The Lever House is a glass skyscraper on Park Avenue in Manhattan. It was one of the first skyscrapers in New York to be built with what is known as a curtain wall. This is a non-load-bearing structure made of lightweight materials that forms the separation between the interior and exterior. Amsterdam’s Stadionkade may not be Park Avenue, but anyone walking past and glancing at the Rietveld Academie will see exactly that kind of outer wall. As the current cohort of students now sit in their work spaces behind the glass, that glass has a hidden history of its own.
‘Place of exile’
During a lecture in 1953, furniture designer and architect Gerrit Rietveld was eager to address the question of whether quality architecture could consist of prefabricated components. ‘The Lever House in New York shows this is possible and that it can be really beautiful. (…) A balanced use of stainless-steel sheeting and two types of glass, which is actually quite wonderful.’ People listening to this lecture at the time may not have realised that there was more to this comment than admiration alone. Two years before that, having taken advice from Benjamin Merkelback, the architect had submitted a preliminary design for the new Instituut voor Kunstnijverheidsonderwijs (Institute for Education in the Applied Arts). Rather than Fred. Roeskestraat, the location for it was an undeveloped plot of land close to Amstel station. For the design, Rietveld relied heavily on inspiration acquired in New York. But his glass and concrete structure would not be built on that site, where restaurant Dauphine is now located. The Board deemed it unsuitable, calling it ‘socially and culturally a place of exile’.
So, the Board and Council had to find a new location and Rietveld returned to the drawing board. It was not until 1954 that they came up with a new location and a new design. Again, the architect looked to America for inspiration. His design for the new building was divided into four sections, each 6 x 6 m, that needed to be built using modern prefab techniques. ‘A beautifully rhythmical concrete skeleton, with no further cladding other than that desirable for effective maintenance and comfortable use.’ The main change compared to the previous design was that the outer wall was no longer load-bearing. That opened up the possibility of a glass curtain wall, just like in New York. This glass curtain symbolises the open character that is central to Rietveld’s design. This called for lines of sight not only from the inside out, but also between the different rooms, studios, and workshops. In order to enable students to be inspired by each other’s ideas, there needed to be as much openness as possible. Amid austere colours and simple materials, it was up to the students and their work to provide colour.
Based on this vision, Rietveld not only designed an art academy in Amsterdam, but also in Arnhem. Although the process was initiated later, there was less fuss about locations and approvals, so the building was erected much faster. Teaching had already started in Arnhem when the foundations were yet to be laid in Amsterdam. But that ultimately led to even more delay. The cause: the glass curtain wall. In Arnhem, this soon developed leaks and also caused problems with the temperature. The poorly-ventilated building was ice-cold in winter and boiling hot in summer. As students began to faint in Arnhem, the Board in Amsterdam started to question the whole endeavour. But the architect managed to convince them. He made adjustments to the outer wall and pushed ahead with his design. In early 1964, 14 years after the new Academy had been given the go-ahead, digging work finally started. But the pile-driving had not even begun when Gerrit Rietveld died in the summer of that year. His partners completed construction and the Academy was named after its architect in honour of his work.
In the decades that followed, generations of students studied at the Academy. In the late 1990s, the calls for renovations became increasingly loud. This proved expensive, because the building had seriously deteriorated after 30 years. The aim of the renovation was to return the building as far as possible to its original design. But the curtain wall proved a major stumbling block. Despite its attractive and characteristic appearance, it was single-glazed and still causing problems. Not only for students and their tutors who had to work at 40° temperatures, but also the Board, who realised that the building no longer met modern standards for insulation. But it proved to be impossible to improve the insulation within the available budget without reducing the views through the windows. The original outer wall remained in place.
In the ensuing years, the main problem at the Academy was not the insulation, but lack of space. Although a new building had already been added during renovation, that was proving to be inadequate. With relocation looming, a protest soon followed and, after much wrangling, the Rietveld stayed where it was. However, the Academy expanded with the addition of a new building. After a long time apart, all parts of the Academy have been back together at a single location since 2019. This is expected to remain the case for the time being. But this still raises questions about an issue that has been plaguing the Rietveld for half a century: the curtain wall.
It is ironic that the glass curtain wall was ever a point of contention. Although it was central to the design, Rietveld was also the man who said ‘that we should not regard the architecture of today as suitable for the future or build as if we already know what will be needed then’. The Academy that exists to stimulate new ideas is sticking to the old concept. The fact that it has had monumental status since 2002 undoubtedly contributes to that. What Rietveld would have felt about its preservation will never be known, but it is certainly in tune with the spirit of the times. It was announced this summer that the Getty Foundation is providing funds to conserve this important example of 20th-century architecture. A research group has been set up to explore how best to achieve this. The most important issue? I’m sure you can guess what it is.
Text: Jort van Dijk