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Foreign exchange (1 of 2)

One hundred years since it was built, Berlage's Beurs in Amsterdam has a new role as a cultural centre.But its treatment of structure and decoration is still exemplary

When you emerge from Amsterdam's Central Station and, dodging bicycles and trams, make for the city centre, you come at once to a broad busy street, the Damrak. Flanked on one side by fast-food outlets and souvenir shops, its facades disfigured by brash fascias and neon signs, it doesn't look inviting. But materialising on the other side of the street, and extending 141m, is an international landmark in the development of Modern architecture - the Beurs (the Exchange) by HP Berlage, completed in 1903.

'Berlage's Exchange impressed me enormously, ' said Mies van der Rohe in an interview in 1968. 'What interested me most in Berlage was his careful construction, honest to the bones. And his spiritual attitude had nothing to do with Classicism, nothing with historic styles altogether. It was really a Modern building.'

The structural rationalism that Mies saw in the Beurs, its dispensing with stylistic fancy dress, may now seem to be the building's raison d'etre. But while praise in such terms is totally merited, it oversimplifies Berlage's achievement. The circumstances of the Beurs' design and construction; the philosophy, not just architectural but social, that informs it; the way the building was received, and its subsequent history - all these contribute to a story with surprising resonance a century later.

That story begins with an international competition in 1884-85, held by the mayor and aldermen of Amsterdam, to find a replacement for the existing Beurs - an unpopular building of 1848 by JD Zocher.

It would stand on a newly infilled site on the Damrak.

Berlage at this time was in practice with local architect Theodor Sanders. At first intending to be a painter, and studying in Amsterdam, Berlage had switched subjects and cities, enrolling on the architecture course at the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich in 1875. This was where Gottfried Semper had taught and his influence was still pervasive; and Semper - along with Viollet-le-Duc - would have a lasting impact on Berlage, informing both his design of the Beurs and his whole conception of architecture. On completing his Zurich studies, Berlage then spent a year or more travelling, much of it in Italy - an experience which again would bear directly on the Beurs.

Sanders and Berlage were among the 199 entrants to the 1884 competition, and their proposal came third, so placing them among the five invited to take part the next year in a final round. The perspective of this first submission, drawn by Berlage, is far removed from the Beurs that would eventually be built. Strongly Neo-Renaissance in character, and topped with French pavilion roofs, it goes for grandeur. The placement of the two tallest towers makes the Damrak facade preeminent, though, given the existing buildings opposite, it would only be seen episodically, not in its entirety. With its gables and attenuated steeples, the skyline is crowded and finicky; embellishment prevails. In plan, however, the proposal does anticipate the eventual Beurs by giving each of the main exchanges - commodities, stock and corn - a separate space.

In Sanders and Berlage's second submission, one significant, prescient drawing shows a much revised interior. Gone are the highly decorated walls and ceiling of the first scheme and in their place is banded masonry and a roof with exposed iron trusses.

But nothing came of the competition; the new exchange was dropped. It was a decade or so before the idea of a replacement was revived, and Berlage's involvement then was very much a matter of who he happened to know. In practice on his own since 1889, Berlage was regarded as 'progressive', both in his architecture and his politics, and the latter played their part in his appointment. The key figure was his friend and fellow moderniser, the city's alderman for public works, MWF Treub.

Treub took up that post in 1895 - the year after the city architect, AW Weissman, had been asked to extend the existing exchange - and he soon engineered a commission for Berlage to design an entirely new one. Just how this happened is described in Pieter Singelenberg's monograph which, 30 years on and long out of print, is still the best single source on the Beurs.

There was general outrage because the scheme was far advanced before any public scrutiny was permitted. Whatever design Berlage came up with in this situation would have been roundly criticised, but his stripped-back solution made that doubly sure.

