May 27: Schooled in Amsterdam

2016/05/27 § Leave a comment

On this day in 1903 the Beurs opened in Amsterdam.

The Beurs is one of the great landmarks in the financial powerhouse which was nineteenth-century Amsterdam.  The commodity exchange was under construction between 1896 and 1903, built after the designs of Hendrik Petrus Berlage (1856-1934).  It’s a monster of a building (you’re looking at the short side above; here’s a more inclusive view), with offices and support facilities ranged around an arcaded trading room of over 17,000 SF (or, in Dutch measure, enough room to plant 85,000 tulips) and that is topped by thin metallic trusses holding up glass skylights.  The exterior is solid, chunky red brick bearing walls.  The whole is marked, inside and out, with dashes of figural ornament expressing the activities of the building and local history, including an image of the legendary founder of the city on the exterior corner, and murals inside depicting such appropriate concepts as Industry and Commerce.

The Beurs is the Kronos of the Amsterdam School, itself a subset of northern European Expressionism.  German Expressionism tended to be more diverse in material and more aggressive in form.  Amsterdam’s is a kinder and gentler Expressionism: one that strives to emphasize the brickyness of brick, long a favorite material in the Dutch capital.  The sense of scale and employment of ornament visible in Amsterdam School buildings (like the Het Schip housing, De Bijenkorf department store, and the Grand Hotel Amrâth) reveal not just a humane kind of modernism and one that does not throw the baby out with the historical bath water but even enjoys a fair bit of whimsy.  These buildings, with their blocks of color, picturesque massing, sense of people’s hands having put the thing together, variety of brick shapes, remind us that this humble material need not be dumb, and of the lost legacy of early modernism.  The collapse of Expressionism saddens the Muse (and you can read the reasons for that here).

But there remain happy examples of these turn-of-the-century tendencies in places like the Beurs, which is preserved even though its main use has been moved to another site.  Its trading activities were suspended in 1998, at which time the building was turned to public use–so public, in fact, that it has now garnered the Italian nickname Palazzo Pubblico.  Its flexible open space has been used for exhibitions, concerts by the Dutch Philharmonic Orchestra, even a royal wedding.  Unfortunately, due to its only occasional use for these diverse activities, and financial troubles faced by its owner, it’s tricky to get inside.  The best you might do is pop into the cafe to get a sense of the place, and then wander down to Berlage’s contemporary Diamond Workers Union Building, now the Trade Unions Museum.  It will stir you up, and make you wonder how this vibrant architecture was generated by a people usually known for their thrift and reserve; it sure isn’t the local cuisine that inspired Berlage and his Amsterdam School followers to fly so high.

Image: the front of the Beurs (Clio’s)

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