Merkaz Cultural Center, Utrecht NL

Merkaz Jewish Cultural Center for the Liberal Jewish Community of Utrecht, Nieuwegracht 92, Utrecht,
The Netherlands
Completed: February 2005

A building that tells a story
Bettina van Santen

Post Planjer, Nr 39, April 2005
Utrecht’s magazine for Architecture and Urban design

Ruth van Eck-Rotholz designed the renovation of the former Jewish orphanage on the Nieuwegracht to become Utrecht’s new Jewish Cultural Center.
In Utrecht, on 92 Nieuwegracht, the Central Jewish orphanage thrived from 1872 till its abrupt end in 1942, when the children and staff of the orphanage were forcibly evicted by the Nazi’s and put on a transport to the German concentration camps. Few returned to tell their story. After WWII, their orphanage building, having been stripped of its contents and its Jewish façade elements, functioned for the subsequent years as part of the Wilhelmina Children’s Hospital.
In 1996, the Wilhelmina Children’s Hospital relocated to the Uithof near Utrecht’s University Medical Center. Coincidentally, the remains of the original ceiling paintings of the former orphanage synagogue were discovered in its enclosed attic space. The memory of these children and of their orphanage was rescued.

A developer, void of any remorse for this history, acquired the building from the Wilhelmina Children’s Hospital and wanted to convert the building into lucrative luxury apartments. Concurrently, the newly formed Merkaz Foundation wanted to rescue this building with its Jewish history. Unable to pay the developer’s high price to acquire the building, the Merkaz Foundation applied for Protected Monument status from the Utrecht’s Municipality. Due to a freeze on all development activity for buildings with requested monument status, the frustrated developer was unable to continue with his plans and subsequently sold the building to the Salvation Army. The Monument status was awarded a few months later. After serious negotiations, the Merkaz foundation was able to negotiate the purchase of a portion of the building containing the ceiling paintings, thus releasing the Salvation Army of their municipal obligation to restore the former synagogue. After stepping down from her participation within the Merkaz foundation, Ruth van Eck-Rotholz became the architect of the renovation and restoration of the Merkaz Jewish Cultural Center that celebrated its opening ceremony in February 2005.

The building story unfolds as we approach the Merkaz Center from Magdelenastraat. A gently narrowing tapered tiled floor leads our focus to the new modern portiere lodge and blue entry door tucked under a raised silver colored canopy that is, as it were, slid into the existing building. The eastern edge of this entry walkway is defined by the sloping side of a low, polished dark grey tiled wall. Just to the left of the entry, under the raised canopy and in front of the red painted garden wall, stands a small bronze sculpture of a young girl turning her head, and while running away, she looks back as if for the last time. Once one enters behind the original 19th century brick façade, one becomes aware of the unusual play of light and space.

An essential design element within the existing walls of this building is that its new plan is rotated in the direction of Jerusalem. This rotation, of about 5 degrees from the perpendicular to the existing east façade, creates a continuously interesting spatial condition which literally enhances one’s visual perspective. The existing walls of the 19th century building and the new rotated lines create a play of fluid space further enriched by the sparse use of doors. This rotation has an additional function whereby it naturally organizes the programmatic spaces. The large public spaces are organized within “the carpet” of the rotated new plan, and the remaining irregular shaped spaces outside “the carpet” create opportunities to house its supporting facilities.

Having successfully negotiated the only portion of the building that the Salvation Army was willing to relinquish (having retained the portion facing Nieuwegracht and Magdelenastraat, with the buildings only stairway, for themselves), the Merkaz Foundation was left to split a three story volume, without any vertical access, that was enclosed on three sides. The only exposure to day light with a view to the outside was from the rear façade of the former orphanage building. Along with the rotation of the new plan towards Jerusalem, light became an essential design element. The bricked-up arched windows in the synagogue were opened again and the recessed bay was fitted along the entire height with glass behind which was now the new main stairway, detailed without risers, allowing the day light to filter deep into the building.

Light, besides being functionally essential, has its own religious significance in the design. The new skylights along the west side of the synagogue not only allow daylight to permeate the space, but allow the people attending Friday night service to be aware of the setting sun, announcing the commencement of Shabbat. The pride of this unique Synagogue space is the restoration of the remaining 19th century ceiling paintings. The original interior of this Jewish orphanage and its’ synagogue was destroyed and its contents plundered when its children were put on transport to the concentration camps. The chandelier and the stained glass windows that are now part of this synagogue were rescued from a destroyed synagogue in Aken, Germany where the parents of Anna Frank were married before they fled to Amsterdam.
The realization that this building is more than just a renovation of a historical building becomes apparent as the symbolism of the design begins to speak. It speaks in the new rotated plan which on the ground floor continues beyond the existing façade to the entrance way. It speaks in the fragment of the old synagogue foundation wall left exposed, in view as one descends to the new basement level. Both speak of a space that doesn’t end at its façade, or a wall stops at its foundation. They continue beyond symbolizing the continuation of a people into the future, a people who are able to live beyond the constraints that are often superimposed on their lives. The deep red color that reoccurs on the wall enclosing the synagogue from the main stairway, in the garden wall behind the sculpture, and in the cherry wood cladding of the walls of the rotated plan are all as well rich in symbolism. In the Hebrew language, all the words formed from a common root are linked in meaning. It is here that the word for man (adam) is related to the word for the iron rich earth of Israel (adama); to the word blood (dam); and to the word of the color red (adom).

The symbolism is present everywhere in the design, ranging from the eternal light in the letter ‘A’ of ‘MerkAz’ atop the entry canopy to the fenestration of the main stair as a stairway to heaven (Jacobs ladder). A building with so much symbolism can sometimes become too heavy a burden, but here it is subtly done. It was desired not to make the presence of this Jewish center clearly visible to the outside world. There are no signs on the Nieuwegracht that betrays its presence. One has to know of its existence, just as you must know that the sloping side of the low dark grey entrance wall is a sixty degree chamfer that is the same as the angels of the two equilateral triangles that form the Star of David. The sloping side of this low entrance wall is highly polished so that it reflects the people who enter and leave this center, along with that of the restored arched synagogue windows, showing the new life of the Jewish community that once was violently uprooted and sent on transports.

One week before the opening, during the ceremony in Auschwitz commemorating the sixty years since the camps liberation from the Nazi’s, the list of all the names of the murdered orphans and staff of this former orphanage were read out. Another concurring event was that the restoration of the Jewish orphanage building ironically occurred simultaneously with the demolition of the German bunker on the Servaasbolwerk, only 500 meters away. For some, this was not a coincidence, but Justice. However it may be interpreted, History knows many bitter times, but it also has some miraculous stories which are here subtly expressed behind the Nieuwegracht.

Client: Merkaz Foundation

Area: 438 m2

Program: entry vestibule,
security guard room,
Restoration and renovation of the synagogue ceiling and wall paintings,
synagogue sanctum capacity for 130 people,
new mezzanine in synagogue,
incorporate stained-glass-windows, chandelier, lamps from the former synagogue in Aken Germany,
Rabbi’s office,
conference room,
two classrooms,
multifunctional space,
kitchen and serving counter,
toilets, handicapped toilet,
coat room facilities,
storage spaces,
two new stairways,
Elevator to synagogue level.

Architect: Ruth van Eck-Rotholz

Office: Van Eck-Rotholz Architecten b.v.

Models: Ruth van Eck Rotholz

Artist of the sculpture: Channa Cassuto

Paintings Restorer : Erik J. Tjebbes

Monument Advisor: Z. Leijen ,
Department of City Planning, Municipality of Utrecht, NL