Very few people walking along Coolsingel will not be intrigued by this large complex, which elegantly terminates the vista along Rotterdam’s main boulevard. The centre is not just a hive of technical learning but it also symbolizes the central function of our city, because it attracts pupils from the whole region. Another new piece of the heart of the city has been added; once again Rotterdam has become more of a city, because the centre contains not only learning but also sport, play and culture. That makes it an instrument, in the true sense of the word, for urban life.
Burgemeester Wim Thomassen in: Dura Trefpunt, 19 May 1970
The first plans for a school complex in the Zomerhof District, the Centre for Technical Education, were mooted as early as 1955. From the start, the scheme included a curved main volume along the Hofplein viaduct, with a separate building for gyms. Initially it was planned to connect the buildings with a footbridge. The concept for the multi-school building bore similarities to the multi-tenant commercial complexes, which housed numerous businesses or retail units, with which Rotterdam had so successfully experimented during the post-war years. The advantages of gathering various schools under one roof were obvious. Classrooms and facilities could be used flexibly, and that meant that the auditorium and gyms could be designed to a higher standard. The appropriate architect for such a large-scale project was of course Hugh Maaskant (1907-1977), who had designed the Industriegebouw and the Groothandelsgebouw. The Technikon school complex was initially called the Mammoth by Maaskant. The name Technikon was coined shortly before the opening. Nobody knew what it meant, but it sounded good.
In 1955, Van der Vlerk invited Maaskant and gave him the commission. The story goes that Maaskant placed seven matchboxes on the municipal sketch and then rotated them though half a turn to create one continuous volume. Housing the schools in one building would create a high level of flexibility and make shared spaces such as the auditorium and the library more accessible. Moreover, it would enable Maaskant to create a bigger volume that could claim a dominant place in the cityscape. Maaskant tried to incorporate as many vocational schools as possible into the complex to make it even bigger. The theory classrooms were housed in the curved volume, which eventually numbered ten floors, thus forming a real wall with respect to the Hofplein viaduct. This block is 220 metres long and 22.5 metres deep and is placed on a substructure containing subject-specific rooms. A second volume was built on Heer Bokelweg, while the reception hall took the form of a 500-seat auditorium, and the gyms were housed in a separate sports tower called the Akragon. The various volumes were connected to one another. The school was built for 3000 students.
The city council approved the plan in January 1961, and the first pile was driven into the ground on 7 September. Work on the building wasn’t completed until 19 May 1970. Once the shell had been built, construction work ceased for over a year owing to a conflict with the contractor concerning costs. Instead of the estimated twenty million guilders (c. €9 million), the building eventually cost 72 million guilders (c. € 32.5 million).
The complex consists of a main volume, a middle section and a gym tower. All three volumes have a concrete skeleton and a facade of concrete panels with white mosaic tiles. A folder proudly noted that the 20,000 square-metre facade required no fewer than 8 million tiles.
The Dutch Mammoth Act, which reformed education, came into force during construction, paving the way for the establishment of large schools that contained various levels of secondary education. The Technikon, a giant structure for vocational education, aligned perfectly with this new development. An increase in scale was seen as a blessing in education, and as a necessity owing to the post-war population explosion.
The theory classrooms of the various schools are located in the curved volume, while the wider substructure contains practice rooms. A sunken channel along the building provides access to the basement with bike shed and a small car park. Each school has its own entrance with a footbridge across the channel on the side of the forecourt. Each school also has its own vertical circulation system, including a lift that is big enough to contain a whole class. Canteens, cloakrooms and changing rooms are located on a mezzanine. The upper floors contain theory classrooms of various size on the forecourt side, and a zone with toilets and staircases on the railway side. These form a noise buffer. Recessed balconies and protruding volumes interrupt the monotony of this wall.
The volume along Heer Bokelweg was initially planned as a future extension, but the increase in pupil numbers meant that it was completed at the same time.
Akros literally means “highest”
Hence akropolis: the highest part of the city, upper city, citadel.
