AMSTERDAM, NETHERLANDS

Although not the seat of government, Amsterdam, in the province of North Holland, is
the acknowledged capital (hoofds tad) of the Netherlands and, until World War II, was its
architectural leader. Its local professional groups—Architectura et Amicitia, De 8, and
Groep 32—were successively at the forefront of innovation, and despite the subsequent
evaporation of regional hierarchies, the city has retained its prominence. Its inclusive and
diversified buildings, especially those from the first third of the century as well as from
its final decade, are endowed with a specifically local flavor, even when responding to
more global design trends. Amsterdam’s watery foundations (many of the buildings rest
on wooden pilings) and extensive network of canals and islands, no less than its
distribution into distinctive quarters, ensure its unique character. Although 20th-century
structures are interspersed among the picturesque remnants of the older city, the majority
of these buildings were planted in an encircling girdle that extends dramatically but
deliberately from the historic core. In Amsterdam, chronology and geography coalesce:
for the most part, one can recognize the era of construction from the location.
Entries A–F 83
After the Golden Age of the 17th century, the cosmopolitan and prosperous harbor
city became a somnolent town with a declining population until belated industrialization
and the construction of international canals and railways commenced in the late 19th
century and Amsterdam awoke to an expansive future, with concomitant woes (a
desperate housing shortage, ruthless demolition, tactless road building, and the filling in
of canals and open space) and wonders (prosperity generating provocative new
construction). Thanks to the National Housing Act (Woningwet) of 1901, which required
Dutch municipalities to provide extension plans and building codes (which in Amsterdam
included aesthetic prescriptions), the city’s development proceeded responsibly. Initially,
the main augmentations were southward, but eventually rings of buildings surrounded it
in all directions. In the 1920s, Amsterdam was called the “Mecca of housing”; its social
democratic administration insisted that dwellings answer artistic demands, serve the
community, and embody the cultural aspirations of the working and lower-middle
classes. Housing has continued to be the dominant building type.
Although at the turn of the century eclecticism ruled in Amsterdam as elsewhere, two
contrasting yet complementary buildings signaled a fresh start. One was the vast Bourse
(1897–1903) by H.P.Berlage, its sources in medieval architecture and the theories of
Gottfried Semper and E.E.Viollet-le-Duc transformed by Berlage’s personal quest for a
universal language suitable for all programs and viewers; the other was the American
Hotel (1898–1902) by Willem Kromhout (1864–1940), a more playful design
incorporating Byzantine and Arabic motifs as well as Romanesque. Both are unusually
monumental for the time and place, with corner towers that anchor and announce their
presence in the cityscape. Each is constructed from Amsterdam’s traditional material:
unplastered brick (glowing red in a large “cloister” format for the Bourse, pale yellow
and slender for the hotel) with stone trim kept within the sleek plane of the masonry
walls. The elevations and plans obey a proportional system intended to harmonize the
parts with the whole, characteristic of Amsterdam practice. Gifted applied artists
executed the details and contributed to the interiors, which are representative of Nieuwe
Kunst, the geometric and restrained Dutch version of Art Nouveau. A third building, the
imposing polytonal masonry headquarters (1919–26) for the Dutch Trading Company
(Nederlandsche Handelsmaatschappij, today ABN-Amro Bank), extended this aesthetic
into the 1920s. The concrete-frame construction, rare at the time, was articulated by
projecting vertical piers that unite five stories, an American formula seen previously only
in the Scheepvaarthuis (1912–16; see Amsterdam School). Its theosophically inclined
designer, K.P.C.de Bazel (1869–1923), one of the first Dutch architects to employ
proportional systems, further interpreted his contemporaries’ goals in a personal manner
in his housing projects for the municipality and the philanthropic organization De
Arbeiderswoning.
Berlage was the author of the first modern extension, Amsterdam Zuid (South); in
1915, he exchanged his picturesque plan of 1905 for a more formal and practical layout
to accommodate large-scale housing. The formula behind his acclaimed design, executed
mainly between 1917 and 1927, was “in layout monumental, in detail picturesque”
(Berlage quoted in Fraenkel, 1976, 46), meaning individualized and intimately scaled;
discrete neighborhoods were composed of turbine plazas, winding streets, and perimeter
blocks, often enclosing communal gardens, with the typical Amsterdam arrangement of
floor-through dwellings ranged to either side of entries and stairs, creating a vertical
Encyclopedia of 20th-century architecture 84
punctuation in the long facades. These smaller urban units were woven into a larger
tapestry of avenues leading, in Berlage’s original vision, to major public structures. The
latter were replaced by four-story multiple dwellings, but since these were designed
mainly by the Amsterdam School, the grandeur, exuberance, and luxury associated with
institutional buildings invigorate the housing and the accompanying schools, shops,
communal bathhouses, branch libraries, bridges, electrical transformers, and so on that
form an integral part of Amsterdam Zuid. A stylistic and typological anomaly in Plaz
Zuid is the Wrightian Olympic Stadium (1926–28) by Jan Wils (1891–1972), who was
briefly a member of De Stijl.
