Grid & Rhizome

Wiel Arets, An Alabaster Skin (Rotterdam: 010 Publishers, 1991), 37-47.

The new buildings for the Amsterdam School of Arts need to accommodate a diversity of functions. The client wishes the complex to express the unity newly attained by the school, which at present is spread across several premises in the city. This unity is important, for the fusion of the various faculties should have a recognizable countenance. Diverging faculties in the fields of film and television, dance and theatre, music, architecture, painting, sculpture and museology will enter into a collaborative context and the accommodation they share is to bear this out. This new unity, however, should be so achieved that the autonomy of each faculty is maintained. The crux of the matter, then, is unity in diversity, and this we have set out to express in our design.

While the School wishes its design to show unity in diversity, the city of Amsterdam, on the other hand, wants something to rivet the attention of its inhabitants, guests and tourists. It wants to offer its citizens and visitors something that adds harmoniously to the tradition so illustriously present at this location, but at the same time to show that Amsterdam is right in the middle of modern-day life. Hence investigations into the historical background and morphological structure of this place in the city are supplemented by analyses of the traffic streams that slice through it, and of today’s patterns of communication which here must permit intelligent contact between people.

Traffic streams, communication patterns–everything to do with circuits, circulation and social contact is essential to the design. Indeed, this is where relationships between people find expression. Here it concerns an art institute for higher education, with its efficient operation as a binding element, and because of this, we have paid extra attention to developing routes and paths between the buildings which express nothing whatsoever of hierarchy and ensure that users have the space to meet each other at will, yet guaranteeing their ability to work in silence and seclusion on artistic activities. The issue of how organizational and managerial aspects of culture could best be combined with artistic inspiration and production has been the continual point of departure for our design.

As for the design itself the first step it takes is to demolish the ‘Maupoleum’, one of Amsterdam’s university premises. In its place will come an elongated, explicitly horizontal building with only half the breadth of the Maupoleum. The new block is clad in an mantle of stainless steel and is so designed that it appears to float; below it is a view through, which renders visible part of the concentric rings of canals, at present obscured by the Maupoleum. The harmony between the canal rings, Jodenbreestraat and the square (Mr. Visserplein) is thus restored. Below the building is a car park whose roof is a grid in glass block.

The strip parallel to the new building, between it and the canals, form the main access to the locations on the square. One descends by one of several escalators to reach the entrances to the various blocks on the square from a number of moving pavements.

Projected to stand on the square and extending the line of the building on Jodenbreestraat are a pair of slabs; facing these are three towers. All differ in breadth, height and volume. Each is constructed in concrete with facades of glass block, clear glass in steel sections and corten steel. The latter material provides grids with shutters, behind which are frames containing clear glass, which can be opened. The ensemble is split into two by Muiderstraat and Jodenbreestraat, which together form a perfectly straight axis; the Zuiderkerk graces the sight line along these.

The slabs and towers occupy inner courtyards off the square and each has its own surface level: the lowest floor of each is at a different height. All entrances, however, are at 14.40 m below ground level.

At the entrance level each tower has an inner courtyard, which not only admits light and air but also can function as an outdoor area. On reaching the entrance to one of the buildings by a moving pavement, one has a view though its glazed lobby of the inner courtyard bathed in light form above. Thus at the entrances one is welcomed by the materializing of a light that shines through the building and seeming to continue into the Earth, makes its transparent strength felt.

Besides our interpretation of the requirements relating to its setting in the city and the wishes of the client, three aspects played a prominent part when realizing the design: the location, the traffic and the complex’s allocation as an institute for education and culture.

The location is a square, Mr. Visserplein, which might be considered the second heart of Amsterdam, after the Dam. Whereas at the Dam we commemorate the victims of the Second World War, here it is the February Strike (held in 1941 as a protest against mass arrests of Jews in Amsterdam) that we remember. It is in every respect a place of commemoration, of remembrance and of what is now no more. Here once stood the bustling Jewish Quarter, now it houses the Jewish Historical Museum, and the Portuguese Synagogue. The museum shows us what has vanished, but the synagogue is still the place where the imageless God of Judaism is worshipped, the place where the Scriptures, the Book and the Law refer to a culture of absence. Both buildings represent the diaspora, the uprooting and dispersion of the Jewish people. What we have here, then, is a place of disappearance, of what was, of absence; not, however, in the sense of a thing consigned to obscurity, rather of something that lends direction to our culture and history.

In the present situation the mood this square should reflect has been tainted by the traffic that relegates the monuments standing there to the level of décor. In a certain sense the effect of traffic on this place is the same as that of the war and the demolition during the postwar period of reconstruction. In now addressing ourselves to restoring the square’s monumentality and regrafting this area to the city, we cannot simply ignore the traffic as if it didn't exist. On the contrary–the issue is to integrate the traffic on the square into the monumentality of the place and see to it that the new school block amply reflects as much our culture’s present as its past.

This is even more valid when considering the building’s function. The Amsterdam School of the Arts wishes to allocate there its dance, theatre, film and television classes. Film and video are particularly concerned with the modified conditions of our perception. These art forms are much more than the expression of our individual artist. Indeed film and television have so influenced our way of seeing and of interpreting what we see, that it is safe to say that they have radically transformed our entire lifestyle.

