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Dutch Creative Design

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In the twenties of the last century the Van Nelle factory, dubbed by architects Roberson and Yerbury to be a ‘poem in steel and glass’, was build on the riverbank of the Schie. The factory featured pioneering architectural techniques, new materials and a fresh perspective on architecture. During the tour of the factory, the impression was given that as early as 1925 it was of importance in commissioner Kees van der Leeuw’s mind to create a factory with a positive labour environment for its workforce. It was stated that one of the objectives behind the spatial and transparent design of the factory was therefore to optimize labour conditions, as well as to ensure the possibility to monitor employees extensively. I am, however, apprehensive to this conclusion. I am therefore curious as to what was the most significant objective behind the design of the factory.

The influence of Van der Leeuws’ possible intention to create an adequate working environment on the design of the factory is frequently repeated by experts on the industrial monument, and one who strongly believes in Van Nelle’s interest in caring for its employees can find many traces of this in the factory’s design. For instance, the extensive use of glass in the factory’s façade could be incorporated to provide an airy environment far more comfortable than the dark and damp factory’s common to that time. Secondly, the bathing areas where employees would clean themselves before work could be put in to improve their health and diminish illnesses caused by poor personal hygiene. Other examples could include the sporting facilities, such as the tennis and football fields, and the relatively high-quality employee residences on the opposite side of the railway.  Lastly, Dutch industrial designer W. H. Gispen famously designed the chairs for Van Nelle’s employees to accommodate a comfortable working position that would not harm their physical condition.

However, instead of seeing these characteristics of the factory as expressions of a progressive stance on humanitarian working conditions, the more critical viewer could then see them as merely trivial to an employer’s striving for efficiency and productivity. In this view, the main reason Van der Leeuw would have had for desiring a modern factory was, greatly inspired by architect Van der Vlugt and the architectural advancements of that time, to create an eye-catching construction to promote the company. Architectural novelty and innovation would therefore be the main ideas behind the factory’s design. Looking from that angle, the extensive use of glass and open spaces are expressions of a Modernist movement and inspired by cutting-edge architectural techniques. Architectural innovation was, according to McCarthy (1999), one of the key factors in the spatial planning and regeneration in Rotterdam since the Second World War. Even though the Van Nelle factory was built prior to the war, it falls into this category as a revolutionary showcase of the Modern Movement in architecture (McCarthy, 1999). Apart from innovation, functional matters to improve productivity could have played their part as well. The main idea behind obliging employees to bathe would then be to not let employees’ uncleanliness reduce the quality of Van Nelle’s delicate products such as coffee and tea. The chairs invented by Gispen could have been primarily designed to prevent employees from growing tired and lose productivity throughout the day.

Therefore, we cannot assume with certainty what was the most fundamental objective of the factory, whether it was to be a beacon of functionality, the output of architectural novelty or an adequate working environment for factory workers. Nevertheless, there are many examples, when receiving a tour through the factory, of the tendency to assume one or the other. One specific example comes to mind. One of the factory’s guides stated that the airiness and see-through qualities of the factory were put in place to be able to monitor the employees extensively. What was not mentioned, however, was that the ability to monitor the employees could also have been a sheer result of the glass-rich construction method. The inability to appoint a most significant objective behind the design therefore comes down to the complication of assuming causality; was the desire to create a healthy working environment a basic determinant to design the factory in this particular spatial and transparent manner, as is assumed, or are the working conditions merely unconscious dual effects of the characteristics of the building that came with the Modernist style it was built in and Van der Leeuw’s desire to create a modern flagship for the company? However conscious or unconscious, this does not nullify that the design of the factory featured many, for its time revolutionary, characteristics that brought about positive effects on working conditions. Many of these characteristics are now considered normal, or even compulsory, such as the fundamental requirement of presence of daylight. This provides the factory with a unique historical position as a forward-looking, progressive expression of architecture whose daring construction still draws creative companies to its core (Kloosterman, 2004).



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