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Reimagining the Headlands Center

The Headlands Center for the Arts, located due north of San Francisco in Fort Barry (part of the Golden Gate National Recreation area), is in the midsts of reimagining one of their historic buildings, a gymnasium built in 1908. The structure is currently used for special events and as studios for visiting artists, but the Center envisions a community-oriented space that fosters active imagination and aesthetic appreciation. The project, called "Open to the Elements," has no shortage of challenges, namely balancing historic preservation and an environmentally-sensitive site. To spearhead the ideas phase, Headlands contacted Rotterdam-based design group Observatorium, whose work embraces the intersection of urban design, architecture, and art.

headlands gym

From June 3rd to the 9th, Observatorium's Andre Dekker will be leading workshops with art historians, architects, preservationists, ecologists, and a whole cadre of specialists to suss out a solution that balances the building's storied past with a new vision for the future. These days, it seems like historic preservation often takes a back seat to "building in the name of progress" (like this endangered modernist school in New Orleans that Jaime reported on last week) and we can't wait to see what the residency program culminates in. We queried Dekker about the project and here's what he has to say.

Andre Dekker of Rotterdam-based <a href="http://www.observatorium.org/index-win.html">Observatorium</a>.
Andre Dekker of Rotterdam-based Observatorium.
What drew you to the Headlands Center project?
A generous invitation. It does sometimes happen that you receive mail from strangers from the other side of the planet. Without knowing we were introduced to Headlands Center for the Arts Program Director Brian Karl by Robert Kloos of the Consulate General of the Netherlands in New York.
The workshop will focus on reimagining the Headlands' historic gymnasium. How do you envision the next iteration of the space?
The workshop is about the process of thinking about how built spaces live and function in the natural environment, and how creative individuals can address contemporary issues of land-use, historic preservation, public resource management, ecology, and cultural development. The wonderful historical revival style architecture of the Gymnasium speaks to everybody. Many people have grown fond of the Gym, which stands alone and naked in a field, maybe all the more because it was never renovated. It's the purest form of preservation: do nothing.

It is the only building where you get a ghost town feeling, though artists have been using it as a studio and a presentation venue for several decades now. But the Headlands is interested in promoting new attention and catalyzing new ideas about how the building might be used, and hopes to make the gym available for an even greater number of people and for a wider range of different activities. Observatorium will lead a week-long design workshop, ending with a public conversation at the Headlands Thursday evening, June 9th. As ideas for rehabilitation and repurposing grow, we will already be offering the good old Gym a new life by opening up the doors as much as possible and allowing people to use it.
The project calls for balancing historic preservation, sustainable rehabilitation, and repurposing space—a tall order. What do you think the biggest challenges will be? The challenges unique to this project, particularly?
This indeed is the challenge and there is no other way considering the unique situation in the wilderness of Headlands in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, just minutes away from the city. We have to do historic preservation correctly, since the Gymnasium is one of the buildings under the management and protection of the National Park Service. At the same time, we are in a vulnerable chaparral area where climate change is happening as we speak. And we humans want to have our own corner to take time for observation, reflection and focusing attention—which both the Park Service and Headlands Center for the Arts are dedicated to supporting.

The biggest challenge is to get the people enjoying the wilderness both from behind the windshield and out of their cars. Balancing these many characteristics—preservation, sustainability, creative utility, and attracting humans to engage with this unique landscape—is the challenge we are undertaking in thinking about design concepts that take into account the larger site.

The interior of the Headlands Center gym.
The interior of the Headlands Center gym.

What are you looking forward to most during the residency?
I look forward to working on simple yet grand ideas we can build and that make people smile.
Anything else you'd like to add?
It is Headlands tradition to invite artists to repurpose their buildings. So here is the even bigger challenge: how to make a gymnasium (Greek for “being naked”) useful and a place of imagination, and a place to encourage aesthetic appreciation.
"Hallenhaus" is a public project by Observatorium that is a steel interpretation of Dutch-style barn in New York State. "It is a perfect mix of the sacred and profane, being a barn that feels like a church," says Dekker.
"Hallenhaus" is a public project by Observatorium that is a steel interpretation of Dutch-style barn in New York State. "It is a perfect mix of the sacred and profane, being a barn that feels like a church," says Dekker.

For more information about the residency program, please visit the Open to the Elements site.

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