The city a school

A place in which to make contact, negotiate and sharpen points of view. That’s how Herman Hertzberger sees the city. And that’s how he wants the countless schools he designed to function. The exhibition Hertzberger’s Amsterdam, organised by ARCAM architecture centre to mark his 75th birthday displays a number of them.

1. De Drie Hoven

2. Bijlmer Monument

3. Model of City Hall, 1967

The Linmij project illustrates the structuralist design language that Hertzberger also displayed in his renowned Centraal Beheer complex. The loose arrangement of geometrical volumes makes these buildings informal and non-hierarchical, and allows sufficient scope for appropriation by occupants. As early as the 1950s Hertzberger had indicated his interest in a more humane architecture in his work as editor of the periodical Forum. His relationship with Aldo van Eyck meant he could attend a number of Team 10 meetings. It was therefore only natural that Hertzberger also played a role in the process of urban renewal in Amsterdam in which, after the large-scale wave of post-war clearance and reconstruction, building for the neighbourhood was put centre stage once again. A respectful process of urban reconstruction that emphasised housing was the priority. The exhibition includes the plan that Hertzberger submitted for the renewal of the Nieuwmarkt district (1970), in which he proposed floating houses as a temporary solution for residents in need of emergency housing. That would allow them to remain part of the neighbourhood community during demolition and rebuilding. This scheme was never realised but some years later Hertzberger did elaborate the Haarlemmer Houttuinen (1978-1982) urban renewal project.

The enthusiasm of these projects jumps off the pages. Those typical Hertzberger-style notations in his small, dense handwriting embellished with lots of tiny sketches and proposals pasted together all reflect the turbulent 1970s. Photos of completed projects – almost always depicting people, just like Hertzberger’s drawings – do the rest. They depict people happily eating and talking in Hertzberger’s very first project, the block of student flats on Weesperstraat (1959-1966) where the broad raised streets lined with benches function as they were meant to. The lively street scenes in the housing blocks on Haarlemmer Houttuinen are also clear evidence of Hertzberger’s achievements. What’s more, they show something of the Amsterdam city life that must have been, and still must be, a vital source of inspiration to Hertzberger.

As a born Amsterdammer, Hertzberger experienced the liveliness, cultural differences and intensity so typical of city life and introduced those qualities in his schools. He worked on so many commissions in Amsterdam that his body of work practically mirrors the building history of the city. He completed his first project on Weesperstraat, for example, at a time where it was one of the largest and most hotly debated roadways to be cut through Amsterdam. He then drew up a plan for the Nieuwmarkt area, the symbol urban renewal, and later again he designed the Bijlmer Monument (1996-1998), a memorial for the biggest disaster to hit Amsterdam in the 1990s.

It’s a pity that this close relationship between Hertzberger and Amsterdam remains under-explored in the exhibition. There is, for example, no city plan that allows you to trace Hertzberger’s body of work and, hence, the city’s history. The grouping of school designs is certainly interesting, all the more so because Hertzberger himself so emphatically compares the school to the city, but it distracts from the Amsterdam angle. As a result, the exhibition does not read as the travel guide it wants to be. Moreover, the inspiration that Hertzberger took from Amsterdam is unexplored. Only briefly do you sense his fascination for the city when, in a programme for local TV station AT5 he enthused about the fantastic view over the Amstel waterway that he wanted to breathe new life into with his Waternet office. It only makes you long for more. Which places are important to him? What did Amsterdam teach him? And what does he think he gave, and gives, in return. A true travel guide through Hertzberger’s Amsterdam. Hopefully that will be covered by the book to be released on May 31 to accompany the exhibition. And, who knows, maybe on July 6 Hertzberger will celebrate his 75th birthday by once more becoming our city teacher and travel guide…?

Hertzberger is renowned for the way he shaped, and continues to shape, a new and less traditional system of education that has evolved since the 1970s thanks to the influence of Maria Montessori and others. His schools do not emphasise learning from books or according to methods. Instead, he creates spaces where pupils can learn from one another and from the world outside in a playful manner. That’s why almost all of his schools feature a large central hall that takes over the function of circulation space from the corridor and, at the same time, accommodates a host of other activities. The assembly room of De Eilanden School on Grote Bickersstraat (1996-2002), for example, doubles as gymnasium, playroom and music room. Sliding doors also allow assembly hall and classrooms to connect.

Hertzberger built and rebuilt around twenty schools, an achievement that makes him the éminence grise of Dutch school design (see the recently published issue of OASE devoted to school building). It is therefore no surprise that around half the ARCAM exhibition is devoted to these designs. They are displayed (close) to one another on one table. Design drawings, models and photos illustrate Hertzberger’s search for a new type of school. The classrooms with various open connections, the stairs that doubles as seating gallery (as in the two Apollo schools in Oud Zuid, 1980-1983) and the large multipurpose central hall are the recurring elements in these projects. Over the years Hertzberger developed various tools to strengthen these constants, among them flexible doors, foldable tables and so on.

The most striking change between the early and recent school designs lies in the design language. The rough concrete-block and box-like structures of the early years have given way to glass, aluminium and wood in more spaciously designed volumes. This change is also evident in other projects on show at ARCAM. Compare the recently completed undulating head office for Waternet on the bank of the Amstel waterway (2000-2005) to the early and now demolished Linmij factory extension in Bos en Lommer (1962-1964). The essence of the buildings – an open daylight-filled workplace in which people come into contact with one another in an easy manner – remains the same. But the difference between the big gesture that the two tall volumes placed perpendicular to each other of Waternet and the small-scale, block-like extension to Linmij couldn’t be greater.