The entryway of the 80-unit apartment complex in Amsterdam.
Photo © Dennis De Smet

In Amsterdam, a Socially Conscious Housing Development Takes Formal Inspiration from the Past

Marcel Lok and Korth Tielens Architects designed an 80-unit residential structure in the style of the Amsterdamse School with the hope of creating a new heart for an old neighborhood.

The Spaarndammerbuurt neighborhood lies just northwest Amsterdam’s city center. It has been densely built up in the late 19th and early 20th century, predominantly to house the workers of the nearby harbor in large, heavy housing blocks of red bricks. Today the area is notable for some of these housing blocks which were built by famous Dutch architects like Pierre Cuypers or Michel de Klerk. Their style is known as the Amsterdamse School, a strain of early Modernism that blended modern social housing with expressionistic features and traditional materials, resulting in superb large volumes with fluid forms and a love for a variety of crafted details.

The hard bricks become a fluid surface that forms gentle waves.

The entryway and garden of the 80-unit apartment complex in Amsterdam with brick artwork on the path.
Photo © Dennis De Smet.

Now, more than 100 years later, these ideas are reborn in a joint design by local firms Marcel Lok and Korth Tielens Architects. Their large housing block replaces a demolished 1970s school complex which had been built across the street. The 80-unit project was undertaken with a multidisciplinary team that included DS Landscape and visual artist Martijn Sandberg. With the new scheme, the urban tissue is restored to its 19th-century layout – which seems appropriate since the neighborhood is, except for a few scars, still largely intact. Yet there is no nostalgia in this new architecture. “Our architecture is unmistakably contemporary,” says architect Gus Tielens, “yet with subtle characteristic references to the Amsterdamse School, like the rich brickwork in red and yellow, the glazed surfaces of the bricks in the courtyard, and an articulation of the building mass which gets ‘soft’ here and there.” For examples of what Tielens describes as soft, look to the arched gateways leading from the street into the large semi-public courtyard, or the dark red brick facade of the building across the street, which forms vertical curves to mark the entrances. This way, the hard bricks become a fluid surface that forms gentle waves.

A view of the complex from the rear, showing more angular brickwork
Photo © Dennis De Smet.

The ensemble includes a diverse residential program with 80 apartments ranging from 377 to 1,690 square feet, one third of which is publicly subsidized. The row of dark red bricks across the street comprises 16 slender townhouses with four floors each. Their ground floors can be used for living or commercial use. The block of yellow bricks with the arched gateways includes 64 apartments in a five-story volume along the street and three three-story wings around an almost square courtyard.  With some of these apartments stretching over multiple floors, the complex contains a rich variety of sizes and typology. To extend this idea of an inviting openness, the space between the new block and the older residential houses around is turned into a collective garden accessible for the entire neighborhood and the ground floor along the street features two communal spaces for rent by neighborhood initiatives. This “Spaarndammerhart” could indeed, as the architects hope, become “a new heart” for the area, accessible and open to a large and diverse group of people.

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