Itinerary 2 . The Netherlands & Belgium . Oct 7-10 & Dec 13-14


Canal in Central Amsterdam

Sunday, October 10

On a high-speed train returning to Paris after 4 days in Holland. Arriving at Rotterdam now, one of 3 stops on this route between Amsterdam and Paris, including Brussels and Antwerp in Belgium. The Netherlands excursion pushes out a planned Scandinavian trip to the 14th (of which the first leg is by air), due to a connection made in Paris with Camilla, who was traveling to A’dam as well before returning home to Washington, DC. Camilla recognized an English voice speaking to Faty (my landlord) in Faty’s internet shop in Paris, and introduced herself. A meeting for coffee was arranged at Pompidou Center a couple of days later, then dinner at a cous cous place with she and Aicha, a friend of hers also from the US, but living in Paris for many years. The two knew each other some years back when Camilla lived in Paris and they were part of a group of African-American ex-pats in Paris called ‘Sisters’. It was the first time in Amsterdam for us both, Camilla having arrived by air a couple of days ahead of me. She was there to visit Lisa, a childhood friend from New York now living in Amsterdam. Having one or two people to hang with on excursions like this is a huge plus, especially with ones familiar with a place.

Amsterdam is as colorful and diverse as I imagined. Unlike many Parisians (as apparently distinct from the French in general), people there clearly enjoy assisting and interacting with visitors. It also helps that seemimgly everyone understands and embraces English, again unlike many Parisians. With the exception of the city's less centralized location, I might have preferred basing there instead of Paris, and I understand that A’dam is in some respects a better transportation hub. I was surprised that a call got through from Camilla on my pre-paid cell phone on arrival at Amsterdam Centraal Rail Station since it only has a French chip in it. That evening, her friend Lisa hosted a dinner party for a group that I was invited to. It was a small but diverse group, including Lisa and Gloria, who are Jewish, Pietro (Italian), Vanessa (Chinese), John & Jean (American), myself and Camilla (Black), and a tall Dutch guy whose name I forget. The discussion centered on academia among other things, with John and jean both professors at the U. of A, Vanessa a quantum physicist, Gloria a linguist, Camilla having taught English in France, and the Dutch guy a recent doctoral candidate.

The next day was interesting to say the least. Lisa and Camilla biked to the Hotel Linda on Stadhouderskade where I was staying, and from there we rode around the old city (roughly defined by the half circle within the outer ring Stadhouderskade Street below the North Sea Canal), me on a bike that I rented from the hotel. Cycling is probably the most common mode of transportation, and bicycles are king, as evidenced by multi-level bicycle garages and stations around the old city, roughly defined as the half circle within the encircling Stadhouderskadewhich. Also ubiquitous is the aroma of weed and hash wafting from the countless ‘coffeeshops’ in the canal districts. The city also has a great mass transit system in its streetcar, bus and subway system, and is connected to other parts via domestic train and the hi-speed country-to-country system. We arrived at Gloria’s apartment, which is in one of the most desirable neighborhoods in Central A’dam. A free-sprited 60-ish divorcee originally from Brooklyn, Gloria not only served up tea and baked confections, but rolled out one of those other Amsterdam coffeeshop staples even as her twenty-something daughter was visiting. Her daughter, a photographer, made a game of asking everyone their childhood addresses and  bringing up their images  on Google Streetview.  Later we walked a few blocks to De Rookery, a “coffeeshop” in her neighborhood. Pictures were allowed, but the proprietor indicated that we should not take pics of certain other products. Of course, the coffeeshops all sell coffee and pastries.

Dinner Party In Amsterdam

Bridge over Canal, Amsterdaam

Bicycle Garage, Amsterdam

View of Amsterdam Central Rail Station from Rokin Centrum 

Residences and Boathouses Along a Canal, Amsterdam

Hilversum Town Hall (1931)  Photography by D. Franklin - 10/09/2010

Pond at Town Hall Complex

The second full day in the Netherlands and third overall was spent in research I guess, but was not really work at all. I took trains to Hilversum and Utrecht to see Willem Dudok’s Hilversum Town Hall (1931), and Gerrit Rietveld’s Schroder House (1924, Utrecht). The towns are on separate lines from Amsterdam, but I was able to book a round trip from A’dam to Hilversum first, then to Utrecht, and back to A’dam. Each leg was about 20-25 minutes, separated by the time spent in each town.

