It is 6 November 1958 and many dozens of Amsterdam residents have gathered between a pile-driver and a bandstand on an area of undeveloped land to the south of Scheldestraat. To the sound of the national anthem and a gun salute, Mayor of Amsterdam Gijsbert van Hall and Egon Eriksson, the Chairman of the Dutch Automotive Industry (Vereniging Rijwiel en Automobiel Industrie/RAI) are officiating at the pile-driving ceremony for the new RAI building. An exhibition and conference site at the edge of the city, the name of which has been changed from Westerscheldeplein to Europaplein in July of that year. It is a grand name for a bare piece of land where there was a lot of work to be done.
In 1950, just eight years later, the RAI association is already toying with the idea of a larger location. After previously outgrowing the Paleis voor Volksvlijt building, the ‘Old RAI’, where the Okura Hotel is now located, is also proving too small for the growing stream of events. The search for a new location leads to the southern edge of the city, which offers better access, is closer to Schiphol airport, and above all able to provide much more parking. Three potential designers are approached on the advice of the Federation of Dutch Architects. One of these is Alexander Bodon, whose proposal clearly shows his hand: ‘My experience of building as an independent architect is limited, but I set up exhibitions in Utrecht, Amsterdam, Lille, Paris, Vienna, and so on; I know these buildings’ faults and can assure you that I will not make the same mistakes in your building.’ Bodon’s experience in setting up exhibitions is clearly of such value that he is awarded the brief. It proves to be the first of many for the RAI, where he will ultimately be responsible for all the extensions until his death in 1993. An impressive achievement that began with a false start.
Halt on construction
Although there is a model dating from as early as 1951, in which Bodon reveals ‘a bright and transparent building, where you can tell what the weather is like from inside’, and there are drawings from 1953 for the building in Westerscheldeplein, it takes years before initial work starts. The cost of the complex runs to many millions of guilders. It is a budget that the association is unable to afford, so it decides to approach the City Council. It has been watching developments in other cities, with the opening of Ahoy in Rotterdam in 1950 and Utrecht rolling out plans for the Jaarbeurs site. As the economic benefits of a large conference venue in the city becomes increasingly clear, the City Council happily agrees to work with the RAI. But the working relationship ends up hampering progress. Disagreement emerges about the division between exhibition and conference rooms and later also about the financial structure. To cap it all, 1955 heralds a government halt on construction. Central government prioritises residential construction and planning permission for the RAI is initially refused. The zoning plans for Europaplein seem to be going round in circles. From housing in Berlage’s Plan Zuid, via a conference site in the General Expansion Plan (Algemeen Uitbreidingsplan) to a lack of clarity in the 1950s.
Following some adaptations – a delay in construction and the scrapping of the planned car park – planning permission is ultimately granted for the RAI complex. The City Council and RAI reach agreement on the plan and shares are distributed: 75 percent RAI, 25 for the City Council. After years of haggling, the grass and reeds to the south of the Rivierenbuurt are finally replaced in the late 1950s by the concrete, steel, and glass of the rapidly expanding parts of the RAI complex. The cherry on the cake is the Europahal, an area 195 metres in length, 67.5 metres wide, and 16.50 metres tall, with a column-free floor area of some 13,200 sq. m. A place in which Alexander Bodon attempts to transform the potential of the modern age into a bright and transparent space. It is an example of New Objectivity, an architectural style that had a major impression on him during his training: ‘It was a totally different world. Until then, buildings consisted of walls in which windows were cut out and then this new form of architecture arrived, breaking everything open. The wall between the inside and outside was replaced by glass, so that the space no longer stopped at the wall.’
These are ideas that we can also see reflected in other monuments in Zuidas, including the courthouse designed by Ben Loerakker (he spent four years living on the RAI construction site where he worked as head of the drawing office and was in charge of the construction office) and the Thomaskerk by Karel Sijmons. It was a style that emerged as the city was expanding and has left its permanent traces on a district that is looking increasingly modern. It is because of that style, the imposing, bright and airy space, but also the economic optimism in the years of post-war reconstruction, that the Europahal and the advertising column Het Signaal designed by Dick Elffers have enjoyed national monument status since 2015. The RAI has continued to expand around these monuments. New buildings have been added and 2020 was set to be the busiest year ever.
Despite the association’s history of relocations and the fact that the surrounding area is now fully built up, the expansion work and the completion of the Nhow hotel last year (its design inspired by Het Signaal) would suggest that the RAI is going nowhere for now. In a presentation on 21 January 2019, Director Paul Riemens even showed an impression of what the area around the RAI could look like in the years ahead. A greener environment, more connected to the neighbourhood, that also receives supplies from a logistics centre on the edge of the city at off-peak periods. But it remains to be seen whether that building work will be similarly marked by a gun salute and the national anthem.