Tag Archives: architecture

In praise of Buitenveldert: prequel

Amsterdam always has been lucky with its city planning. The famous canals (the “grachtengordel”) were designed as part of a comprehensive plan that provided the city with new defence works and made the city four times as big as before. The canal belt was devised and built in two stages, the first part in 1611, the second in 1660. My father would marvel at the fact that the strict geometric scheme of the canals was continued across the river Amstel. Which is something to stop and think about. There are innumerable cities that owe their existence to a river, yet that river nearly always presents itself as an insuperable barrier. The Rive Gauche looks nothing like the Rive Droite. But for the Amsterdammers of 1660 there was no doubt that the canals should continue on the other side of the Amstel in perfect alignment with the earlier ones. And they built it exactly as planned.

Amsterdam Zuid, seen, high up, from the Amstel bridge

Three hunderd years later the Amsterdam city council agreed on another plan. After a period of decline and half-hearted attempts at planning the next ring around the city, the city had expanded piecemeal, and these expansions quickly became infamous for their shoddy building and congested housing quarters. The plan for a the new extension, on the south side of town, was designed by H. P. Berlage. Berlage was what you could call the “National Architect” of the Netherlands. He is the only architect to have earned his own public statue. When my grandfather learned that I was going to study architecture it was perfectly natural for him to wish that I would become “a Berlage” – the byword for a good architect. Berlage provided Amsterdam with an Ideal City. Grand boulevards – borrowed from the Paris of Hausmann – ended in vistas of great public buildings. In a radical gesture, a new station on the South side would give Amsterdam a new entrance on the other side of town, and the boulevards went stubbornly east to west, ending in a bridge over the Amstel and leaving the old city by the wayside. The tree-lined boulevards defined large irregular areas that were layed out in a more picturesque manner, with ensembles gathered around squares, enlivened with curved streets, gates, shopping streets – a kind of lay-out derived from the writings of Camillo Sitte, whose “Der Städtebau (…)” Berlage read and admired.

Academy of the Arts or Hilton Hotel?

Amsterdam Zuid was never built as Berlage had it in mind. The “plan Berlage” (as I new it when I was a kid) turned out to be a city of masks. Berlage didn’t care for masks – his architecture strove for rationality and transparency. The architects that actually built the housing blocks of the new plan had other priorities. They didn’t look for a rational connection of a facade with the living quarters that it protects. Instead, the facades became actors on the stage of the city and the story they told was of streets and squares, not of the humble little apartments they hid: like masks on the Greek stage.

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But what masks you’ll find in Amsterdam Zuid! They seem to be taken from a fantastic dream made up of images from colonial Indonesia, bits of Wiener Secession and Macintosh, medieval fantasy, and an astonishing handling of the humble brick. The streets are lined in symmetrical arrangements of rhythmically ordered windows, lanterns that indicate communal staircases, balconies. At the street corners it all erupts – there has to be a tower, or a stack of billowy curves, or an embroidery of enmeshed balconies or bay windows. It is so constently present in Amsterdam Zuid that this kind of architecture became known as the “Amsterdamse School”. Architects like Johan van der Mey, Michiel de Klerk, Piet Kramer (who did the building in the photo above), J. Staal, H. Th. Wijdeveld lined the streets with their fantasmagorical designs. Wandering through Zuid – which I loved to do as a kid – you’ll find in every street its own treasure of fun and ingenious details that shape entrances, porticos, window frames, house numbers, post boxes.

The great public buildings of Berlage never materialised. The academy of arts became the Hilton Hotel, whose only claim to fame came when, exactly 50 years ago, two artists decided to stay in bed for a few days.

John and Joko got it right: why not stay in bed?

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In Praise Of Buitenveldert

When I think of Buitenveldert, I think of continuity. We have lived here for more than three years now. I did my last entry on this blog a few months before we decided to move here. Does it mean anything if I say that the world has changed since then? Meanwhile, we are here, in Buitenveldert, and it feels incredibly good – things can, indeed, sometimes change for the better.

