A complex renovation by AHMM lends an enviable sense of ease to the University of Amsterdam’s Roeterseiland campus, finds Joseph Rykwert
To have restructured a university campus – as Allford Hall Monaghan Morris has done for the University of Amsterdam – to everybody’s satisfaction is almost suspicious. The architects of any existing structure are usually defensive of their achievement; academics – a doggedly conservative lot – tend to be very attached to their existing quarters, however cramped and awkward they may have been; and students are always a fractious though inevitably a fluctuating group (and in Amsterdam they have been particularly restless in recent years). To have won the assent, even the approval of these three constituencies – as AHMM seems to have done – is already a vast, if a subjective achievement.
Yet even a brief visit to the campus will, I am sure, convince you that the success of the building is rooted in the realities of the institution and of the place, and seems already taken for granted by its users. You will witness it as you see both teachers and students move through the building and use its facilities with enviable ease.
To be user-friendly is not always considered an architectural virtue. Yet it seems to me to be an essential quality in a project which is in such constant public use. In fact, the original buildings on the site had been designed by the then city architect. It was a self-contained campus, well to the east of the old university buildings. The original designer proposed a layout with an L-shaped slab block spanning the canal, with two towers adjoining it, of which only one was built. The slab element (which was only partially finished) foreclosed an urban panorama. That panorama has now been allowed to breathe through the opening over the canal produced by raising the central 40-metre-wide section four floors above the street level.
As you approach the complex you will be aware of the way its occupants spill out over the banks of the Nieuwe Achtergracht, which runs north-east to south-west. The banks of the canal have been stepped to discourage any thought of parking – either of cars or bicycles – and so reserve the canal edges for strollers. Large bicycle stores as well as car parking are provided in the undergrounds of the project to compensate for this.
A new bridge over the canal also links a roomy old entrance hall in the old building to the new one, inserted between the slab block and the high-rise building, so that the new hall and the old one, as well as the canal-banks and the new bridge make a continuous and semi-public space to be served by the shops and cafes which will occupy the newly opened base of the tower.
When reconsidering the fate of the campus, one of the adminsitration’s primary moves had been to remove the existing physical sciences faculties outside the project, and so to be able to replace their superannuated laboratories. The volume so vacated created a planning and real-estate problem for the university. An urban renewal project for the site also proposed the architectural competition which was won by AHMM. So the building is now occupied by the social and human sciences and the law faculties.
The different departments’ quarters are clearly demarcated into ‘houses’. Ample study-places were also created throughout; students tend to work near libraries and in the calm they provide rather than at home. At the centre of the scheme is a 40-metre-long, double-story space inserted into the cut-out over the canal, which opens both ways onto airy urban views to create a relaxed, almost a panoramic ‘commons’ which serves the whole complex.
The vertical fenestration which replaces the grid glazing to articulate the whole slab-and-bridge element was a bold move, and the carefully profiled window frames provide a gently rhythmic scansion and as well as a textured surface to that dominant facade. At either end of that building, vertical ‘atria’, rather than the usual compact stairwells, provide emphatic pauses in the circulation, as well as orientation points.
When it was determined that the law faculty should relocate to Roeterseiland, parts of the point block were redesigned to attract it. Holes cut into floorplates create lightwells to aid orientation in cellularised office areas, and specific facilities such as a moot court were created.
It all seems to fit together as if it had been devised as such from the outset. When you visit the buildings you would never suspect that its making was such a tortuous and awkward process. It feels very much as if it had resulted from a sequence of straightforward and simple decisions. Everything seems to fit together quite smoothly. Even such details as the quite prominent, and also rather exhilarating graphics throughout the building seem to have resulted from – been a by-product of – the process by which the different elements coalesced.
Allford Hall Monaghan Morris
University of Amsterdam
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