Do the people who live and work around Amsterdam's Olympic Stadium know of the existence of a masterpiece of architecture -a national monument- in their area? Is the presence of architecture pilgrims asking for this building on the outskirts of town familiar to them? Have they feel curious enough to come and visit it? These are some of the questions I was asking myself on my way to 'Het Burgerweeshuis', the former municipal orphanage that Aldo van Eyck built between 1955 and 1960 in the South of Amsterdam. The bus driver, the cyclist, the passer-by, the waitress from the nearest cafe and the security wards of the parking of the stadium got me out of my doubts quite soon: no one knows about this building and no one seems to care, despite the existence of a limited edition of a stamp with its distinctive volumes could make us think, for a moment, of some kind of national pride. On the contrary, my interest in finding the former orphanage was received with as much kindness as oddness, and in some cases, an unmistakable compassion. That indifference was only the prelude to what I would find on arrival.
The masterpiece of Dutch structuralism, so often celebrated for its human dimension, it is in a regrettable state of neglect. At the gates of various pavilions around the main courtyard you can still see the signs with the names of the companies that not long ago were to occupy them. There have been several attempts to reactivate the building after the now defunct Institute Berlage (the postgraduate school of architecture founded by van Eyck's pupil Herman Hertzberger, which was located in the former orphanage since 1990) moved to Rotterdam in 2000. I remembered reading that one of those attempts consisted in creating a sort of business incubator or something like that, and I slightly less than expected to find a creative bustling community flourishing in this privileged environment. But all that blooms here is garbage piling on every corner.
Not that the building -up to where my knowledge comes, restored at least once- is poorly maintained: except rust on the lampposts of the main courtyard, the state of the building is quite good; that of the woodwork, roofs and facades is frankly excellent. But it is precisely this, the complete disuse of the building, forgotten, empty, wasted, despite its good condition, what causes chills. I found it kind of a metaphor for what has happened to the profession, and to some extent to the discipline: for the loss of social and cultural relevance of the "good" works of architecture, despite being careful, painstaking, sensitive to "users", the "context", "economy", "ecology". I was in those thoughts when, turning the corner out of the yard, I found some modules that seemed to be alive.
Occupied by an aseptic dental orthodontist clinic, the pavilions overlooking the main flow path are the only few square meters in use; ironically, they have equipped with a "front" a building that was always characterized for avoiding it. Pretending I needed a dental treatment seemed the only way to get to enter the building and perceive the game than van Eyck called "in-between spaces": the multiple gradations, gaps and joints between interior and exterior, rooms and circulation, autonomy and connectivity, small and large scale, the individual and the collective, the unique and the diverse, which are the mainstay of the great influence and admiration that this unique design has produced. It seemed unlikely that they would let me wander around inside and experience the spatial fluidity of the building and check out how van Eyck did to invite the occupants, through design, to mingle and move freely from one area to another. But I decided to ring the bell and try, among other things to share the interest that had led me there with the people that enjoy this design on a daily basis.
Although neither van Eyck nor his building could hear me, I felt it was important to assert aloud the value of that, to tell them that I had come from very far away just to visit it, and politely request an exception to the rule. I was pushed out without hardly be let to speak, but even so I could tell them that, in my opinion, they did not deserve that building nor the love the architect had put in it. What has failed in the Orphanage, a revolutionary spatial and constructive synthesis regarded by architects, a place where, as my friend and architecture critic Davide T. Ferrando says, many of us would pay for entry? Is this clash between architecture and society a failure of architecture, is its idealism what has separated it from a stark reality, as Failed Architecture has suggested- or are culture and society to blame?
