This was just one of many compliments showered on Van Eyck’s creation in 1986. It had recently come to light that the owner of the building, the Social Agogic Centre (SAC), wanted to demolish part of this building on the IJsbaanpad. For Hertzberger, this was reason enough to climb the barricades and rush to the building’s defence. A few months later, he published a pamphlet ‘Save the Burgerweeshuis’, together with Stichting Wonen. The architect appealed to his friends and colleagues to share their thoughts and opinions about the building. So many superlatives, famous names, and faraway places. The building is ‘a delicate, intricate piece of architecture, like lacework’, wrote Karel Appel. ‘One of the most important architectural monuments of our century’, commented a museum in Basel. And ‘if any building in the Netherlands must be preserved, this is it’, said Rem Koolhaas.
‘A crime against architecture’
The accolades printed in ‘Save the Burgerweeshuis’ stretched from Texas to Tokyo. But they fell on deaf ears. The owners of the building only saw a building that no longer lived up to modern standards of privacy; a building that was poorly insulated and full of shortcomings. The SAC proposed retaining the entrance to the building but flattening the rest. ‘A premeditated crime against architecture’, wrote Izak Salomons in a letter sent to Het Parool newspaper.
A coherent whole
The plans would have meant decapitating this building, which Van Eyck had designed as a coherent whole. Van Eyck’s vision was comprehensive: a small world within a larger world and a larger world in a smaller world; a house within a city and a city within a house; a home for children. This is visible in the building’s layout, but also in the very smallest details, which explicitly take the building’s young residents into account. From mirrors that are mounted at children’s height to low windows, distorting funfair mirrors, and a concrete base for the Christmas tree. Based on his experience of designing playgrounds around the city, Van Eyck managed to put himself in the position of the children who would inhabit this world. And he also took different age groups into account. Extra privacy in the section for teenagers. Play and experimentation for the little ones. Each had their own spaces within the building, and yet they were all connected. You can only really see that connectivity from the air. That’s the ingenious thing about the Burgerweeshuis: you can only see the concept properly from above, and you can only see the details properly from inside. A random passer-by walking on Amstelveenseweg would just see some low-rise buildings that look like bunkers, made of large bricks with a concrete upper section. In order to discover that the building is more than that, you have to want to discover it. And the fact that you still can is remarkable.
A change of heart
It was not only Herman Hertzberger and his colleagues who came to the building’s defence in the late 1980s. The Council of Monuments, also known as the Dooijes Committee, also issued urgent advice to the municipality: grant the building protected status, so that demolition can be prevented. But protected status is only possible 50 years after a building has been built and no exception could be made to that rule. Fortunately, after all the controversy, the owners of the building eventually had a change of heart. The site was sold to the municipality, which would then find a buyer who would ensure proper renovation and build an office building between the children’s home and the A10. Once that buyer was found, Aldo van Eyck and his wife Hannie were asked to design the Tripolis office towers (more about this later in this series). This marked the start of a new era for the Burgerweeshuis.
After the renovation, the building changed hands frequently during the 1990s, and was also used for different purposes. Herman Hertzberger initially occupied part of the building with the Berlage Institute that he founded. The other section first housed the SAC and later various businesses. The Berlage Institute left in 1997, and the businesses eventually did too. The building fell into disrepair and became vacant except for a dental practice in the management house. While ‘architectural murder’ had been the fear in the 1980s, there was now concern that the building may die of neglect.
National monument status
In 2009, an application process for monument status gave the building yet another lease of life. Its remarkable design, interesting details, architectural-historical value – all aspects that had been lauded in ‘Save the Burgerweeshuis’ 28 years earlier – were included in the assessment of the building that was declared a national monument in 2014. Three months later, the building was sold for the last time and not long afterwards, the architect Wessel de Jonge, who was also a student of Aldo van Eyck, was approached to undertake a major renovation project. For 18 months, he worked on the renovation project with owner Zadelhoff/Nijkerk Burgerweeshuis and tenant Bouwfonds Property Development (BPD). The project needed to bring together the original details with modern building requirements. Underfloor heating has been installed, the domes have been fitted with sound-proof foam, and the cubby holes where the children used to store their shoes now house a Wi-Fi hotspot.
Plane loads of admirers
The 150 employees of BPD have (in normal times) the privilege of working in a building where you never stop discovering new details. For the rest of us, it is possible (in normal times) to take a guided tour every second Saturday. There are also regular events involving the BPD’s art collection. But it is also worth lingering to take a closer look at those bunker-like buildings along the Amstelveenseweg and the entrance around the corner. As you do, remember the words that Herman Hertzberger used to defend the Burgerweeshuis: ‘There are plane loads of people flying in to admire this building. While we wonder what to do with it next. We don’t seem to realize what we have, right here on our doorstep.’
Author: Jort van Dijk