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Book of the month: Aldo van Eyck Orphanage Amsterdam Building & Playgrounds

As a watershed in post-war architecture, Aldo van Eyck’s Municipal Orphanage should not be petrified in aspic

‘One type of column, one type of lintel, two types of cupolas.’ Using this concise list, architect Herman Hertzberger once described the basic elements his colleague, former boss and mentor Aldo van Eyck, used to create the Municipal Orphanage in Amsterdam. The orphanage, designed by Van Eyck in the late 1950s to house 125 young children, teenagers and their guardians, was completed in 1960.

Renovatie burgerweeshuis aldo van eyck

Municipal Orphanage

Featuring several points of interaction, Aldo van Eyck’s Municipal Orphanage realised his desire to create not just a home, but something akin to a small city

The complex encompasses a total of more than 300 modules, all interconnected and grouped around a series of intimate courtyards, with spaces merging into one continuous interior. Seen from above, the low-lying structure seems to spread across the terrain like a virus. An organism for living, to paraphrase Le Corbusier, as an expression of the Structuralist ethos, the movement that promoted a human-centric, self-generating and open-ended architecture.

In recent years there has been a renewed interest in Structuralism and the group of architects who associated themselves with the movement. In 2014, Het Nieuwe Instituut in Rotterdam dedicated an exhibition to Dutch Structuralism and initiated a study of its history and contemporary relevance. As an alternative to the technocratic planning that characterised post-war reconstruction, the buildings and plans from the 1950s and ’60s resonate strongly with a younger generation of architects and activists who are facing a new wave of large-scale urban developments and the privatisation of public space. 

‘both a house and a city, a city-like house and a house-like city’

Likewise, attention has recently been drawn to the wide-ranging activities of the radical British architects Alison and Peter Smithson, who had close ties with Van Eyck and are now mostly known for Robin Hood Gardens in London. The premature demolition of this revolutionary council estate is perhaps indicative of a widening gap between a relatively small group of architecture aficionados’ increased appreciation for this type of modern architecture and a lack of interest from the public at large. When De Drie Hoven, a care home in the west of Amsterdam designed by Herman Hertzberger, was partially demolished a few years ago, there was hardly any resistance. On the contrary, Van Eyck’s orphanage was saved twice, after being abandoned in the 1980s and in the 2000s. A better understanding of this building could help to revalue other Structuralist buildings and the bold ideas they contain.

The orphanage is Van Eyck’s boldest attempt to design architecture as a form of ‘built homecoming’. He wanted to create a building that felt like a ‘friendly, open’ environment that would give the orphans a sense of ‘home and safety’. He aimed to create ‘both a house and a city, a city-like house and a house-like city’, with corridors and halls that evoked city streets. Writing inOrphanage Amsterdam Building and Playgrounds by Aldo van Eyck, a new publication on the architect’s work, Christoph Grafe compares the orphanage to ‘a kind of labyrinth, but one with three sandpits, a play-pond, play areas, two rooms for special activities, a built-in aquarium and 50 doors opening onto the outside world’. 

‘The landscape of cupolas that ties together the various spaces of the orphanage expresses Van Eyck’s belief in the unifying quality of African social structures and architecture’

Despite the richness of the building’s concept and legacy, the new publication is disappointingly one-dimensional in its attempt to revisit the intentions of the architect and discuss some of the widely known and published interpretations and representations of the orphanage. While Grafe refers to the orphanage as being ‘many buildings’, authors of other chapters have taken a rather singular perspective from within the established architectural discourse. And while freshly designed, with beautifully simple illustrations by Ricky Rijkenberg and Piotr Kalbarczyk, the clean layout of the book disguises the fact that a lot of vital information and material has been omitted. 

Van Eyck made several sketches of the floor plan before arriving at the final scheme. His repeated attempts to create coherence and connectivity between the various in- and outdoor spaces are crucial for understanding his intentions. None of these sketches is included in the book, although they have been published in another recent monograph by Robert McCarter (Yale University Press, 2015), which contextualises Van Eyck’s buildings and texts within a much wider context of his own built and written oeuvre, along with the works of art, travels and ideas that inspired him.

‘When students trespassed his design, with an exhibition of six weeks, Van Eyck was furious that his building was destroyed. “Not for one minute”, he shouted. “The thing should not be touched by its users”’

Van Eyck found a lot of his inspiration for the orphanage from the kasbahs and self-built homes he saw while travelling around parts of Africa, especially the villages of the Dogon people in Mali. The landscape of cupolas that ties together the various spaces of the orphanage, not only echoes the Dogon’s clay buildings visually, but also expresses Van Eyck’s belief in the unifying quality of African social structures and architecture. 

Prior to the orphanage, Van Eyck designed his famous playgrounds while he was working for Amsterdam’s urban planning department right after the war. Given the scarcity of resources during this time, he worked with simple materials and the same elementary forms and geometries – squares, circles etc – that he found in the Dogon culture. According to Van Eyck’s biographer, Francis Strauven, a square grave in Timoudi, Algeria, ‘bore a certain resemblance to some of the sandpits that Aldo had himself designed’ in Amsterdam. 

