Essential Architecture-  Amsterdam

Het Scheep ("The Ship")


Michael de Klerk


in the Spaarndammerbuurt district of Amsterdam


1917 to 1921


built in the architectural style of the Amsterdam School. It is the most important example of this style of architecture.
Click here for some nice early 20th century Dutch details




Museum  Apartment Building
The building was designed by Michel de Klerk. The building vaguely resembles the outlines of a ship. Its appearance is very unconventional from all angles. Designed in 1919, the building contains 102 homes for the working class, a small meeting hall and a post office, which as of 2001 is the museum of the Amsterdam School.


"Het Scheep" (the Ship) is a nickname for the third of three housing blocks designed in 1917 by Michel de Klerk for the Spaarndammerbuurt district in northwestern Amsterdam. The spire at one end of the block is without function and there is no way to enter it. It's purely emblematic of the position that the working class inhabitants have attained through their housing. As with everything De Klerk did, individualized form gives shape to collective identity.


he period during and just after the first World War witnessed the birth of an architectural movement in Amsterdam which, through the opulence of its forms, would dramatically alter the appearance of that city. At the beginning of the 20th Century, the prevailing political climate of Amsterdam fostered a uniquely fertile cultural life. There, several architects of similar artistic temperament, and beliefs, generated work that was labeled "The Amsterdam School." The group left an extraorduinary aesthetic imprint that is still strongly visible in the city.

Amsterdam's architecture couldn't have developed as it did without certain earlier political changes. In 1901, members of the liberal government succeeded in passing the first Housing Act, immediately followed by a Public Health Act. In 1905 Amsterdam was the first city to impose a building code. Benevolent patrons and individuals driven by humanitarian socialism established the first housing associations to build for the working classes. The Amsterdam School came to fruition within this political context; its most successful projects were municipal commissions, notably public housing.


The designation "Amsterdam School" originated with the architect Jan Gratama, a fervent champion of this imaginative architecture. It was first used to describe a group of young architects who, in the years around 1915, were stirring up the already unsettled world of Amsterdam architecture. These architects included Jan Gratama, Piet Kramer, Michel de Klerk, P. H. Endt, H. Th. Wijdeveld, J. F. Staal, C. J. Blaauw, P. L. Marnette, and J. M. Van der May, among others.

The most important and prolific was Michel de Klerk (1884-1923). In his collaborations with his colleagues, he was primarily responsible for establishing the path along which they, and later others, were to follow. De Klerk was so involved in the original conception of the school's architecture, that it is often identified with him. He was its inspirer as well as its most open-minded interpreter.


In 1898, while visiting a primary school, the architect Edward Cuypers was so taken with the drawing skills of the then 14-year-old De Klerk that he immediately transported the youth to his office. De Klerk and his fellow draughtsman, Piet Kramer, learned just about everything while working for Cuypers. They later augmented their training with evening classes at the Industrial School for the Working Class.

De Klerk's apprenticeship finished in 1910, after two interruptions when he traveled to Scandinavia, amongst other places. In 1911 he implemented his first design -- a housing block at Vermeerplein. He then collaborated on the Scheepvaarthuis (Shipping Building 1912-16), and designed three housing blocks in the Spaarndammerbuurt and housing in Amsterdam South. With the completion of his three housing blocks in the Spaarndammerbuurt, the fame of the Amsterdam School was assured: architects the world over came to see these landmark structures.

These projects represent a compounding of the compositional idiom of the Amsterdam School. De Klerk was a very versatile designer: he took part in numerous competitions and designed interiors and furniture. Although he never assumed the role of leader of the Amsterdam School, his contemporaries viewed him as such. After his death the design journal Wendingen devoted no fewer than five issues to his work.


The Spaarndammerbuurt is a working class district in the northwesterly edge of Amsterdam. It is bordered by the railway line to Haarlem on one side and the estuary harbor installations on the other. It is rather isolated from the rest of the city and has retained its architectural unity. During the first three decades of the century, dwellings were built for dockers and railway workers on this triangular 54 acre site.

The 1912 expansion plan for this district called for a regular network of housing blocks with inner courts and open green space, almost at the center, which was to be a public square or garden, called the plantsoen. It was quite a problem to fit the orthogonal road system into the triangular site, especially at the outer edges, where the housing blocks were cut off at sharp angles. The design aroused considerable criticism and the planners were forced to carry out some limited modifications. But, on the whole the architects of the individual buildings succeeded in tackling the urban context with considerable perception, and resolved the angular character of the plan in highly individual ways.

Between 1913 and 1921, Michel De Klerk designed three housing blocks for this district. Two were situated around the central public garden, the third was located in the immediate vicinity. His contemporaries were swift to acknowledge them as significant examples of the new architecture of the Amsterdam School. Today De Klerk's buildings are still the predominating architectural features of the district.

