Alternative Amsterdam Architecture

Beyond 17th century canal houses.

Written by Craig Berry
Former Junior Designer at VBAT

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Alternative Amsterdam Architecture Illustrations by Craig Berry

In most travel guides, blogs or videos Amsterdam will be probably be described as something along the lines of “the beautiful 17th century city with world famous canals lined with skinny, leaning houses”. As much as this image of Amsterdam is beautiful and it is the traditional image of the city, there is also an abundance of modern and new architecture* in and around the city. Whilst cycling around the city since living here I have discovered and witnessed a number of interesting buildings which show the progressive nature of the city and through thisrite-up I want to shine a light on some of these unique buildings as well as the architects and designers behind them.**

In Amsterdam and the Netherlands in general (more specifically Rotterdam), there are a number of internationally renowned architecture firms who channel the idea of Dutch architecture through their ideas, sketches, proposals and implemented designs.

OMA is a Rotterdam based architecture practice founded in 1975 by Rem Koolhaas, Elia Zenghelis and several others. The name OMA stands for Office for Metropolitan Architecture. OMA are arguably seen as the biggest and best architecture practice in The Netherlands and partly due to having the architect ‘superstar’ Rem Koolhaas (2000 Pritzker Architecture Prize winner) at the helm. They are known for their impressive and gravity-defying buildings; built for urban environment such as De Rotterdam, the CCTV/CMG HQ and the Casa de Musica.

“We are an international practice operating within the traditional boundaries of architecture and urbanism. AMO, a research and design studio, applies architectural thinking to domains beyond.”

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MVRDV is a Rotterdam based architecture and urban design practice founded in 1993. The name MVRDV is an acronym for the three founding members, Winy Maas, Jacob van Rijs and Nathalie de Vries. Maas and van Rijs previously worked at OMA. As well as designing several buildings in Amsterdam and The Netherlands, MVRDV are becoming known for their work in Asia such as the the Tianjin Binhai Library.

“We have a global scope, providing solutions to contemporary architectural and urban issues in all regions of the world. Our highly collaborative, research-based design method involves clients, stakeholders, and experts from a wide range of fields from early on in the creative process. The results are exemplary, outspoken projects that enable our cities and landscapes to develop towards a better future.”

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Benthem Crouwel Architects is an Amsterdam based architecture practice founded in 1979 by Jan Benthem and Mels Crouwel (son of Dutch graphic designer Wim Crouwel). They are known recently for their work on several major train stations around the Netherlands including Amsterdam , Utrecht, Den Haag and Rotterdam Centraal Stations and the recently opened Noord–Zuid/North-South line in Amsterdam.

“For more than three decades we have been creating innovative, flexible and efficient designs that must meet high standards and complex user requirements. Our field of work extends from (public) buildings to infrastructural projects and urban master plans. Whether we are renovating or modernising a building or designing a completely new structure, we always seek clear, unique and efficient solutions.

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Other established architecture firms in the Netherlands include XML, Marc Koehler Architects, NL Architects, UNStudio, Studioninedots, Space & Matter, Fabrications, Mei Architects, Shift Architecture Urbanism, ZUS, Studio Nauta, MLA+, Kaan Architects, Powerhouse Company, Concrete and Barcode Architects.

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Eye Film Institute

The Eye, as it is colloquially known, is one of the boldest and least-conventional building designs in Amsterdam and since it sits on the River IJ, directly opposite Centraal Station it is literally impossible to miss.

Designed by the Viennese firm Delugan Meissl Associated Architects and opened in 2012 the building is a combination of multiple exhibition spaces, cinema rooms, a restaurant, archival space and other amenities focusing around the medium of film and film studies. Delugan Meissl are known for their architecture style as way to portray motion. This building was inspired somewhat by the work of Zaha Hadid and is designed not to achieve a specific form but more of a feeling. Described as “being suspended between the real world and the world of cinema”, the use of glass throughout the building means “you can spend time after a screening where you don’t have to confront the harsh realities of life”.

It is this huge glass enclosed main floor that is the highlight of the building. Light streams through the windows and reflects in all directions off the smooth angled interior, paired with the vast open space, white walls and high ceilings creates a unique environment which changes throughout the day. The building is home to the Eye Film Institute who put on regular exhibitions of international film makers and directors as well as a number of cinemas.

