Throughout the last century, tumultuous cycles of destruction, construction, expansion and contraction redefined both the physical experience of the city and our collective understanding of its identity and purpose. Yet as the rhetoric and schisms of the recent past fade, it becomes easier to read the heterogeneous conditions that remain as a valuable, conglomerate urban order. Where what might once have been understood as antithetical architectural elements can now be reconsidered as potentially equivalent and complementary components, within an expanded historical continuum.
A relatively modest programme, for 60 low cost apartments and a community sportshall, has allowed Dutch practice, Wingender Hovenier Architecten, to explore the formal, spatial and social potential inherent in this emerging sensibility. Part of a larger project to create a new social centre for Staalmanplein, a post-war neighbourhood on Amsterdam’s Western margins, their building seeks to address the shortcomings typical to such a context, whilst also engaging its physical qualities in dialogue with those of the wider city.
Staalmanplein was built as part of Cornelius van Eesteren’s 1934 General Expansion Plan for Amsterdam. The initial strategy, to extend Berlage’s classically inspired urban spaces through the green infrastructure of a garden city become overlaid, in the forty-years of the plan’s implementation, with a more didactic, functionalist agenda and the technological determinism of post-war reconstruction. One legacy of this ideological trajectory is embodied in the repetitive rows of system built slab blocks that form the immediate architectural context of the current project. Their impoverished material character is of a type familiar to the peripheries of many European cities. Nonetheless they do succeed in creating open and generous relationships with the now mature landscapes in which they are sited.
The Swiss critic Martin Steinmann has argued that the ‘ville verte’ constitutes a legitimate, alternative urban model to what he describes as the ‘grey city’. This potential is the primary concern of the larger project by fellow Dutch practice, Onix. Their plan attempts to both extend and to concentrate the qualities of Staalmanplein’s open spaces, through the imposition of a built topography that is capable of enveloping a broad range of social functions, encompassing a school, a kindergarten, sports facilities and a mosque.
The building by Wingender Hovenier Architecten is one of the two linear housing blocks that define the principal edges of this constructed landscape. It takes the step of seeking to mediate, through its own form and placement, a critical relationship between the characteristics of this ‘green’ city and those of its ‘grey’ counterpart. Rather than defining a wholly new type, or importing one from elsewhere, its first response is to engage with the reduced architectonic language of the slab blocks. It reinforces their established grain and, through an interpretion of their scale and rhythms, densifies and clarifies the social and spatial conditions of the existing estate, rather than usurping them.
However, in this initial gesture of reconciliation the architects reveal intentions that are, ultimately, very different from those of their predecessors. Within their thinking, the very devices through which Modernism once sought to distance itself from traditional forms and ideas have now become re-assimilated into a field of accepted meanings, which can be recognised as parts of an expanded, urban vernacular. This understanding allows found conditions to be transformed, through other layers of expression and meaning. The result is a calculated ambiguity that is clearly familiar with its site but which also directs its thoughts elsewhere, towards the architecture of the city.
This is evident in the building’s appropriation of the external balconies utilised by its neighbours, to access its apartments. These are both celebrated and simultaneously subsumed within a larger and more complex order. Where the existing blocks express an unvarying section, terminating in faceless gables, the balconies of its principal façades describe a tripartite bay structure, with recessed central bays emphasising the importance of the corners. Tectonically, the thinness of the existing construction is counterpointed by the substantial material presence of the new building’s brick form. The balconies themselves have become transformed into powerful horizontal strata, which alternately express a sense of being carved into, or cantilevered out from the building’s body. Their mass is accented by slender concrete copings, which carry this duality of expression into detail. Transforming into the cills of individual windows, these concrete elements form continuous horizontals that not only echo the exposed slab edges of the existing blocks but also, in their refinement, remember the stringcourses of other more noble antecedents. These overlaid orders define the new building as a specific, scaled piece that is particular to its site, whilst the subtly articulated hierarchies and elegant proportions of its vestigial classicism are employed, at another scale, to bring its surroundings into order.
At its Southern end, the building’s head offers a clear sense of orientation and establishes a strong urban corner, counterpointing the negative spaces formed by the blank gables of its neighbours. The projecting balconies that define this corner then transform, through skilful modelling, into a two-storey plinth that emphatically grounds the building along its length. In section this negotiates a storey high step across its width, providing opportunities for light to enter from both sides and allowing movement from the actual ground up to a raised playground, constructed above a parking garage. The plinth provides a robust edge that conditions and delineates both the street profile and the shifting strata of the block interior, including the large external stair that accesses the playground. Its larger role though, is to choreograph the thresholds between the multiple layers and scales of the building’s public life and the intimacy of its domestic interiors.
It is punctuated by a series of rhythmical openings, deep set between heavy brick piers. These emphasise a structural logic but also announce a surprisingly diverse sequence of spaces and functions. At the Northern end each opening provides entry to an individual maisonette, while in the centre of the plan, three bays house an adjacent pair of entrance halls. One gives access up to the apartments above, the other goes down to a sunken sportshall below. Lowering this large space accommodates it within the scale of the plinth and, unusually, allows the large windows set into the remaining openings to look down into it and present it as a public room to passers by. This suppression of programme, which privileges overall external expression beyond a more usual emphasis on public function, means that the resulting elevations belong to the city as much as to the building. Their heightened sense of urbanity transforming what was previously a residential distribution road into something approaching a city street.
The restrained exterior contrasts with an unexpectedly public interior, a deep threshold of layered space that embodies the building’s community. The two tall entrance halls link the street level to the raised playground. This sectional movement is materialised in their stone linings, through which steps rise in the manner of a grand house, creating an atmosphere that feels more akin to Berlage’s Amsterdam than van Eesteran’s. The rhythm of external piers turns inwards at these spaces to become a series of parallel screen walls. Within them large openings allow residents access to a lift and stair core, neatly tucked away in an additional bay. More importantly they imply a lateral enfilade. This visually connects the public spaces one to another, with gaze and movement interacting between the pavement, the raised court, the sunken sportshall and, through a vertical shaft, the apartments above. It is a spatial effect that encompasses, simultaneously, classical planning and the abstract juxtapositions of modernism. It is exemplified in the view from the residential staircase of a pair of gymnastic rings, hanging centrally within the receding perspective of a sequence of framed openings.
Staalmanplein was a product of the desire to reinvent the world. In counterpoint, the success of this building lies in the sophistication with which Wingender Hovenier Architecten have manipulated and synthesised existing orders, architectural types and regularity systems in response to its particular contingencies and circumstances. They clearly view it not as a marginal territory, a failed urban experiment to be forgotten or replaced, but rather as a potentially integral part of the contemporary city’s rich diversity. The pervasive programme of housing and its associated functions will play a critical role if we are to collectively fulfil such an aspiration. In the composure of its quiet, authoritative, yet imaginative architecture, this project offers a model for the re-engagement of such places within that larger discourse.