You would never think it as you stand outside, with a car park on one side and a housing estate on the other. But behind this innocent-looking yellow façade, you are actually entering a different world. A world of brutalist, spectacular materials, straight lines and windows; a tall, undulating ceiling and smartly finished wood. Stunning in its sobriety, it radiates a unified style and vision. A vision that was unpopular for a long time and may now no longer be so. But with municipal monument status since 2013, this vision is ensured continued protection, along with the story of its architect Karel Sijmons.
Karel Sijmons (1908) developed his ideas during World War II. But it was already clear to him then that having a vision was no guarantee of followers. As a young architect in the Catholic Helmond, he was fired from his job at Public Works because there was no room for a Protestant draughtsman. In 1913, he had to leave an architects’ firm because of his interest in New Objectivity. This architectural movement favoured functional construction using modern materials, such as concrete, steel and glass. Practical, with no fuss. Sijmons’ preference for the movement continued to cause him problems. After his dismissal, his talent gained him immediate admission to the second year of the Amsterdam Academy of Architecture. And what grades had he achieved after a year? Just 2 out of 10 for the main project, 1 for the smaller project and a 0 for Interiors. In this bastion of the decorative Amsterdam School style of architecture, Sijmons’ preference for sober and functional construction was not welcome either.
In the immediate pre-war period, he achieved some minor successes, but really made his mark in the years thereafter. In his book on Protestant church architecture Protestantsche Kerkbouw published in 1946, Sijmons explains his belief that Protestant church buildings should be a general expression of the essence of Protestantism. This should be about introspection, seriousness, silence in the architecture and devotion in the congregation. ‘When you go to church’, he wrote, ‘you need to move from your domestic comfort into another world.’ In the years after World War II, he designed and repaired churches across the country. They were built in the New Objectivity style based on his own vision of the church. Many of these projects feature ideas that come together in the Thomaskerk.
Layout is a particularly important factor. The hall is not necessarily a large space and above all did not need to be a central place with pulpit, font, and communion table. There are also huge windows within concrete walls, experiments with undulating ceilings, and art and architecture are always connected. Sijmons’ home was a meeting place for artists and Karel Appel was a good friend of his. Although often austere in style, the churches always had room for art. The influence of Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier can also be felt virtually everywhere. For the Thomaskerk, for example, Sijmons took inspiration from the latter’s pilgrimage church Notre-Dame du Haut in Ronchamp. The architect completed the initial sketches years before he was commissioned to build the church. He took his time to collect his thoughts and ideas.
Space as a sculpture
Over the years, the building has had multiple functions: a youth centre in the basement (where weed was ‘habitually’ smoked), a ‘silent chapel’ with its own entrance, a theatre auditorium, and various offices. These rooms have enabled the church to continue in its role of bringing people together. Classes are run here for VU University Amsterdam, there is a childcare centre, and also all kinds of meetings and courses are held. The hall itself has the structure that Sijmons was so keen to achieve. Instead of having everything around a central place, the hall features a fan-like design with the communion table in a separate, lower section. ‘A space’, he wrote, ‘that can be read as a sculpture.’ There is also a clear connection with the fine arts. The hall includes a beautiful work in glass by Antonio Saura. All of this makes the Thomaskerk a truly unique monument, of which Sijmons himself said: ‘Everything I have to say can be found in this church.’
This is the first of a series about national and municipal monuments in and around Zuidas.