The Van Nelle Factory

Saturday, 03.10.2015

During my time as head of the Old Master Paintings department in Amsterdam I became familiar with Dutch modernist architecture called ‘Nieuwe Bouwen’.

The Van Nelle factory near Rotterdam was built between 1925-31 and mentioned by Le Corbusier as ‘the most beautiful spectacle of the modern age’. In 2014 it was designated a World Heritage Site. I visited the site in the summer of 2009.

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The Van Nelle Factory

Leendert van der Vlugt (1894-1936) was the principal architect together with Johannes Brinkman (1902-1949). I came across Van der Vlugt’s work before when I visited the ‘Sonneveld House’ of 1928-32 in Rotterdam. However it was the civil engineer J.G. Wiebenga (1886-1974) who specialised in the new advances in steel construction and reinforced concrete that made the building possible.

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The Van Nelle Factory (detail)

The design picks up on the ‘Sanatorium Zonnestraal’ of 1928 and the ‘Openluchtschool’ of 1929 both by Jan Duiker (1890-1935) where the well-being of the inhabitants was central and ‘light, air and space’ was therefore incorporated into the design. The large glass curtain walls with metal frames open the interiors to the outside world letting in daylight providing a pleasant working environment. This was a real innovation since during Victorian times factories were dark and gloomy places whereas this factory started the principle of the so- called ‘Daylight Factory’. Also although the dimensions of the factory are enormous the use of a glass facade gives the building a transparency which makes for a light and elegant feel. In order for the facade to be able to consist of non-load bearing materials such as glass, reinforced concrete was extensively used in the form of mushroom shaped pillars that support the whole construction from the inside.

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The Van Nelle Factory

The factory was commissioned by the Van Nelle company. The company processed coffee, tea and tobacco and later chewing gum, cigarettes, instant pudding and rice. The directors Matthijs de Bruyn and Bertus Sonneveld together with co-owner Kees van der Leeuw were so impressed by the factory that they asked Leendert van der Vlugt to design their private villas such as the ’Sonneveld House’ I mentioned earlier.

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The Sonneveld House