Other important districts created in the period during and immediately after World
War I under the guidance of the dynamic director of housing Ary Keppler include the
Spaarndammerbuurt north of the railroad tracks, best known for Michel de Klerk’s
dwellings for the workers’ housing society, Eigen Haard (1915–20), but with interesting
ensembles for other such organizations established by union members with government
support, most notably Zwanenhof (1915–20) by H.J.M.Walenkamp (1871–1933). On
reclaimed land north of the IJ estuary (Amsterdam Noord), a series of garden suburbs
with more conventional two-story row housing offered an alternative to the denser matrix
of Amsterdam Zuid. A significant municipal experiment of 1921 was Betondorp in
Watergraafsmeer, annexed by Amsterdam in that same year, where a number of different
systems employing concrete for rapid and cheap construction were tested. Some 1,000
dwellings were added to the housing stock; some of the experiments provided useful
precedents, while others proved but temporary expedients. Architects included those of
Amsterdam School persuasion, such as Dirk Greiner (1891–1964) and Jan Gratama
(1877–1947), and budding functional-ists, such as the Haarlem-based J.B.van Loghem
(1881–1940).
Amsterdam’s belt of new extensions, with buildings firmly defining streets and
squares, was scornfully decried as the “stone city” by a younger generation touched by
the ideas of Le Corbusier, the Bauhaus, and CIAM (Congrès Internationaux
d’Architecture Moderne). In 1927 these polemicists founded De 8 and issued a manifesto
denouncing the putatively antiutilitarian and defiantly aesthetic schemes then dominant
and demanding the introduction of Zakelijkheid (Nieuwe Bouwen in the Nether-lands).
The most distinguished examples of this tendency in Amsterdam comprise the school and
cinema by Johannes Duiker; the glazed Apollohal (Apollolaan, 1933–35) by A.Boeken
(1891–1951), a founder of Groep 32; the steel-framed, unplastered brick atelier dwellings
with artists’ studios combining single- and double-height spaces (Zomerdijkstraat, 1934)
by P. Zanstra (1905-), K.L.Sijmons, and J.H.L.Giesen; and the strikingly transparent
“Drive-In Dwellings” with garages below (Anthonie van Dijkstraat, 1936–37) by Mart
Stam, Lotte StamBeese (1903-), W.van Tijen (1894–1974), and H.A.Maaskant (1907–
77). Buildings that also display modern materials and functionalist concepts but that,
while devoid of Amsterdam School decorative flourishes, have a distinctly local rather
than international character include the brick “Wolkenkrabber” (Amsterdam’s first
“Skyscraper”; Victorieplein, 1930), its glazed stair separating the two apartments on each
floor designed by an apostate from the Amsterdam School, J.F.Staal (1879–1940), and
the curvaceous white National Insurance Bank (Apollolaan, 1937–39) by Dirk
Roosenburg (1887–1962).
Entries A–F 85
De 8 had published proposals to replace perimeter blocks with Germanic open-row
housing and four-story tiers of dwellings with high, horizontally layered flats accessed by
galleries or corridors and served by a single stair or elevator. When Cornelis van Eesteren
designed the AUP (Algemene Uitbreidungsplan [General Extension Plan]) of 1934, he
likewise envisaged tall slabs standing free in parklike settings and, according to CIAM
prescriptions, segregated the city according to use: dwelling, working, recreation, and
transport. Although World War II prevented complete realization, his scheme guided
development until the late 1980s: Bos en Lommer (1937 and later, by De 8 members Ben
Merkelbach [1901–61] and Ch. Karsten [1904–79]) and Frankendael (1947–51, by
Merkelbach and Karsten and Merkelbach and P.Eilling [1897–1962] with Mart Stam) are
examples of such worthy but architecturally undistinguished solutions.