Hilversum Town Hall (HTH) probably represents the essence of what I set out to do in my fellowship research (if you can call it that – but let’s call it a review instead), which is to compare and illustrate the value of an understanding of classical scale and proportion in the creation of timeless modern architecture. Dudok, an early modernist, clearly understood this or at least had an innate sense of it, which I think is actually sometimes the guiding force in great modern architecture. HTH is located in a leafy residential neighborhood in Hilversum, and no other commercial buildings are within view. It appears more as a modernist church than a government complex, with its modern ‘ecclesiastical ‘ clock tower, bucolic grounds, and adjacent rectangular lake replete with ducks and a fountain. Only a cross is missing. The complex consists of a large main building and a secondary structure separated by two portals leading to parking and service areas within an inner courtyard (not visible from the neighborhood). The portals are semi-connected by white steel extensions protruding from either side of the complex’s low-slung flat roofs at those points, but not touching. A clean, modernist ‘invisible ridge’. True to its Bauhausian edict and ‘planar’ style, not a single angle exists on or in the building (arbitrary or not, and as distinct from so many of today’s slant-happy practitioners), save for chamfered glazed turquoise accent brick used with perfect restraint at window recesses. The building’s exterior is otherwise clad in a buff brick, each measuring about 1-3/4” high by 12” long. Mortar joints are nearly half the brick height, creating a subconsious complement in scale to the horizontal proportion of the overall complex. A blackish glazed brick is used (also sparingly), at covered walkways leading to entrances, and the blue-ish brick is repeated at clock recesses near the top of the tower, set off perfectly against the Azure October sky as if Dudok had this day in mind when selecting the clockface background colors(See photo). Limestone accents complete the exterior material palette, terminating brick recesses and reliefs placed both horizontally and vertically in rythmic proportion around the structure.  The building is reminiscent in scale (and tower element) to Noi Trotsky's 1932 Kirovsky Town Hall in St. Petersburg, a site at the top of my list to visit before visa and euro exchange rate issues got in the way.  Note that the two town hall buildings were completed within about a year of each other.

The town of Hilversum obviously takes the preservation of this building very seriously as evidenced by its pristine condition and upkeep. From a modernist’s point of view, the Hilversum Town Hall is for me as awe-inspiring if not more so, than Notre Dame in Paris and is a building to be experienced and not just seen. While I had seen Hilversum in photos and studied it under Both Paul Kruty at Illinois and Kenneth Frampton at Columbia, I was blown away by it in person. I was also struck (but not really surprised) by the influence of Dudok on the architecture throughout the town, which is seemingly as pervasive as Wright’s on Oak Park or Mackintosh’s on Glasgow, Scotland. Even today, the name Dudok is in the popular lexicon of Hilversum, as evidenced by the Café Dudok and the street ‘Dudok Centrum’ (see photos). Influenced both by early Wright and the De Stijl (the style) movement to some extent, Dudok spawned a number of his own disciples, including this one.

Hilversum Town Hall

Secondary Structure at Town Hall Complex

Portals to Inner Courtyard

Roof Extensions at Courtyard Portal

Entry Walkway With Glazed Brick Accents, Original to 1931

Note brick height-to-mortar joint height ratio and proportion

Clock Towr with Glazed Blue Brick Accents Forming Clocks

Cafe Dudok, Hilversum

Dudok Centrum (Street), Hilversum, The netherlands
Photography by D. Franklin - 10/09/2010