Moving to Buitenveldert, when you have lived in the picturesque old center of Amsterdam, was something that needed explaining. Buitenveldert is modern – in the progressive, revolutionary, sense of the word. It’s outside the ring road that encircles the older part of Amsterdam, and is therefore often seen as somewhere out of town, not really part of it. It Buitenveldert! “Buiten”: outside, “Veld”: field. Out in the fields. It’s true, in one way. We are only a short bike ride away from the actual fields, cows and all.

But otherwise, Buitenveldert is very much part of the jolly old metrop. Going from the center to here is an uninterrupted, rather pleasant, bike ride (which I do every work day; my work place is still in the old centre). The buildings change from the white and dark green of the canal houses, to the brick-lined avenues of 1920-ies Zuid, to the large glass windows and tree lined streets of Buitenveldert. The A.U.P – the development plan that is the origin of this area – was established in 1935, and it meant to expand the existing city, not to build a new series of satellite towns separate from it.

Another aspect of this plan, which surprisingly still defines the shape of this city, is that the extensions reach out from the center like the fingers of an open hand. The spaces in between are a catalogue of what defines Amsterdam: the river Amstel, the IJ (the body of water that was the origin of the wealth of the town), the Noordhollands canal and the fields in the North, the Amsterdamse Bos, a wood-like park. Which means that, out here, you’re never far away from the aforementioned pastures and those cows.

So what about this thing with continuity? It is there, in the way Buitenveldert is connected, and part of, the city. It is also in the way that people here seem to have no urge to move to elsewhere. In our apartment block (the photo above shows how it looked when it was just finished, in the mid-sixties) there are a surprising number of people who got a place in, say, 1974, and never moved. This is reflected in the permanence of the buildings and the public spaces – there are some new additions, but overall the buildings are the same as they were when Buitenveldert was finished. The wispy branches of the young trees have all grown into reverend canopies.

There’s another instance of continuity, more subliminal. It’s in the way the whole of Buitenveldert is a clever weave of interlocking patterns, made by the repetition and shifting of groupings of building blocks and court yards. Walking in our neighbourhood, as we often do, we are impressed by the way Buitenveldert is a whole, not a archipelago of isolated neighbourhoods.

I’d like to more fully explore the things that make me delight in living here: a good subject for a next blog post. Let’s hope it won’t take another 4 years to write it. Meanwhile, to end, another wonderful instance of continuity. I remember feeding the squirrels, when I was a child, in the Amsterdamse Bos (some ten minutes walking from here). Then they disappeared, for a long time. It was a disease, or maybe something else, I’m not sure. But in Buitenveldert they still are here.

Do buildings really know how to fly? architecture in photography #2

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The first pictures in the Bauhausbuch #12 are taken from an airplane. An unusual viewpoint for a photo of a building, sure enough. The subject of these photos was the Bauhaus, just finished. An abstract composition of planes, rotated at a 45 degree angle, turns out, at closer scrutiny, to be a white building sitting on the dark earth, a field without any precise definition but for two faint lines that could be roads.

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The book “gropius bauhaus bauten dessau” was designed by Moholy-Nagy. Laszlo Moholy-Nagy was an artist who, after WW I, had contacts with people like Kurt Schwitters and Hannah Höch, and who started working with the precepts of Constructivism and the Suprematism of Maliewitch. In 1923 Walter Gropius appointed him, at 28 years old, as a professor at the Bauhaus and he became the director of the influential preliminary course. His art from that time shows the floating planes and colors of constructivism.

“We renounce volume as pictoral and plastic form of space.
One cannot measure space in volumes as one cannot measure liquids in yards:
look at our space … what is it if not one continuous depth?”
(Realistic manifesto, Naum Gabo and Antoine Pevsner, 1920)

He also became a prolific photographer who transferred the new found constructivist sensibility to the photo paper.