De Klerk's first building in the Spaarndammerbuurt is located in the middle of the district, on the north side of the plantsoen. Kamphuis and Hille commissioned him to design this block. It was a rectangular plot, about 100 meters long, for which De Klerk designed one single slab with a C-shaped ground plan, four stories and an attic, facing the Spaarndammerplantsoen. Strict symmetry dominates the façade plane, though it is subtly broken by the pyramidal roof which interrupts the roof-line, recalling a single house.

The most distinctive features of this block are the parabolic gables above the four staircases. There has been much discussion on the origins of this shape, which is reminiscent of Art Nouveau designs. However, various sketches show that this and other design ideas were the products of De Klerk's imagination, modified and adjusted in continuous pursuit of appropriate architectural design and practical experiment. If anything, the shapes are reminiscent of the forms of Oceanic art in general and of Indonesia specifically.

The second complex was built between 1917 and 1918, a few years after it had been designed, probably because Klaas Hille was hit by the crisis in the building trade. One of the largest and most active housing associations in the country, Eigen Haard (roughly meaning one's "own hearth"), took the project over. As with the first building, De Klerk had to pursue the theme of a block with an inner court off the plantsoen. The long frontage beside the square measures 85 meters. The north elevation is at a 90 degree angle to the elevation on the side of the square, while the south elevation folds to form a sharp corner with a shop placed at the ground floor.

The third building block, designed in 1917 for the hosing association Eigen Haard, includes 102 dwellings, a post office, a meeting hall for the residents, and an annexed school. It is the best example of what was termed a "worker's palace" in Amsterdam. It occupies a triangular site of about 35,000 square feet.

De Klerk designed the block with a triangular inner court, combining the different sections of the building as if it were a medieval house with outbuildings. What he achieved is an organism, cohesive and complete in its conceptualization. It is not by accident that all the formal comparisons for the building, ranging from ship to locomotive, suggest an organic entity with identifiable components.

De Klerk's edifice has a wealth of ornamentation: a post horn, a thunderbolt, winged horses, a windmill, and even pelicans roost on the roof of the post office. The building's nickname is "the ship." The prow-shaped form faces the square -- a low structure with horizontal nautical planking, and the parabolic window representing the anchor on the ship's side. The horizontal courses along the flat surfaces resemble the bands along the side of a vessel, with the undulating line above the doors symbolizing the water line.

On behalf of the urban working class, De Klerk fought for freedom from the usual obligation of using only the essential. In this fight, he used the rediscovery of the craftsmanship that had formed the basis of the triumphs of Dutch Naval carpentry. He applied those same techniques to housing. De Klerk saw in the metaphor of shipbuilding a way of renewing the treasures of the past. He was attracted to the formal richness of its craftsmanship. A legion of patient and useful workers found in De Klerk a courageous pioneer in the battle for the superfluous.

When De Klerk's plans for the Spaardammerplansoen were submitted to the city council, it was exactly this aspect that, even before discussing costs, drew censure from some of the members. What gave offense was the air of mild luxury it exuded, a luxury felt to be somehow improper to mass-housing.

This is the key to understanding De Klerk's architectural intensity: the absolute belief in the expressive capacity of his buildings, formed through a complete, almost obsessive control of their composition. He spoke through his architecture. His buildings are moral acts. Through them one can perceive his determination to give new meaning to urban growth.

In his particular forms as well as his unusual use of materials, De Klerk sought a balance between innovative solutions to new demands and a feeling of continuity. Much of his housing block recalls the collective huts of the Indonesian archipelago (under Dutch rule at the time).

Horizontal bands of brick and tile hint at interior function by indicating the sequence of floors behind the wall. The same changes in scale and color, meanwhile, seem to cause the building's façade to ripple as though caressed by a breeze; gentle waves toss "the ship" upon an imaginary sea.

The spire (1) is set into a small courtyard at the north end if the building. A courtyard with a common garden (2) is nestled inside the complex. The mass of the housing block also contains a school (3) and a post office (4). The garden is accessible from an entrance behind the post office. The effect is a totally self-contained community.


In addition to the plantsoen or public garden, across the street, residents of "the ship" enjoy their own private green space. The garden's outbuilding recalls the architecture of Indonesia.


A few years prior to constructing the third housing block, a school had been built along Oostzaanstraat. De Klerk masterfully included it in his plan, the volume of the school seeming to "break apart" the planes of the housing block.



The third housing block includes a post office, resembling a huge piece of sculpture, situated at the prow of "the ship." De Klerk designed its interior complete with counters, seats, and a telephone booth.


Amongst the 102 units in the overall complex there are 18 different types of dwellings. The most common type has two bedrooms, a kitchen, a sitting room, and a bath. De Klerk spared no attention to details as evidenced in this cast-iron casement.

Many of the building's formal elements become all the more significant in view of its nickname "the ship." Like the stern of a galleon, this corner evokes the glories of the Netherlands when she ruled the seas.

All photos ©Roger Shepherd




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