Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Amsterdam School - pt 1

Goedmorgen in de Spaarndammerbuurt
One of the things I enjoy about the little cycling tours from the VVV is that they show me things about Amsterdam that may have escaped my notice. Just north of Westerpark, for example, stands the Spaarndammerbuurt, a hotbed of Amsterdamse school architecture.

The "purple unit," off Spaarndammerplantsoen
The first stop is the Spaarndammerplantsoen, a grassy square surrounded by some gems of the style, the "purple block" and "yellow block" (neither of which is its supposed color). These feature the same quirky, fanciful designs in brick that I've seen in my own neighborhood, De Pijp. One element is that the stairwells are emphasized rather than concealed.

I took a bench in the park next to another bench where three boys were toking up and audibly hacking. Just off the square stands another A'dam School structure, Het Schip, dating from 1921. It now houses a museum and I regretted that I hadn't taken my Museumkaart (an annual pass to almost every museum in the Netherlands), just purchased two weeks earlier. I went in anyway and told the woman at the reception my story. She gave me a ticket anyway!

Het Schip
Het Schip is considered one of the leading works of the Amsterdam School, which had its heyday in the 1920s. The movement, initiated by the architectural firm of Eduard Cuypers, took as its starting point that the masses were not to be ignored: they too were capable of aesthetic appreciation. Aesthetic beauty could and should be incorporated into public housing, bathhouses, post offices--hell, even public urinals, many installed in that era to deal with public hygiene and thankfully still in use. It was a break from the revered Dutch architect Berlage whose sleek functional designs (such as the Stock Exchange on Damrak) seemed rather sterile. These champions of the working class wanted something both jazzier and more down-to-earth. Their leading figure, the unlikely Michel de Klerk, was the designer of Het Schip, originally intended as "social housing," and numerous other Amsterdam buildings, including the aforementioned yellow and purple apartment blocks. A Jew from Mokum, he was pulled from obscurity at age 14 by Cuypers, who noticed the youth's uncanny draftsmanship, and cultivated to become the movement's standard bearer. His feverish imagination is amply represented in Het Schip with its ship shape, trippily undulating facade and fanciful dunce cap of a tower at rear. As a Jew in 1930s Europe, De Klerk's fate was sealed and he perished of pneumonia at the tender age of 39 while his wife and youngest son were shipped off to Auschwitz.

Stern of Het Schip
It was to the tower that I was directed by the young woman at reception (housed in what used to be the post office). Some kind of tour of the building was in progress and she recommended I catch up with it. I found it at Hembrugstraat 283, an ordinary apartment that features elements of the Amsterdam School in its interior design and decor. The upper floor offers access to the 'socialist church tower,' a monument to atheism I guess, though there's no view from there. A young guy breezily led the tour in Dutch (as most of the visitors were natives). Then he led us all outside for a side view of the building. Opposite was a museum annex/cafe which we then entered. The rear garden held a display of street fixtures, all stylized by Amsterdam School designers, including a post box, streetlamp, trashcan and the aforementioned public urinal, looking just like the one I know at the northwest corner of Sarphatipark in my neighborhood. According to a handout, these pissoirs were designed with an opening at the bottom so inspectors could see the number of occupants. Apparently these structures harbored some nefarious activity though the literature failed to elaborate.

Spaarndammerbuurt tour

I had coffee in the cafe, a gezellig setting, then continued on my way. Proceeding up Zaanstraat, which skirts the rail yard and forms the southern boundary of the neighborhood, I came to a grand archway. This was a passage to the Zaanhof, a former social housing project consisting of medieval-style towers over arched brick gateways with inlaid tile motifs. Rows of buildings enclose a remarkably tranquil green, "based on the English garden city concept, which entails that workers are entitled to a house of their own that offers restfulness." I had no idea that such a marvelous place existed alongside Westerpark!

Old public bath house on Zaanstraat, now a hammam for women
At the upper end of the green I turned east and came to a large square where Moroccans were playing soccer. I thought how nice it would be to live in such a calm yet central neighborhood. At Houtrijkstraat were some less flamboyant examples of A'dam School housing, for example one at the corner of Hembrugstraat that features "repetitive wave-like motion." From there I continued back down Zaanstraat where I found the old public bathhouse (1916), now a hammam. As a sauna aficionado, I wanted to inquire though a chiseled inscription over the doorway indicated that it was the women's entrance. I rang the bell and went in. There was no one at the reception booth. In a bit, a heavy-set Moroccan woman in a soaking-wet leotard appeared. She informed me that the bathhouse was for women only except on Mondays which is men's day, and she handed me a brochure. Entry fee: €17. Saturday is vrijgezellendag whatever that is.

See ya!
For the conclusion of the Spaarndammer part of the tour I returned to the railroad tunnel whose entrance, my guidebook pointed out, was flanked by four "pompous" sculptures of working-class heroes, such as dock workers and miners, dating form 1924. The interesting feature is that they're trampling some snakes, which are supposed to represent capital, or maybe capitalists. With the great population influx of the early 20th century, Amsterdam had become a socialist haven. As the city continues to swell a century later, the atmosphere is quite distinct: a global, well-heeled set crowds the center and former working-class neighborhoods like the Jordaan, while indigent Islamic types dwell in the drab surroundings. 

Domela Nieuwenhuis, fiery orator
The socialist theme is reinforced by the statue, on the other side of the tunnel, of bearded firebrand Domela Nieuwenhuis on a patch of green opposite Westerpark that I'd never noticed before. Below the crusader is a relief sculpture of a chained Prometheus who, like Nieuwenhuis, "stole fire from the heavens to give to the people and was therefore punished by Zeus and chained to a rock." Nieuwenhuis was thrown in a prison cell for daring to insult the Dutch aristocracy during one of his rallies. Socialism is alright but that's just going too far.  


  1. Post yr comments here, o faithful readers!

  2. Eagerly looking forward for your Kampen blog!

    1. Cor, Kampen route is up finally--no doubt it is riddled with misinformation, so feel free to comment. D

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