The first sub-district court was originally located in Kleine Gartmanplantsoen, but increasing criminality and lack of space made a move inevitable. The Prinses Irenestraat and Fred. Roeskestraat area, originally intended for housing, soon caught the eye of the Government Buildings Agency. Special dispensation was given to amend the zoning plan, clearing the way for the construction of one of the very first buildings in what we now know as Zuidas.
Architect Ben Loerakker
The design of the court was the responsibility of Ben Loerakker, a young architect who had recently made his name on the other side of Beatrixpark. For a decade, he had been involved in the development and realisation of the first three sections of the RAI complex there. Initially as the head of the drawing office before later taking charge of the construction office. After his work on the RAI, Loerakker was involved in a series of small-scale projects before being invited by architects Jan Verster and Tjeerd Dijkstra to submit a design for the new sub-district court. Their firm was at risk of losing this important commission because of personal problems and it was hoped that Loerakker could prevent that. Despite the pressure, he was able to deliver an approved provisional design in the space of three months. Between 1972 and 1975, ‘Parnas sub-district court’ then became one of the first buildings on the empty plains still remaining to the south of the city.
This is one of the main reasons why the building was awarded municipal monument status in 2013. Another – equally important – reason was the building’s structure: a tall eight-storey tower for office accommodation and two lower sections to the north and west containing the courtrooms. This provides a clear representation of the separation between the different functions in the building. In the former sub-district court on Kleine Gartmanplantsoen, these had been much more mixed together. It marked a break with tradition that would prove a source of inspiration for later government architecture, including in the present day, as in the new courthouse.
The design is also representative of the way in which human relationships and encounters played a central role in large public buildings of this kind of the 1970s. What is exceptional is the way in which Loerakker managed to incorporate ideas of coming together and meeting in a building where there needed to be a clear separation between the judiciary and the public. When you stand in the central foyer, you can see exactly how he achieved this: a huge open space covering three floors. Although visitors do not have access everywhere, you can see the activity going on above your head. This creates a connection between staff and visitors. This subtle balance between connecting and separating people is given shape in an otherwise very pragmatic design. Loerakker structured the rooms in equal sections of 16 by 10 metres, making use of low-cost materials, such as concrete, unpainted wood, and aluminium.
High-rise and law firms
Designer Willem Sandberg lived in one of the ‘paintboxes’ opposite the building. In February 1975, he wrote that he was enjoying witnessing the construction of ‘the only building that gives me great pleasure when I see it from my balcony’. Whether other residents also admired the ‘way in which the entire building appears to be lifted from the ground’, remained to be seen. However, they would have certainly noticed how their neighbourhood was beginning to change at that time. The city centre was filling up and businesses needing large offices were building on the outskirts of the city. The sub-district court was one of the first buildings on the southern edge, together with the office of the NMB (De Nederlandsche Middenstandsbank, now the Atrium complex) and the Van Gelder Zonen Paper Factory. For Amsterdam at the time, these were all very tall buildings. The presence of the sub-district court also led to several law firms setting up business in the neighbourhood. Initially, these were primarily concentrated in the area between Prinses Irenestraat and Strawinskylaan.
Parnas sub-district court now appears to be slightly hidden in the shadow of the new courthouse building. This is because there is no entrance to it in Parnassusweg. The original idea was to build a joint entrance at the rear of the building, where a Child Protection Council building was slated for construction. However, this was never built and the area was soon filled in by other buildings for the judiciary. It was Ben Loerakker himself who designed these buildings to the south and west of the sub-district court. In the 1980s, four office towers were added, followed by several additional courtrooms, the new entrance and a skywalk. A large part of this Parnas complex has now made way for the new courthouse.
‘His best building’
Ben Loerakker was also later involved in the changes in the Kinkerbuurt neighbourhood, the development of Almere and Lelystad, and also designed shopping centres and police stations across the country. However, none of these designs would have the same impact as the building in Parnassusweg. In the words of the architectural historian Jeroen Schilt: ‘His first major building proved to be his best.’ It is a building that will fortunately remain in place far into the future and will probably become increasingly eye-catching in Zuidas. A concrete bastion of 1970s architecture that, thanks to that special dispensation half a century ago, proved instrumental in the development of the neighbourhood as a centre for high-rise buildings and legal services.
This is the second in a series of articles about national and municipal monuments in and around Zuidas. The first in the series was about the Thomaskerk.