Dutch Firms Win Modernism Preservation Prize

October 28, 2010

Bierman Henket Architecten and Wessel de Jonge Architecten, whose principals co-founded Docomomo International, have nabbed the 2010 World Monuments Fund/Knoll Modernism Prize.

By David Sokol


Zonnestraal Sanatorium
Photo © Michel Kievits/Sybolt Voeten

For their meticulous restoration of the Zonnestraal Sanatorium, Bierman Henket Architecten and Wessel de Jonge Architecten have won the 2010 World Monuments Fund/Knoll Modernism Prize. slide show


“We associate Modernism of the late 1920s with gleaming whiteness,” says Barry Bergdoll, Museum of Modern Art architecture and design curator. “This is not architecture that looks particularly good in a ruinous state.”

Yet, in 1995, the Modernist landmark Zonnestraal Sanatorium, located in Hilversum, Netherlands, was the picture of shambles. For their meticulous restoration of the building, World Monuments Fund (WMF) has awarded its 2010 World Monuments Fund/Knoll Modernism Prize to the Dutch firms Bierman Henket Architecten and Wessel de Jonge Architecten.

Hubert-Jan Henket, a principal at Bierman Henket Architecten, and de Jonge also are founders of Docomomo International, the burgeoning conservation group devoted to works of historical Modernism.

The firms will be honored during a November 18 ceremony at MoMA.

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Modernism at Risk
The biannual prize was introduced in 2008, when it was conferred to Brenne Gesellschaft von Architekten for restoring ADGB Trade Union School in Bernau, Germany. It is one of three prongs in WMF’s Modernism at Risk initiative, which the New York–based group launched with the furniture manufacturer Knoll in 2006.

While the program directly supports conservation projects and operates a traveling exhibition for architecture students, “the prize is geared toward a professional audience as well as the public at large, so they can see that restoration is an alternative to demolition,” says WMF president and CEO Bonnie Burnham. 

Bergdoll, who chaired this year’s jury, says they chose the winner based on the importance of the original building, the tenacity with which preservation was pursued, and technical execution. The latter criterion “gets particularly interesting with relation to Modernist buildings,” he says, “because there are decisions to be made about restoring materials that might not be in use, or updating the envelope’s thermal performance.”

An Instant Icon
Zonnestraal’s historic significance is well established. Beginning in 1926, Dutch architects Bernard Bijvoet and Johannes Duiker, with structural engineer Jan Gerko Wiebenga, designed the sanatorium for the Diamond Workers Union of Amsterdam as part of a healthcare campus for tuberculosis convalescents.

The sanatorium comprised a nursery, canteen, workshop, and other pavilions. Completion took place in stages. “You can almost date the pavilions by the relationship of the window to parapet wall—there are all these localized solutions,” says Bergdoll. “But at whatever date, the sanatorium represents almost primal rationalism. Nothing is hidden. There is this attempt to find a structural solution out of concrete, steel, and glass. It’s an incredibly straightforward, no-nonsense iconic language.”

Despite instant-icon status, Zonnestraal fell into disuse after World War II. It was rediscovered in the 1960s and, in 1982, the Dutch government commissioned Henket and de Jonge to create a restoration plan for the sanatorium as part of a larger conservation study.

Ultimately, the architects reconstructed the building’s facades, partitions, casement windows, and finishes, specifying handmade components that were no longer in production. Completed last year, the building again performs a healthcare function, with sports-injury and obesity clinics occupying the main building and workshops, respectively.

The Beginnings of Docomomo
Reviving Zonnestraal catalyzed Henket and de Jonge to establish Docomomo in 1988. Officially known as the International Working Party for Documentation and Conservation of Buildings, Sites and Neighborhoods of the Modern Movement, it is the first group to advocate solely for the preservation of modern buildings.

Bergdoll hopes that the WMF prize can help systematize efforts in regards to researching, rebuilding, expanding, and reusing these structures. Yet, he notes, each project will present its own challenges. “Preservation is like English case law,” he says. “You’re following guidelines, but there are always decisions to be made.”

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