Architecture of the World: Het Schip
It is no wonder that during their travels, a number of friends and colleagues have been fascinated by Het Schip, a unique building in Amsterdam. I first learned about Het Schip while taking Vincent Scully’s course at Yale on modern architecture. In fact, I chose this building as the focus of my term paper. I was intrigued by the use of expressionism in design and materials in the architect’s artful solution to an urban concern: how to improve the housing of workers migrating from rural areas to the city of Amsterdam. The workers lived previously in tenement-like conditions, much like the European immigrants of the Lower East Side at the start of the twentieth century. The challenges of such crowded, dark, unsanitary living quarters in New York are vividly preserved in the city’s Tenement Museum. As an architecture student, I was particularly interested in alternatives to the design and social limitations of public housing.
Michel de Klerk, the architect of Het Schip, designed bright, individuated apartments to enhance workers’ access to the practical and artistic amenities of life. Modeled after the standard Dutch country house, each apartment contained rooms branching out from a center hall. Living and dining rooms faced the street, while bedrooms faced an interior court. To provide a social meeting place, a large central courtyard included private gardens. A tower on the exterior of the building was intended to symbolize the unity and strength of the workers who lived there. The Art Nouveau influences in the design are powerful and resemble features found in Gaudi’s biomorphic apartment buildings in Barcelona. Het Schip’s main entrance suggests an African mask, much like the abstractions in Picasso’s work of this period. Anthropomorphic details abound in this building: doorways read as mouths; small stairwell windows suggest eyes. The inventive use of curves in the brickwork, which dates back to 1923, remains an architectural marvel.