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Delugan Meissl Associated Architects — Eye Film Insitute (2012)

WoZoCo

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WoZoCo

In the west of the city— in Osdorp—is the WoZoCo housing complex designed by MVRDV and completed in 1997. The idea for the complex’s strange and unusual design with protruding blocks comes from a conundrum of having to create 100 units within the footprint of the building but only initially having space for 87, hence the other 13 units have been suspended like so. These cantilevered blocks also feature further extended balconies on each side; adding to this tetris like building. The balconies are made of coloured glass which creates an overall positive look to what could be a dreary facade.

This solution is one of many that is being explored to solve a housing shortage across Amsterdam and throughout the Netherlands. However, as interesting as this design looks it did cost a lot to implement meaning general costs had to be cut across the rest of the building.

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MVRDV — WoZoCo (1997)
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Silodam

In Amsterdam’s west harbour is the easily distinguishable Silodam housing complex designed by MVRDV and completed in 2002. The 10-storey building is a transformation of an industrial area with the capacity for 165 dwellings, workspaces, commercial units and communal spaces. The striking design is MVRDV’s interpretation of the clients wish to “make a building for a lot of different housing types and different financing models” which was managed through multiple different designs, facades, materials, sizes, shapes and everything with the space inside to create a series of neighbourhoods inside the building.

The result is described as a “cross-section of Amsterdam” featuring small council flats, apartments with patios, residences with gardens and luxury apartments where you can find families, older people, young couples, wealthy business types and people with different interests, attitudes, hobbies and lifestyles. At the Silodam they’re all united in the one building. The exterior of the building is coloured in such a way to highlight and distinguish the individual neighbourhoods whilst also being inspired by stacks of coloured shipping containers which relates to the harbour area the building is located.

The design of the Silodam has been cited as having modernist principles due to its blocky/rectangular shape but the range of styles, materials and facades has been linked with the idea of “pixelism”. A response to the often bland, repetitive and un-interrupted nature of modernist buildings, pixelism allows the personality of the building to be shown. Through the seemingly random yet curated shapes and colour information, identity and individuality is revealed.

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MVRDV — Silodam (2002)
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IJburg

IJburg is not necessarily one building but a series of over 75 floating and waterside houses in the IJmeer lake. This residential neighbourhood in the east of Amsterdam is a modern example of how the Dutch have dealt with the sea and water by reclaiming land. Designed by Marlies Rohmer, IJburg is made from 3 islands; Steigereiland, Haveneiland and Rieteilanden which are all interconnected via a series of bridges and jetties.

The city built this neighbourhood in 1996 with the idea to build and develop on the success of the Oostelijk Haven area where all aspects were planned out. IJburg was to include amongst homes, schools, shops, restaurants, sports areas, a beach and other residential amenities. In 2002 the first people moved in and by now the neighbourhood provides the full spectrum of housing from the expensive and luxury waterside apartments and homes to more affordable and accessible social housing projects. The houses and apartments themselves are an unusual design combination of boat and house in a generally cube-ish shape; when together they have a modular and modern appeal.

The area even had its own beach until last summer: Blijburg which was popular with locals and party-goers throughout the summer period.

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Architectenbureau Marlies Rohmer — IJburg (2001–2011)
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De Piramides

Completed in 2007 and designed by the now defunct architecture firm, Soeters van Eldonk, De Piramides is a 50 metre tall housing complex with over 80 apartments across the two interlocking triangular buildings which are immediately recognisable from across the city.

Located in the west of the city, the residential building’s shape evokes that of the obvious shape of a pyramid but it is also reminiscent of the stepped gables of 17th century Amsterdam canal houses. Also by using bricks as the medium of construction; it suits its surroundings of the area and has a feeling for the Amsterdamse School style. Also interestingly, the building(s) act as a noise buffer to the bustling Jan van Galenstraat.

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Soeters van Eldonk Architecten – De Piramides (2007)
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REM Eiland

The REM Eiland an industrial-looking restaurant in the West of the city in the Houthaven area; however it has an interesting history as to how it got there. Originally constructed in 1964 the building was 9km off the Dutch coastline, outside of the Dutch territorial waters in order to broadcast pirate radio and TV programs as Radio & TV Noordzee. The name itself, REM, stands for Reclame Exploitatie Maatschappij (advertising exploitation company) with the ‘island’ constructed completely from steel; it has since been seen as a prototype for building oil platforms at sea.

