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Foreign exchange (2 of 2)

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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

Early exchanges - the first one in Amsterdam (1608-11), for example, by Hendrik de Keyser - were open courtyards surrounded by arcades, and the Goederenbeurs is in that tradition, though with a glazed (double) roof. The main body of the hall is an exact double-square, 45.60m long and 22.80 wide, with the floor-plan consistently governed by a 3.80m square module; while the height at the ridge is some 27m. But dimensions alone are, of course, not the key: a hotel atrium or shopping centre concourse with a comparable volume would not necessarily have the same qualities. It all depends on how the space is enclosed.

Before looking more closely at that, though, it helps to refer to the first photographs of this hall, for it's in the Commodities Exchange that consequences of the early structural problems are most obvious. Cracks started to appear from the moment the building was completed, which an inspection committee in 1906 decided were caused by a number of factors: inadequate foundations in places, subsidence of the subsoil, problems with the nature/location of the central heating (hence that re-sited chimney), and over-ambitious spans and arches.

So the 7.60m segmental arches which, in those early photos and a splendid drawing by Walenkamp, do look bold, were subdivided. The supplementary piers, like the existing ones, are of granite, but their capitals are simpler in profile and also of granite, whereas the originals are sandstone.

Whether this was done deliberately, to make the later additions read as such, is an open question - Guus Bakker thinks it was probably just expedient.

If Berlage's scheme was compromised rather swiftly, the way in which the hall's steel and wrought-iron trusses are supported is still exemplary in its economy of means and structural clarity; a progression from floor to roof in which materials are eloquent at every juncture.

The pier bases are square and of unpolished granite, standing not on the wooden floor but - more convincingly - on a connecting strip of stone. The shafts they support are both polished and chamfered, their decoration restricted to a band incised near the top; and then come the sandstone capitals, flush with the wall above.

This wall is essentially a reprise of the perforated brick planes we saw outside: flat but for the brick-relief pattern (like reverse crenellation) that accentuates the top and gives the eye a destination, and the gradually swelling brick piers, which spring from stone corbels above the ground floor capitals.

These are punctuated by stone on the first floor where they step out further, before they terminate in stone on the second floor, anticipating the curve of of the rivetted trusses they support.Graceful is the word for the overall effect.

The tie-rods at truss-level are another response to the early structural problems.

They were introduced into several areas of the Beurs in the 1906-10 renovations and their clamps stud the exterior like outsize jewelery.

The yellowish brick of the Commodities Exchange is left bare - there are no coats of plaster - but Berlage did not want its expanses to appear too vacant, so introduced two red-brick decorative motifs - one compact, the other more expansive - which activate the surface at regular intervals. Along the sides of the hall are built-in oak compartments for the traders, like open cubicles, but the use of timber does not extend to wainscoting around the rest of the walls; instead, Berlage employs colourful glazed brick where the wainscot would be.

Glazed brick might seem to be utilitarian (easy to clean) or institutional in character, but it has an honourable pedigree (eg Babylon), and here Berlage makes it truly decorative. The dominant colour is blue, though not quite monochromatic, given slight variations from brick to brick, and the top of these brick bands, at both ground and first floor levels, is beautifully accentuated by the final course of blue being sandwiched between courses of bright yellow. A pity, though, that this glazed brick is easier on the eye than the ear - it is one source of persistent problems with acoustics.

When looking earlier at the upper section of the Beurs' main tower, we saw how, on its south side, Berlage gave it twinned alternative silhouettes. He does something comparable in the Commodities Exchange, though here in relation to space, by making the corners of the second floor, where gallery meets balcony, curved; thus reinforcing the identity of the main body of the hall while keeping it in balance with the total volume. It's as if Berlage thrived in reconciling contrary conditions - as with the Beurs overall, the Palazzo Pubblico concealed inside the Exchange.

Old photographs show the Java-teak floor of the Goederenbeurs populated by the traders' freestanding benches; now, between exhibitions and events, it is empty. Singelenberg, curiously, finds this floor to be 'amorphous and drab'. On the contrary, with so much glazing overhead, its blond colour helps to make this central area seem filled with light - to an extent you would not suspect from the outside of the Beurs.

