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University of Amsterdam by Allford Hall Monaghan Morris

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Why Allford Hall Monaghan Morris’ University of Amsterdam was chosen as the winner of the 2014 AJ Retrofit Awards

‘This is an intelligent approach to retrofit that can be replicated elsewhere,’ said the judges, saluting the architect’s ‘confident approach’.

Like many Modernist structures built in the 1960s, The University of Amsterdam’s Roeterseiland campus, to the south-east of the city’s Centrum district, was part of a bigger vision that was never built.

Allford Hall Monaghan Morris (AHMM) was brought on board to address some of the issues caused by only partial realisation of architect Norbert Gawronski’s 1964 masterplan.

One of the two buildings the practice developed spans the canal with its L-shaped slab block, yet it also blocked access to the canal, leaving only a dark, low passage over its towpath, isolating the area to the north.

AHMM's University of Amsterdam scheme - the winner of the AJ's Retrofit Awards 2014

AHMM director Simon Allford describes the campus as ‘a record of the 60s and a bold invention that we were keen to keep and build upon’.

While there were heritage reasons for opposing demolition, Allford adds that the building’s robust structure and generous frame meant there was enough stiffness in the building to ‘cut large chunks out and transform it into a more legible proposition’.

In 2006, masterplanner Palmboom & van den Bout proposed a programme of refurbishment, new construction and repair of the streetscape. Following an international design competition, AHMM was appointed to implement this strategy.

The vision, according to Allford, was to ‘bring the campus into play as one place, connect it to the city and turn a building that was a barrier into a connector’.
A four-story, 40m x 25m section of the canal-spanning building was removed and replaced with a glazed, double-height space. The cut makes a new arch portal through which people pass through the site via a bridge-cum-plaza and into the city.

The judges were particularly impressed by the way that breaking through the existing building to engage with the canal ‘completely restructures the way the building relates to the campus and its immediate urban context’.

This cut also reconnects six buildings at the back that had become lost behind the wall.

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Internally, meanwhile, the challenges revolved around making the building ‘more connectable and understandable’ while retaining the existing concrete frame.
To help people navigate through the building’s considerable length with minimal signage, mini-atriums looking out on to the city act as meeting points and help people find their bearings, while wider staircases also encourage chance encounters and relieve pressure on the lifts.

The paucity of existing lift shafts was addressed by cutting away large chunks from the ground and second floors, encouraging students to walk and move on a promenade through the building.

A student world has been created up to level four; then the building turns into an area for staff on the upper levels, where all the existing lift shafts have been reused.
The judges praised AHMM for its decision to retain the concrete frame - a carbon-intensive element of the original building - while transforming the building’s external appearance and also upgrading the envelope and services, and dramatically improving environmental performance.

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Further measures to reduce embodied energy include the deployment of concrete structural components, which used cement replacement; and a new concrete box girder spanning the canal, containing cooling coils to supplement the thermal capacity of the concrete.

High levels of daylight in the office spaces presented a challenge to the design of the external envelope, so care was taken to maintain occupant comfort by balancing solar heat gains and fabric losses.

Users also have access to operable windows to provide a degree of adaptive thermal control. The building’s transport policy, meanwhile, includes parking facilities for more than 2,000 bicycles. Annual predicted carbon emissions for the building are 42.4kg CO2/m².

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Allford argues that, because the building runs contrary to the Amsterdam grid, it offers people a different view of the city. ‘It is refreshing to break free of the monotony of elegant streets and suddenly see everything in a different light,’ he says. ‘It rises above, slices through and across that grid so you can see different sections of the city.’

Had the building simply been demolished, he adds, ‘the same mistake of previous generations would have been made of throwing everything away and starting again’.

For his part, Gawronski has already thanked Allford, both in person and through a series of postcards, for AHMM’s ‘transparent and sincere’ transformation of his building, writing: ‘How fortunate I am that “my child” can develop into such a handsome being under your sensitive hands and mind.’

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