Essential Architecture-  Amsterdam



Michel de Klerk


Spaarndammerbuurt, Amsterdam, Holland




Amsterdam School




  All photos ©Roger Shepherd
In the first of the three housing blocks Michel de Klerk designed for the Spaarndammerbuurt district of Amsterdam, he emphasized the shape of the site and the location along the plantsoen, or public park, with a severe building conceived to be viewed frontally. Referred to as the Spaarndammerplantsoen, this block is from 1913.

The Amsterdam School was not a movement with a clear philosophy, nor did it have a recognized leader. The true binding element within the group was friendship, teamwork, and a common approach to the profession. The journal Wendigen (meaning "turnings" or "changes"), which was published between 1918 and 1931, was commonly considered to be the magazine of the Amsterdam School, and consequently the group was sometimes called the "Wendigen Group."

Two years after the name "Amsterdam School" had been adopted, P. H. Endt took it upon himself to deny the existence of a School, in one of the first issues of Wendigen: "On closer consideration, nothing remains of the school-like unity, and so I suggest that the 'Amsterdam School' be stifled."

The Amsterdam School favored a mode of individual expression whose applications were as diverse as its architects. Maximum expression was pursued with absolute conviction in the total design of architectonic space and in the individual elements, with extensive, sometimes excessive, use of symbols and eye-catching shapes. The buildings were an accumulation of diverse art forms: leaded and decorated glass, wrought ironwork and, in particular, figurative sculpture. The latter, a distinctive feature of the school's architecture, was seen as part of a larger piece of sculpture, an allegory almost, of the building to which it belonged.

In 1916, for the 60th birthday of the patriarch of Dutch architecture, Hendrik Petrus Berlage, Gratama wrote an extensive criticism of his work, in which he also examined the connections between designs by some young novices and those of the master. He wrote "Those who grew up with Berlage's doctrines, now want the blossoms of the tree whose trunk and branches are formed by rationalism. In the general, rational style, they seek the spirited, sensitive, so profoundly personal beauty. Young architects, like Van der May, Kramer, De Klerk and others, want more freedom: they want to express construction and embellishment according to their own ability and character."

The first international recognition came in the years that followed. The English architectural historian Howard Robertson wrote in 1922 in The Architectural Review: "De Klerk is certainly one of the newest and brightest stars in the modern constellation. His influence is so potent as to have brought into being already a host of imitators who may, perhaps, copy his mannerisms without comprehending his ideals. But as De Klerk's mannerisms are as changeable as his technique is resourceful, it is probable that his work will always remain distinct and recognizable. The conditions prevailing in Holland as regards the status of architecture are significant and illuminating. It is the greater public interest in building which has made the new manifestations possible, and at the same time it is the sponsors of the new school who by their vigor and personality have helped largely to create this interest."

When the cultural climate that had been so fertile for the Amsterdam School altered in the second half of the 1920s, and the protagonists changed their professional orientation, the most radical qualities of that architectural vocabulary progressively disappeared and the Amsterdam School ceased to flourish.

In 1929, when the creativity of the Amsterdam School was all but extinguished, Henry-Russell Hitchcock, writing in Romanticism and Regeneration, referred to the vitality and plasticity of De Klerk's and Kramer's buildings. But he also felt that De Klerk's followers had produced a style of conformity and had no future. It was precisely against this conformity that the artists of De Stijl later rebelled. They took issue with the uniformity of the categorical romanticism that the Amsterdam School had inspired.

Amsterdam's architecture would never have been able to develop in such a characteristic fashion without the peculiar political situation of the time. This had created new conditions for administrative autonomy for the municipal authorities, city expansion, and social housing. The industrial revolution with its concomitant changes, began relatively late in the Netherlands. Dutch capitalism based on the boom in commercial businesses, industrial production, and shipbuilding, did not take off until the 1870s. With it came phenomena such as industrial concentration, urbanization, the emergence of trade unions, and a general political awareness among the working classes. Migration to the city meant that the housing shortage, and in its wake, speculation, became a pressing problem. Amsterdam had 270,000 inhabitants in 1870, in 1900 the number doubled, and in 1920 there were 680,000 people. Parliamentary committees' reports and pamphlets exposed the miserable living conditions of the urban proletariat and indicated the social dangers of the situation.

