Daily Diary: Utrecht

by smithpae on 14 August 2010

Dear Blog,

It’s finally my turn to write the Daily Diary. And I’ve had the good fortune to be assigned the day we went to Utrecht, our last scheduled day of adventuring. Hoorah!

We began with the familiar 8:30 meet up and scenic route to Amsterdam Centraal, which is always a brilliant way to start the day. The 9:08 train took us to Utrecht Centraal, and then we bussed over to De Uithof, the campus of Universiteit Utrecht. Rob introduced the campus to us as a laboratory for urban planning and landscape architecture that includes buildings designed by the office of our new best friend, Rem Koolhaas.

We met up with our tour guide, Sabi, a student of architecture at the world renowned Delft University. The first stop on our campus tour was the top of a dormitory nicknamed the confetti building for its multicolored panels, which represent diversity. We got nervous when the building was locked, but then some students walked out and we snagged the door like ninjas. Our giant group crammed into two narrow elevators, and we headed straight to the roof. The top of the building was enclosed by green walls lined with windows from which we could see the entire campus. Giving the roof walls had a weird sheltering effect, as if we were in a courtyard. Sabi explained that buildings on campus are tall so that the polder landscape would remain undisturbed. I guess if you can’t have a real courtyard, converting the roof is the next best thing. There’s something to be said for real roofs, though. They’re dangerous and off-limits and exciting. Weren’t we all excited when we discovered the roof of the dorms? Even though it is also kind of a courtyard roof. At least it’s not accessible by elevator.

Sabi gave us a brief history of De Uithof. In the sixties, Utrecht University acquired the land and assigned J.A.C. van der Steur to create a master plan for its layout. A North-South grid design was implemented, with the trees and water running on a diagonal axis through the buildings. In the early nineties, it was decided that everything and everyone should be located on campus, which demanded the construction of student housing. One solution was the next stop on our tour–the space boxes.

Space boxes are prefabricated living units that can stack together into little complexes. Sabi told us that friends of hers used to live in the space boxes, and they were very unpleasant. It felt as though the walls were closing in on you when you were trying to study. I wouldn’t want to live in one… they seem utterly charmless.

Next up was the economy building, which is part of the Kasbah zone. The original open space of the area is supposed to be maintained in the Kasbah zone, so collective space is allowed only within buildings. The exteriors, then, are very boring. Grass is grown on the roofs, and patios are located indoors. The econ building is home to the zen patio, the jungle patio, and the water patio. My favorite was the jungle patio. I liked how the greenery was allowed to take over the walkway. The water patio was also interesting. The water reflected the building, and the patio was built at an angle that opens up to the scenic landscape on the other side of the hallway.

Outside, we saw a caged, platformed basketball court. It is one of two basketball courts I’ve seen in the Netherlands so far, which is notable given that I’m spending my month here studying recreation. Underneath the translucent floor of the baketball court is a bookstore and a bar. Have you ever been playing basketball and then all the sudden you get this urge to be drunk and learning? Because that happens to me like every day.

Across the street from the basketball court is the library. The architect who designed the building used all sorts of tricks to comply with the Kasbah zone’s boring-outside rule. He covered the shiny, black exterior of the library in a cool bamboo pattern, and he put its grand staircase inside. Everything in the library is black and white, which is supposed to influence how people experience the space. The black ceiling and walls make the library feel smaller, and the white floors make it seem huge when looked down upon from the top level. The building was designed with such precision that the spacing of the bookshelves matches up perfectly with the windows. Also, the architect believed that the library should be a place to talk and meet people. He fell in love at a library, is how the story goes. So the footbridge attaching it to the Educatorium is littered with couches.

The Educatorium, a student center filled with examination rooms and lecture halls, is a unique building with a concrete floor that curves over to become the roof. We explored the wooden curve of the floor/roof and then it was time for lunch. We were all starving and ready to eat, but we didn’t have pincards to pay with at the cafeteria. The staff almost left us to starve, but Clifford was able to persuade them to take cash. Saved!

After lunch at the Educatorium we walked to the Schroder House, the only true De Stijl building. The idea behind De Stijl architecture is an emphasis on construction and a lack of decoration. The face of the building was evocative of famous Mondrian paintings, with thick black lines and blocks of primary colors. We were split into two groups, and my group got to go on the tour first. Our guide was a man named Edgar. He wore gloves inside, so as not to damage anything, and we all put surgery booties on to protect the floors. In the entry, we saw a fuse box and a telephone, both of which were luxuries in the 1920′s when the house was constructed. Mrs. Schroder was a wealthy eccentric, it seemed.
The best part of the house was the top floor. It was a puzzle of sliding and folding walls. Edgar turned the open space into four different rooms and folded away the bathroom with practiced ease. It was very surreal. The Schroder house was certainly worth visiting, but I’m a bit surprised that it is treated as such a significant monument. Maybe I would be more impressed by it if I knew more about the De Stijl movement.

While the other group toured the house, we watched a film about Gerrit Rietveld, Mrs. Schroder, and the history of the house. After we were reunited with our classmates, we all walked to a bus stop where we were faced with a choice. Should we go home, or should we stay and explore Utrecht? Many of us decided to stay and we had a fun adventure kayaking in the canals. My camera, desperate to go for a swim, capsized my kayak and drenched itself in canal water. THAT’S GREAT! I’ve buried it in a grave of rice and am hopeful it will be resurrected.

Thank you so much for an awesome day, guys.

Here is a video I made:


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