A Mecca for Modernists

The Netherlands is studded with twentieth-century architectural marvels

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?''

Tracking down buildings from the book gave us destinations most days, but even when we didn't plan, it seemed we inevitably ran across something striking -- such as Renzo Piano's Science Centre New Metropolis, which appears even more seaworthy than Het Schip as it rises from the harbor like a massive ocean liner among the puny yachts and houseboats.

By chance or design we rambled through nearly every one of Amsterdam's zones. I especially liked the old city, with its Dutch East India Company building; the tree-lined, newly gentrified Jordaan; and the dock areas, where waterfront apartment houses are springing up block after block amid trendy bars where you can nibble tapas and wash them down with a local brew. Pay no attention to what they say about Dutch food. You don't have to eat any. Amsterdam is full of good restaurants, from such sophisticated bistros as D'Theeboom, on Singel, and Le zinc ... et les dames, on Prinsengracht, to the slightly arty De Witte Uyl, a neighborhood place at Frans Hals Straat 26. We ate and drank well and pedaled home mellow from many late-night dinners, gliding along quiet canals shimmering with reflected streetlamps.

WHEN we'd seen most of Amsterdam, we rented a car for day trips outside; very few places in the Netherlands are more than a two-hour drive away. We crawled through traffic in The Hague, in order to make a quick run-through of the Mauritshuis Museum and drive by Rem Koolhaas's Danstheater. If you're a fan of Koolhaas's (perhaps you've read his thousand-plus-page tome S,M,L,XL), you can use the to locate his other major buildings in Amsterdam, Utrecht, and Rotterdam. You might also want to see Jo Coenen's Nederlands Architectuurinstituut, in Rotterdam, itself a four-building showplace of various architectural styles, with a café and a space where exhibitions from the archives are presented.

We were more attracted to the older, quirky housing experiments that still look radical. Though often more brilliant in conception than livable in practice, they were based on the utopian premise that if you give people imaginative, inspiring housing, it will make them better people. Rotterdam's Kubuswoning (Cube Houses) are a famous example.

Flattened by German bombs during the Second World War, Rotterdam is almost entirely a postwar city, rebuilt with government-financed housing for which, paradoxically, bureaucracy provided architectural license. The city center is a riot of colors and architectural styles -- brash, playfully perverse, even silly, as if each architect vied to outdo the others in the never-been-done.

We had no trouble finding the Cube Houses. Looking up at them from the sidewalk, I felt like a diminutive Gulliver in the Giant's nursery, where colorful blocks and toys were set precariously atop one another in a fantastical jumble. Up above us was a row of bright-yellow white-trimmed cubes, each balanced on one of its points atop a concrete column. Rising behind them was Het Potlood (The Pencil), a sharp-pointed apartment tower festooned with "white picket" railings.

Both are the bizarre creations of Piet Blom, who completed them in 1984. The public is invited to tour Kubuswoning No. 70. When it opened its door, at 11:00 A.M., we went in. I felt as if I were going to slide down into the point, but of course the floors are level. The walls and triangular windows do lean in, and every room bristles with oblique angles. Brian laughed at the winding narrow staircase to the two upper levels (barely navigable by a grown-up, he claimed), but, being smaller, I found the cube an altogether livable playhouse.

Afterward we walked through a lively open-air market where we bought miniature pineapples, and then gaped as we came upon what looks like a monstrous flying saucer suspended over the street. This transparent dish, more than a hundred feet in diameter, composed of colored neon tubes, was easy to find in our book -- the Blaak subway and rail station, designed by H. Reijnders.

Before taking off from Rotterdam's otherworldly landscape, we stopped to see two famous sculptures, the early modernist Construction, by Naum Gabo, outside Marcel Breuer and Abraham Elzas's De Bijenkorf department store, and a mobile by George Rickey, radiating charm over a mundane shopping mall. The Rickey, two long plates of shiny metal pivoting gently up and down in the breeze like parallel seesaws, is called Het Ding. This means simply "The Thing," but we liked the sound of it. Afterward, whenever we saw something fabulous, we'd exclaim, "Het Ding!"

