Public art is a common sight in Dutch cities. The Netherlands has a long-standing tradition that as much as 1 percent of the budget for civic projects must fund an accompanying artwork. Whether the results fly or flop, the program has fostered creativity in the public realm. But even in this cultural context, it’s remarkable that a potentially banal construction fence at Rotterdam’s Erasmus Medical Centre (EMC), the biggest single renovation project in the country since World War II, ended up a thing of beauty.
For a project of this scale, the standard temporary chain-link or plywood solution needed reconsideration: “temporary” meant the site could have been an eyesore for as long as 15 years. “Given the enormity and length of the renovation, and examining other construction fences around the city, we wanted to do a better job,” says Lydia Bogtstra, art adviser and curator at EMC. “We could’ve done it the cheap and easy way, or we could genuinely make something that would be a positive presence for the city and people.”
Origins, a young local firm fast becoming known for its thoughtful approach to sustainable architecture, won a competition with a sinuous and recyclable proposal that appears deceptively complex. The fence actually comprises just two mirror-image modules—made of angled timber louvers in a steel frame—that are rotated to create an undulating surface. “We’re interested in complex geometry, like triangular solutions, with a simple construction,” explains Jamie van Lede, the founder of Origins.
Mounted on ordinary freestanding concrete footings, the prefabricated modules are easily transported to the site, where they can be moved about as needed. The louvers are made from a local FSC-certified spruce that, once thermally treated, structurally resembles Bakelite and lasts up to 25 years. “We chose timber not only for its sustainable qualities but because it’s a wonderful material that gives life to the urban jungle,” van Lede says. It also helps decrease the fence’s environmental impact: the high amount of energy required to process and recycle the metal frame is balanced by the wood’s low-energy production requirements and its high latent energy (think of a tree as a carbon cupboard). What’s more, the timber elements were produced in a local workshop by people with mental disabilities.
Installed last July, the fence—which graphically snakes along the hospital’s northern edge—engages locals while protecting them. “The brief requested a flexible solution that enabled the people of Rotterdam to follow the construction process but simultaneously blocked the building site,” van Lede explains. “When people walk past the angled louvers, the fence appears closed. If they walk up close, the louvers seem to open.” Plus, he points out, the design ensures that the beautiful fence will remain so. “The uneven surface also renders graffiti pointless.”