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VU Main Building marks 50th anniversary

Anyone who sees the thousands of students heading from trains and metros in the direction of Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (VU Amsterdam) at around 09.00 in the morning could hardly imagine that this university complex used to be in the middle of fields. The Buitenveldert district itself had been completed several years earlier, as part of the city’s ‘General Expansion Plan’ (‘Algemeen Uitbreidingsplan’) dating from 1935. VU Amsterdam had been looking for space for a while, because its existing main building in Keizersgracht and the site in De Lairessestraat were struggling to cope with increasing student numbers. So, in 1953, VU Amsterdam purchased a piece of land in what was then the undeveloped Buitenveldert. The move was not uncontroversial. The location was outside the Ringspoordijk railway embankment – where the A10 Zuid and the railway and metro tracks are now located. The concept of being ‘outside of the ring road’ had already entered the local vernacular.

The VU Main Building in 1971

Beauty of concrete

The first buildings to be built were for the Academic Hospital and science faculties, in the 1970s. They were soon followed by the VU Main Building. Architects’ firm Nielsen & Spruijt came up with the design in 1967, and had to take on additional staff when awarded the contract. They included the architects Peter Snel and Rob Poel, who would ultimately make their mark on the Main Building. The original design included a glass façade that would cover the concrete. Snel and Poel hated the idea of ‘such a big glass box glimmering in the sun’ and succeeded in convincing their client of the beauty of concrete. The building’s current, still controversial, appearance is all thanks to that. Whereas some people very much approve of its brutalist features, others are depressed by this style of architecture. ‘On days without sunshine, the grey edifice weighs heavy on the spirits’, wrote journalist Frank van Kolfschooten in the Ad Valvas University newspaper back in 1991.

Connection with the city

Starting in the 1980s, by which time VU Amsterdam had developed into a huge complex complete with campus, the city gradually grew closer towards the main building. A tram and railway station at Amsterdam WTC (now Amsterdam Zuid) provided improved connections with the rest of the city. On an open site between Amsterdam Zuid and Buitenveldert, the first office buildings began to appear, followed in 1998 by the Zuidas Masterplan (Masterplan Zuidas). The area between A10, Parnassusweg/Buitenveldertselaan, Amstelveenseweg and A.J. Ernststraat is now referred to as Kenniskwartier, or ‘Innovation District’. In it, VU Amsterdam and Zuidas are developing an exciting neighbourhood bringing together health, science and business. There will be some 2,700 homes and space for knowledge-related businesses, a primary school, culture and hospitality & catering. As a result, the 75th anniversary of the VU Main Building will ultimately be celebrated in an environment that currently remains unimaginable.

Until the end of June 2023, VU Amsterdam is showing an exhibition of models of buildings (some ultimately realised and others not), including two prime exhibits featuring designs of the VU Main Building. Further information.

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