Internal divisions in the Dutch Parliament between anarchists, trade unionists, and supporters of more active policies culminated in the founding of the Social Democratic Workers Party (SDAP) in 1894. It was to become the largest socialist party, its main preoccupation being housing for the workers. After the International Socialist Congress held in Paris in 1900, described municipal reforms as "the seeds of a collectivist society," the SDAP stepped up its emphasis on the task within its municipal councils. At the end of the century, the housing shortage was dealt with by charitable institutions. Benevolent patrons and individuals driven by humanitarian socialism established the first housing associations for the working classes. This was the climate in which, in 1901, members of the liberal government succeeded in getting a bill passed called the Woningwet (Housing Act), which generated tremendous changes.

The Housing Act was accompanied by a Public Health Act, which monitoried the hygienic quality of the new houses by screening the plans. The positive effect of these acts, rules, and financial regulations was considerable, and was also apparent in contemporary architecture. In 1905 Amsterdam was the first city to impose a building code, which was to form an example for all large Dutch towns. Among its restrictive regulations, it required that the façades of the residential buildings present a different aspect, reflecting the rhythm of the staircases, which had to be located at the at the front. Every dwelling had to have direct access to stairs on every floor, with the least possible dwellings to each staircase. This resulted in more staircases and doors at the street side.

The fact that there was a fixed, minimum size for courtyards meant that architects were forced to come up with a new typology for the housing blocks, the outcome of which was a perimeter block around an inner court. And an architect might be commissioned to design only one side of a block. The gardens in the courtyards were sometimes public, but usually private. These elements produced in Amsterdam, more than in other towns, a unity of type and module, which the Amsterdam School used for stylistic and constructive unity.

In the years between the first and third decades of this century, the prevailing model for housing was the closed block. After a visit to the new districts in Amsterdam in 1929, Bruno described what he saw as the most important contribution by the Netherlands to modern architecture: "the creation of a collective architecture, in which it is no longer the individual house that was of special importance, but the whole long rows of houses in a series of streets, and furthermore, the collective reassemblage of many series of streets into a comprehensive unity, even when such series were the work of collective architects."

Collective architecture, which maintained the tradition of the individual -- to some extent by characterizing each building as a separate entity, abounded in the Netherlands, contrasted with the aesthetics of standardization which was emerging elsewhere in Europe at the time.

The effects of the Woningwet were not immediately apparent in the first decade after it became law. Partly due to limited funds, and partly due to party politics. Although the Netherlands did not participate directly in the First World War, costs trebled between 1915 and 1918. The postwar economic crisis changed everything. Government intervention in the hard hit housing sector was inevitable. It took the form of "crisis" funding for municipal authorities and housing associations to support public housing.

During these years of government subsidies the Amsterdam School had plenty of scope to build. From 1915 to 1930, Amsterdam was a laboratory for experiments embracing the full range of socioeconomic, technical and aesthetic factors which impinge on housing. Between 1910 and 1923 Amsterdam's housing associations built 11,867 homes, and the city council built 4,170. Those were both the days of The Amsterdam School and social democratic success.

The building is solid brick with a rhythmic pattern of four stairwell towers which jut out slightly from the front façade. They rise above the roof-line with unusual parabolic gables, framed by canted vertical blocks resembling chimney stacks.

The first housing block of De Klerk's was built in 1913 (1). The second, built in 1917, directly faces the first across the open public park space (2). The third, nicknamed "the Ship," was designed in 1917, but wasn't built until 1921 (3).

The second housing block of De Klerk's in the district was built in 1917 for the nonprofit housing association Eigen Haard. It faces the first block across the plantsoen, or public park.

The keel, fish scales, shells, herringbone brickwork decorations, waves and starfish--the whole gamut of iconography which De Klerk incorporated in this architecture, clearly relate to the formal imagery of the sea, turning the massive building into a watery urban mirage.

Adherents to the school favored brick for its natural properties. The fact that it could be formed by hand allowed for it to assume some exceptional, particularized forms. The unusual color of these bricks gives the second housing block a striking appearance and gave rise to the nickname, "the yellow block."

The Amsterdam School believed that a building should give the impression that it had grown organically, like a shell or a crystal. De Klerk's treatment of corners is typical of the school; forms seem to "erupt" through fissures in the planes of the façades.


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