“Relaxed dignity” by Kees Kaan on OverHolland 18/19

KAAN Architecten designs new building for Tilburg University (article originally published on OverHolland 18/19, 2017)

‘KAAN Architecten and the building firm VORM are together creating a large new building on the Tilburg University campus. With 11,000 square metres of floor area, the university’s Teaching and Self-Study Centre (OZC) is intended to offer students better facilities and hence further improve the quality of education. The building will have BREEAM (Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method) ‘Excellent’ certification, the maximum achievable level of sustain- ability. Completion is scheduled for autumn 2017.

The KAAN Architecten design shows an OZC that is square and fairly low, like various other buildings on the campus. This means it will fit in well among the trees and the other buildings. Yet it is substantially different from the square central Cobbenhagen building, the former Catholic College of Economics that formed the basis for the university back in the early 1960s. Whereas with its two courtyards the enclosed structure by architect Jos Bedaux (1910-1989) brought the landscape inside the building, KAAN Architecten’s centre will blend into it. Abundant daylight and radical perspectives will allow the building and its surroundings to merge. The study areas will be enclosed in the same way as a woodland clearing.

The OZC, which will serve all the university faculties, will be constantly full of people – up to 2,500 closely connected students and teachers. To maintain the open character of the building and avoid any sense of crowding, the centre will be spacious. Like all its areas, its corridors will be wide, light and up to 6 metres in height. The programme includes a large number of study and group areas, large and small, as well as a variety of lecture halls, all equipped with the latest communication facilities. To keep the building transparent, the centrally located auditorium is sunken.’

This was the text of the press release on the build- ing after the contract was awarded. This article will look at the project in greater detail: what were the ideas and arguments behind our design?

Relaxed dignity

Cobbenhagen, master plan, perception of space, Bedaux, dimensioning, verification and validation – none of this means much to the average student on the campus. When designing things, we archi- tects try to look through everyday users’ eyes. Of course, we bear in mind that these are not just today’s students and teachers, but also future generations, and we also realize that this building must be part of a set of buildings on a magnificent campus with a robust architectural tradition.

To students, the P, W and C buildings are places where they study at Tilburg University, and which they are not particularly critical of, but not particularly enthusiastic about either. But they love the new Teaching and Self-Study Centre. Nice and open, easy to find, and the sunken seating area is ‘chill’. They don’t use terms like ‘transparent’, ‘green landscaping’ or ‘logical routing’. As everyday users of the building, they simply think about what it’s like to walk to the building and attend lectures or seminars there.

When our students arrive at the campus, they mainly have a sense of pride about being able to study in such a fine place with its interna- tional air. All the greenery makes them feel as if they’re still on holiday abroad. The shrubbery is neatly pruned, the grass is mown. The gardeners are busy keeping the parkland tidy and smart. The first impression is one of fine buildings and green space. So easy to find your way around – everything’s where you expect it to be. As they walk to the OZC, students think how glad they are to have chosen to study in Tilburg.

Of course we also walked round the campus and saw the same thing with different eyes. What we saw was a compact greenfield campus with archi- tecturally high-quality, well landscaped buildings.

When you see the campus layout, it makes sense for the Cobbenhagen building to have a counterpart. The OZC site is destined for a building of campus-wide importance, just like Cobbenhagen. Both buildings have a prestigious appearance, and both are used by all the students and university staff, from every faculty. Cobbenhagen above all provides ceremonial facilities, whereas the OZC is there for day-to-day teaching activities.

The relaxed dignity of the Cobbenhagen building was the model for a contemporary response, the design for the OZC – a building combining the same dignity with relaxed user- friendliness. The OZC occupies a key position in relation to the existing buildings, and so contributes to a balanced whole. The design will give the north-western section of the campus the required architectural and landscape value.


Urban setting

The composition of the campus is marked by detached buildings that are freely and orthogonally located in space and are not aligned. The OZC is part of this spatial interplay. Its similar positioning, proportions and use of materials creates a dialogue between it and the Cobbenhagen building on the south side of the campus. Whereas the centre of the campus is marked by densified building along the main axis, the Esplanade, the Cobbenhagen and OZC buildings are more freely sited in space. The construction of the OZC will result in a balanced campus structure in which the OZC is part of the interplay of open, overlapping urban-planning spaces and unob- structed perspectives. We have also taken account of the spatial substructure, in which the route from the railway station plays a key part.

In the southern section the Cobbenhagen building stands free in a green cocoon fringed by trees. The northern section, formerly (and for good reason) nicknamed ‘the Wood’, will now have a similar character. We have enhanced the existing row of trees, the building stands free in space, and the landscape abuts directly on the building, further emphasizing the park-like character of the campus.

The design of the campus is mainly geared to use by pedestrians and cyclists. The green space to the south of the OZC therefore has winding footpaths and a fountain on a lawn. The building is anchored in the overall landscape by the orthogonal paved paths leading to the entrances and by the sunken terrace on the south side of the building.

