Since its founding in 1958, as the Technical College (Technische Hogeschool or THE), the campus of the Technical University of Eindhoven (TUe) has been a large-scale neighbourhood within the city of Eindhoven. Architect and urban planner S. J. Van Embden from Delft drew up a well-integrated plan for THE, which he saw as a cohesive community where everyone should feel as though they lived in the same house. This meant the buildings needed to be connected, but also appear professional and industrial. Van Embden had a clear vision for this: “The accommodations for THE will openly and intentionally demonstrate its industrial credentials and will provide teachers and students with an environment that is akin to a, perhaps somewhat idealized, factory complex; that is to say, engineers of the next generation will encounter an environment that is as our factories should be and as our industries will be in the future.”

Van Embden made efficient use of the land that was at his disposal by placing, at the core of the campus, three tall buildings with much flexible internal space which provided THE with great potential for expansion in the future. He set out a grid with modules of 1.24 square meters as the base of the design. The industrial feel that the buildings were required to have was translated quite literally. The dimensions were based not on human proportions but on the standard Philips fluorescent light. Five times this tube-length produced a width (6.2m) for the facade bays of the main building.

The large scale and strong simplicity of the architectural and urban plan qualified the THE campus for heritage listing, as an example of Modernism and in particular the movement of New Objectivity.

In line with this, in 1969, the City Council and Chamber of Commerce in Eindhoven asked the renowned architectural firm, Van Den Broek & Bakema of Rotterdam, to modernise the city centre of Eindhoven, “in keeping with the expansion of local industries and the aspirations spawned by this for large-scale urbanism”. The so-called Cityplan presented was one big integrated plan, heavily dominated by Modernist architecture and planning. It proposed a 400-metre long and 60-metre high “spinal structure” over the existing city that would function as the central building of the whole conurbation of Eindhoven. The plan was so big that it was simply unfeasible for any permanent programme and so it was to be easily adapted for very diverse uses. Proposals for the Cityplan included accommodations for businesses, restaurants and leisure activities, offices and even housing. Internationally, the plan was seen as the future flagship of Modernist architecture.

Jean Leering, as director of the Van Abbe Museum, organised a memorable exhibition in 1969 about this Cityplan for Eindhoven by Van Den Broek & Bakema. The exhibition gave visitors the opportunity to express their opinions on the public space and displayed a sensational, enormous model at a scale of 1:20. The model was positioned on trestles so that people could walk through it at eye level and admire the architecture. The exhibition also offered a landscape model at 1:1000 and a catalogue in which de visitor could make changes. Through this, Eindhoven’s Cityplan attained an unforgettable status, not only in the field of architecture and urban planning but also in the memories of locals.

As we know, the plan was never executed. In 1974 the City Council decided to pull the plug on the project. The tide was turning: Modernism had passed its pinnacle and was no longer sufficient as a visionary model. Precisely the inability to establish ahead of time the specific programming for spaces – in a city with much privately owned land and landholdings – meant that support fell away and the council no longer dared to push forward.

Nonetheless, the Cityplan remained a historic document of Modernism in the Netherlands. During the Dutch Design Week of 2007 the Van Abbe Museum showed a compilation of the famous exhibition with the title “The most modern design for Eindhoven”. The exhibition is now being used as a reference and an inspiration for the exhibition Campus Plan Eindhoven.

The Technische Hogeschool Eindhoven is now called the Technical University of Eindhoven (TUe ) and the original, clearly orthogonal and functional layout of the campus has been obscured by a half century of additions and changes. The TUe is now looking to define a clear image and has the ambition to turn the campus into a TUe Science Park “of national acclaim and international allure”. The vision is to strengthen their reputation and to use the spatial and historic qualities of Van Embden’s campus plans – those still existing and those now gone – as an important foundation for the new design. The compact campus and its orthogonal grid was, of course, intended to create space and direction for future expansions. Three big building projects: the market hall by Ector Hoogstad, the Ceres building by Diederene Dirrix Architecten and the faculty of Technical Physics and Electrical Engineering by Studio Herman Herzberger have created a higher density. The campus will further be expanded to include student housing and business accommodations. As a tool to preserve unity, MTD has designed an underlying landscape plan that connects the Dommel river lands with the buildings of the compact campus by way of a “green runner”.

The current plans have been carefully set out and the original urban grid as foundation has been respected. The question is whether this will remain legible. The divergent design signatures of the architecture added later, quite apart from their own merits, divulge the present-day spirit in which everything is possible. An underlying landscape plan, which introduces another new design signature, is then needed to connect elements and, this then softens the sternness of Van Embden’s New Objectivity even more.

This project illustrates the dilemma of dealing with Modernist heritage buildings: the all-encompassing scale of the plans, dominated by a specific architecture and urbanism, created new worlds unto themselves and in no way did they adapt themselves to the existing urban situation. Architecture and urban planning were inextricably linked with each other and represented a social vision for the future based on industrial progress. They could not carry off a gentle insertion into existing urban settings because they were not concerned with the present, nor the past.

It is nearly impossible to negotiate with this philosophy in tackling large-scale reorganisations. It turns out the future was quite stubborn, more so than the big names of Modernism would have been able to predict. A plan involving no more than adjustments is perhaps the best course of action.

Of course, there is the nostalgia for a time when it was possible to implement grand gestures through an integrated urban plan with architecture aligned within it. Perhaps this is why these students are looking back to the Cityplan of 1969 for the design of their exhibition. We are curious what kind of design it will yield.

Dikkie Scipio for FGF