conclusively that the building was being demolished only after the process was already under way last fall, but he had heard the first rumors a decade ago. He’d been prepared for such news, he says, and his firm, OMA in Rotterdam, quickly commissioned the photographer Hans Werlemann to make regular documentary visits to the NDT site and photograph the demolition process until the building was razed. (Werlemann had shot the NDT’s construction some three decades prior.)
What Koolhaas did not expect was the indifference that followed. “There was almost nothing, almost zero,” he reflects about the public response to the NDT’s fate. The few enraged calls for a cessation to the demolition or tearful eulogies have mostly come from OMA employees or the firm’s close associates. “It has been very surprising,” he says, that the destruction of the NDT was not a more contested issue. “That element of surprise has in a way preempted a feeling of tragedy or loss.”
Preservationist advocacy is often waged at a fever pitch, but Koolhaas has emerged as the discipline’s most insightful commentator and unorthodox practitioner, in part by striking a less histrionic tone—even as the NDT was being bulldozed. The architect has lectured and written on preservation for over a decade, and his office produced an exhibition on the topic, Cronocaos, for the 2010 Venice Architecture Biennale, documenting the impulse to landmark increasingly newer buildings. (It later traveled to the New Museum in New York.) In 2014, the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation at Columbia University published Preservation Is Overtaking Us, a collection of Koolhaas’s lectures on the subject at the school, complete with a preservationist “retroactive manifesto” written by associate professor Jorge Otero-Pailos, in the vein of Koolhaas’s 1978 Delirious New York. The text sought to establish preservation as a radical function of architectural design, not, as so many architects had previously claimed, its stultifying opposite. “The hegemonic paradigm is that architecture is about new construction,” explains Otero-Pailos. Yet in his lectures, Koolhaas insisted that new forms were not necessarily more relevant than what had already been built; moreover, preservation could be architecture’s salvation—an alternative to the expressive form-making that had become derided as starchitecture. “Rem made a huge pivot,” notes Otero-Pailos, nearly two years after the slim volume was published, “which was in a way totally unexpected and almost baffling to most people because the person who had for so long represented the idea of the signature building, the new construction, the large development—all of a sudden, he was able to grasp the need for a conceptual change.”
For a decade the building was threatened with razing, which was finally initiated in October 2015. OMA commissioned photographer Hans Werlemann to document the demolition site.
There is some irony in the fact that OMA completed its two most preservation-oriented projects yet—the Fondazione Prada in Milan and the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art in Moscow—mere months before the firm was unable to save a significant early building of its own. Both projects capitalize on the fundamentally generic nature of the existing architecture that they supplement and expand upon, creating new buildings by reframing extant elements into something altogether more exceptional. The NDT was never a banal or standard structure, and this same approach would hardly have sufficed in The Hague. Yet preservationist work readied Koolhaas for the destructive alternative. “I’ve been intellectually prepared for something like that to happen,” he explained two months into the demolition process. His rhetoric is far removed from the pained pique expressed by many architects faced with a similar undoing of their work—for instance, the distraught pathos of Tod Williams and Billie Tsien at MoMA’s sensational destruction of the American Folk Art Museum in 2014. “If I would invest in regret,” Koolhaas remarked during a public conversation about the first decade of his practice in November 2015, “I think it [would be] a very conservative position. I definitely don’t see myself as a victim of this development.”
Koolhaas’s relatively dispassionate response underscores the fact that the demolition of the NDT is, in part, a consequence of the qualities that made the building exceptional in the first place: The flimsiness and immateriality of its construction were the results of an insufficient budget, but Koolhaas turned the financial constraint into a creative advantage. (“Given the way it was built,” the architect says, “it’s also a building that you can actually take down without too much effort.”) What follows in its wake, however, is altogether more troubling. After years of failed competitions and political compromises, an anodyne, ambiguously historicist multitheater complex will rise on the cleared plot. With a neo-Venetian facade and all the elegance of a provincial office park, the new Jo Coenen design for an expanded Netherlands Dance Theater regurgitates the clichés of late Postmodernism. In doing so, it brings to light the difficulty of preserving the era’s most original buildings—many of which, like OMA’s NDT, enter preservationist discourse only after their demolition is already irreversible.
When Koolhaas reflects on the tortuous construction process, he appears mildly surprised that the Netherlands Dance Theater was ever built at all. Initially sited on a seaside plot in Scheveningen, a nearby resort town, the project went through a series of design compromises and was nearly scrapped after the contractor accused Koolhaas of overcharging for the structure’s daring curvilinear roof. “To save it, I had to make a fairy-tale model, a model that was big enough to put [the NDT director] and his choreographer in it,” he recalls. The insouciance of a dollhouse architectural model was maintained in the final design with multicolored columns, terrazzo floors, a floating sky bar in the entrance foyer that straddled an impossibly thin red beam of support, as well as gold sound reflectors in the auditorium—all of which appear in photographs to have been fashioned out of Play-Doh and starkly contrast with the dark, geometric silhouette of the exterior. The building as such was equal parts Malevich and Memphis, an early testament to Koolhaas’s aptitude for digesting and synthesizing the contradictions of 20th-century design.