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“Photography when used as a representational art is not a mere copy of nature”
“What used to be a distortion is nowadays an astounding experience! A summons for a re-evaluation of beauty. This picture can be turned around. There are new views from every point.”
(Painting, Photography, Film, Moholy-Nagy, 1925)

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These new viewpoints are celebrated in the pictures in the Bauhausbuch. The Bauhaus appears as a gleaming white object. Building parts like balconies and windowframes are not just functional elements but show up as abstract forms. The photo gives a new justification to a shape by the way it is balanced on the picture plane. The people in a photo of the facade of the living quarters show a death defying attitude towards gravity, perched on the balcony railings and the roof edge. Everything wants to be weightless.

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This stresses the character of the building as a non-hierarchical composition. A composition of weightless volumes in which top or bottom, up or down, are no longer relevant; only the balance of shape and color is. This building has no front or back. In fact, it is hard to find the entrance. Then there appears to be two of them, one on each side of the road that bisects the building. “Clearly defined division of the separate parts of the organism” it says in the caption under a drawing of the plan, but it is more complicated than that. To define these these parts Gropius uses various formal ruses. For instance, the “clearly defined part” of the administration department is structurally part of the construction of the two buildings that it connects. But a false raised roof edge defines it as a separate abstract bar that penetrates the volumes of these buildings. Also, this seemingly weightless bar has to be supported by a concrete beam and posts that are downplayed by their dark grey color – clearly an unavoidable necessitiy dictated by gravity that can’t take part in the play of white shapes. Similary, the volumes sit on a grey base, a humble facade of the servant space (it isn’t shown in the plans in the book) in the basement.

These humble parts get their moment in the book, though. There are many photos that show the building as a construction, a proud display of concrete slabs, columns, cantilevers and fill in brickwork. Further along in the book there are pictures of the mechanism used to open the steel windows, a device to share a telephone between two offices, the light fixtures.

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These photos exemplify the aspirations to a disinterested functionalism – “a functional form is a good form”. This was the decade in which the word “beautiful” was exchanged for the word “good”. There are some charming stills from a movie, made at the same time, properly presented with their guiding holes, that show how Gropius’s wife or a servant girl use various cleverly designed items: a built-in coat rack, a well-organised wardrobe, a set of drawers in the working desk. The sequence of movie images stresses the connection between the use and the form of the design.

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And yes, a typewriter is indispensable.

And yes, a typewriter is indispensable.

Gropius published the book in 1930. By then it was two years since he had left the Bauhaus and the villa that came with it. The photos still show the optimism that carried the Bauhaus. The text stresses the rational choices that underpin the design, but the photos aspire to something more than “good” design: a beautiful and, actually, happy future. Unfortunately, buildings never learned how to fly.

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A shout-out to: Charles Fourier

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Today it is the birthday of Charles Fourier (1772 – 1837), the creator of a philosophy of a communal utopia, and strong believer in the power of architecture. As an alternative to the traditional house, that perpetuated the oppressive traditional household with its inequality of men and women, he proposed the “Phalanstère”: a large communal appartment block in which the inhabitants would share the various resources in the building. Those included a theatre, a stock exchange, a winter garden and other extensive meeting places. The size of this great building would be determined by diversity: 810 different character types (the outcome of 12 common types of character) would be coupled, so that the building would ideally house 1620 people – that would be circa 400 appartments. The architectural model was the most splendid palace that he knew, Versailles (which, by the way, had 350 appartments, besides the royal quarters).

The Phalanstère was eventually built in a modified form in Guise, by Jean Baptiste Godin. Godin was the inventor of a cast iron stove. He went on to establish a succesful business making cookers and heating stoves (a common model is known as the “petit godin”).