As you move from the main body of the hall and pass through the arcades, another quality makes itself felt. The difference in light level is considerable, but the sudden shadow is partly countered by sun penetrating the small windows of coloured glass on the outer walls, shining patchily on the oak wood of the traders' compartments, while the polished granite gleams. In such conditions, these dim quiet aisles can't help but evoke sacred, not secular, space - and not the white plaster Dutch Protestant abstractions that Saenredam painted but something more 'high'. For a moment, you can almost smell the incense.

Then you see some bits-and-pieces on the floor from an exhibition that is still being dismantled, or for some future event, and the secular purpose reasserts itself. But even when the Commodities Exchange was still operating, this hall was more than a capitalist arena, being used for various civic or political events; and its festive or ceremonial potential - a setting to dignify whatever takes place - is palpable. When empty, it's imbued with expectation.

Artistic licence Both the Stock Exchange and Corn Exchange were altered in Pieter Zaanen's 1989-91 renovation, when the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra took on the north half of the building. The Stock Exchange was turned into a perfomance venue (though concerts aren't thought to be financially viable there now), while a glass box by Mick Eekhout was placed in the Corn Exchange for chamber music recitals and rehearsals.

Both halls were being used for rehearsals when I visited in September, though they also host conferences, seminars, etc, as Guus Bakker explains.

'We could exist very well as a conference centre or a party centre - people are willing to accept that it doesn't have all the facilities you'd expect in a building of today, ' he says.

'But we want the Beurs to keep a cultural image. So that's why we spend our profits on non-profit-making exhibitions' - some are originated, others brought in - 'instead of giving them to our shareholders and having long holidays in the Bermudas. Besides, that helps to keep the monument in shape.

Someone running the Beurs only for profit would hold dance parties here, which in the long run would be bad for the building.'

Though, of course, reversible, Zaanen's alterations do detract. The stage and tiered seating for musicians in the Stock Exchange (with dressing rooms and storage underneath) seem intrusive, impinging on the walls and arcade with their bulk, while the acoustic trappings that further colonise the wall are inelegant. Eekhout's glass box in the Corn Exchange proves transparency is always elusive, and impedes appreciation of the space as a whole - there could be friendlier aliens than this.

While, in reduced form, the Stock Exchange strongly resembles the Goederenbeurs, the Corn Exchange differs markedly in its roof, with five sawtooth lights giving optimum conditions for inspecting samples of grain (the northern light shouldn't be too vertical). Spanned by 18m lattice girders, this could be a fine if daunting space for the visual arts - for 3-d work and installations.

In both these halls we find again the plain flat walls and coloured glazed brick of the Commodities Exchange, with friezes by Jan Toorop on the theme of labour, reminding the traders once more of the true basis of their fortunes. They recur too in the broad passage, really a hall in miniature, where the telegraph, post and telephone offices were located, and which was open to all three exchanges - there are images that show the long view from the Goederenbeurs through the double arches of the passage to the depths beyond. Doubtless this open link contributed to the cold which the Beurs' occupants complained of - Zaanen made it an enclosed foyer for the concert halls.

In contrast to the elegance with which the roof trusses are suppported in the Commodities Exchange, the stone corbelling in the passage is muscular, even exaggerated for its role. There is a point of iconography to note: Zijl's carved capital in the form of an elephant with two bodies but one head, shorn of tusks so as not to disrupt the continuity of the wall plane. According to Singelenberg, Berlage believed the elephant represented moderation and loyalty, its ivory tusks symbolising purity and strength. Some Beurs occupants took the sawn tusks to be a comment on their trade (impure) or their commercial strength (impaired); Berlage's intent isn't clear.While the sense of socialist critique is pervasive in the building, aspects of iconography are still up for debate.

Two first-floor rooms in the Beurs must definitely be mentioned because they bring into focus Berlage's attempt to integrate art and architecture - the vision of a gesamtkunstwerk, the motto of 'unity in diversity' - with the reality of doing so; in particular, the degree to which the architect exerts or relinquishes control.