Werlemann had shot the NDT’s construction some three decades prior to its demolition.
Spread over two volumes articulated in black corrugated steel—its stage tower stood adjacent to a lower-height auditorium—the NDT was lauded for the structural ingenuity of its catenary-curve roof, the stellar acoustics and intimacy of the 1,001-seat auditorium and proscenium stage, and the utter paucity of funds with which these results were achieved. Compared with the surrounding buildings—a garish crimson concert hall designed by Dirk van Mourik that is contiguous with OMA’s building, Richard Meier’s monumental white Hague City Hall complex, a Carel Weeber–designed hotel with a forlorn, scarab-hued curtain wall from the early 1980s, and hulking 1970s concrete high-rises that house government ministries—the compact NDT structure, built of the cheapest materials for less than $8 million, barely counted as architecture.
“It is misleading to judge the building in conventional architectural terms,” wrote the British critic Peter Buchanan in his 1988 review of the just-opened Netherlands Dance Theater. Rather, the building came with a set of criteria closer to the value metric of the avant-garde dance it housed. To the extent that it was ephemeral, ethereal, and unmoored from the tradition of civic gravitas represented by Meier’s structure—and now Coenen’s—the NDT was a building of national, perhaps even international, significance.
Two decades later, the building was deemed inadequate for much the same impermanent qualities that distinguished it from its neighbors: The Hague municipal government now wanted a structure that would reflect the grand scale of its cultural ambitions. “They want something that rivals the Sydney Opera House,” surmises Otero-Pailos, suggesting that Koolhaas’s celebrity might have been leveraged to save the NDT. “When people look at that building, they don’t see Rem—they see a Postmodern building.” What was, in the 1980s, praised as an impressive case of making do was, until very recently, hindered by its material constraints. As Otero-Pailos says, “the NDT is now seen as just cheap.”
That widespread sentiment fueled a 2008 competition, tendered by the city, for the Spuiforum, a larger, grander performing arts complex. OMA was invited to participate, but did not win. Dutch firm Neutelings Riedijk took first place with an eclectic barnlike design, one that, however, earned no favor with local citizens. The project was scrapped after an opposition citizen group was launched to protest the cost and appearance of the Neutelings proposal, and a political candidate successfully ran for municipal office by promising to cancel the winning proposal and call for new design schemes.
In 2014, when yet another Spuiforum competition was announced, “they wanted to put The Hague on the map, to have a large cultural institute,” explains Ellen van Loon, an OMA partner who headed the design proposal submitted to the second call for submissions. The brief tasked select firms with unifying three cultural institutions under a single roof: the Netherlands Dance Theater, the Hague Philharmonic, and the local conservatory. OMA proposed to do as much by building around the existing NDT building, making necessary improvements and renovations to the 1987 structure, and folding the entire building into a new complex. “From the beginning they were not really in line with our intentions,” explains Alex de Jong, an associate at OMA who worked with van Loon on the proposal. Both architects reflect on the competition with an exasperation that extends beyond their inability to rescue the firm’s early work. They had proposed repositioning the entrance to create a public square for open-air performances between Meier’s City Hall and the Spuiforum, and to separate public functions like the concert hall and dance theater on lower floors from the conservatory, located on the highest floor—the broader aim being the creation of a unified civic center on a site that lacked architectural cohesion. “It’s not that we are just interested in preserving all of our own buildings,” van Loon explains. “The times change.” Yet she and de Jong ardently defended the acoustics and aesthetics of the original NDT and declined to remove the building from their scheme. “Every time we showed the NDT in the renovations,” de Jong recalls of client meetings, “they said, ‘Please take it away.’”
Several months after, in mid-2015, OMA learned that Coenen had won; demolition commenced three months later. In Werlemann’s photographs of the process, concrete detritus is strewn haphazardly across the building site, part of a curtain still hangs from a severed rod, and random pieces of the dismembered facade lie underneath piles of rubble. In its dismantled state, the NDT is for the first time revealed to be patently physical—no longer a notional building or an immaterial apparition, for
Werlemann’s photographs constitute an extensive, if not comprehensive, testimony to the life and death of OMA’s Netherlands Dance Theater. They are but one part of an effort to document the building’s existence: Some interior ephemera have been added to the firm’s own archive, and the building continues to exist in plans, models, and photographs. This impulse to document and archive is itself a form of preservation, one that suggests architecture is not fully registered in built form. “Maybe [it] didn’t actually deserve eternal life,” observes Koolhaas as he muses on the NDT. Instead, the building has earned a kind of life after death: a conceptual framework that remains intact, even as structural frameworks rarely do.