The building presents itself as more or less equal on all sides; the façades vary in openness, but are never perceived as closed or as rear sides. The east and west façades have the most sunlight in the mornings and evenings, and therefore have a more closed design. The north façade is very transparent, and lets the pleasant northern light in. The south façade, which receives a lot of sun, does not contain areas where people spend time, and so it can be completely transparent.

The logistically well-situated entrances on the south-east and south-west sides in the closed corners link the building to natural pedestrian routes on the campus. This siting frees up the south façade, and the OZC presents itself to the campus with the transparent auditorium and the study plaza to the rear.

Building typology

Dialogue with Cobbenhagen is also pursued in the design of the building. For an optimum relationship with the surroundings, we have eliminated any programme from parts of the façade, particularly on the south side. This choice has logically led to a patio building, for the patios ensure there is enough façade length to facilitate the complete programme of rooms. The sunken auditorium allows the building to be kept to just two storeys. The outlines, height and type are ultimately similar to Cobbenhagen, but the atmosphere and use are clearly geared to study activities.

We see the Cobbenhagen building as the flagship of the campus, the place where its DNA is in a sense stored. This is why we started by taking a close look at it. At first we literally attempted to make a copy of it, but with the OZC programme. Although this proved a good way to discover the qualities of the building, we saw that it was impossible to achieve the same spatiality with the chosen OZC programme within the Cobbenhagen outlines. The gross/net relations and the type of programme in Cobbenhagen were entirely different, with the main focus on prestige and ceremony. Yet the study greatly helped us to grasp the essence of the OZC and to assemble arguments that would make clear to the client why it should be a different kind of building.

The resulting insight into the spatial quality of the Cobbenhagen building and the study of OZC programme led us to a self-evident design which we then implemented: a building with two patios, with the lecture halls organized on the façade and the large programme sections in the centre.

Exact siting

The final site of the building is determined by the distance from the surrounding buildings and the existing trees. Dialogue with the landscaping of the Cobbenhagen building requires some distance from the surrounding green space. Shifting the building as far north as possible has created more open space in front of the south façade and a maximum continuous area for parking. The transition from the façade to the green cocoon is almost seamless; the omnidirectional building is right in the middle of the grassy landscape, fringed on three sides by trees. The wind-sown pines in the patios are a reference to the trees in De Oude Warande.

The building marks the end of the north flank of the campus. The south façade is oriented towards the main axis of the campus. This façade is completely transparent, providing a view into the heart of the building – the study plaza. The indoor and outdoor areas appear to merge.

Perception of space

Perception of space in the building is determined by proportion, materials and light. It is greatly enhanced by the clear spatial structure, the proportions of the rooms and corridors, the materials used and the amount of daylight let into the building.

The ample dimensions have allowed the programme to be fitted easily into the building. The ground floor is inviting, and the height makes it feel like a truly public space. Together with the size of the study plaza, the patios, the outsize spaces and the transparency of the auditorium, this has created a generous building. The ground floor in fact forms a single landscape in which open study areas, lounge areas, traffic space and a restaurant alternate. Study and relaxation blend together in the heart of the building, where the study programme and multifunctional traffic space merge into a single vital space. The study plaza allows all kinds of different uses. With its transparency, the auditorium is part of this vitality. There is a direct sightline from the study plaza to the auditorium, so major events can also be experienced from here.

The character of the building is enriched by such architectural features as the monumental staircase in the entrance area. Large windows provide views of the magnificent campus landscape in all directions.

Spatial structure

To achieve spatial quality similar to that of the Cobbenhagen building, although with a smaller ratio and hence greater efficiency and based on different specifications, we again looked more closely at that building. The stratification of the design with its various perspectives through spaces, the generous height, the proportions of the spaces, the multi-purpose traffic areas, the indoor/outdoor relationship and the way in which the building is fitted into its surroundings were, in addition to the functional specifications, the ingredients for the structure of the design for the Teaching and Self-Study Centre.

The centre’s spatial structure is clear and simple, so that everyone can find their way around, in keeping with the public character of the building.

The auditorium is sunken, with glass walls, so that it does not seem like a closed box-within-a-box. From east to west there are two transparent axes that provide a clear view through the building. These are an inextricable part of the structure and ensure that daylight can penetrate deep into the building. Round the two patios are intimate self-study areas on mezzanines with a lower ceiling height. This sheltered location provides the peace and quiet needed for concentration and study.

Four open staircases leading to the first floor are divided equally over the building. Keeping these open necessitates special compartmentalization in the event of fire, but this is almost completely concealed. There are two lifts for disabled people. The first-floor lecture halls are located on the façade. Besides the auditorium, the basement includes one of the technical installa- tion areas.

The ground floor is designed as a large collective space, a landscape where people can study and take breaks. The programme is fitted in round the study plaza in a relaxed manner, with several views of the outside area. The inside location of the large volumes allows maximum flexibility on the outside, enhanced by the additional façade area round the patios.