Not that Berlage arrived at the building's final form without much revision. There was general agreement about the plan, with its three main halls, at the time he first became involved: the large Commodities Exchange to the south, the somewhat smaller Corn and Stock Exchanges side-by-side to the north. But the exterior would change considerably. Again, the whole sequence can be followed in Singelenberg's book, but it can be summarised by comparing Berlage's first design, dated 1896, with the competition entries of a decade before, and then with a drawing by his assistant HJM Walenkamp, published in 1901, which closely approximates the completed Beurs.

In contrast to the modelling in the competition entries, the Damrak facade in the 1896 perspective is essentially planar, and the skyline more austere. But equally important is the tall tower at the south-west corner, subordinating all other vertical features, and giving the whole composition a new centre of gravity - a hinge between the two main facades, and strong visual anchor. Having come up with this, Berlage's task was then to find an exact form for the tower, especially a way to terminate it. There are several sketched alternatives from 1896-97, all variants of a cupola and spire, before the four-square version we see in Walenkamp's drawing, where it is part of an altogether simplified ensemble of forms.

In the matter of simplification, another focus for Berlage was the south facade, with the main entrance to the building from Beursplein. In the 1896 proposal, the Chamber of Commerce conference room is prominent, projecting at the centre of the facade over a ground floor porch. Though its fenestration changes, it still extends like this in Berlage's next, revised design, but by the time of Walenkamp's drawing it has been absorbed back into the body of the Beurs behind a continuous sheer wall.

If one now looks again at the original competition entry of 1884, the radical nature of Berlage's eventual building - its planarity, its sobriety - is the more apparent.

It was a true process of elimination, in which the casualties were historicism and decorative excrescence.

Joined-up thinking There are intimations of the Beurs in earlier buildings by Berlage in Amsterdam, particularly his De Nederlanden offices of 1894-95;

but as well as practising as an architect, Berlage wrote and lectured a great deal, and the ideas behind the Beurs can be traced in his texts.

An essay of 1894, 'Architecture and Impressionism', comes straight to the point.

'We are crushed under an avalanche of monstrous gables, corner oriels, turrets, dormers, and spires, an exhausting jumble of old, stolen, and badly used architectural ele.To do anything at all original, modern architects must first 'get rid of all the fuss of acquired forms'. Therefore, 'a sentence has been pronounced on all modern revivalism. It does not mean, however, that the art of the future has nothing to learn from the past.'

What it can learn, for instance, is that 'the characteristic quality of noble splendour has at all times been moderation'; a contrast to the 'vulgarity' of the present day. On both aesthetic and economic grounds, Berlage goes on to advocate a process of reduction:

'the elimination of all useless mouldings those rusticated blocks around the windows and those modern Old Dutch details that make a facade look like a slice through a well-larded piece of meat.'

Berlage develops this theme in a later text, 'Thoughts on Style in Architecture' (1905), declaring: 'We architects must try to return to truth, to seize once again the reality of architecture. Now, architecture is and remains the art of construction, the joining together of various elements into a whole to enclose a space.' So its practitioners must 'study the skeleton - dry construction in all its simple robustness'; which in turn has implications for the way a building is finished. For cladding 'is not a loose covering entirely negating the construction like a badly fitting suit but is totally rooted in the inner building and is ultimately a form of decorated construction'.

There's a double debt here: on the one hand, to Viollet-le-Duc's structural rationalism in Le Dictionnaire Raisonné, where the Gothic cathedral was the touchstone; on the other, to Semper's thoughts about cladding in Der Stil. Berlage says that both these books, which might seem incompatible, offer 'aesthetics one can use'.

In his particular reading of Der Stil, Berlage seizes on Semper's concept of the 'seam', as the necessary element in joining together various parts, and says that architects should make a virtue of it - a decorative motif. This is just what happens at the Beurs.

Monolithic in construction, it dispenses with cladding but not with ornament - instead, structure and decoration are fused.

Fundamental, then, for Berlage, is the way that walls are treated. Defining architecture as 'the art of spatial enclosure', his essay ends with some prescriptions for them. They should, says Berlage, be flat, 'for a too strongly modelled wall loses its intrinsic character'.

