EIGEN HAARD HOUSING ESTATE

Designed by Michel de Klerk, completed 1920 Amsterdam, the Netherlands
The Eigen Haard Housing Estate in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, consists of three
blocks of housing in the Spaarndammerbuurt, a residential district for workers that occupies approximately
54 acres in the northwest part of Amsterdam. Designed by Michel de Klerk (1884–1923)
between 1914 and 1920, this complex has been recognized as his finest achievement in
the field of housing, depicting his Expressionist style and ultimately becoming one of the
symbolic structures of the Amsterdam School.
Inspired by contemporary ideas that can be traced to the teachings of H.P.Berlage
(1856–1934), de Klerk was committed to the basic Berlage credo of “truth in
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architecture” as expressed through the unity of spatial organization and material use. In
opposition to the abstract Cubism of the De Stijl movement, Berlage emphasized
experimentation with the artistic potential of practical solutions and the role of rhythmic
architectural forms in the evocation of moods, thus preparing the way for the
Expressionism of the Amsterdam School.
After the passing of the Woningwet (Netherlands Housing Act of 1901), which encouraged the
sponsorship of low-cost housing, and the National Housing Council, founded in 1913,
which unified the large number of Dutch housing societies, the Amsterdam architectural
milieu between 1915 and 1930 involved extensive public housing. Although initially built
as low-rise, one- or two-family houses, Amsterdam saw a rising popularity in three- and
four-story apartment buildings that were built around communal courts. These tuindo rpen (garden
villages) were based on the English Garden City movement and the principles of Briton
Ebenezer Howard (1850–1928).
Because the post-World War I building commissions were almost solely public
housing and because of the presumption that good housing was a means of elevating the
working class to a higher social level, architects of the Amsterdam School instinctively
became involved with the public housing projects. The first block of the Spaarndammerbuu rt complex was
commissioned by contractors Hille and Kamphuys, not by the Eigen Haard (One’s Own
Health) housing association, which commissioned the second and third building units. A
misprint in the Amsterdam School publication Wendingen (Trends) in 1924 erroneously attributed
all three structures to Eigen Haard, and it has been thus reported ever since.
The four- and five-story first and second blocks, constructed in 1914 and 1915,
respectively, flank the spaarndammerplantsoen, the small communal park. The third building, designed in 1917,
with its intimate pleintje (small public square) and characteristic spire, forms a triangular block
perpendicular to the earlier two buildings and across Oos tzaans traat (East Zaan Street) and is similar in
concept to the first two but different enough to gain additional attention from his many
critics. The urban fabric is defined by the “urban block” consisting of the three-unit
cluster and their accompanying community square. The three blocks are articulated
differently, each with structural and decorative qualities that establish a specific character
that is enhanced by bold contrasts in shape, texture, and color. Examples of this
sculptural aesthetic can be seen through de Klerk’s eloquent use of brick and by the
apparent rigidity of the strong axial composition that is counterpoised by seemingly
arbitrary apertures, cylinders, cones, cantilevered balconies, textured planes, curved wall
masses, multi-paneled windows, and multi-angled roofs. The extraordinary range of
formal design variations elevated the buildings from simply housing construction to
works of art.
Detailing, technique, and massing distinguished de Klerk’s work from that of his
contemporaries. His creative and picturesque use of brick combinations, such as clinkers,
corrugated bricks, and regular bricks laid in a double-stretcher Flemish bond pattern, may
have reflected Berlage’s distaste for smooth-faced brick and stucco but not his belief of
honesty in materials. De Klerk did not feel that the simulated was deceptive but instead
believed that traditional effects of materials had a more enduring value and therefore
sometimes produced a hand-sculpted look with machine-made masonry units. Also, by
adroitly molding a diverse yet unified assemblage of housing units into these large-scale
blocks, de Klerk was able to further contrast with the lack of rhythm and the monotony of
the existing housing stock.
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Following Berlage’s philosophy of architectural truth in the definition and enrichment
of the exterior spaces, de Klerk applied geometric emphasis on major spatial divisions.
Parabolic, curvilinear, and hemicylindrical forms define entrances, stairs, and window
separations, respectively, and decorative hoists indicate attic storage areas.
De Klerk’s lack of pretension in his artistic treatment of all building types, regardless
of their intended function or end users, gained him due respect by some of his colleagues
but especially with the residents of the Eigen Haard housing units. This
nondiscriminatory approach to design allowed those in the working class to also
experience the sculptural qualities of subsistence by enriching their perceptual
experiences.
Others felt, however, that this method of design was indeed pretentious. The
curvilinear forms were deemed illogical, the ornamentation embellishments were
criticized as structurally dishonest, and the overall design was thought to have no
connection to traditional architecture. Critics complained that his projects were too
opulent and wasteful, whereas others defended that the dignified dwellings were the work
of an “extraordinary artist” and showed a high degree of sophistication and therefore had
cultural significance and value.
Eliciting feelings from euphoria to nausea, the Spaarndammerbuur t complex became such a subject of
criticism that one critic went so far as to accuse de Klerk of creating details that were
“not only doubtful, but contrived, bizarre and unsound.” It was also said that the “total
design leans toward the ridiculous or the overrefined, and then towards decadent” (see
Gratama, 1915). Perhaps because of the publication of these comments in the widely
circulated Bouwkundig Weekblad, the words “bizarre,” “individual,” and “decadent” became inextricably
linked to de Klerk and ultimately to the Amsterdam School as a whole.
De Klerk’s engagingly provocative design of the Eigen Haard Housing Estate
reflected his desire to solve each building problem independently with an unpredictable
artistic composition. Although once thought to have little in common with the major
monuments of the 20th century, this complex now stands as a monument itself for the
masterful artistry and audacious individualism of its architect who, because of an
untimely death, was not able to further develop these skills.

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