To create an omnidirectional building and enliven the plinth, the areas that do not require daylight are wherever possible located in the heart of the building. This has enabled us to use façades for daylight and outside views, and to keep closed sections of façade to a minimum. The result is a symmetrical structure, with the enclosed volumes in the heart of the building surrounded by a spacious, multi-purpose traffic area and a transparent ring of lecture halls.

Users of every type of area can regularly see green space. All the lecture halls that require daylight are on the façade and provide views of both the surrounding landscape and the patios in the building. The landscaped arrangement of the patios, each with its own identity, incorporates the green character of the surroundings into the building. The indoor/outdoor relationship is also expressed in the use of materials. The plaza flooring partly extends into the patios, so that they are perceived as a single entity.

Pedestrian routes

Accessibility, clarity and self-evident internal rout- ing are essential if the OZC is to function properly. There are two main entrances on both side of the south façade that are directly visible from several directions and are easy to find thanks to the footpath structure.

Once inside, visitors immediately have a clear idea of the building and its spaces. The inviting monumental staircase near the eastern entrance is an eye-catching feature that points the way to the first floor. The staircase provides an unobstructed view of the study plaza in the heart of the building. The restaurant can also be reached via the southern passageway past the auditorium. Visitors coming in through the western entrance can immediately see both the auditorium and the restaurant. Here again there is a view of the study plaza and a staircase to the first floor. The lifts are easily accessible from both entrances, but deliberately concealed in the wall to encourage use of the stairs – another reason to keep the staircases open rather than enclose them in fireproof stairwells. The pedestrian routes to higher and lower floors are direct and short.

All the ground-floor and first-floor study and other areas have logical positions in the building and can be reached in a fairly self-evident manner.


The building is designed in a restrained yet identifiable manner, and located right in the green landscape. Like the other buildings on the campus it is made of robust, pure materials. The exterior is a combination of stone, concrete, black aluminium and glass. Its robustness is enhanced by fine detailing and vitality in its use.

The façades, which extend from the lawn to the eaves, form a coherent whole despite their differing characters. From every angle the volume appears as a single entity. The division of the building into several storeys and spaces can only be discerned on second reading. The recessed corners are not only a simple way to give the building a powerful form, but also allow the use of large, unbroken stone surfaces that enhance its calmness and its compatibility with the architecture of the Cobbenhagen building.

The black lines on the glass north and south façades lend them more refinement. The vertical lines ensure that the volume is read as a single entity. Features that extend above the eaves are combined in a black-metal frame. Wherever possible, the roof is green and fitted with solar panels.

The south façade is made of glass from top to bottom, and provides views deep into the building. Behind it is a double-height space that detaches it from the internal structure of the building and acts as a beacon of light during the evening. The entrances in the recessed corners, highlighted by black canopies, are part of this structure, resulting in a simple interplay of planes and delicate lines. The building is deliberately focused on the south side, so that the various traffic flows converge in a logical manner, and the sunken terrace creates a close relationship between indoor and outdoor space. The French windows onto the terrace enliven the plinth. The sculptural appearance and simple use of materials give the building a timeless, restrained and elegant air.


In this restrained, identifiable building with its clear architectural layout, the interior materials have also been kept simple and sober. Although not luxurious, they are high-quality and robust. The main layout of the interior is based on two kinds of space: public open space, and private space.

The public spaces are the traffic area, the open study landscape, the restaurant and the entrance hall. These areas have a flat, power-floated concrete floor and a light-grey expanded metal ceiling. Since the furniture ranges from long wooden tables to study at to colourful comfortable couches and armchairs to relax at, there is varied emphasis and these public spaces can be used in various ways. Features such as the staircases and the awning share a dark colour, creating a ‘family’ of accessories in the public area. The round, light-coloured spiral staircase is a conspicuous feature of the interior.

The enclosed areas are the lecture halls. These have a flat, power-floated concrete floor and a removable ceiling with integrated lighting. The technical installations are concealed. The par- tition walls are partly made of glass, with the doors in the closed sections.

Apart from these two main groups there are the self-study areas and the auditorium with their own range of materials. The auditorium has been given a warm interior. The floors, walls and ceiling are made of wood, so that the area is perceived as a whole. The slatted wood enhances the acoustics. At the same time the interior frames the view into and out of the heart of building. The wooden lines of the walls extend into the ceiling, creating a continuous interplay of black and wooden lines. The lighting of the lines is staggered, with a playful effect. The chairs have moss-green upholstery. Curtains allow the area to be darkened if necessary.

The flooring of the plaza is extended into the patios, creating a seamless inside/outside relationship. The covered section of the patios acts as a veranda, offering protection against the sun and the rain, and its benches allow people to sit out- side whatever the weather. The patios are full of vegetation, each in different colours. The pine trees refer to De Oude Warande. The indoor/outdoor relationship is a key theme in the building. The two green patios truly bring the outside inside.