Europe is facing huge challenges right now, from economic upheaval to a refugee crisis. Over the next six months it will determine its collective approach to these issues by bringing together thousands of European ministers and officials in Amsterdam for a series of semi-annual meetings that will produce a roadmap to the EU's future, as The Netherlands plays host to the rotating EU Presidency.
These meetings, 135 in all, won’t take place inside a palatial meeting room or a cavernous conference center. They’ll take place inside a series of pop-up buildings that have been purpose-built for the task. These structures will be the backdrop to thousands of conversations, debates, and resolutions over the next six months. One of the most remarkable is a meeting space called the Europe Building designed by DUS Architects, which specializes in emerging architectural technology—like a facade that's 3-D printed out of a new bioplastic that can be shredded and re-printed when its useful life is over.
Most buildings designed for high-level government functions—like the EU Presidency—aren't naturally engaging public spaces: Security is a major issue for these types of meetings, and the location of this one, nestled in Amsterdam's harbor-side Marineterrein development, seems perfect for shuttling important ministers to and from the meetings securely via boat. The building isn’t even permanent: the structure is entirely modular and can be disassembled and moved, thanks to a firm that specializes in event tents and temporary buildings called Neptunus.
Yet the architects behind this temporary structure have found a way to make its facade a useful piece of public art. Where some designers might have taken steps to push the public back behind protective layers of security gates, buffer zones, and entryways, the Europe Building's facade actually invites passersby to "become part of the building," in the words of Hedwig Heinsman, co-founder of DUS.
As Heinsman told me, the firm only had four months to design and complete the building—and strict security restrictions on windows and other conventional architectural elements limited what they could do with the facade. But the limitations quickly became a way to experiment with what the design could "reveal" beneath its plastic face. "We’ve always been fascinated by the border between public and private," Heinsman explains. "We thought it was a very beautiful idea that people could still come close and really become a part of the building."
The building’s structure is cloaked in an opaque white plastic, which is tensioned to rods projecting out from its base, like a tablecloth that’s fluttering in the breeze. Beneath each upturned swell of plastic sits a small alcove and bench where anyone can stop for a conversation or a moment of peace, whether an EU minister leaving a meeting or a local on his way home from work.
DUS specializes in structural 3-D printing—it’s perhaps best known for the whole house it is printing in Amsterdam—and the firm has developed its own large-scale structural printer. Working with the Dutch construction company Heijmans, the designers were able to print each alcove at a rate of one-per-week, using a plant-based bioplastic that’s made from linseed oil. The novel material was developed by another partner, Henkel, and is based on an industrial glue—which means it can easily be melted down and re-used in the printer when it's no longer needed. The benches are another example of material innovation: They’re cast and work with a lightweight eco-concrete whose CO2 footprint is 60% smaller than that of traditional concrete.
When The Netherlands' presidency ends this summer, these blocks of plastic may be shredded and re-used to print other structures almost immediately. "I don’t know of any other examples in architecture where you can recycle in such a straightforward way," Heinsman says, pointing out that an easily reusable plastic "ink" could bring architectural customization to the masses.
For now, the public is free to stroll by the building and, if they like, take a seat—a vivid representation of how architecture, in the hands of politicians, isn't always a tool to keep the public at arm's length.