Metaphorically too, “achieving the highest level”.
Agon can mean “encampment”, but also metaphorically: “effort to achieve something”.
Akragon therefore literally means: “highest encampment” and metaphorically: “greatest effort to achieve something”.
Dura Trefpunt, 19 May 1970
Heer Bokelweg was widened to form an access route to the planned Rotte Tracé, a motorway from the north, over the River Rotte, to Noordplein. This important entrance to the metropolis, leading to Hofplein and Coolsingel, was marked by the Akragon Tower. The scale of Technikon matched that of buildings such as Schieblok (1960), the Shell building (1960) and the Hilton Hotel (1963), also designed by Maaskant.
The Akragon sports tower was built on the corner of Schiekade and Heer Bokelweg, on the site where the Nationale Levensverzekerings Bank initially wanted to expand. The gym tower houses a swimming pool on the ground floor, the Gymnaestrada sports hall with spectator facilities on the first floor, and above that three floors, each with one or two gyms and a training hall. Smaller floors inserted between the larger sports halls contain shower areas and changing rooms. The building has four square concrete cores at the corners, and 21-metre-long concrete beams ensure a column-free span. The shallower floors are recessed relative to the sports halls, creating the distinctive main form. The use of artificial light meant that the facades to the halls lacked windows almost entirely.
On 14 April 1971 a sculpture by Margot Zandstra (1926) was unveiled at the Akragon. According to D.J.M. Dura, who offered the work on behalf of the architect, the contractors and building suppliers, it was ‘one of the most expensive pieces of concrete’.
In 1966 the city requested that the building’s auditorium be designed in such a way that it could function as an independent theatre. The 11-metre-tall stage tower is incorporated into the main volume. Dominating the concrete volume cantilevered over the square is a stained-glass relief by the famed Cobra artist Karel Appel (1921-2006). Allocating the considerable funding, made available for art through a so-called percentage regulation, in one go meant that a single, defining work could be created. Measuring 24 metres in width and 6.5 metres in height, the piece features wild shapes and bright colours that contrast with the sleek building. It depicts a burlesque parade of children’ faces with bulging eyes and big screaming mouths. The glass is red, orange, blue and green. The result is impressive, especially when viewed from inside. The building foundations were not designed to carry the weight of such an artwork, so a lightweight type of concrete was used.
The artwork perfectly reflects the current use of the space as the Hofplein Youth Theatre. The Louis Lemaire theatre group took over the complex in 1985 when spending cutbacks threatened the closure of the Hofplein Theatre.
The large-scale Technikon complex was planned in the 1950s but only completed in 1970, by which time society, and certainly education, was all about democratization, and architecture tended towards the small-scale. Committed students of architecture from the TH Delft, headed by Rein Geurtsen and Henk Engel, along with students from the Social Academy in Rotterdam, surveyed the building and the education situation, and interviewed students, teaching staff and the architect. They saw the building as a reflection of capitalist society, in which the lower social classes were automatically excluded from professional education, and education in no way offered equal opportunities. Moreover, Geurtsen thought that Maaskant gave precedence to aesthetics and forgot about the students. That resulted in an inhuman building, a colossal education factory where students did not feel at home. In addition, the building was suitable for outdated forms of schooling only, such as traditional and classic education, and the theatre was suitable for nothing but drama on a traditional proscenium stage.
Although it has undergone a renovation, the Technikon complex still accommodates vocational education, housing two colleges: Zadkine and Grafisch Lyceum. The Akragon has become independent, but still facilitates sports, with the David Lloyd fitness centre.
In 2013, design office De Urbanisten turned the forecourt into a so-called ‘Water Square’. It acts as a meeting point, a public square and a temporary water reservoir in the event of heavy rainfall.
Since 1985 the Hofplein Theatre has housed the Hofplein Youth Theatre. A fire in 1999 meant that the theatre had to close until the autumn of 2000. In 2016 the theatre underwent a thorough renovation. The biggest change was made on the ground floor, where the action inside the theatre is literally connected to life on the street.