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Knocking through - AHMM's University of Amsterdam

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Allford Hall Monaghan Morris’s retrofit design for the University of Amsterdam’s Roeterseiland complex makes a bold assault on the ’60s fabric, writes Felix Mara. Photography by Rob Parrish & AHMM

A llford Hall Monaghan Morris (AHMM) has a particular knack for revitalising 20th century buildings without turning them into fashion victims or subjecting them to architectural taxidermy. Exemplified in the Angel and Tea Buildings, this approach transcends the cosmetic through an understanding of what makes these buildings and their contexts tick and it works especially well if they are unloved and unlisted.

As it happens, AHMM’s work to Buildings A and B/C of the University of Amsterdam’s Roeterseiland Complex (REC), scheduled to finish in May 2015, is in the stringent aesthetic grip of its host city’s planning regime. ‘It’s not Almere,’ affirms AHMM director Simon Allford.

But this hasn’t forestalled a major assault on the complex’s fabric, knocking through a 40m-wide, four storey-high urban window, ‘the Cut’, excavating ‘mini-atria’ at its perimeter and replacing facades.

The term ‘intervention’ usually sounds self-important, but this is a 20-gun artillery bombardment on a dysfunctional complex.

‘Like many ’60s projects, this is part of a master plan which was never completed,’ says Allford. Drafted in revised form by architect Norbert Gawronski in 1964, it comprised an L-shaped slab block, REC B/C, crossing the Nieuwe Achtergracht canal in Amsterdam’s Centrum district, flanked by twin towers: Block A to the north and the unrealised Block D to the south.

Originally housing mathematics and chemistry facilities, now relocated, this is just part of the university, which is dispersed across Amsterdam. Yet, as AHMM associate Yuk Ming Lam observes, the slab is ‘one of the city’s largest buildings’.

But the complex had two serious flaws. First, it all but blockaded the canal, leaving only a dark, low passage over its towpath, isolating the area to the north by restricting access. And second, the unfenestrated ground floor external auditorium walls prevented and denied connectivity with the outside world.

Working with Palmboom & van den Bout’s 2006 master plan, drawn up to rejuvenate and mend the complex and its setting, AHMM was alive to its potential, rather than dismissing it as a write-off. Its design turns REC B/C into a workable axis by creating a generous opening over the canal that it crosses and introducing mini-atria, wrapping the ground floor with permeable commercial development, adding a bridge across the canal at ground floor level and rationalising internal circulation by constructing a triple-height roof-lit ‘Passage’ running between and connecting Blocks A and B/C. The latter forms a legible entrance to the complex.

‘At the moment, connection between the two buildings is ad hoc,’ says AHMM associate director Robert Romanis. Internally, the strategy is loose-fit to accommodate the exigencies of the university’s evolution. ‘You can’t design a building for the strategy of a particular dean,’ says Allford. There’s large, busy student accommodation below fourth floor and smaller staff and student spaces, which may one day be more open plan, above.

‘We have retained the frame, which is perfectly good,’ says Allford. Nevertheless, the contractor decided to demolish the section of REC B/C above the Cut to minimise risk, although construction below its soffit was temporarily retained as a prop for building work above. Initially, new frame construction was to be steelwork, delivered to site by boat, but the project team later switched to concrete. The slabs have steel brackets with sliding connections that allow for 20mm movement in all directions - necessary because ground conditions could not be accurately predicted; even the levels of new construction had to be arrived at empirically.

Level 4, the lowest floor bridging the canal, with a catering facility and study work places, gets special treatment. It is double height, incorporating level 5, and is rendered more transparent by the 40mm circular-section hanging rods that support it at 3.6m centres, optimising views in and out. The block’s typical inboard and perimeter concrete columns, which make for a less transparent facade, resume at level 6.

Post-tensioned slabs and diagonal bracing support the structural logic, avoiding a large span between the facades, which would have entailed bulky perimeter columns.

The mini-atria, paired with circulation cores with wide staircases, are part of the wayfinding strategy, helping people to navigate the considerable length of REC B/C with minimal signage and forming ‘Houses’ entered through portals in the Passage, which provide access to departments and encourage interaction. Although the mini-atria retain existing columns, they are subtly distinguished from the surrounding facade by narrower mullions and transoms in their external walls and to internal finishes saturated with colour.

As with the Cut, the sacrifice of floor space to form the mini-atria is justified by improvements to the quality of public and internal environments and, although construction is less expensive in The Netherlands than in Britain, the cost of only £1,263/m² is a strong argument for imaginative retrofit.

Project data

Start on site April 2011
Completion Phase 1 November 2013; Phase 2 May 2015
Net internal area 61,300m²
Form of contract Dutch form of engineer and build contract
Construction cost €93 million (£77 million)
Construction cost per square metre €1,517 (£1,263)
Architect Allford Hall Monaghan Morris
Client University of Amsterdam
Sub-consultant architect zzdp
Structural engineer Pieters Bouwtechniek
M&E consultant Ingenieursburo Linssen
Quantity surveyor Royal HaskoningDHV
Landscape architect Inside Outside
Acoustic engineering and building physics LBP Sight
Graphic design Hat-trick Design
Project manager Royal Haskoning DHV
Main contractor BAM (NL)
CAD software used Microstation; Triforma

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