I have always rejected the arguments that victimize the architect as a misunderstood genius creator, faced with a society that does not give him or her any value. Since I was a student I have followed with interest the cultural criticism that since the 60 has been made to the architecture from disciplines such as anthropology, geography and sociology. The self-absorption and elitism of a certain part of the professionals, their ambition, their condescendence dressed in heroicism, has always bother me. But at the orphanage of Aldo van Eyck, a place of such potential despite its age and all its flaws, I felt it was not architecture that is treading water. Because I have no doubt that if architecture -understood in a broad sense, as modification of habitats and its distributed design, in all its heterogeneous dimensions- was a primary subject in school, such as music, sports, second language or medioambiental education (it is less important that such subjects, perhaps?), architectural qualities and potential would be much better appreciated, not only those of the "good" architecture, but those of our habitat in general. We also would better know how to make the best of them.
To know something is to love it, to be part of something is to take care of it. So this is a vicious circle: elitism, mystification and the implicit self-absorption in architecture intended solely as a work of author and as a hyper-specialized professional production blocks the possibility of a better appreciation of it, based on a more inclusive, closer and broader relationship to it as a field of knowledge and performance. If the abandonment of 90% of the building suggested to me a metaphor for the current contempt for architecture, the dental barricaded opaque clinic -the only form of occupation since its declaration as a national monument in 2014- seemed to me a reflection of how the closure of the architectural field is, if not its biggest trap, the one which we should be most concerned with. The cultural notion of architecture has to be redefined in order to make room for a real encounter, and that's why I believe the work of authors like Andrés Jaque, Elii or Tallerde2 is essential, especially for the focus they put on the redefinition of the narrative and communicative space around and within architecture. The same goes for initiatives such as La Casa del Pumarejo in Seville, which promotes a definition of monuments and heritage in which the quality of life and the way a building is used is intertwined with the quality of the spatio-material design that support it, as the foundation of its socio-cultural value. We have to question all assumptions, amplify and sharpen the perception of architecture as an interface, and open the scope from there, making room for the possibility of imagining new relationships and new routes for our practice.
Since it was declared a national monument (after decades of neglect) the building may not be modified or renewed and, like René Boer and Michiel van Iersel have denounced, it may never regain their original social dimension again. Many debates and projects discuss today the use and recycling of material structures that remain as a scrap of the real state crisis; but the disused orphanage -the disused profession- is a problem of intangible waste. It's like a water faucet permanently open, a source to which no one will go... or almost no one. As I entered into the game of intertwined arcades, patios and gardens after the main path, I understood where all the garbage came from: this less exposed area has been taken over by now absent squatters, possibly driven by the bad weather. The wind has spread their mattresses, clothing, utensils and waste all over the place. The adjoining building is a school or a daycare center and they were at recess during my visit. The sound of the games and the laughter of children on the other side of the fence flooded the deserts porches of the old orphanage with a ghostly effect.
I can not help but thinking that these homeless people, seeking refuge in the courtyards, gardens and porches -the interior-interior is intact- make best use of the building than the armored dental clinic or any of its potential future occupants: the law firms and financial institutions that are discovering this part of Amsterdam and turning it into a business district. At any rate and despite all the mess, they are the ones who are making sense of the concept of "in-between" spaces. They even amplify it: the whole orphanage itself is a gap for the orphans of society. This does not mean that the images are not bleak. I did not want to take many, almost have shame in displaying them. There is something obscene about them, especialy for those who keep in mind the fabulous photographs in black and white -taken by van Eyck himself- of children playing in the circles that, marked on the floor of the porch, left in them a material evidence of the space-movement inside-outside that the architect theorized while building. But there is also something obscene about the fact that if we look the building into the Internet we only find a historical souvenir, as if it indeed had disappeared, as if it no longer existed, as if it had been demolished. This policy (or poetics) of the image is for me a way to definitively erase it, it is an unconscious form of contempt. I still do not find similar images on the Internet after several searches, just one of a barbecue in this very same corner that belongs to the film "Orphan" by Failed Architecture. The honesty with the situation of the place, if brutal, is for me the best form of respect.