Supporting pillars or columns shouldn't have capitals that project - the transition should be 'accomplished within the plane of the wall' - and any sculptural elements should be similarly absorbed. The wall plane should be 'decorated' largely through windows appropriate in size and placement.

'Above all, we should show the naked wall in all its simple beauty and scrupulously avoid any tendency toward over-ornateness.'

Berlage addressed one further feature of the Beurs - its governing system of proportions - during a series of lectures in Zurich in 1908, published as 'The Foundations and Whether looking at plants and flowers, or at Greek or Gothic buildings, Berlage sees proportional systems at work, and concludes that geometry is not just useful but 'an absolute necessity' for the architect. The Beurs, he says, is proportioned in accordance to the Egyptian triangle - 'the section of the pyramid with the ratio of 8 long to 5 high'. There are drawings of the south and west facades of the building where this triangulation is explicit - a taut net stretched across the surface - with Berlage comparing the system to 'a group of natural crystals'.

But he leaves the architect with a certain licence. 'Such a system can succeed only when you know at which point to abandon it, for one's feelings can have motives that are inaccessible to reason.' In Cologne Cathedral, 'the geometrician stifled the artist'.

That's not the impression at the Beurs.

Hidden agenda In Walenkamp's 1901 drawing, this part of Amsterdam is a deserted stage-set for the Beurs: just a few people are visible, apparently transfixed, while a shadow intrudes on the right from a half-seen tree. There's a hint of De Chirico about it: the unnatural clarity of the 'metaphysical' cityscapes he painted a decade or more later.

How different it seems now if you stand on the Damrak at Walenkamp's imaginary viewpoint - the Beurs is bruised by its surroundings. Immediately in front of you is a hot-dog stall; to the left, a branch of C&A, mysteriously still trading in Europe though just as downmarket as it was in the UK. The Beurs itself is partly screened by trees that have grown up around the facing square.

Most visually obtrusive, though, are truly terrible Po-Mo streetlights and benches from the early 1990s (by Shabracq & Postma), indecorously coupling the base of Brancusi's Endless Column with spheres and inverted cones.

They are certainly rebuked by Berlage's six dignified lamp standards on the Beursplein opposite - intricate openwork cylinders of wrought-iron, each with one large globe-shaped light. Two of these flank the steps that lead up to the Beurs' main entrance, while the others, together with two round granite fountains, demarcate the square. Almost shorn of seats and partly serving as a bike park, the Beursplein seems unrealised at present - not a valued public space. But apparently it has always been used for parking (the fountains were for waiting horses), and is not really an amenity in a recreational sense.

The south front of the Beurs at once declares the building's civic importance, but would one necessarily know it was an exchange? Probably not; and an ambiguity that Berlage intended.

The tower is an arresting sight, not least for its subtleties after Berlage's many revisions: the slight attenuation that comes with chamfering the corners of the upper stages, accentuated by the layer of brick that 'peels away' on either side of the arched opening above the clock face on the south, suggesting a more slender silhouette to the tower as a whole; and then a band of brick-relief that simulates a balustrade, and a final stone coping - a suitable terminus for the eye, but one which still leaves some upward momentum.

Combining the tower with a triplearched entrance in the way it does, this south front seems deliberately to draw on memories of one of Amsterdam's illustrious lost buildings, its Old Town Hall. It was destroyed by fire in 1652, its spire having been demolished in 1615; a painting in the Rijksmuseum by Pieter Saenredam is the best surviving record.

The south front presents considerable expanses of blank brick, apart from the ground floor archways and the big central window - the Chamber of Commerce meeting room. Directly above the arches, and impossible to miss as you enter the building, is a three-part sculptural relief set in a shallow horizontal recess - a stone interpolation amid all the brick.

This relief, by Lambertus Zijl, must have puzzled or disconcerted the Beurs' traders.