Consequently the design for the new school block has to take into account the monumentality of the setting, its commemoration of what has departed, and departure itself. Nor must the present be overlooked, the accelerated perception generated by the traffic and the ‘cinematic effect‘. Moreover, also needing consideration is the change in reality wrought by film as a medium. Film and video do not supplement reality as much as decide how we perceive that reality and how that reality appears to us.

In the final analysis this design has to do with making a statement about our culture, about what we understand by culture and how we experience it. The theatre plays an important part here. We only need to think of Brecht and Artaud to realize the high expectations we have when drama is to be understood as a means of acquainting ourselves with our society and our ability to alter and improve that society. Traditionally the theatre has been a vehicle for collective reflections about the nature of our culture; a place for reflecting on who we are and what we are doing. Culture is usually perceived as a medium for establishing sense and lending meaning and we consequently expect from it the indicative, expressive gesture. With the theatre of the absurd in general and Beckett’s plays in particular however, it has become apparent that culture could well be something entirely different, something involving futility and loss of meaning, the concept of the void and disappearance, in short the depletion of the very essence of humanity.

We want our design to conform to the existing city and remain open to the dynamics of change taking place there. To this end we have carried out a historical-morphological investigation into the urban fabric and the present structure of the place in which our design is set. Two key concepts form the crux of our analysis; the grid and the rhizome.

The term rhizome was developed by the philosopher Gilles Deleuze and the psychoanalyst Félix Guattari to introduce a notion that does justice to the chaotic nature of modern life. Their point of departure is that the world cannot be reduced to a single entity nor thought to a single word, but that multiplicity and dispersal should be met by a new philosophy. In this philosophy there are no authorities and hierarchies, and democracy is characterized not only by the principles of equality, consultation and equal representation, but over and above that by the proliferation of interlinking strands of production, commerce and desire. For such a proliferation, for which there was no existing word, Deleuze and Guattari introduced the botanical term rhizome.

A rhizome is a root like stem that emits both roots and shoots without beginning or end, and without a centre. Unlike the more familiar formation of, say a tree with its roots in the soil and its crown in the sky, unlike the hieratic principle of origin and the vertical principle of authority, rhizome is emblematic of the irreducible nature of the plurality of our experiences, the uncertainty–rated a positive challenge–of life’s surprises and the horizontal nature of the exchange, an aspect decisively important to democracy. For Deleuze and Guattari Amsterdam is the example par excellence of a rhizome-city, because Amsterdam is the product not of a single idea, a single central perspective or a compulsive rationalism, but a proliferation of labyrinthine canals and alleyways, a combination of intense passions with the most calculating spirit of commerce.

While the rhizome concept does not so much emphasize the irrational as it does that which transcends reason and derives its right to exist from passion and desires, grid is a word that speaks of rationalism. Here it is an unoppressive rationalism which recognizes in the pattern of the grid a religious basis; the grid perceivable in the windows of the Portuguese Synagogue, in the windows of the Zuiderkerk by Hendrik de Keyzer, in the austere facades of the Zeemagazijn (the former arsenal) by Daniël Stalpaert, (now the Amsterdam Maritime Museum) and of the former Orphanage of Van der Hart, now an old people’s home. Time and again this grid speaks of the materializing of a light coming from God, though from a God who has withdrawn form the world, who by His absence has left man in the white, imageless asceticism of his commerce and his work. This is why Amsterdam, perhaps more than other cities, was a meeting place for Jews and Protestants, people for whom God revealed himself not in images but in the Scriptures, for whom God was represented on Earth not by reconciliation but the Law–people for whom belief was a matter of waiting. Democracy, as it has developed in these societies of belief and commerce, knows no hierarchy, but unfolds in the transparency of the light. It is for these reasons that grid and rhizome are key concepts in our design.

And so during the realization of the design, reflections on the difference between above and below ground played a role. Building below ground is something very rarely resorted to in Amsterdam, because of the level of the water table. Here, however, we were faced with an existing tunnel with above it, an underground square. This facility is utilized in the design by so choosing the surface level at which pedestrian activities take place, that from it the underground section can be seen below and the aboveground section above. The ground datum for pedestrian activities is ‘vectorized’, in other words it expresses a direction and a movement. This oval, this ellipse, is orbital–that is, it is comparable to the orbit of a moon around planet and functions as much in time as in space. The resulting dynamics of the plan accommodate the dynamics of the traffic stream, accepting the existence of the hectic and chaotic traffic while at the same time expressing how the visual pathway and our way of seeing things, both of which have been modified by new media and technologies, are integrated in the design.

Traffic has been integrated in the design too. However, this does not mean that we expose the users of our buildings to it. On the contrary, the traffic there is accepted and the design conceived as something that latches onto its presence–the complex is treated as subordinate to the road rather than vice versa.

The buildings are so designed that they banish the noise of the traffic while retaining a view of it. So one can look at the traffic without it being disturbing. This means that the energy, normally employed to protect and arm the user against the momentum of traffic and city, against the confusion of the metropolis bombarding the retina, can be used for other purposes. By accepting that metropolitan reality for what it is, the design strives for a tranquility that will lead to the meditative and contemplative mood befitting an art academy and cultural institute.

For here peace and quiet is of the essence. Indeed, without it is impossible to create art or exchange ideas. Should one need to meet others with the intention of creating art works, however, then the technological innovations and metropolitan reality must be confirmed, though at the same time kept at a distance.