In his texts, Berlage often refers to the desirability of artist-architect collaboration:

'We can again see the great coming together of all the arts, which should lead to collaboration, the artistic ideal of all times, he says in 'Architecture and Impressionism'; but then immediately goes on to talk of 'paintings that respect the architecture and keep in mind the purpose of decoration of large surfaces, which means complementing rather than ignoring the architecture.'

(9) This proviso is still more forcefully expressed in a later lecture where Berlage says: 'For the time being, the architect must design everything himself or at least prevent the artist in question from working independently.' Architecture assumes first position among the arts while 'painting and sculpture will stride alongside as servants and, employed in this way, will achieve a higher level of development.'

(10) Put bluntly, in one of the two rooms in question, Berlage gets his way; in the other, he doesn't. In the boardroom of the Stock Exchange Society, woodwork, wallpaper, painted ceiling decorations, carpet and furniture are unified convincingly (though perhaps, in both scale and material, the marble mantelpiece - a purely symbolic focus as there was never a fire - is the exception).

Mendes da Costa was responsible for the wood-carving and also for a relief on the theme of loyalty; Verwey supplied some more verses reminding the stockbrokers that things fall in value as well as rise; and Berlage's furniture displays the same constructional clarity as his architecture. The carpet is his too, and the openwork lamps - their design inspired by illustrations in the German zoologist Ernst Haeckel's 1899 Kunstformen der Natur (Art Forms of Nature), as were other of Berlage's contributions to the Beurs.

But the conference room of the Chamber of Commerce was never realised as Berlage had hoped. To begin with, its architecture was altered in the early renovations, after cracks appeared in the broad arch over the public gallery on the north side of the room.

This was subdivided into three at the expense of its powerful simplicity, while tie rods were installed across the chamber.

Meanwhile Berlage was at odds with Der Kinderen, who had been commissioned to portray the trading history of Amsterdam in murals and stained glass. His designs didn't satisfy Berlage, but by then the room's acoustic problems were unignorable - reverberation that was eventually dampened by wainscoting, suspended textiles, and a flat timber roof masking the original trusses.

The one part of Der Kinderen's scheme to be completed was the stained glass, which only adds to the conservative ethos.What should have been the decorative high point of the Beurs has more the appearance of a muted, rather stuffy survival from an earlier age.

If the Chamber of Commerce conference room is a flawed set-piece, it's also an exception. For even in the remotest corridors of the Beurs - where jack-arches ripple overhead, their steel beams picked out in yellow - what so impresses is the consistent attitude to structure and decoration, and the sense of organic connection between part and whole.

It seems no area has been overlooked; and colour penetrates every recess.

In choosing his subjects for Drawing Berlage's Exchange, Daniel Castor avoids the grand spaces of the Beurs to concentrate almost exclusively on circulation - on entrances and staircases. 'Because Berlage's enthusiasm for details was most powerfully engaged in these complex entry sequences, some of the richest spaces in the building are transitional ones, ' he argues.

(11) One such is the stair that ascends from an entrance on the Damrak, near the southwest corner of the Beurs, to the Chamber of Commerce conference room. As Castor says:

'Elsewhere in the building, stone appears in staccato bursts, as accents that draw attention to points of structural significance.

Here, its application is total.' You climb up on slabs of dark pink granite, but the dominant material is sandstone; the balusters and newels strongly chamfered and quasi-sculptural. Enclosure emphasises the distinct textures of the two different stones, and to them are added two more, with the bare and glazed brickwork of the stairwell's outer walls: materials have an insistent presence here. At the very top, on the floor above the Chamber of Commerce, the workers in Roland Holst's Industry murals are bent double, as if coerced by the brick vault above - art expressively accommodated to the architecture as Berlage would wish.

Reached by another staircase, which is situated off the main entrance, and buried beneath the Commodities Exchange, are the vaults where valuables could be stored - an area which has just become accessible to the public with the latest restoration of the Beurs, by architect Walter Kramer. Along with removal of asbestos, repainting and the like, this has included the most thorough cleaning of the exterior in the century since it was built.

But the crucial part of the restoration has concerned the Beurs' foundations and the problems that have dogged it from the beginning. A survey in the early 1990s concluded that none of the 4,880 wooden piles were still actually supporting the building - they'd become detached. Because of Amsterdam's geology, better understood now than when the Beurs was built, they should always have been deeper. Consequently Kramer has overseen the insertion of 713 new pressuregrouted piles to a depth of 24m (not the original 13m), so the Beurs can anticipate a new century in better structural health.

