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Warnersblokken apartments inspired by ‘servants’ issue’

The General Expansion Plan (Algemeen Uitbreidingsplan), devised before but largely implemented after World War II, laid the groundwork for the Amsterdam city map as we now know it and offered excellent opportunities for Dutch architects. Two of these architects, the Warners, were father and son. The father, Philip Anne Warners, was already an established name in the first half of the twentieth century. He designed several unusual office buildings and introduced the concept of the apartment to Amsterdam. Mainly in Oud-Zuid, he built properties in which well-to-do families could move into a luxury apartment floor, rather than the whole house. His son, Allert Warners, followed in his father’s footsteps as an architect. He trained with him before the war and, after it, they became partners. In their firm, as happened widely during that period, a battle raged between the old and new guard, between the Amsterdam School architectural style and New Objectivity (het Nieuwe Bouwen).

Unité d’Habitation
Wikimedia

Le Corbusier

In 1952, the pair were commissioned to build a large number of homes and shops in the new garden city of Slotermeer. However, Warners senior died that same year, clearing the way for his son Allert to build a new-style complex. He took much of his inspiration from the overall vision of French architect Le Corbusier, and more specifically, his apartment building Unité d’Habitation in Marseille. In this complex, the apartments protrude slightly beyond the concrete pillars on which they were built. Warners was seduced by this design, both in terms of its construction and its blend of architecture and art. Taking inspiration from Mondriaan, Le Corbusier had added colourful panels to the integrated balconies in Marseille. For his project, Warners enlisted the services of the Belgian Mondriaan devotee Joseph Ongenae, who opted to put colourful panels on the front of the building. It is thanks to these panels that the two complexes in Slotermeer ultimately became known as the Large and Small Paintboxes.

The Large Paintbox, 1957
Stadsarchief Amsterdam

Second chance

The aim of these buildings was to offer as many homes as possible to families wishing to live slightly more spaciously than was possible in the older districts of the city centre. This was a subsidised project, subject to the regulations laid down in the Housing Act (Woningwet), which meant that the buildings had to meet all kinds of stipulations set by central and local government. Although Warners was able to make many of his ideas a reality, the final result did not turn out exactly as he had envisaged. Fortunately, he had a second chance.

From Prinses Irenestraat 1957
Stadsarchief Amsterdam

New target group

In 1950, as the first occupants were moving into their apartments in Slotermeer, construction started on some similar buildings in a completely different part of the city. Commissioned by two private developers, Warners built four identical housing blocks on an undeveloped plot of land next to the Zuider Amstelkanaal. Although the design was similar to the buildings in Slotermeer, the architect adopted a much freer approach to the layout of the buildings. Warners made the apartments significantly more spacious. A two-bedroom home in Zuid was 25% larger than a three-bedroom flat in Slotermeer. The flats had more spacious bathrooms, with a bath tub and double wash basin, as well as central heating and garages. The buildings were luxury in design and were aimed at a new and different target group – one that the city council was not even sure existed.

1967
Stadsarchief Amsterdam
1967
Stadsarchief Amsterdam

Servants’ issue

In order to demonstrate that there was a market for these kind of luxury flats, the developers collected signatures from interested parties. The idea was to convince the city council that ‘their claim that there would be no demand for small flats was not matched by reality. It is clear from the addresses on the lists that the candidates are among the more prosperous citizens of Amsterdam, obliged to find smaller housing because of the servants’ issue’. The list was signed by hundreds of people. Whether this was because of the servants’ issue is uncertain. But it is definitely true that the problem created a market for the flats. This was an issue that Warners’ senior had already tapped into before the war: the service staff of richer families were becoming increasingly ambitious and harder to find, making them more expensive. This put paid to the idea, prevalent at that time, of a family home with sufficient living space for the staff. This is precisely why Warners senior introduced the luxury apartment. His son then actually developed the concept in the post-war period. And it proved to be a success. The apartments, split up horizontally thanks to new regulations, enabling them to be sold, proved remarkably popular among the ‘more well-to-do’. Many of these people were part of the cultural elite, such as the then director of the Stedelijk Museum, Willem Sandberg.

Warnersblokken apartments now
Marcel Steinbach

Pioneering

Ultimately, Warners built the buildings in Zuid that he had originally envisaged for Slotermeer. They are different complexes, designed for different target groups in different neighbourhoods, but still remarkably similar thanks to remaining true to Le Corbusier’s ideas and Ongenae’s artistry. Both complexes were also equally pioneering in their own ways. Over the years, the dual-aspect open-plan apartments in Slotermeer have been visited by many thousands of people interested in public housing and architecture. The luxury ‘bachelor flats’ in Zuid heralded the start of a completely new market. Behind these colourful façades hides an interesting difference between two neighbourhoods and possibly also a partial explanation for how these neighbourhoods have developed since the 1950s. Although Warners junior may never have achieved his father’s reputation, with these buildings he still left something that amounts to more than just a few cheerfully-coloured façades.

This is the eighth in a series about national and municipal monuments in and around Zuidas. The first was on the subject of the Thomaskerk. The second was about the old courthouse. The third about the Europahal. The fourth about the Burgerweeshuis. The fifth about the Rietveld Academie. The sixth about the Buitenveldert cemetery. The seventh about Tripolis.

Text: Jort van Dijk

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