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New Dutch Embassy in Canberra: Sustainable and Engaging

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Interview with the Architect, Rudy Uytenhaak words Anne Paret


In eleven months from now, Dutch diplomats and staff of the Royal Netherlands Embassy in Canberra will be moving into what is now still a mere scale-model of an ingenious architectural dream. A state-of-the art and sustainable, energy-efficient building. Purpose-built, yet flexible, and engaging.

This is Rudy Uytenhaak's brief, set by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in The Hague. The architect's assignment is inherently political. "Sustainability," says Rudy, "incorporates a hierarchy of values. First, you have energy use. 70% of a building's environmental impact is in its energy use. Materials, of which the building is made, by contrast, only account for 30% of its draw on natural resources." Rudy's conclusion is self-evident: "If you lower energy use, you are building something sustainable."

Wouldn't it have been more eco-friendly to keep the present embassy building and adapt it? Rudy: "Of course it's always a dilemma: replace or renovate? If you keep an old coat, you won't need to knit a new one. You can alter and mend it; however, it will never be made-to-measure." "My initial task three years ago, was to assess the feasibility of refurbishing the present embassy building on Empire Circuit, Yarramula. First, we drew plans to expand the current building. But there's a turning point," Rudy explains, "when ecological insight becomes compelling. In terms of energy use, size, maintenance and comfort, the building was clearly inefficient." Besides energy use and materials, flexibility of

a building further contributes to its sustainability. Rudy aims for adaptability in his design. "The fourth value, quite simply, is comfort. Comfort involves engaging the senses. A building should be pleasing to the ears, eyes and skin. It should fit nicely around the organisation. Its detail, forms, proportions, light, and diversity of experiences should make walking through its rooms like a delicious meal teasing your tongue."

"Suddenly we have only world, and no earth left" Independent of the embassy project, Rudy visited Australia twice. The Aboriginals' relationship to the land marked him. Not to claim or own it, as we do in Western cultures, but instead to apply knowledge of it and to create something comfortable, using minimal means. That is Rudy's ideal in architecture. "We have ploughed the earth over and turned it into world, so much so that ultimately, all we have is world, and no earth left. We need to recover our balance, just like the Aboriginals." An example: the ubiquitous air-conditioning in Australia. "People no longer listen to their bodies. 20 degrees is the scientific but bureaucratic norm for indoor temperature, whereas by being flexible, you can achieve a more natural and especially a less energy intensive thermostatic comfort."

Rudy became an architect because he wanted his work to provide tangible feedback and lasting reflection in the concrete form of buildings. Among his buildings are also the Dutch Embassies in Sarajevo and Amman, as well as a house in Mexico. In 2006, Rudy Uytenhaak was named Architect of the Year in the Sustainability Category. He was designated. overall Architect of the Year in 2007. The Dutch Embassy in Canberra is due to be completed by December 2009. To read more on Rudy t1)1enhaak and his work, visit his website www.uytenhaaknl.

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Does your energetic ideal resonate in Australia? Rudy: "There is an avant-garde in Australia which concerns itself with sustainability issues. Especially water. When you leave Canberra, for example, there's a road sign telling you how many litres of water have been consumed that day. I suppose people are generally aware of the environment, especially since the Rudd administration, which hastened to sign the Kyoto Protocol. Still, I'm amazed at some of the brand new Australian museums, which are way out of bounds in terms of the energy norm. Why cool them down in summer so that my wife had to go out every half hour to get comfortable?"

How does the new embassy building reflect your ideas on sustainability? Rudy: "In terms of energy, the most important feature is the solar mill, a wing-shaped cap which rotates 24/24 on a wheel on the roof. Always perpendicular to the sun, its solar panels catch maximum sunlight, generating sufficient power for lighting and computers in the embassy. Second: the atrium in the middle of the building. Most (Dutch) offices have windows on one side only, causing people to squint when they enter, and to perceive darkness as they look away from the window. Result: they switch on the light. Not so in this new embassy, where all offices bask in light from both sides. Result: turning on the light is delayed, conserving energy. The atrium in tum, is shielded from the dangerous hot Australian sun by the same cap, saving ventilation." "Ventilation," Rudy explains, "is obtained through tubing in the ground. A long tube takes ample time to reach the building, the air it carries taking on ground temperature. A shorter tube brings in air at outdoor temperature. In antipodal summer when the ground feels relatively cool, we would need more of the warmer air from the short pipe. In winter, the opposite holds true. Like a water faucet, the air from both pipes can be mixed to obtain the desired indoor temperature. Embassy staff won't have to do this themselves: a thermostat will regulate the mixing tap. The circular facade of the building resembles a water wheel.

It is made of wooden fins, placed perpendicular to the glass, 40 centimetres long, keeping the sun at bay. Another simple, constructive feature, protecting the interior from sun load. And of course, there are the materials: a lot of wood, which is easily recyclable, a 6-7 centimetre concrete plate, with a large surface to cool or heat the place, as called for. That's all. The panelling at ground level is Corten steel, a rusted variety with a high carbon content, purely natural.

"Dutch ambitions are skyhigh, but we still ride our bikes." What is typically Dutch about this building? Rudy: "The Netherlands boasts high standards in architecture. This may sound pretentious, but I think my plan demonstrates Dutch intelligence in implementing innovative knowledge and latest insights. Simultaneously, it is the perfect example of the Dutch grocer's approach: lean, efficient and modest. It's paradoxical: Dutch ambitions are sky-high, but we still ride our bikes!" What do you consider to be the world's finest building? Rudy: "Well, I would say the Acropolis or the Pantheon. But looking at the last century, it is definitely the Sydney Opera House. I regard the late architect Jf2Jrn Utzon as one of the heroes of the twentieth century. Wandering past this building, you just fall in 10ve... No, the sun cap on the new Dutch Embassy was not a direct reference!"

And the most pleasant? Rudy: "I like that question! That's a matter of feeling. I've never been inside because they are private homes, but Glenn Murcutt's crisp wooden houses on Mosman Bay in Sydney are stunning. I would feel at ease here. Having always lived in the heart of Amsterdam, my wife and I have never built a house of our own. But given the chance, it would be a Glenn Murcutt home: lots of wood, yet high tech, very subtle, beautiful technique. I would love to experience that!" Rudy concludes in all modesty. ~

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New Dutch Embassy in Canberra: Sustainable and  

In eleven months from now, Dutch diplomats and staff of the Royal Netherlands Embassy in Canberra will be moving into what is now still a me...

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