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He embraced Fouriers ideas enthousiastically, and, in 1856, built a housing project for 900 of his workers, the Familistère. He fitted the buildings not only with a large communal court yard (as an indoor playground of the children when it would rain outside, a rather useful provision in Northern France), but with additional services he called “the equivalence of wealth”: a nursery, a primary school, a swimming pool, a laundry, a theatre, a shop that sold goods at a little over wholesale prices.
A boss providing virtually every amenity for his workers may sound paternalistic. But Godin started out as an apprentice himself, in his fathers foundry when he was eleven, and, as a journeyman, got his share of bad housing conditions. In 1880 he converted the Familistère in a cooperative society. The foundry was owned by the workers. The building and its concept was succesful enough to last until 1968, when the cooperative society was dissolved. In Laken, outside Brussels, he established a second one in 1880, smaller in scale, that housed 72 units.

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There is a short but very nice documentary about the Familistère on the tube:
Familiy lodging in Guise.
And when you’re in the neighborhood of Guise, you can go and visit: Familistère.com.

Contradiction juxtaposed #1 Look around you

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Do architects read? They certainly write. One of the first books I read in my first year studying architecture was “Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture” by Robert Venturi. Its first sentence states candidly: “I like complexity and contradiction in architecture. I do not like the incoherence or arbitrariness of incompetent architecture nor the precious intricacies of picturesqueness or expressionism. Instead, I speak of a complex and contradictionary architecture based in the richness and ambiguity of modern experience . . . I am for richness of meaning rather that clarity of meaning; for the implicit function as well as the explicit function.” Then page after page of erudite and well-written examples follow. It was a book that, I can safely say, has influenced how I look at architecture more than any other.

It also opened my eyes for a particular kind of architecture, the examples of which I happen on, every once in a while, in my city, Amsterdam. I’d say it flourished from about 1880 into the early years of the twentieth century. Venturi has a delightful example in his book, by Frank Furness, the Clearing House in Philadelphia. It is an example of what Venturi calls “Contradiction Juxtaposed”, which, he writes, “involves the shock treatment”. The Furness building is a fine example: “The half segmental arch, blocked by the submerged tower which, in turn, bisects the facade into a near duality, and the violent adjacencies of rectangles, squares, lunettes, and diagonals of contrasting sizes, compose a building seemingly held up by the buildings next door: it is an almost insane short story of a castle in a city street”. Contradiction juxtaposed indeed!

Having seen the picture of this building and reading these lines, I found that there were similar buildings to be found on the streets of Amsterdam. It is an extremely difficult sort of architecture to get right: to make a happy marriage of different architectural parts, such as bay windows, arches, lintels, and dormer windows, that are all put in intact, with their own symmetries, not in a well-balanced composition of abstract forms, like a De Stijl painting or a classic modernist building, but more like a suicidal balancing act with architectural good taste.

It’s important to note that any local symmetry, whenever it occurs, is allowed to exist. This gives the whole building a character of an assemblage of fragments. It’s a sign of the skill of the designers of these buidings that, with all these fragments, it doesn’t fall apart or becomes a parody. I don’t think there is anyone alive who could pull this off anymore.
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These buildings are typically brickwork. This gives them a very useful basso continuo with the quiet color of the brick and the typical detailing that the stacking of bricks demand, such as arches and row locks. Windows are of a traditional type, sash windows are everywhere in Amsterdam.

To start this series off, I offer a nice example on the corner of the Bloemgracht, a few paces from where our office is located.

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This wonderful building sits on a corner with an acute angle. The elements that make up the building are all rectangular in plan. The architecture tries to deal with the conflict that the meeting of these rectangular elements and this angle provokes. And there is no fear of any unfamiliar solution that is called for!