In the postwar period, only on occasion did modernists escape tired formulas. The
curtain wall appeared first in 1959 in the unusually elegant Geillustreerde Pers
(Illustrated Press) headquarters by Merkelbach and Stam. Reconstruction focused on
social housing, and the strict economic guidelines enforced by a government bureaucracy
led to monotony and mediocrity. The culmination of CIAM thinking was the enormous
southeastern housing estate Bijlmermeer (1962–73), designed by the Municipal Housing
Service. This dispiriting honeycomb of concrete high-rises was linked to the center by the
Metro, a remarkable feat of engineering of the 1970s that unfortunately did far more
damage to Amsterdam’s fabric than the Nazi occupation. The precepts that produced
Bijlmermeer were finally repudiated in the scheme by OMA (Office for Metropolitan
Architecture, led by Rem Koolhaas) for the Ijplein in Amsterdam Noord (1980–82). Like
Berlage’s Amsterdam Zuid, variety was naturally achieved by employing different firms
to execute the plan, which consists of tall blocks in the western sector and low-rise
buildings in the east, producing a successful mix of housing types conforming to OMA’s
neomodernist stance.
By the 1960s, editors of the journal Forum urged reform. Aldo van Eyck (1918–99)
criticized the sociologically driven soulless modernism that had blighted his country,
called for “labyrinthine clarity” (ordered and logical complexity), proposed theories that
drew inspiration from the African Dogon and the Casbah, emphasized the importance of
intimacy and the thresholds between public and private space, and envisaged the city as a
large house and the house as a small city, thus challenging Amsterdam’s inert and selfcontained
enclaves. After designing many ingenious playgrounds throughout the city, he
realized his ideals in the acclaimed but flawed Burgerweeshuis (City Orphanage, 1960,
no longer used as such), a miniature townscape of domed units of concrete and brick
scaled to its small inhabitants. A subsequent movement, Structuralism, was formed by
sympathizers such as Herman Hertzberger (1932-), whose Le Corbusian Studentenhuis
(Student Dormitory, 1959–66), which combines social and dining facilities with living
quarters and a common terrace (a street in the sky), exemplifies this approach; within the
compound, a matrix of large and small rooms offers points where social encounters, often
accidental, can enrich daily life.
Since the mid-1980s, there has been an explosion of exciting new architecture in
Amsterdam, comparable in magnitude and inventiveness to the period between 1915 and
1934. Postmodernism is alien to Amsterdam, although the neo-Expressionist,
ecologically prescient “sand castle” that houses the NMB (today ING) bank (1979–87) by
A. (Ton) Alberts (1927–1999) and M.van Huut might be categorized as such, in that
Encyclopedia of 20th-century architecture 86
Alberts has revived the anthroposophical organicism of the early 20th century. Instead, an
exuberant, triumphantly contemporary and quintessentially Dutch architecture has
reappeared. Housing projects are again a cause for celebration, no longer constrained by
politically correct but architecturally lifeless requirements. Redeveloped sites such as
Kattenburg and Wittenburg (post office and flats by A.W.van Herk and S.E.de Kleijn,
1984) and KNSM-, Java-, and Borneo-Eilanden (the harbor’s decline left the islands free
for other uses) display housing less indebted to modernist dogma and more to vernacular
and Amsterdam School sources, although Nieuwe Bouwen is not forgotten (towers and
slabs by Wiel Arets [1955-], J.Coenen [1949-], and Sjoerd Soeters [1947-], among others,
1988–96). Clusters of colorful and individualistic apartment blocks by firms such as
Atelier Pro (who inclusively invited six foreign firms to provide facades for their housing
development on the site of a former Army Barracks on the Alexanderkade, 1988–92) and
Mecanoo (housing estate Haagseweg, 1988–92) reinvigorate the city and reinforce the
identity of particular places. There has been a return to four- or five-story buildings
organized according to the traditional Amsterdam entry system (Nova Zemblastraat by
Girod and Groeneveld, 1977), each with its own distinctive details and massing,
vigorously plastic with dramatic projections in plan and elevation. Wood and aluminum,
as well as steel and stucco, often brightly painted, have joined brick, tile, and concrete as
popular materials. Equally significant is the reconfiguration of older buildings—
warehouses, arsenals, grain silos, customs houses, churches, and canal residences—for
new purposes, again mostly residential; effectively active here is J.van Stigt (1934-).
Amsterdam thus completed the century as it began: simultaneously socially responsible
and architecturally on the cutting edge.

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