The panels have been variously explained, but essentially contrast a society corrupted by the exploitation of labour and pursuit of monetary gain - the present state of affairs, we take it - with a vision of unity and equality.

This is the first of many instances at the Beurs where Berlage makes us aware that he is not celebrating capitalism and the status quo. He was a socialist, who wrote of 'the beautiful principle of social equality that has come sneaking into the great factory of the world' (6) and referred contemptuously to 'the loathsome commercialism that cannot lift itself one inch above the level of prosaic, practical, calculating utility.'

(7) His other main commission at the time was a headquarters building for the ANDB, the Dutch Diamond Workers' Union - more to his ideological taste, one presumes. But how could he pass up the chance to build at the scale and eminence of the Beurs?

Berlage squared his conscience by designing the Beurs with his eyes as much on the future as the present. Convinced that capitalism would eventually be superceded, he believed the building would outlive its functions as an exchange and, in a socialist society, serve the community in a central cultural role - all very utopian, of course.

With this in mind when looking at the Beurs, one might see its resemblance to such monuments of medieval Italy as the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena, admired by Berlage on his travels as the quintessential town hall (and also built of brick).

Important in helping Berlage introduce a kind of socialist critique into the very fabric of the Beurs was the poet Albert Verwey. He supplied a series of verses which were based on the history of trade in Amsterdam but looked towards a future of greater social justice. Some are inscribed at points around the building, while others served as a programme for the artists who collaborated on its decoration: Anton Der Kinderen, Joseph Mendes da Costa, RN Roland Holst, Jan Toorop, and Zijl.

An extract from Verwey's text on a panel in the west facade gives the general flavour:

'The earth will soon be one: its people are groups, all forming one great union the wide world round.'

Though there's scant sign of the social change that Berlage predicted, and capitalists are hardly an endangered species, the Beurs has - to a degree - become the institution he envisaged. Indeed, with the last exchange having left in 1990, it now styles itself as a Palazzo Pubblico. Guus Bakker, director of the Stichting De Beurs van Berlage, explains how this came about.

'It was unpopular with the traders from the start, for four reasons, ' he says. 'They thought it was too small, too cold, too noisy, and too liberal or left-wing - they understood that they were being criticised.'

Presumably the structural problems that arose soon after the building was completed, whose consequences are especially visible inside, can't have helped. By 1912, the stockbrokers had already moved out.

In the late 1950s there were even calls for the Beurs to be demolished, but an opinion poll organised by the city mayor found the building was too popular for that to be contemplated. 'Well, people loved the bell-tower too much, ' says Bakker. That does make sense. Since its commercial heyday in the 17th century, Amsterdam has been a city of elaborate towers and spires - they dominate its silhouette in old engravings - and one can imagine this late addition, austerer though it is, finding a place in people's hearts.

So now, not without some fits-and-starts - it is no longer a venue for concerts, as was intended in the 1990s - the building is, in Bakker's words, 'a place for culture, conferences, events and parties'. This dual role - the exchange of a century ago, the cultural centre of today - must be borne in mind as soon as we go inside.

Round trip But before doing so, there are features to note on a circuit of the Beurs. The brickwork, for a start: at a distance reddish-brown, but quite variegated when seen close-to, with some headers a uniform light brown, and stretchers that can be deep rose or heather-coloured. They are laid in kruisverband, Dutch cross-bond, whose joints animate the wall with shifting lozenge-patterns.

Brick is, of course, the primary building material in the clay-rich Netherlands (stone had to be imported), so its civic embodiment in the Beurs is part of a tradition that stretches back to the intimate, domestic backyards of 17th-century paintings - those of Pieter de Hooch, for instance, who lovingly depicted every joint - and beyond. For Berlage, the use of brick was associated too with his socialist philosophy: 'The individual (ie a single brick) is weak, a people (ie a wall) is strong.' Over nine million bricks were used to build the Beurs.

