Michel de Klerk

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Architect, the Netherlands
Michel de Klerk, in collaboration with his colleagues and in his own brief, but prolific,
practice, was the creative inspiration for the Amsterdam School, a name first given to a
group of young architects advocating an Expressive modernism in the years around 1915.
Unlike other early Modern movements, the Amsterdam School was not an organized
movement. It had no manifesto, journal, or official spokesperson. Although de Klerk
wrote almost nothing, he was widely recognized as the leader of the movement through
the aesthetic and visionary examples of his competition entries, built projects, graphic
design, and furniture design.
During a brief period, corresponding to the years of his independent practice from
1911 until his death in 1923, the Amsterdam School radically changed the city’s urban
landscape. These architects, including de Klerk, J.M.van der May, Piet Kramer, and
others, contributed an architecture that expressed the personal aesthetic visions of the
architects, advanced the conditions of modernity, and contributed to an extension of
Amsterdam’s urban, architectural, and construction traditions.
Working-class housing in Amsterdam became de Klerk’s most well known and
projects. Especially important are his three housing blocks (1913–15, 1915–16, and
1917–20) in the Spaarndammerburt, a west Amsterdam working-class district, built for
the Eigen Haard (Our Hearth) housing association. The third block, Het Sh ip (The Ship), is the
most widely recognized and has become the iconic project of the Amsterdam School. The
working-class housing for the De Daggerad (The Dawn) Association in Amsterdam
South (1919–22) in collaboration with Piet Kramer is also widely recognized.
Born in Amsterdam’s Jewish district to a family of 21 children, de Klerk grew up in
poverty after his father died in 1886. Apparently more interested in drawing than in
school, his work was accidentally discovered by the architect Eduard Cuypers, nephew of
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Petrus J.H.Cuypers (1827–1921), the famous neo-Gothic architect of Amsterdam’s two
monumental 19th-century buildings, the Rijksmuseum (1876–85) and Amsterdam
Central Railway Station (1882–89). At age 14, de Klerk entered Cuypers’s office as an
apprentice in 1898 and remained until 1910 with interruptions for travel to England,
Germany, and Scandinavia after 1906. While in Cuypers’s employment, he also attended
evening school in the Architecture Department of the Industrial School of the Society for
the Working Class. Although there is little evidence recording de Klerk’s influence in
Cuypers’s office, he gained increasing responsibility, supervising the building of major
projects and preparing designs for publication in Cuypers’s journal, Het Huis—Oud en Nieuw (The House—Old
and New). He began his independent practice in 1911, soon after his marriage to Lea
Jessurun, an administrative assistant in Cuypers’s office. Several of de Klerk’s initial
projects—the second prize entry to the Water Tower Competition (1912), his
collaborative work with the Kramer and the architect Van der May on the
Scheepvaarthuis (1912–16) and the first housing block in Spaarndammerburt (1913–
14)—became lasting inspirations for the later work of the architects of the Amsterdam
De Klerk’s architectural projects occurred in two very different settings: urban and
suburban. His suburban work, influenced by a variety of vernacular and folk sources—
Dutch farmhouses, Scandinavian wood buildings, and German half-timber houses—were
joined with his inventive combination of building plan, facade and detail into designs for
picturesque cottages and villas. Few, however, were built. Exceptions are the Bileken
House (1914) in Hilversum and the Barendsen House (1923) in Aalsmeer. These are far
less fantastical, however, than the villas designed by other architects associated with the
Amsterdam School. Just as his suburban work revealed inventive combinations of
sources, his urban projects, especially his working-class housing, flowed from equally
diverse sources but were formed within the context both of Amsterdam’s urban traditions
and of the emergence of the modern city.
The clients for de Klerk’s most important urban housing were the housing
associations Eigen Haard and De Daggerad. Formed after the adoption of
the Dutch Housing Act of 1901 and Amsterdam’s adoption of the first
municipal building code in 1905, these associations not only sponsored the
construction of working-class housing but also encouraged participation
by architects to contribute to the aesthetic qualities of Amsterdam and the
living conditions of the working class. With his projects in the
Spaarndammerburt and in Amsterdam South, de Klerk provided a
counterpoint to the emerging dogma of modern housing and modern
urbanism, which culminated in the Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture
Moderne’s Athens Charter of 1932, advocating the functional city. Like
his suburban cottages and villas, his stylistic sources for urban housing were farreaching, including the
English Arts and Crafts, exotic motifs from the then Dutch Indonesian colonies, and other
folk traditions. However, these are extracted from their rural sources and compressed into
the traditional urban block structure of Amsterdam’s expansion plans. In contrast to
emerging conventions of modern housing and modern urbanism, he submerged repetitive
individual housing units into larger compositions of formal parts derived from his
personal interpretations of local context. Finally, he applied Amsterdam’s bricklaying
traditions to the elaborate detailing of the street wall. Rooflines, roof drains, doorways,
windows, mailboxes, and stairwells became sculptural celebrations of everyday urban life
of the street and formed the visual symbols of collective residences of the working class.
None of de Klerk’s housing projects referred even indirectly to Amsterdam’s mannerist
architectural traditions. Instead, he, along with his colleagues in the Amsterdam School,
expanded the 17th-century rings of canals and elegant merchants’ houses by building
equivalent modern symbols of working-class urban identity.
The expressionist and anticlassical stance of de Klerk’s projects explains his
disappearance from modern architectural history. Modernism found its lineage from Karl
Friedrich Shinkel’s Berlin, composed of the classical layered orders of column and beam,
to Hendrik P.Berlage’s masonry arcade and rationalistic pure skeleton building,
expressed potently in the Amsterdam Stock Exchange. De Klerk’s alternative Modern
expressionism, like Bruno Taut in Berlin, became only a footnote in the treatises of
modernism. Only since the 1980’s have de Klerk’s projects been reexamined to find the
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evidence of not only a parallel stream of anticlassical Modern architecture but also a vital
modern urbanism that favored local conditions, context, and expressive urban form.

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