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This was, for the time, a new type of building: the appartement block. Before, there were rental units of course, but they were found in traditional town houses that were subdivided. On the outside one would see a single house. This building tries to cope with the larger scale an appartment building has – something that would stick out on a canal where most houses are 4 to 5 meters wide.
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Because of the acute angle of the corner plot the square turret needs an arch to support it on the corner. This arch is cleverly mirrored by a second one that overarches the entrance door on the corner – the corner that is cut away to give room to the entrance door and to the people on the street to turn the corner. The bricklayer surely made a masterpiece of it. The span of the arches is determined by the size of the entry door, and they in turn determine the width of the body of the corner turret. But the actual little turret that caps it off has its own demands, and must be narrower to be properly elegant.

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Two symmetries going around the corner: on the left side the windows set up one with the windows and the two arches, on the corner the little turret makes one, diagonally, with its two facades around the corner. A little brickwork corbel supporting the gutter emphasizes it.

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The facade on the Bloemgracht has a large bay window that is so big that it becomes its own facade, which is capped off properly with an Amsterdam gable. The width of this gable conforms to the width of the traditional Amsterdam grachtenhuis but to do this the whole structure, that rises from the corbels as a twice as wide facade, stops at the level of the little balcony, creating a complex ambiguous shape.

Picture imperfect: architecture in photography #1

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I can’t exactly remember when I realised that most of the buildings I thought I knew, I knew only from photos. That was a startling thought! After all, architecture is the creation of space, and yet my knowledge of the great models was from pictures. I culled them from magazines – the faculty of Bouwkunde in Delft had a great collection of the important architectural reviews going all the way back to the early 1900’s. And I poured over them in the monographs about famous or interesting architects (not necessarily the same thing). The photos were, as a rule, accompanied by plans and sections, so I could get an idea of how these photos related to the drawings, and where excactly they were taken. Two incongruous pictures could turn out to be of the same room, a striking detail was actually a minor instance on the back facade. Seductive pictures . . . I knew that by combining pictures and plans I could get a functional knowledge of how a building was laid out – the way the living room connected up with the dining room, how a “void” could connect two floors. How the sequence of rooms in a Loos house, strung around a staircase, would connect and relate to each other. Knowledge of an abstract nature, though. The physical aspect that is also part of how a building works, the sound of steps reflecting in a space, the sense of how wide the opening of a door is – none of that was communicated by the photos.

Part – and I think a vital part – of the education of an architect is building a library, or a memory bank, of spaces. Knowing beforehand what a design will look like once it is standing up in the real world under the glare of the sun requires a sense of how dimensions translate into space. There are, certainly, nowadays, tools that help with that, like 3-D imagining. But as a rule, architects take good notice of the space they find themselves in – it could be an addition to the library. That’s why it can be such a revelation to visit a project that you know on paper only. I still remember the wonder of being in the 1.88m wide, 2.23m high hotel room in the Cite Radieuse, the well-known housing project of Le Corbusier in Marseille. These dimensions, that seemed impossibly narrow and confining in the drawings, actually worked perfectly. Certainly the view out on the foothills of the Sainte-Baume mountain ridge helped, as did the thoughtful detailing of the wooden folding doors that had a collapsible wooden bench over the window sill, and an arm rest on the door that made it into an impromptu seat. It was exactly the sort of thing you don’t see on the photos, so that’s why you go and visit.

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Of course these holiday snaps, to illustrate my point, still don’t convey how it was being there

But is was photos that brought me there in the first place. Seductive pictures . . . They show a different building. Gathered in a magazine or a architectural photo book, they tell a story, they are an argument. And when you go out, you look for that story in the first place. Photos can have a strong influence; when visiting the building, the impression of these images is overlaid on what actually meets your eye – the photo dictates your eye. The photo shows shapes starkly outlined in the light of the sun – it’s overcast when you arrive there, but you imagine the sun. The brilliant white of the walls in the picture is really a cracked and sooty surface – but you imagine it to be smooth and wonderful. The magical, wonderful presence of the building as it was conceived and photographed, that’s the reality that is truly real. The building as it stands there is compromised by use, misuse, new inhabitants, people who don’t care, badly done renovations, unhappy additions.

