A Mecca for Modernists

The Netherlands is studded with twentieth-century architectural marvels
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REM Koolhaas, who may well be architecture's reigning radical of the moment, is only the latest in a long line of Dutch innovators in modern architecture. Hendrik P. Berlage had been shaking up European design for a quarter century when he and Gerrit Rietveld helped to define the modernist principles in 1928, at the seminal Congrès Internationaux d'Architecture Moderne, in Switzerland. So when you visit the Netherlands, you can tour the land of Rembrandts and tulips and Dutch-gabled canal houses, as most people do, or you can see some of the most adventurous architecture of the twentieth century -- the original, the quirky, the inspired.

Of course, you can do both -- as I did. When, not long ago, I swapped my Manhattan apartment for a two-bedroom flat just outside Amsterdam's old, canal-ringed center for two weeks, I found no shortage of friends eager to visit. The first arrival was Jean, a teacher from Oakland, California. With her I saw the Amsterdam that figures in most people's imaginations -- cobblestoned bridges, medieval churches, and the seventeenth-century canal houses whose bourgeois comfort we know from Vermeer's light-infused interiors.
Jean was literally wheeling her suitcase to the door when my next guest rang the bell -- Brian Carey, an architect from New York and a card-carrying modernist. Brian was taking a break from his work on the Grounds for Sculpture museum complex, near Princeton, New Jersey, where he'd been designing both buildings and landscapes, making things that at times span the line between architecture and sculpture. (At the recent opening some people asked whether the whimsical undulating lawn he'd created was a new exhibit.) Funny and iconoclastic, he had brought along his own idiosyncratic list of twentieth-century must-see buildings.

I had done my homework too, ferreting out Architectura & Natura, a fabulous architecture bookstore at Leliegracht 44. Assisted by the knowledgeable staff (English-speaking, like nearly everyone else in Amsterdam), I picked up Paul Groenendijk and Piet Vollaard's Guide to Modern Architecture in the Netherlands. This contains photographs of more than 600 notable buildings, along with short descriptions of them and a street-map locator, city by city. Once you've got a book like this -- and a good general guide like the Michelin Green Guide for the Netherlands -- you can devise an architecture tour to suit you. Also helpful in planning a trip are recent architecture magazines, which have trumpeted a lot of new Dutch design.

THE nation's architectural genius seems to have expressed itself most fully in housing. The high population density that over the centuries has driven the Dutch to scavenge ever more land from the sea has also been the force behind their urban building. In this century, galvanized by slum conditions and periodic postwar housing shortages, the Dutch government has legislated, financed, and commissioned new urban design. The Housing Act of 1901 required the council of every city with a population greater than 10,000 to prepare an expansion plan, and the councils encouraged experimentation. So some of the most inventive Dutch architecture is to be found in public housing, rather than in private homes for the wealthy.

Hendrik Berlage was the father of modern architecture in the Netherlands and a force throughout Europe. A great urban planner (he created the expansion plans for Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Utrecht, and The Hague), Berlage was the country's original modernist, guiding architecture away from heavily decorated façades and toward the use of glass and steel to shape light and space. At the same time, he had expressionist qualities and was committed to returning fine handcraftsmanship to building. The Amsterdam School, one of the three modern movements he influenced, relates to Berlage's expressionist side; his pronounced rationalism influenced the De Stijl and Nieuwe Bouwen (functionalist) movements.

The Stock Exchange, or Beurs, which was completed in 1903, is considered to be his most influential design, so that's where we headed first. This masterpiece is smack in the middle of the crowded street theater of the Beursplein. (A plein is a large, open square that frequently -- and confusingly -- does not bear the name of the gracht [canal] or straat [street] that leads you there.) Meandering between medieval church towers and past the many cafés ranged seductively along the canals, we didn't reach the Beurs (which is now used only for public exhibitions and events) until after four o'clock, when it closed. We thought we'd have to be content with admiring the elegant geometric proportions of its exterior, but because preparations were under way for a party, we were able to sneak a look inside. The soaring central space is spanned by graceful steel trusses, arched and intricately detailed, and is topped by a glass roof composed of slender angled panes. Two facing walls contain double-decker rows of balconies with fascinating Near Eastern-style designs on rails and overhangs. It looks austere and yet full of latent drama.

Another day we set out to find the masterpiece of the Amsterdam School, known for its highly eccentric housing blocks, each conceived of as a massive sculpture. Eigen Haard (Our Hearth) is three blocks of apartment complexes designed by Michel de Klerk from 1913 to 1920, in the Spaarndammer area, a workaday immigrant neighborhood some ways out beyond the central canal rings.

A word about getting around. Amsterdam is a city for walkers and bikers. (Bikes are available for rent at most train stations or bike shops.) There are buses, trams, and a subway, but we preferred cycling, because we would often have had to take more than one line. Cars are difficult to maneuver in central Amsterdam, though they're quite useful in the outskirts and beyond.

We pedaled. I was huffing and puffing when we finally made it to the Spaarndammer area, and here our map was a little vague. Brian, with his architect's eye, spotted some telltale brick chimneys in the distance, but a park and an overpass blocked our way. He considered it useless to ask the locals about a recondite Amsterdam School building, but after our third pass through what by then was a frustratingly familiar intersection, I approached some folks drinking outside. We were searching for a very odd-looking historical building, I explained. "Oh," a young Pakistani man said, "the one that looks like a ship." He pointed to a nearby street. "It's there."

It was -- topped by the squat, rounded chimneys Brian had spied. Its outrageous style suggested Hansel and Gretel crossed with Peter and the Wolf. The jewel of Eigen Haard, Het Schip, takes up an entire, triangular block, and one end is shaped like a prow. A five-story apartment house in red, sand, and brown brick, it undulates and straightens along its length; extrusions bulge out like medieval castle towers. Its multiplicity of brickwork patterns and flourishes is mesmerizing: geometric designs adorn cornices and doorways; raised snakes trail down rounded brick stair rails. And the windows -- every way that a window can open, these do. There are curved horizontal panes, double-hung windows, lattices, casements, and small hinged panes that poke out at corners.

I wondered whether the residents now hanging laundry from the balconies appreciated the fantastical grandeur of their home; I liked to think so. Then I read of a tenant's letter sent to a newspaper when De Klerk died: "Is not the Spaarndammerplein," he wrote, "a fairy tale dreamt of as a child, as something we children never had?''

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