Stones in glasshouses

Is it a farmhouse, is it a glasshouse, is it new or old, solid or transparent? MVRDV’s glass barn in the Netherlands is all these things and more

MVRDV’s latest building in the south Netherlands village of Schijndel is perplexing to the eye. At first glance, you would be forgiven for thinking the architect had encased a  historic Dutch barn in glass. Or, with a touch of irony, had designed a traditional barn with straw pitched roof, brick walls and timbered shuttered windows, and then enveloped it in a contemporary glass skin. However, it is not until the facade treatment is described in detail by Winy Maas, founding partner of MVRDV, that one gasps in wonder at how this illusion was achieved. 

Photographs were taken of traditional farm buildings around Schijndel and painstakingly pieced together to create a typical ‘Langgevel’ – the Dutch word for Long Facades – farm building. The collage was then printed on to 860 individual glass panels which are connected on site to create the ‘Glass Farm’, possibly the first building of its kind to print high-resolution photos on to a glass facade. 

  • Internally, the effect read from the daylight outside is similarly marked.
    Internally, the effect read from the daylight outside is similarly marked. · Credit: Mvrdv
  • The MVRDV glass barn uses state-of-the-art glass printing technology to reproduce a 16th century barn on a 21st century substrate.
    The MVRDV glass barn uses state-of-the-art glass printing technology to reproduce a 16th century barn on a 21st century substrate. · Credit: Jeroen Musch

‘We have created a farm building that is 1.6 times larger than a normal sized farm building, so the door knobs are above me and I am smaller – I feel like Alice in Wonderland,’ says Maas. ‘I didn’t want to build this type of building literally because that would be done in Disney theme parks, but by doing it in glass, a material the client suggested, we have created a ghost farm, that memorises the surrounding farms. It has become an object of art that hovers between modernity and history.’

The 1,600m2 three-storey structure, which houses shops on the ground floor; offices on the second and a fitness and health centre on the top floor, has had a long gestation. In 1980, Maas, who is from Schijndel, wrote to the mayor suggesting that something be done with the empty village square, where the Glass Farm now sits. The 60m by 60m site had suffered from bomb damage during the Second World War and since been cleared. It wasn’t until 2000 that a new mayor adopted the idea of building on the site. MVRDV drew up many proposals, until in 2005 Maas was asked to prepare an outline proposed volume for the site.

‘They wanted this type of building but it had to be built using traditional materials such as straw, tiles and brick – and glass, which was very important’

Demand for glass

‘When we had finished drawing, the volume of the building looked just like a traditional Dutch farm building,’ says Maas. ‘I asked if the town council wanted us to build this type of building and they said yes, but it had to be built using traditional materials such as straw, tiles and brick – and glass, which was very important.’

The architect then surveyed local farm buildings and decided the Langgevel was the most common. The long facades of 87 different barns were photographed and together with the footprint of each, a 3D image was then created of every barn. This allowed the architect to measure the length, height and width of the barns and work out an average size. 

‘We then realised that the average farm is almost half the size of the volume we were working with and this is how the size of our building developed,’ says Maas. 

 

MVRDV plays clever architectural games by dematerialising the glass facade to create a sense of the uncanny.
MVRDV plays clever architectural games by dematerialising the glass facade to create a sense of the uncanny. · Credit: MVRDV

Maas didn’t want to design a traditional barn building. With permission from the client to use glass the idea of creating a glass envelope evolved. This coincided with technical advances made in photo-realistic printing on to glass. MVRDV then resolved how to treat the envelope – photos of traditional barn elements (see box) would be printed on the glass. 

The glass envelope of the building has a total thickness of 39mm. It is built up from the outside – of 8mm toughened glass with a printed inner, a 23mm air cavity and 2mm by 4mm layered glass with a high-performance coating. Glass panels range in size from 6cm by 40cm to 2.3m by 3.6m and each piece had to be numbered. To add to the complexity, the printer, which is in southern Belgium and uses ceramic ink, had to deal not only with different sizes, but also with varying degrees of colour for each unique piece. The printed panels were transported to an oven where the glass was toughened and the ceramic ink embedded in it.

Simple structure

In contrast to the complex printing process, building the structure that supports the glass facade was relatively straightforward. The 18m wide by 42m long and 14m tall main structure is composed of concrete columns and floor slabs and a steel structure. To support the glass panels the steel structure had to be very stiff, and accurate, allowing for a 2mm tolerance. 

The glass panels are mechanically fastened to the steel by tiny aluminium screws and equally small steel plates, rotated 90º to fit into the cavity between the plates of the two double layers of glass. Black silicon helps conceal the connections and forms a weathertight seal. Behind every 20mm wide silicon seam are many of these profiles and it was critical that seams were as small as possible so the printed image could flow smoothly over the glass. 

To emphasise the seamless envelope there are no gutters – so how does rainwater drain off? 

‘We thought water would run off the roof at an angle, but it stays on the glass,’ explains project architect Gijs Rikken. ‘So on the Glass Barn the water runs down to the building base and falls into a gutter buried in the soil’.

But over the door openings the architects had to make a concession to this seamless finish. Concern that rainwater would splash on to people’s faces called for a 3mm wide steel strip above the entrance, which Rikken calls ‘eyebrows’. This ridge directs water to the right and left of the door where it drains into a steel gutter at the base of the building.

On the higher section of the building where the offices are located, about 30% of the glass panels are fitted with insulation to ensure the barn meets the energy-efficiency requirements. Small slit openings have been made in the glass around the roof allow the building to be ventilated.

When the €2.1 m Glass Barn was unveiled in mid-January, it caused quite a commotion among Schijndel’s residents. But Maas says it is now mostly a well-loved building.

‘The building was psychologically a big challenge for me as it is in the village where I was born and my parents still live there,’ says Maas. ‘But we proved a big volume building can have a enough detail to fulfil the community’s expectations. They now see the beauty of it and I think it gives them great pride’. 


 

PHOTOGRAPHY

MVRDV commissioned photographer and artist Frank van der Salm to photograph details of local barns, such as windows, stable doors and brick walls, and asked him to shoot them in full sun. Hundreds of close-ups were taken of each detail and the best laboriously stitched together and manipulated to form one very high-resolution image. With so many details and such a large building, this incredibly time-consuming process took months to complete. On the glass facade are areas that Winy Maas calls ‘the transition zone’ – the transition between print and transparency. Some parts of the glass are blurred and others clear, to allow views of the merchandise in the shops. All these factors had to be considered when the photos were being manipulated.