A poetic hive of study, packaged in ceramics

30 October 2013

Six tints of white, blue and grey, applied in four different combinations. A rich palette with which to paint banks of clouds. In a pointillist style. On a ‘mega-canvas’: the facades of the Student Cloud in Utrecht, the student city of the Netherlands, to be completed by 2015. Jan Tichelaar said it was possible. Architect Haiko Meijer stuck his neck out to achieve it. On a visit to Koninklijke Tichelaar in Makkum, the client, SSH, was up in the clouds when it saw the concept.

The dream started with doubts on the part of SSH, a specialist in student housing, about the use of composite façade cladding as proposed in the first presentation. Could serious research into alternatives be carried out. No problem. Onix Architects, the firm headed by Haiko Meijer and Alex van de Beld, prefers to make its clients co-creators. The more involvement, the better.

Linking the old and the new
Haiko Meijer: ‘We examined several options within the limits of the budget. On a visit to a building site I saw tilers at work and that gave me an idea. I had for some time been fascinated by the way Tichelaar had been able to reinvent itself with authentic natural products in a contemporary high-tech context. That’s an important issue for our firm too – the link between old and new. This gave the momentum for a meeting with Jan Tichelaar.’

But let’s start at the beginning, which was the brief to design a housing complex for 650 students in an urban/park-like location in Utrecht in the centre of the Netherlands. Haiko Meijer, not a man to run away from a challenge, was initially taken aback. Can a building with that sort of capacity still be human? Is it possible to create natural links with the surroundings from a building on that scale? Meijer started his quest in poetry. Among other things, he wrote:

650 students move
Sometimes it seems like clouds
They come and go
But sometimes linger too
There is quietness like a mist
But dynamism like lightning too

Compact, airy, playful
So the theme of the Student Cloud appeared. And step by step the outlines of an unusual building appeared. For the 25,000 m² overall usable floor area that was to be achieved, the Student Cloud has a remarkably compact, airy and playful feel. The layered main volume has two faces: dignified and urban, hingeing on a residential tower that reaches for the clouds, and open and landscaped, with a staggered volume that fans out towards the park-like surroundings via a collective raised platform for the residents. The energy installations and greenery are cleverly distributed over the roofs at various levels.

The Student Cloud, which is scheduled to be completed by 2015, is constructed using prefab façade panels. They were developed specially for the project. Haiko Meijer of Onix Architects: ‘As soon as I involved Koninklijke Tichelaar Makkum in the plans, we found ourselves in a sort of vortex. Jan Tichelaar was immediately enthusiastic and saw various possibilities: tile strips with a special glaze, to be assembled into sandwich panels. SSH was enthusiastic too, but wanted proof and references. The construction company and the welfare committee also had to be convinced. I was certain that it would be beautiful and extraordinary and took full responsibility for it.’

Creating value in every segment
The facades of the Student Cloud have the appearance of tiled walls of exceptional tactility. The various patterns and shades of colour together with the bark motif form an endless variety of soft banks of clouds and a richly blended façade surface. Haiko Meijer often allows himself to be led by the nature of selected materials: ‘The special content and the exceptional envelope show that you can create value in every market segment. By together showing boldness and involvement, by the inventive management of budgets. The façade panels chosen are of course more expensive than conventional solutions. But by clever savings in other areas, we were able to remain within the budget. One extra advantage is that as far as running the building is concerned, it will be extremely maintenance-friendly. Dirt does not stick to glaze. It’s only a detail, but all the details together enable you to make particular aesthetic choices that surpass expectations.’ Read more about Onix Architects.

Banks of clouds made of glazed rectangular tiles put together in the form of sandwich panels. How did that come about? Read The Making of…

Relevant architecture, prefab building techniques and craftsmanship are combined in the Student Cloud.

Project:                 Student Cloud, Utrecht (student housing)
Client:                    SSH
Project Architect:  Haiko Meijer/Onix Architects
Project Team:        Haiko Meijer, Alex van de Beld, Joost Maatkamp, Rene Harmanni, Reni Bouwhuis, Fadi Alnajar, Peter de Kan and Philip Göransson