Interestingly, almonds (almonds they are, I think) planted at the corners of the courtyards of this network are in bloom in midwinter. They have grown unchecked, as uncontrolled as the garbage that swirls at their base, and almost hit against the windows that separate them from the desolately empty classrooms. Walking through the courts, when light is reflected so that glass becomes a mirror, the difference between outside and inside is blurred, as if the vegetation had penetrated inside. I could not help fantasizing about a wild and uncontrolled "nature" -plants, birds and insects- being able to skip for good this limit and invade the interior of the building, in the same way that the orphans used to invade the porches and courtyards with their games.
It is not easy to resist the temptation to think what to do if we could intervene in this building. While touring these "occupied" areas and finding no way to access the interior, one only thought came to my mind. Removing all glazing closures and encouraging "nature" -vegetation, wind, birds, insects, our own bodies, smells, sounds,...- to cross through this limit, redefining otherwise the gradation and relations van Eyck tried with pavements, walls, roofs, columns, finishes and other traditionally architectural elements. Over the closed walls of the inner divisions, I would put mirrors that would reflect the surrounding space and our image immersed in it "à la Dan Graham", confusing the outside and the inside even more, to the point that the possibility of a rational reading of the geometric pattern -converted in a mirage, a labyrinth- would be erased. Perhaps I would relocate, would have to think about it, some of the existing floor-to-ceiling curtains to create "light" circular closures that would double the circles in the external paving in strategic inner locations. The pavement would also be "soft" and warm: it would be covered with carpets, rugs, cushions and pillows made with colorful exotic fabrics from non-Western cultures. You would have connections everywhere, as in Superstudio's Supersurface, to plug in phones and tablets, laptops, and you would have books, crayons, musical instruments ... As Cedric Price and company in their proposal for a non-plan urbanism, I would take care not to define any use, but I would schedule discussions, meals, dances, performances and concerts. The community (or group) responsible would be spontaneous, diverse, transnational and changing, and there would be no close nor key. You could move freely through and everyone would be invited to propose and explore possible destinations for the building -for architecture- as available infrastructure, as open semi-self-organised "natural" landscape, as a monumental inhabited Piranesian ruin. You would have a radio program and maybe a TV channel. Video cameras everywhere would permanently and uncensoredly project offline everything that happens within over the building's outer fragmented shell on contact with the urban fabric, without ever recording it. I would have to think twice and better work on this "score", but its goal is clear: to turn this building into a kind of garden or semi-covered park, a space for contemplation, for recreation, thinking and curiosity, fully accessible and open; a giant ruin-follie constantly changing under uncertainty, an agonizing and performative landscape for the orphans of architecture -of culture, society- and their conflicts; an infrastructural-interface at the disposal of the imagination, the celebration and the meeting between the not necessarily related or similar.
A good (non-architect) friend who does not know Le Corbusier and Venice suggested that this building could become an extension of the nearby hospital, where he was born. I found it a great destination. Another friend suggested that a shelter for Syrian refugees could be enabled, thus rescuing its human dimension. However, the only thing I can wish for this place is a (poetic, politic?) cathartic intervention that radicalizes the shadows that surround the building until making them shine, as if the building -architecture- was performing its own requiem. There is a problem of managing the use of the building, but the good management of its use is not the problem. I do not think that promoting an adequate use and filling the perfect container with it is going to take us out of the abyss. Nor is it a question of reconciling what exists with needs running. Freezing architecture in time is an ominous way to protect it. Architecture is to be completely redefined as a form of agency by virtue of its mediation in heterogeneous relationships between humans and which are not, between nature, society, culture, technology, communication and training, to the extent that the distinction between use and architecture, container and activity, is found absurd. We have to work on surfaces, materials, limits, activities, emotions, desires, and assemble them into heterogeneous interfaces. Only from here, in my opinion, can we begin to discover what our options are in a situation that for many of us is turning tragic.
Vibok Works is an independent editorial practice devoted to promoting critical thinking and discussions on architecture and the built environment through books, exhibitions, installations, debates, and other publishing formats and projects. Our works are conceived of as long term experiments that combine editing, research, art, architecture, design and narrative.