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The monumental Princesseflat and its tormented architect

The article in Het Vrije Volk referred to an apartment on the ninth floor of the Princesseflat complex, now a national monument in Beethovenstraat, overlooking Beatrixpark. The apartment was sold for three times its purchase price just two years after the building’s completion in 1960. The man above the adjacent garage was Mart Stam, a rising star in the world of architecture in the first half of the last century. After university and his first job, he spent the early 1920s commuting between Germany, France and the Netherlands, lecturing and debating about urban design. Stam forged links with the avant-garde in Berlin and artists in Paris, becoming involved in the well-known Bauhaus movement and launching a major architects’ conference that would become a regular event. In all of these circles, he extolled the virtues of New Objectivity (het Nieuwe Bouwen), the efficient, functional style of modernism deployed by the architects of various Zuidas monuments: buildings which make pragmatic and effective use of modern materials.

Mart Stam

Useful, economic and social

Stam was a strict adherent of this new style of architecture, as two key sources of inspiration for the movement were to discover for themselves: Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe. In 1927, the Dutchman collaborated with them on a housing estate in Stuttgart, where he made it patently clear the extremes to which he was willing to push their vision. Whereas Le Corbusier and Van der Rohe permitted a certain degree of aestheticism, for Stam architecture primarily had to serve a useful, economic and social purpose. In the 1930s, Stam joined a German colleague on a trip to Siberia to work on three urban design projects in the Soviet Union. Although it seemed the ideal place to deploy his socialist vision of architecture, the projects ultimately failed. The Soviets saw Stam’s Nieuwe Bouwen as late-capitalist bourgeois culture that was not in keeping with their monumental nationalistic style.

1988
Stadsarchief

Too communist, too decadent

On his return to the Netherlands, despite numerous ideas and submissions that were much praised (including by Le Corbusier), the architect received few commissions. He was regarded as a communist – a reputation he was no longer able to shake off with good designs – and opted to pursue a different career path. Before the war, he became director of the School of Applied Arts in Amsterdam and took on a similar position in post-war East Berlin. But, after several years, he began facing increasing opposition to his views even there. He was too much of a communist for the Netherlands, but also appeared too Western and decadent for East Germany. In 1953, a disillusioned Stam once more returned to the Netherlands with his wife. Once there, the man whose work aimed to contribute to the development of society was prevented from gaining any further opportunities because of the political label foisted onto him. Fortunately, he was eventually offered help by colleague Ben Merkelbach. This new rising star had briefly trained under Stam in the 1920s and now stepped in to save his old master. First by providing a job as a draughtsman in his office and later through a series of construction projects thanks to his role as city architect.

The entrance
Stadsarchief

Luxury high-rise

This was how, in the late 1950s, Stam was commissioned to design a so-called ‘starflat’ (star-shaped apartment block), on the edge of the yet to be developed Beatrixpark. It was a nine-storey apartment block above an elegant entrance area, similar to those built in several major Dutch cities during the post-war reconstruction period. They were relatively tall buildings, often on the edge of a park, with luxury features, such as roof terraces, marble, garages and even concierges. Huibert van Saane, director of the public housing company Nederlandse Maatschappij voor Volkshuisvesting, developed several of these as a contractor. As he wrote in 1968, the flats were his response ‘to the desire of many, mainly older couples, to exchange their spacious detached home or townhouse for a modern apartment, with all mod cons and accommodation in the form of few, but spacious rooms’.

A building by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who inspired Stam
Stadsarchief

Solnhofer tiles

The Princesseflat apartment complex matches that description perfectly. A communal roof terrace, a central foyer with a Solnhofer tiled floor and columns clad in travertine. It was the height of luxury, yet designed by the same architect who had previously attempted to get 120,000 Magnitogorsk residents to move into identical dwellings because the perfect regularity of the housing was seen as an expression of the residents’ equality. What must the architect who dreamt of that kind of urban design have thought when delivering 55 large luxury apartments, each measuring between 85 and 120 square metres? By the same token, how must he have felt when, in the space of two years, these apartments fell prey to the vagaries of the free market?

How it looks today
Gemeente Amsterdam

Wrong place, wrong time

Little is known of how Stam spent the last years of his career. However, what we do know is that his key focus was to secure his pension by working hard in his offices above the Princesseflat garages. It must certainly have been difficult for him to reconcile his social vision with the financial reality. There will doubtless also have been a period of reflection about how a once highly promising architect repeatedly ended up being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Unfortunately, we have no knowledge of how this socialist (or communist) architect really felt as he worked in his studio on Amsterdam’s ‘Gold Coast’. In 1966, he and his wife departed abruptly for Switzerland, where he would spend the rest of his years in anonymity, untraceable by colleagues and friends. It was an extraordinary end to an extraordinary career, in which the monumental Princesseflat apartment complex actually played only a very minor role. It remains primarily as a well-maintained beacon for the neighbourhood and a prime example of luxury post-war reconstruction architecture, built on expensive slabs of marble and internal conflict.

This is the tenth 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 was about the Europahal. The fourth about the Burgerweeshuis. The fifth about the Rietveld Academie. The sixth about the Buitenveldert cemetery. The seventh about Tripolis. The eighth was about the Warnersblokken apartments. The ninth was about Kapel & Convict.

Text: Jort van Dijk

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