Schroder House - Utrecht, 1924

After several hours in Hilversum (which aside from its beautiful neighborhoods, open-air market, and its remarkable landmark town hall building, seems fairly non-descript), I caught a train to Utrecht. I had imagined this to be a gray, worn, industrial city of aging factories from where youths fled to Amsterdam or someplace. Instead I found a vibrant, thriving city of markets, cathedrals, narrow passageways filled with shops and restaurants, medieval towers, grand parks, and probably more bicycles per capita than Amsterdam. I was there to see Rietveld’s 1924 Schroder House, so named for its original owners. Hoping to get some decent photos before the sun disappeared, I grabbed a taxi from Utrecht Centraal Train Station to the site, which was about 10 minutes and 12 Euros away. I’d recently seen photos of the house and noticed that unlike my impressions from arch school, the building appeared to have been constructed against the end of a block of historic rowhouses. Upon seeing this to be the case, I imagined how the town’s historicists and purists must have reacted as the plans were presented. Schroder House is in stark contrast to its immediately neighboring buildings and represents an in-your-face gesture to the Bauhaus and De Stijl Schools at a time when fascist eschewing of the growing modernist movements must have just been brewing. An outgrowth of the Bauhaus movement was that of De Stijl, or ‘the style’, as much an art as architecture movement, and which had as its key principles the use of ninety-degree compositional elements, primary colors with black and white, and stark asymmetrical form. Early proponents of De Stijl in art included Theo Van Doesburg and Piet Mondrian, whose two-dimensional compositions seem to have been translated by Rietveld into three-dimensions in the form of Schroder House. Like the Hilversum Town Hall, Schroder House is well-proportioned, and while the scaling of its own elements are very much in keeping with its proportions, the structure as a whole appears starkly out of context and scale to its surroundings. You get the sense that this was not lost on Rietveld and that the building’s scale (and flat roof) juxtaposed literally against its neighboring 3-story dark brick rowhouses with pitched tile roofs was a statement of architectural defiance. Hidden on the other side of a viaduct one lot away from Schroder house is a complex of newer structures in the international style, part of which houses a ticket office for tours of Schroder House and a museum of sorts offering video screenings, gifts, and a display of miniature Rietveld-designed furniture gifted to the conservancy as a gift by their creator.

Schroder House, Utrecht

Juxtaposition of 2-story 1924 Schroder House Against 3-story
Traditional Townhouses

Schroder House, Side View

Utrecht, Holland

Utrecht, Holland

I arrived back in Amsterdam at about 8:30, wandered the streets looking for the city’s infamous Red Light District (you know, just looking), but instead ended up at the Alto Jazz Café, a place I’d researched before leaving the U.S., and that had only a 5 Euro cover that night. By this point I had enough of a sense of the streetcar system to find my way back to the Hotel Linda before midnight.

On my third day, because I had booked only two nights at the Hotel Linda and nothing was available there for a third night, I moved to the Hotel Residence Le Coin, which was much more centrally located (at the end of Rokin Centrum), was nicer, and less expensive. I got up early that morning, and checked out, meeting Camilla near the train station for a boat excursion along the city’s canals. The boat ride included a narration of the many notable places we passed, including the Anne Frank House. Our neighbors at our table on the boat were a group of Nigerian policeman who arrived in the city at 5:30 that morning for some kind of training, they explained. Camilla had a 2pm flight back to DC and needed to leave for the airport by Noon, but we managed to grab some breakfast at the Café Thijssen, the kind of non-touristy neighborhood place we were looking for. I had a 5:16 pm train ride back to Paris, and used the extra time for some photo-taking and browsing on my own. Like Paris, Amsterdam is full of lively, angling alleyways terminated at their ends by cathedrals, monuments, or streetscapes in the perpendicular direction. It was during my final walk through these areas and the canal neighborhoods that I literally stumbled upon the Red Light District. This area, as near as I could tell, consisted of three or four blocks on both sides of a canal, intersected along the way by narrow alleys offering an array of products and, um, services. While I knew that they existed, it was startling to first encounter the red velvet-draped ‘display’ windows housing live beings, especially during broad daylight. It was later explained to me by a Dutchman sitting next to me on the train back to Paris that the girls are generally not Dutch, but mostly from The Ukraine, Russia and sometimes Africa. I guess it is part of the ritual to see this area when first visiting the city, and my stumbling upon it completed my stay in Amsterdam.  Upon arrival back in Paris 3-1/2 hours later, I felt like a local as I deftly made my way from Gare Du Nord train station and back to my place in the 16th via the number 10 subway, taking on the manner of a Frenchman annoyed at all the tourists.

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1 comment:

  1. David, you have truly documented and visited some wonderful and interesting sites. Thanks for the blog and enjoy this venture. Take care, Ted and Rita Rivers