According to Visser, he first became interested in the preservation of old buildings when studying at the University of Delft in southern Holland. Since then, he has developed a strong belief in the profound importance of the existing environment, and he imbues this belief into the foundations of all of his architectural projects. “Our design process starts with the existing environment. We are inclined to the local, the small scale, but we do not merely copy it. We are averse from architecture that is associative. We aim to design in the pure grammatical language of architecture. At the end of the day it is our ambition to make contemporary architecture that intensifies the character of the existing environment.”
Though Visser is responsible for a variety of projects, his firm is perhaps most famous for its inspired design House in a Church, completed last year, in which his firm transformed a cavernous church into a modern family home. Capricious and tumultuous enough to constitute the makings of a Disney film, the church’s history was a long and sad one until Visser’s renovation. “The original church was constructed in the 1930s, but since 1960 it was used as a garage for fixing cars and storage.” Visser says that during this time as a garage, the church’s exterior was covered with metal plates until the point that it resembled an airplane hangar.
It remained in this state until Visser and his firm stepped in with the goal of transforming the church into a modern family home. “[Since] the church had a volume of 3000 cube, as big as six average family houses, there was lots of space for just one family house… The challenge was to create a feeling of enclosure in this enormous space, without losing the grandeur of the church.”
Visser says that though he could have simply designed a labrynthian 16-room home, he chose instead to design “a luxurious house, but of normal measurements.” To accomplish this, Visser employed the use of several innovative design techniques. “We situated this ‘house’ inside the church as an independent object… Inside the house there is the scale of the family home. Outside the house, but [still] inside the church, it is the scale of the church.” Visser says that this creates a unique home environment that provides the simultaneous feeling of living in a normal family house while also occupying a vast interior space.
One of these spaces he left open was the area previously occupied by the pulpit. “The [far end] of the church is the transept or cross-ship. This was the place of the pulpit, [which was] lightened by the original ‘leaded light’ windows. This space we held open as an immense void… By this, the new house in the church is opened to the beautiful landscape. The transept has become a buffer, between the public outside and the private house inside.”
The combined result of his firm’s efforts is a breathtaking new interpretation of re-purposed architecture, with House in a Church not aiming to fully occupy and conceal the existing structure, but to punctuate and embrace it.
Since House in a Church, Visser has gone on to work on other similar projects involving architectural reinterpretation, including one project named Water Tower Meerkerk, which also aims to create a family residence out of an existing structure — this time from an old industrial water tower.
“The water tower in Meerkerk is one of many water towers which is not in function anymore as a reservoir for drinking water, [but] the tower is a protected monument and a characteristic landmark,” Visser says. “Recently a family of four from Meerkerk bought the tower with the intention to convert it into a single family house…Our goal is not only to preserve a valuable industrial object, but at the same time to make a contribution to the quality of a contemporary build environment.”
Ultimately, this twin desire to create and preserve is what seems to drive all of Visser’s architecture, adding a noble twist to other forms of architectural inspiration. “Like a poem on a wall of an old schoolteacher’s house from which [we build] an elderly home…Sometimes our designs are only interventions into the environment…and sometimes our design is just a moment in time.”
Photos by René de Wit
Alex Levin is a writer for Granite Transformations, a remodeling company dedicated to advancing green remodeling practices by finding new ways to recycle and reduce waste like making countertops out of blue Skyy vodka bottles.