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Earliest photograph. You really have to look closely.

The first photo ever was of buildings. Immobile subjects, well-suited to the long exposure time that was necessary. Buildings continued to be the subject matter of photography, through the work of Atget and Marville, to the use of photography in “The English House” by Hermann Muthesius. With this book a change is visible. From the documentary work of Atget (who worked preferably in the early hours of the day, so as not to have too many distracting humans in his streetscapes) photography had turned into a means of supporting an argument. By combining the expectation of transparency – the promise that a picture is a window on reality, the truth – with a careful choice of interiors and their decoration, Muthesius’s photos would make a warm apology for the merits of English domestic architecture as a model for the German middle class house.

In the next post about this subject the question will be: do buildings really know how to fly?

Carchitecture #2 The Urzeit

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The Nissan building (now owned by a different company) by ZZ&P architects

I was surprised, when I looked for information on the Nissan building next to the A4 just outside Amsterdam, to find it was finished as late as 1991. It was this building that struck me as the first building that truly made something out of its location right next to the highway. The rectangular slab of the building is positioned at a 90 degree angle to the road, making the entire facade a billboard that carries the company logo. A whimsical blob emanates from the edge, near the top – a board room probably – and gestures at the passing cars. The blob seemed to me a rather transparent quote from the vocabulary of OMA (the architecture firm that everybody now knows from the CCTV building in Beijing). This office made, much earlier, a true piece of Carchitecture.

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The building I’m thinking of is the 1980 project for the “Boompjes” in Rotterdam. Its complicated and contradictory shape (a slab made out of towers) is further rationalized by the view it presented from the road that went past the building. A beautiful piece of OMA bravura, it was a project for a site that didn’t exist, precariously ambushed by water and a curving bit of highway. Driving on this highway meant that just when you would arrive at the building you had to make a sharp turn and right after that another, to prevent crashing into it – a fantastic cinematographic experience that was preserved in the flight of the little renderings (perspective views of the approach) that hover in the left panel of the triptych made for the presentation of the project. So here, for the first time, there was an awareness of the quality that a roadside location could have, not only because it was so conveniently placed to the means of access, but also, and very much so, because the building itself could advertise, just as the car salesmen had found out before.
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The Boompjes building was a watershed because, for the first time in decennia, it celebrated infrastructure and the highway. By the end of the 70’s you could find the ruins of the big infrastructural dreams of the previous decades in almost every city in the Netherlands. Stretches of highway looking forlorn in the still standing fabric of the old city around it. In Amsterdam a 4-lane road stopped right before a venerable remainder of the Golden Age, the 17th century residence of the Pinto family. The frail old building proved to be stronger than the stream of asphalt. In Delft a highway speeded gingerly towards the medieval centre – that is, before the value of the old brick and mortar was judged to be greater than a smooth transition by car. And so the highway stopped right in front of a row of 19th century houses; dramatically, incomprehensibly. Something similar happened in The Hague. A wide lane, lifted on concrete pillars, abruptly had to go down on its knees and bow down before the neighbourhood it all but had destroyed.
Of course the buildings that would line these dreams of swift connection and frictionless transport didn’t sport the complicated forms of Carchitecture. They were reticent boxes, quiet (or should i say “boring”) containers for the offices and shops that would bring the old city back to life. Most of these buildings are now torn down.
This was the state of things by 1980: a ban on highways within the boundaries of the cities, preservation and reconstruction of the old city centres, a move of businesses to locations outside the city, and a new effort to provide the existing highways with enough capacity to connect the cities with these new locations.

The Boompjes project never made it past the beautiful presentation. The “impossible” location turned out to be a quite possible location for a rather bland building, that didn’t do anything with the highway but addresses a bend in the river at that point, supposedly. It took another ten years for the Nissan building to appear, the first built example of car driven architecture: Carchitecture.