De Amsterdamse School
Discovering a part of international Expressionist architecture.
Written by Craig Berry
Designer & Writer
Being a graphic designer I am obviously interested in the subject, culture and its rich history and I am really interested in architecture, (and contemporary art) especially how it has grown and developed over the 20th century. One of my real loves in architecture is the Brutalist movement — so much so that my collaborative partner and I committed and focused a large part of our university studies to explore and celebrate the style.
What I love is the bold angles, the modular elements used and the overall rawness of the brutalist look;
often buildings in this style can be similar but they all have their unique charms. Some famous examples in the UK (particularly London) are the Barbican Estate, Trellick Tower, Robin Hood Gardens and the Southbank Centre.
There are also great examples of brutalist architecture across continental Europe such as the Unite d’Habitation in Marseille, France, the Torre Velasca in Milan,Italy and the FEM in Berlin, Germany. The Netherlands (particularly Amsterdam in my experience and knowledge) doesn’t have very many of these style buildings, unfortunately (for fans of brutalism) but what it does have and something that I have learned to love is that of the Brick Expressionist style, also known as the Amsterdam School (Dutch: Amsterdamse School), which is what I want to write about here and express my newly found passion for.
I quickly noticed that there was a certain something besides the masses of canal houses; dotted around the city were huge brick buildings — often I found these whilst looking for old typographic signs. I eventually realised that these signs were attached to the front of these great brick masterpieces and since then started I’ve started to notice more and more of them around Amsterdam.
What is also great about these buildings and pieces of architecture is that because they were mostly built from 1910–1930 (when the style was most prominent) they have a great history and have managed to survive to this day.
This makes the style more important to me and I want to give a quick history of the style, the characteristics of it and then show some good examples around Amsterdam that I found and that I believe to be in the Amsterdamse School style.
Amsterdam pioneered the idea of the municipal, low cost housing for the working class. In the first half of the 20th a lot of buildings were constructed after a new law (Woningwet, 1901) made it possible for Dutch housing cooperatives and organisations to receive finance and money from the state. This law and legislation kicked off the start of new and innovative public housing constructions. Large parts of the districts and boroughs like outside of the old centre of Amsterdam like De Pijp & De Baarjses were built in this distinctive brick style.
It is distinctive as it has key characteristics that are easy to define and look out for.
Firstly and most obviously is that they are made from bricks but not necessarily in a conventional way you see on modern buildings. Despite the traditional rectangle shape of the brick the architects and builders were able to be incredible expressive and romantic with the material — creating beautiful curves and elegant forms. Using organic forms and context-related symbols to create ornamentation that often alludes to the rich Dutch sea-faring history. Wrought iron is also used (usually painted dark green) in fine twisted and bent shapes, creating similar forms as the bricks. Carved stone sculptures and letters show famous figures and names adorning the entrances of many buildings. Finally some buildings have thousands of bright orange roof tiles that seamlessly blend into the bright orange bricks. It’s also not only applicable to just buildings but bridges, post-boxes, urinals and statues. It is a unique style that when you start to see, it’s hard to un-see and you begin to admire everything about it (well I do anyway).
One of the grandest and most famous pieces of this style is really close to VBAT and that is the Olympisch Stadion (Olympic Stadium) from 1928 designed by Jan Wils. When I first saw this back in September last year I was astounded by how old the stadium is, almost 90 years old and it still looks great (although it was renovated several years ago).
Compared to modern sports stadiums and arenas I’ve seen — the brick oval shape is certainly very different with cutouts and columns around the edges.
After the 1928 Olympic games, football team AFC Ajax played their home games at the stadium; nowadays it’s used for local, national and international track and field events as well as once hosting the Dutch National speed skating championships.
Het Amsterdams Lyceum (The Amsterdam Lyceum) is another large building with exquisite brick design. The building is a Dutch secondary school, which “combines gymnasium and athenaeum” which I don’t really understand so well.
It has huge archways that you can cycle through and holding up these arches are columns with intricate spiraling bricks as well as heavy carved letters and beautiful art deco gold signage. Built in 1917 and designed by H.A.J. Baanders it is the oldest lyceum in the Netherlands.
Interestingly, during the Second World War it was captured and appropriated by German forces, using the school’s innocent classrooms as military barracks.
A new place I found when I decided I wanted to write about this subject is Het Schip (The Ship) in the Spaarndammerbuurt district of the city. The building is home to apartments and also a museum (Museum Het Schip).
In its heyday the building had around 100 homes, a post office and a meeting hall. It is named Het Schip as it resembles the shape of a ship although the shape of the building is very awkward.
The main focus is the section, which has the impressively tall brick steeple. I wasn’t able to take many photos of this building as when I visited it — and the museum — it was covered in lots of scaffolding and construction hoardings unfortunately.
Another awkward building to photograph is that of the Scheepvaarthuis (Shipping House) right next to the Amsterdam harbour.
It is widely accepted and regarded to be the first true example of the Amsterdamse School style and it is massive.
Built in 2 sections from 1913–1916 and 1926–1928 it was the headquarters of six leading Amsterdam shipping companies (SMN, KPM, JCJL, KNSM, NRM & KWIM). The overall design of the building was a collaboration between 3 of the main architects of the style and also close friends — Piet Kramer, Michel de Klerk and Joan van der Meij. What is really special about this building is the level of ornateness and detail on the exterior alongside the expressive brickwork sit 23 highly intricate stone sculpture heads of 17th century explorers, navigators and governors. Since 2007 the building has been home to Grand Hotel Amrâth.
As well as these vast buildings I discovered a number of churches that are (can be) attributed to the brick style. I’m not sure why, I can only assume as places of worship the planners and architects decided these should also follow the distinct and recognisable style which has resulted in a number of impressive and bold buildings such as the Jeruzalemkerk, Bethelkerk, Raphaelkerk, Willem de Zwijgerkerk, Immanuelkerk and the Synagogue at Jacob Obrechtplein. These buildings are very different to traditional churches you would see in the UK and it’s cool to see this style applied to a place of worship although I wonder if the people who visit recognise this.
Whilst visiting and photographing these more important buildings and structures I also found a lot of other smaller and less renowned buildings also built in the same time period. I made a list and over some weekends I travelled around the city visiting new places and generally getting lost trying to find these very vague places. It was worth it though as I was able to really immerse myself in the architecture style that I can’t stop looking for and admiring now.
When I realised what elements make up the look of the Amsterdamse School style it’s incredible to see what I haven’t been seeing since I started living here last year; especially in the Zuid (De Pijp, Stadionbuurt & Hoofddorppleinbuurt) and the West (De Baarjses, Bos en Lommer & Spaarndammerburt) the style is incredibly abundant and beautiful which I have tried to capture in my photographs. This is something that has really stuck with me and is as much Amsterdam as the canals and 17th century buildings.
Side note: There are also reactive and rejective movements of the Amsterdamse School such as the Delftse School and the Bossche School and eventually Functionalism and Modernism but what I’ve seen in Amsterdam (I feel) is certainly in the style of the Amsterdamse School.