Following new laws at the end of 1964, the REM-Eiland’s location became Dutch territory and the station was raided and broadcasting stopped. Since then it was used for a number of other broadcasting reasons until in 2006 it was brought ashore and dismantled. Later, in 2011, it was re-built and re-interpreted by the architecture firm, Concrete, into a modern industrial restaurant; new floors were added to create more space as well as new steel window frames instead of the original white; the red colour of the facade is original from 1964. It sits 22m above the water on a former helicopter platform.

This is an interesting approach to architecture as a way to re-purpose an old building which would otherwise have become waste. The history of the building gives this new re-incarnation a certain character which many buildings lack.

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Concrete – REM Eiland (2011 restored/repositioned)
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Crystal Houses

The P.C. (Pieter Cornelisz) Hooftstraat in Amsterdam is home to many high-end fashion brand stores such as Louis Vuitton, Prada, Gucci, Burberry and Hermès. Most of these stores are beautifully designed throughout with nice window displays however they are usually one floor; with the rest of the building left as ‘normal Amsterdam style’. The (current) Chanel store doesn’t follow this trend though as the whole building has been re-designed and re-built using a combination of traditional bricks and crystal or glass-like bricks; a design by MVRDV and completed in 2016.

The result is a stunning flagship store which both honours and respects the Amsterdam brick building style whilst exploring a contemporary version of this. The translucent glass brick walls and window frames blend seamlessly into transparent glass windows; towards the top of the building the glass bricks begin to dissolve into the real bricks (as stipulated by the city’s aesthetic rules). A truly unique store that stands out on a street where standing out is key, it works well both functionally and aesthetically.

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MVRDV — Crystal Houses (2016)
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Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ

The Muziekgebouw, or the Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ (music building on the IJ) to give it its full name, is primarily a music venue/hub in the city centre of Amsterdam. It is actually the name given to the two musical institutions which are here: the Ijsbreker and the BIMhuis; two concert venues for music.

Designed by Danish architects, 3XN in 2005 the building is an imposing shape on the city side of the river IJ. The building is a combination of a beautiful and elegant glass facade which allows light to pour in during the summer as well as a more rough interior with concrete walls and untreated wood to create a warm foyer area.

The venue is seen as a very successful piece of city planning, something which is not so frequent in cities like Amstedam as many Amsterdam people enjoy the Muziekgebouw as a music centre and place to spend time; it has held a number of cultural festivals such as What Design Can Do and the Holland Festival.

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3XN — Muziekgebouw (2005)
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Rivierstaete/Amsteldok

This building on the River Amstel, currently known as Rivierstaete will soon be called Amsteldok and home to several companies including WPP (VBAT, Ogilvy, Grey, JWT, Wavemaker, Kantar, Mindshare, Lightspeed, Group M etc.), Regus and Messagebird. Originally built in 1973 and designed by H.A. Maaskant it was at the time, Europe’s largest office building and the original plan was to build a large tower on the plot of land however the city preferred a horizontal building.

The original building was clad in concrete with small windows but now is covered in six million white tiles and floor-to-ceiling windows, spread over eight to nine stories across varying, stepped, horizontal levels; originally done to avoid blocking the sun on the street side.

The architects, MVSA, thought that its previous concrete facade meant that the building stood out dramatically from its context and by dissolving the office’s heavy materiality and replacing it with transparency, the building can finally embrace the 1920’s Amsterdamse School Neighbourhood in which it sits.

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MVSA–Rivierstaete/Amsteldok (2018, originally built in 1973)
Map of locations featured in this blog post and additional locations.

*Most examples here are built after 1997 with the exception of REM Eiland which was constructed in 1964 but was repositioned and restored in 2011 and Rivierstaete/Amsteldok which was built in 1973 but renovated in 2018.

*I have previously written about the architectural styles of De Amsterdamse School (1920–1930) and Brutalism/Modernism (1950–1970) in Europe so I wanted to avoid these particular here.

All illustrations by writer.

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written by Craig Berry, Creative at VBAT
edited by Connie Fluhme, PR at VBAT

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