This influence is barely acknowledged let alone explored in Orphanage Amsterdam, as is the fact that the vast majority of the playgrounds built between 1947 and 1978 have gradually disappeared. Of the roughly 700 playgrounds in Amsterdam, which are discussed in the book, only a few remain. An exhibition at Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam in 2002, and the accompanying catalogue, paid tribute to them; in addition, the Rijksmuseum recently acquired one of the last remaining original playground structures. The aluminium climbing objects and somersaulting frames, placed in the museum’s garden, are part of a list of 17 remaining playgrounds that designers Anna van Lingen and Denisa Kollarová have compiled and published under the title Seventeen Playgrounds – an exploration that is as light and experimental as it is sincere and engaged.

‘They treat the orphanage as an ice crystal, frozen in time and too fragile to really touch’

While Van Lingen and Kollarová lament the slow disappearance of these playgrounds, and urge city decision-makers, architects, designers, parents and friends to be critical of the new ones replacing them, the authors of Orphanage Amsterdam seem to shy away from taking on a more critical position. They claim that the ‘orphanage is also a building that, despite its not unproblematic history, continues to be viewed favourably as one of the very few really significant buildings in recent history’. But why it was problematic and why it’s still seen as significant, is left unsaid. 

Herman Hertzberger and Van Eyck disagreed about the essence of (Structuralist) architecture. While the former claimed that occupants should be able to appropriate and alter a building, the latter controlled every aspect of his own creation down to the smallest detail. After the building had lost its original function, and serious plans to demolish it had been prevented, the newly established Berlage Institute, a postgraduate school of architecture, moved into the abandoned orphanage. To be able to use the building, which was scaled to house small children, they had to make adaptations. Hertzberger, the then-director of the Berlage Institute, asked Van Eyck to make these adaptations. In a recorded lecture he recalled that Van Eyck ‘was unable to, because the building was finished, and could not be changed. When the students trespassed his design, with an exhibition of six weeks, Van Eyck was furious that his building was destroyed. “Not for one minute”, he shouted. “The thing should not be touched by its users”.’ The authors of the book could have talked to Hertzberger about this episode, or to the people who used to work or live in the building. But they didn’t.

Instead, they treat the orphanage as an ice crystal, frozen in time and too fragile to really touch. While post-war architecture is rediscovered all across Europe, the authors of Orphanage Amsterdam reduce it to the role of a historical artefact, or Gesamt-kunstwerk, that exists in splendid isolation. Why, for example, not elaborate on the building’s recent renovation and redecoration? Perhaps because it was initiated by BPD, a commercial real-estate developer that also sponsored the publication? The company, with a portfolio that includes two ‘jazzy’ towers with a ‘floating hotel’ in Rotterdam (designed by MVRDV), moved into the orphanage with their staff of 150 people at the beginning of this year. The authors of the book make no mention of this. Were they afraid their sponsor’s large-scale projects would be haunted by the ghost of Van Eyck, who despised ‘the technical, mechanical, and decorative veneer’ of modern form? And why not compare some of Van Eyck’s beliefs and actions to recent attempts to accommodate present-day ‘orphans’ and others in need of a safe home – attempts that range from refugee shelters to children’s hospitals? While wondering why ‘the status of the Orphanage as a watershed’ in post-war architecture ‘was not to happen’, the authors could have looked beyond the building to traces and reincarnations of Van Eyck’s ideas and actions.

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Contact Sheet of photographs taken by Violette Cornelius

Source: Violette Cornelius / Nederlands Fotomuseum

Contact Sheet of photographs taken by Violette Cornelius in 1961 of the children for whom the orphanage was home

For the increasing number of Van Eyck fans, this book is hard to resist. The many photos and drawings of the orphanage and the playgrounds – especially the ones of the playing children – are exceptional and I saw a few I had not seen before. To me, the book proves once again that Van Eyck could rival his Italian colleague Carlo Scarpa and his incredible eye for detail and materials, with only a fraction of the budget. But, at the same time, the book is a missed opportunity. Individual contributions don’t communicate or converge into any sort of conclusion or discussion, key information and material is missing, and a thorough re-reading and critical understanding of Van Eyck, his work and his legacy is largely absent.

Christoph Grafe is a skilful thinker and writer who could have given Van Eyck’s orphanage the book it deserves. Unfortunately, he and his collaborators followed in the footsteps of Van Eyck, who aimed to design ‘as open a place as possible’ and ‘not to be reduced to the idea that “architecture is frozen music”’ but still couldn’t resist making ‘each building or work strongly self-referential’. To truly honour Van Eyck and all other proponents of a more human-centric, open architecture, it might be necessary to be more critical – and even accept demolition – of their buildings, while at the same time embracing their ideas and beliefs, and creating new and better spaces in their spirit.

Orphanage Amsterdam Building and Playgrounds by Aldo van Eyck

Edited by: Christoph Grafe et al
Publisher: Architectura & Natura
ISBN: 978-94614-005-67

 This piece is featured in AR November issue on Emerging Architecture and the Netherlands – click here to purchase your copy today