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De Prinsendam & Andreas Ensemble by Tony Fretton Architects, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Despite numerous differences, Tony Fretton’s two housing projects in Amsterdam, are extremely alike. Photography by Christian Richters

Over the last decade, Tony Fretton has divided his time between his London practice and his professorship at the Delft University of Technology, which has given him a strong profile in the Netherlands. And beyond academia, the country is providing Fretton with increasingly prosperous opportunities to build.

Since 1982, the projects of Tony Fretton Architects have attracted critical acclaim, but through subtlety rather than scale. Only recently have these two aspects begun to converge on larger commissions. Last year, Fuglsang Kunstmuseum in Denmark (AR June 2008) made the RIBA’s Stirling Prize shortlist and the British Embassy in Warsaw (AR March 2010) is currently on this year’s longlist.

But from a purely quantitative perspective, the office’s greatest works by size are a couple of speculative housing projects in Amsterdam. Arriving on the market within months of each other earlier this year, de Prinsendam and Andreas Ensemble are, however, separate schemes for different clients in different districts.

De Prinsendam is a smart development a short ferry ride across the River IJ from Amsterdam Central Station. The prime riverside spot is occupied by an H-shaped block by Álvaro Siza, and Fretton’s C-shaped addition, which contains 74 apartments of 90-180m², is on the plot directly behind.

The masterplan, by urban designer Ton Schaap and Geurst & Schulze Architecten, attempts to balance the closed and the open. Fretton’s and Siza’s blocks are placed to suggest a courtyard, but set apart to allow movement through. This also permits glimpses of the river from many of Fretton’s dwellings. The best views, however, are from the four penthouses that have been gifted a 360º metropolitan omniscience.

Andreas Ensemble is in the very different context of Amsterdam West, a post-war neighbourhood of social housing envisioned by Cor van Eesteren. The masterplan, also by Geurst & Schulze, tries to reconcile the city planners’ desire for closed blocks - like those in HP Berlage’s adjacent Old West district - and the surrounding looser modernist grain.

The site’s edges are framed with taller, linear apartment buildings to create a calmer interior of more compact blocks. With Geurst & Schulze designing four on the perimeter, Fretton was asked to look after the remaining five: four inside the site (three of which are now complete) and a C-shaped one on the south-eastern corner. Though more affordable than de Prinsendam, the average apartment in Andreas Ensemble is a generous 114m².

Fretton’s project numbering system gave de Prinsendam 208 and Andreas 222; two chronological points that also mark a learning curve. For example, only through designing 208 did the practice discover the Netherlands’ ‘equality rule’, which stipulates no resident should have to pass another apartment’s door to reach the escape stairs. This helped David Owen, project architect on both buildings, to design 222’s ‘super core’, where the canny placement of doors resolves the plan more efficiently.

Although a fraction of its size, de Prinsendam’s £9.45 million budget is close behind Andreas’ £10 million. But Fretton hasn’t let this disparity impact upon his formal expression, with both sharing a language of strongly articulated blocks, stepped-in upper levels and fenestration meted to a regulated rhythm. It’s only up-close that, through the materiality, the relative costs become perceptible.

Looking at the facades, de Prinsendam is treated to Altenberger travertine whereas Andreas is brick. And yet, as status indicators, these send slightly mixed signals: the slices of stone form an unjointed rainscreen, which could seem flimsy next to the exceptional bricks from Petersen Tegl, the Danish firm which supplied Peter Zumthor’s lauded Kolumba Art Museum in Cologne (AR November 2007).

Fretton’s only previous housing in the Netherlands was a two-apartment building in Groningen, part of the city’s Blue Moon Festival of art and architecture in 2001, curated by Toyo Ito. This connection to an art event mirrors Fretton’s British work, where a number of his one-off London houses are for famous art-world clients, such as gallery owner Alex Sainsbury and sculptor Anish Kapoor.

Another is the home and studio of artist Brad Lochore. When I interviewed the pair together in 2009, they animated each other with shared insights into how the place would be used, and its context in gritty Shoreditch. In each project Fretton filtered a particular personality into the architecture.

What is striking about the Amsterdam housing schemes is that - despite their numerous differences - they are so alike. Both masterplans were very restrictive, and of course the architectural abstraction is partly a result of having numerous, as-yet unknown inhabitants.

But I also wonder if there’s something, not exactly lacking from the design process, but not quite present. In Fretton’s 2G monograph he says of de Prinsendem: ‘The facade statement was easy. Stone is indisputable when seen from the river, travertine particularly and discreetly so.’ This sounds so reasonable; but then you ask, can any material be ‘indisputable’? And can you even see Fretton’s block from the river, let alone the stone, with Siza’s in the way?

Fretton’s work is greatly deserving of admiration. But I wonder if his architectural convictions might sometimes benefit from little diversions, such as those offered by an engaged client, to deflect him ever so slightly off the inevitability of his course. His richest work to date comes across more as a form of intimate dialogue than an instructive monologue.

Architect Tony Fretton Architects, London, UK
Executive architect De Prinsendam: Geurst & Schulze Architecten
Andreas Ensemble: INBO Architecten
Structural engineer De Prinsendam: Ingenieursbureau Zonneveld
Andreas Ensemble: Grontmij van Ruitenburg
Services engineer De Prinsendam: Halmos Adviseurs Installaties
Andreas Ensemble: Royal Haskoning

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