With a singular Gesture – a sculpted strand board staircase that zigzags across a cavernous water tower – a once utilitarian space is reborn as a destination lookout. Although few had visited the tower before this spring, its sweeping view of the Netherlands’ 58-square-kilometre De Wieden nature reserve demanded to be shared.
In 2006, the non-profit that owns the remote wetland approached Utrecht’s Zecc Architecten to turn the decades-old structure into an attraction. While water tower restorations are often true conversions, into housing or cultural centres, Watch / Watertower Sint Jansklooster celebrates its industrial history. “We tried to connect the area with the building itself, which is a cultural monument,” says project architect Bart Kellerhuis. “One route and one tale.” That one route is the unpolished fire-resistant wooden staircase, a warm, robust structure that casts long shadows onto the stark concrete walls.
The project’s modest budget ultimately imbued the design with its singular focus. Without a program to follow, the firm had carte blanche in a scheme that accommodates even the smallest of sightseers with windows set low along the staircase. The interior was left unadorned so visitors could experience it in its raw state.
At the top of the new 24-metre staircase sits the now-empty reservoir. To emphasize its vastness, the interior was fitted with a steel stairway along the perimeter, leading to a lookout at the tower’s highest point. Large windows give a 360‑degree view, open to the sounds of the wind and the birds flying overhead. It’s a feat to climb the 45 metres to the top, but “it’s a true route architecturale,” says Kellerhuis. “With every step up, there is something different to see, a surprise.”