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PI Ter Apel

Location: Ter Apel, The Netherlands

Artists: Wout Berger, Liet Heringa and Maarten van Kalsbeek, Anne Semler, Jolande Traa


PI Ter Apel is a new prison in the small town of Ter Apel in the north east of the Netherlands, near the border with Germany. Four artists were commissioned to make works for three identical cell blocks and for the communal building of the prison, working closely with the prison’s Director, the architect and the government’s visual art adviser for the project. Liet Heringa and Maarten van Kalsbeek made eleven sculptures like large blue flower heads, 1m wide and 3m high, with translucent blue petals or leaves. They hang in groups of five in each of the two main halls of the building, with a single one in the entrance area. Anne Semler created flooring for her building in mid grey with patterns, images and text in red, blue and yellow which refer to the experience of time, space, human and animal life, aggression and innocence. Jolande Traa also designed flooring using perspective applied to a grid of subtle grey squares to reverse the optical effect of the tapering wings of the asymmetrical building. Wout Berger made ten huge colour photographs of landscapes in Vietnam, the Caribbean and Iceland, some in sequences up to 6m long, to provide images which have a feeling of familiarity for the refugee inmates.

Percent for Art

The artists’ commissions at PI Ter Apel followed a major project, CAP ’96, between 1994 and 1996, to expand the number of prison places in the Netherlands by 4,000. Under this programme, new prisons were built and old ones refurbished, and for the first time the government’s statutory Percent for Art Policy was applied to penal institutions. A Percent for Art policy has been in place for all government building programmes in the Netherlands since 1951, and between one and two percent of basic building costs must be spent on works of art which form part of the permanent fabric of the building or its surroundings. The government employs a team of visual art advisers, usually practicing artists, in the Rijksgebouwendienst (Government Architect’s Office). Each government building project is allocated one of these advisers as a project manager to oversee delivery of the art commissions and liaise between the client, artists, architects and other professionals on the project.

Project Team

The commissions at PI Ter Apel were set in motion in mid 1996 with a meeting between government visual art adviser, Mari Boeijen, the director of the prison, Jan Tychon and the appointed architect, Martin van Dort of Archivolt Architects BNA. These three individuals formed the building project team and worked collaboratively, making joint decisions on all matters concerned with the building, and the public art commissions. At this first meeting, they discussed the commissioning opportunities within the prison, the constraints of the situation, where work could be done and why. At this time, the designs for the building were in preparation but the construction was not due to begin for six months. The total budget available was 420 guilders.

Prison Design

The prison had been conceived as three identical, wide, shallow chevron shaped cell blocks each 113 metres wide, with the arrow heads facing inwards onto a large open air courtyard. Each has cells on two floors, with an open central hall area extending up two stories to the roof, and with cells on the first floor level reached from a gallery. PI Ter Apel was designed to have two different roles. For its first two years, it would be a detention centre for refugees who were seeking Dutch nationality through lawful channels. Thereafter it would revert to use as an ordinary prison.

Artist Selection

After the initial discussion, the visual arts adviser drew up a brief which offered commissions for site specific works which would be integrated into the building and relate to the floor or ceiling of the three cell blocks, giving them a distinctive and individual identity. In July 1996, an advertisement was placed in the government-published professional journal for artists, BK-Informatie, inviting artists to submit slides for the first stage of the selection process. Eighty artists responded, some providing concept drawings as well as slides. The adviser made a pre selection from the submission with the Chief Government Architect (Rijksbouwmeester), and took forward 12 artists to a selection meeting with the prison director and architect. They selected six artists to whom they paid studio visits in order to discuss the project further and to look for a positive interaction between the project team and the artists. They then chose Jolande Traa, Anne Semler and the team of Liet Heringa and Maarten van Kalsbeek for the three identical cell blocks, and photographer Wout Berger to produce work for the communal and staff areas.

The architect, Martin van Dort, met with the artists in late autumn to show them the building plans and for detailed discussions about his concept and design. He was keen that the artists should give greater individuality to his generic architectural design for the three cell blocks by using colour in their work and selecting the colour scheme for the cell doors and galleries in their building. They were given three months to produce proposals within the brief. Jolande Traa and Anne Semler came up with floor designs for their buildings, and Liet Heringa and Maarten van Kalsbeek designed large suspended sculptures. Wout Berger proposed a sequence of landscape photographs aimed at the needs and interests of the prison’s inmates. These designs were presented to the building team in early 1997 and refined in the light of security issues, and technical considerations. The phasing for the installation of the works was mapped out as the building work was beginning.

Technical Issues

The hanging sculptures by Liet Heringa and Maarten van Kalsbeek are not heavy individually, but the framework to support them had to be incorporated into the construction of the roof, from which each group could be suspended securely on wire. From the outset, the artists were aware of security issues such as the possibility of obscuring the sight lines of prison guards and that inmates might jump onto the sculptures from the balconies, and they bore these in mind when designing and placing their work. They researched materials and came up with PU rubber, which they dyed strong cobalt blue, from which the translucent leaves of the sculptures were cast. After their design was approved, the issue of fire proofing arose, and they had to research an appropriate retardant with which the works could be treated, before they were accepted by the fire officer. The artists chose a colour scheme for their cell block which complemented their sculptures – strong blue for the cell doors and with cream white staircases and a grey floor.

Jolande Traa and Anne Semler, who each made floor designs, worked together to research materials, fabrication methods and specialist companies. The cost of a linoleum floor with laser cut inserts had been investigated by the building contractor but was far too expensive for the budget. He therefore specified polyurethane as the flooring material, which is softer and warmer than concrete, and a specialist manufacturer was found who could fabricate the floors which were cast in situ. Jolande Traa worked with a specialist sports flooring company which laid out her precise perspective grids onto the floor and applied the paint surface. Anne Semler’s designs were cut by computer into self adhesive foils which were then temporarily stuck to the floor. Paint was applied by hand over the foils which were then peeled away to reveal the images. A wear-resistant transparent coat was floated over the top of the designs by the flooring manufacturer. The coating needs to be renewed every five years, and the resources for this have been built into the prison budget. The floors were installed at the end of the construction phase and covered with thick paper for protection whilst the buildings were completed. The paint work of the doors and galleries in each building echoes the colour scheme of the artists’ work.

Wout Berger’s colour photographs of landscape scenes from Vietnam, Iceland and the Caribbean were conceived from the outset by the artist to be presented as frescos, on a large scale. However, they were originally shown to the project team as small images, which they felt might seem merely decorative until the full concept was described to them. The images are produced on a massive scale up to 2.5 m long and up to 1.8 m high. They are mounted onto aluminium and either glued directly onto the wall, or recessed into it, as a security precaution to prevent a weapon or blade being hidden behind. The photographs are coated with plastic to protect them.


The artists’ commissions took about 24 months to complete, from the initial discussion between the project team about the possible commission opportunities to the prison’s formal opening in September 1998. It was opened at a high profile event well attended by the press, and the Government Architect’s Department produced a large format full colour leaflet with an introduction by the Director of PI Ter Apel, statements by each of the artists and photographs of the completed and installed works.

This case study is included by courtesy of the Government Building Agency of the Netherlands Government Architect’s Office (Rijksgebouwendienst).

© Copyright Joanna Morland 2000