The next day we drove to Utrecht, about forty minutes southeast of Amsterdam, and pulled up at the Rietveld Schröderhuis to find a line of enthusiasts come to worship at the shrine. Gerrit Rietveld, known equally for his chairs and his buildings, was a member of the De Stijl movement, in which Piet Mondrian played a central role. When you enter this white box of a house, with its red, yellow, and blue horizontal and vertical bands, you feel as if you've stepped into a three-dimensional Mondrian painting.

Countless art books will tell you what a marvel the Schröderhuis is. What they won't tell you is how tiny it is and how trying it must have been to live in. Completed in 1924, it was commissioned by Mrs. Truus Schröder-Schräder, a wealthy widow with three young children, who shared Rietveld's ideals of simplicity and universal beauty.

The main floor, upstairs, is one not terribly large open space, in which the living room and the bedrooms are defined by red and blue rectangles on the floor. Pristine and clutter-free, the room conceals many surprises: a skylight surrounded by a folding staircase to the roof; a hi-fi system within a series of colored boxes. Partitions slide out to create walls -- every day the children had to make not just their beds but their bedrooms. If they were allowed toys, where they were to put them is unclear. Probably it wasn't like living in a Skinner box, but the comparison does come to mind.

On the tour (be sure to reserve ahead, and request a tour in English) you will learn that Mrs. Schröder's children now understand why their mother wanted to live there. (It turns out that they've all gone into architecture or design-related fields.) And you may wonder just what the deal was with the widow and the architect, since he used a downstairs room as his shop for nearly a decade. Hmmm.

The other reservation you should make for Utrecht -- far in advance -- is for dinner at Sot-l'y-Laisse, in the charming old quarter, with its shady, brick-terraced canals. Recently Dutch critics declared this low-key bistro the best restaurant in the Netherlands, and it is often booked solid months in advance. (The phone number is 011-31-30-232-1573.) Chef Edwin Severijn, formerly a pastry chef at the Waldorf-Astoria, in New York, and his wife, Marleen, who serves, feed no more than sixteen people each evening -- and you may stay all evening if you wish. There is no menu; the only choice you're offered is how many courses you want, though you are asked if there's anything you don't like; and no two tables get the same meal. We were served vichyssoise with lobster and purslane; rabbit with glacéed rabbit kidneys, black summer truffle, and truffle sauce; and wild Dutch duck with broad beans, chanterelles, and duck liver. This was plenty for us, especially since we were also having dessert. Edwin laid before us no fewer than seven desserts, including crème brûlée, a maple-syrup parfait, and wild strawberries with sherbet. All this cost less than many more-modest meals at good New York restaurants.

Our next stop after Utrecht, about thirty miles farther east, was the Kröller-Müller Museum and De Hoge Veluwe National Park. Brian had come determined to see the Kröller-Müller's sculpture park, one of the largest in Europe. Set in a nature preserve of moors and grasslands that confounds anyone's image of the Dutch landscape, the park also includes the Berlage gem St. Hubertus, which is a 1920 Art Deco hunting lodge built for the wealthy businessman Anton Kröller and his wife Hélène Müller Kröller; and a transparent indoor-outdoor pavilion that is a later work by Rietveld.

Not everyone comes here for the sculpture or the architecture. The museum proper boasts more than 270 works by Van Gogh, including ninety-two paintings; many pieces by Mondrian and other De Stijl painters; and a dazzling collection of paintings by Impressionists, Cubists, and later artists. There is sculpture both indoors and out, including interesting pieces by contemporary Dutch artists. Outside, on the white bikes provided at no extra charge, we rode for miles to see the sculpture that dots the landscape -- Henry Moore's totemic forms looming atop a windswept hill with cypresses; Richard Serra's monumental steel plates, set at angles in a forest clearing.

Back in Amsterdam for our last couple of days, we finally tracked down a dock we'd heard about where little motorboats are for rent (it's on the Kloveniersburgwal, opposite the Hotel de Doelen). Put-putting along at our boat's top speed, a crawl, we took in the grand canal sides from a new angle. When we passed a striking housing block with pseudo-Egyptian markings on the Amstel Canal, we were sure we recognized the Amsterdam School, but we were finished looking things up in our book. We just smiled. "Het Ding!"

Francine Russo writes frequently on human behavior and social issues. Her work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine and other national publications.

The Atlantic Monthly; February 1999; A Mecca for Modernists; Volume 283, No. 2; pages 26-38.