Skin deep A few minutes' walk east of the Beurs takes you to the the ANDB building, the headquarters of the Dutch Diamond Workers' Union, on which Berlage was working at the same time as the Exchange. A grid of windows dominates the flat facade but what most draws the eye is the monumental arched entrance with its massive stone voussoirs, like something in Chicago by HH Richardson - was he another source for Berlage? It's a topic Singelenberg touches on in his monograph, where he concludes that, more important than any influence Richardson had on Berlage, was the influence Viollet-le-Duc had on them both.

But what of the influence of the Beurs?

'Well, it didn't start a school, ' says Guus Bakker. Certainly the architects and artists of De Stijl acknowledged Berlage in seeking a unity of the arts, but the two most distinct strains in progressive Dutch architecture to emerge in the teens and early 1920s were the expressionism of the Amsterdam School, with architects like Michel de Klerk, and the more sober functionalism of the Nieuwe Bouwen, with which architects like Oud and Rietveld - formerly members of De Stijl - would become associated. Comments by De Klerk and Oud give some sense of the contrary responses that the Beurs and Berlage provoked.

De Klerk was quite damning: 'Although Berlage's appearance was certainly of value to the building profession, he was yet unable to exercise any influence on architecture as art, as a stylistic phenomenon. His sphere of activity was too narrowly bordered, too exclusively technical and utilitarian, to be able to be in any way a bearer of culture, ' he wrote in 1916.

(12) Oud's assessement, in his 1919 essay 'Dr HP Berlage and his Work', is much more appreciative: 'I remember how I sensed its artistic value when I first set eyes on the Beurs, but nevertheless was left with a sober impression. Later, it became clear to me that in the so-called puritanism of this building a passionate artistic spirit is inherent.' Stressing the connection with Gothic art in the 'very active attention to detail in monumental buildings', Oud admires the way the details at the Beurs 'grow organically from the essence of the building, like branches from a tree trunk'.

(13) But it's Berlage as 'the forerunner of the Dutch rational trend in architecture' that Oud primarily acclaims, establishing the formula for Berlage's place in architectural histories, and for the judgement by Mies with which this article began.

One can understand this focus on rationalism. After all, the other priorities of the intervening century have not been Berlage's:

the elimination of ornament (though not so ruthless as sometimes thought, given both Loos' and Mies' recourse to 'decorative' stone);

the immaterial taking precedence over the material; the free facade and divorce of structure from skin. Now, with the prospect of intelligent skins, alive with photovoltaic cells and sensors, the Beurs recedes even further.

But while it can't be a model for future building, it can still be a measure of quality.

What finally impresses with the Beurs is not just its urban presence and its grand halls, but the marriage of artistry and reason which so informs it. That the social aspirations of a Palazzo Pubblico have been partly realised too, is a bonus. The Beurs, then, presents a challenge. How to match its authority, idealism, and cumulative richness, both intellectual and aesthetic?

REFERENCES 1.'Mies Speaks'.Architectural Review, Dec 1968, p451.

2.Singelenberg, Pieter, HP Berlage: Idea and Style.Haentjens Dekker & Gumbert,1972.

3.Boyd Whyte, Iain, Hendrik Petrus Berlage: Thoughts on Style,18861909.Getty Research Institute,1996, p115.

4.Boyd Whyte, op cit, p136.

5.Boyd Whyte, op cit, pp185-252.

6.Boyd Whyte, op cit, p112. In their social idealism, how far did Berlage and his circle draw on Ruskin and Morris? There are connections to explore.

7.Boyd Whyte, op cit, p131.

8.Castor, Daniel, Drawing Berlage's Exchange.NAi Publishers,1999, p10.

9.Boyd Whyte, op cit, p120.

10.Boyd Whyte, op cit, p251.

11.Castor, Daniel, op cit, p44.

12. In Michel de Klerk.NAi Publishers,1997, p48.

13. In JJP Oud: Poetic Functionalist.NAi Publishers,2001, p181.

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