In his book Drawing Berlage's Exchange, Daniel Castor suggests that the brick is really what determines the proportions of the building. In the process of making his own finely detailed drawings of parts of the Beurs, he consulted the original contruction documents, where he found that measurements appeared in terms of a kop (the width of one header including a mortar joint) or a laag (the height of one brick course including a mortar joint), before they were made metric.

'Berlage accorded the brick a fundamental role in the creative process, ' says Castor.

'The dimension of the structural bay depends on the size of the brick' - one bay equals 34 koppen - 'and it is the brick that constitutes the basic building block of construction. It determines the size of every feature in the building, including openings in the facade, individual tectonic elements, and the thickness of walls and arches.'

(8) Guus Bakker is non-commital on this, preferring to stress how pervasive in practice the Egyptian triangle seems to be in proportioning the Beurs - as Berlage explained in his retrospective account.

The pointing of the brickwork is moreor-less flush throughout, reinforcing the flatness that Berlage sought in a wall. If one looks down the long Damrak elevation, little disturbs its overall planarity: just the corbelled brick cornice, projecting stone sills and copings, and the stone tops of the downpipes with their projecting spouts. The stone - sandstone primarily but also granite - is used very sparingly and only where structurally pertinent: for pier-bases, balustrades, capitals, keystones, and lintels (and the aforementioned sills, copings, and spouts).

The lintels in particular are decoratively carved. At either end of this elevation, at the south-west and north-west corners, are carved stone figures by Zijl - Gijsbrecht von Aemstel, founder of Amsterdam, to the south, and the 17th-century admiral Jan Pieterszoon Coen to the north - but both these are housed within the plane of the wall.

This extended west facade perhaps courts monotony, though its steady rhythm is interrupted by twin towers that frame an off-centre entrance (two broad arches flank a narrower one), and the fenestration changes as the rooms do behind. But in essence this is a 141m-long brick wall, perforated but continuous.

The north elevation is very different: by no means so unified, but a quite frank assemblage of different parts and functions.

Instead of a continuous facade there is a deep void on one side - the former open courtyard attached to the Corn Exchange, whose sawtooth rooflights are visible behind. There is an organic, accretive feel to this elevation, as if it has taken shape over time; it's probably the three towers that bring Italy to mind. Zijl's third sculpted figure, jurist and politician Hugo de Groot, stands conventionally on a pedestal near the north-east corner - there is no attempt here to make him part of the wall.

A staircase-turret projecting at this corner shelters de Groot from the beginnings of Amsterdam's red-light district ('Chiquita's Sex Paradise' is only metres away), and with the turn onto the narrow Beursstaat the building once more becomes mainly a surface - a continuous punctured wall. It is on this side that Berlage had to adjust the Beurs to the irregularity of the site, broader to the north than the south; and with its tall tower for telegraph equipment, and particularly its boiler house chimney, it doesn't look so different from a factory. (The chimney, originally internal, was relocated here during the first renovations of 1906-10, after brickwork in its vicinity cracked through overheating. ) The facade terminates with a tower at the south-east corner, topped by one of the three tiled pyramidal roofs - they appear too on the towers either side of the north elevation - that are a visual motif of the Beurs and help to fix it in the memory.Which brings us back to the Beursplein and the main way in to the Exchange.

Hall of fame Any traders piqued by Zijl's sculptural relief over the entrance arches would have had their suspicions confirmed as soon as they went inside. On the walls of the lobby, now a café, are three tile tableaux by Jan Toorop, symbolising the past, present and (optimistic) future of society; the central one a stark portrayal of present-day conditions - mechanised, clock-driven and class-ridden.

Not quite 'on message', then, for everyday users of the Beurs.

Beyond is the Goederenbeurs, the Commodities Exchange, where tea, coffee, copper, cotton and the like were originally traded. This is the biggest hall in the building and the one that, understandably, always features in architectural histories - not just for its evident grandeur but because all the main themes of the Beurs are stated there.

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