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Wiel Arets is one of those architects whose touchstones are cosmetically diverse and yet depressingly familiar. In an essay in his 2002 monograph his influences turn out to be Jean-Luc Godard, Masai tribespeople, Luis Barragan, Adalberto Libera’s Villa Malaparte in Capri, bamboo scaffolding in Hong Kong, the Mets’ baseball stadium in New York, a printed circuit board and the work of Richard Serra. There cannot be an architecture student in the world who has not heard these mentioned in a lecture somewhere, usually by someone trying a little too hard to show a rounded view of the world.
But despite the identikit references, Wiel Arets ‘ work has always been highly tectonic and very coherent. Born in the Dutch-German border town of Heerlen in 1955, Arets graduated from Eindhoven University in 1983, establishing Wiel Arets Architect & Associates in his hometown a year later.
His buildings are usually compositions of geometrical shapes, from the regimented proportions of the Academy of Arts and Architecture in Maastricht (1993) to the freer stacking of boxes that makes up his 1997 police station in Boxtel, the Netherlands. Wiel Arets ‘ design process has produced a characteristic visual style that usually includes spectacular drawn perspec¬tives on sepia-tinted paper. These, together with his trademark massing models, have drawn comparison with the methods of Tadao Ando and Giorgio Grassi.
Wiel Arets has almost certainly never regained the heights of his first major building, the Maastricht Academy. The project refurbished the existing school of art and created two dramatic extensions in glass block and concrete, linked by a concrete footbridge. Critic Kenneth Frampton saw the building, with its bridge connecting workshops and a public core, as an updating of the design of the Bauhaus in Dessau. The bridge is also a gateway to a former city-centre industrial area that has since been trans¬formed into a residential neighbourhood.
In his other work, the rigour of Wiel Arets ‘ material approach leads to some Kafkaesque moments. His police station in Vaals (1995) is arranged around a series of corridors. In one waiting area for the interview rooms are two pre-cast concrete chairs, strangely out of scale and almost floating in the air. The detention cells also make no concessions to a touchy-feely image for the police, walls of raw, streaked concrete and a postage-stamp-sized window being the main features.
Wiel Arets ‘ work can come across as right-wing and austere but his uncompromising materiality shows an immense sureness when dealing with high buildings. It is difficult to see how the KNSM Island Apartment Tower in Amsterdam (1996) will not, one day, be considered a classic.
The jury is probably still out on whether Wiel Arets will be remembered for more than a few of his buildings. His commitment to teaching (he was dean of the Berlage Institute in Amsterdam between 1995 and 2001, and has held a dazzling array of professorships) and his prolific production should guarantee him a place in the top echelon of contemporary architects, even if work on the drawing boards at the turn of the century – including a cathedral in Ghana – does not look the most inspiring of his career.