After a decade of experimenting with elementary forms and their interrelations, Aldo Van Eyck’s views manufactured in an iconic building, the Amsterdam Municipal Orphanage. He has created a building with many in-between conditions to break down the hierarchy of spaces where we have equal amount of negative spaces from the positives he has formed.
The Orphanage is established by the large dome-shapes, the axial lines of the grid generated by the small domes, and the axially placed doors. The focus of the interior court is a circular seat marked by two lamps, which rather than occupying the geometric center of this space, is shifted four meters or so diagonally from it. From there, the settlement fans out centrifugally in all directions. It merely provides the initial impulse for the two interior streets, which branch out in contrary zigzag movements, to give access, via interior and exterior courtyards to the various units. Consequently, a central perspective in no way binds the residential units that unfold along these streets together.
They shift in relation to city rooted as much in the classical as in the modern tradition. The classical tradition resides in the regular geometrical order that lies at the base of the plan. The modern one manifests itself in the dynamic centrifugal space, which traverses the classical order. The archaic tradition shows up in various aspects of the building’s formal appearance. The geometrical order of the building is articulated by a contemporary version of the Classical Orders, composed of columns and architraves. The columns are slender concrete cylinders with fine ‘fluting’ left from the shuttering; the architraves are concrete beams, each with an oblong slit at the center. Their joined extremities give the impression of a capital, though capitals as such are absent. The small domes form a grid that extends evenly across the entire building so that the overall pattern can be read at every point. Along the axial lines of this grid, pillars, architraves and solid walls mark off a number of well-anchored, enclosed spaces: the living rooms and adjoining patios, the festive hall, gymnasium and central court. The ‘rear’ of the units that back on the north consists of an unbroken, solid right-angled wall, their south-facing front being a right-angled succession of glazed walls.
The building is made up of 328 small units measuring 3.36 x 3.36 meters and the large units have a length and width that is three times as large as that of the small units. In the quarters for the older children, glazed and brick walls unite in a simple elongated L-shaped space, but in the units for the younger ones, the brick wall envelops most of the domed area and the entire dormitory wing. The glazed walls jut southward to mark out an additional shifted space, upon which, returning to the dormitory wing, they penetrate the building perimeter to hollow out a roofed terrace beyond the columns and architraves. Embodying a maximum amount of both closeness and openness, these units also represent a striking example of Van Eyck’s view that architecture should, just like man, breathe in and out. And remarkably, the ground plan of these interlocking units appears to resemble that of the whole building.
These outside spaces, both large and small, are characterized by a similar centrifugal structure. Similarly, the diagonal direction, which cuts across the orthogonal structure of the whole building, is also recognizable in the residential units. The focus of the interior, a round or square playhouse, is offset diagonally with respect to the geometric center. Furthermore, the main central axes of the domed space are offset by secondary axes marked by the three columns which delimit the open south-east corner of the space.
Together with the eccentric playhouse, these shifted axes give the domed space a diagonal direction that relates to the second, southwards-shifted living room. The perforated architrave combines with the dome into an expressive biomorphic form which, variously underpinned, evokes a changing archetypal image. It may be firmly planted in the ground on two columns, spanning a bay which may be filled in with two-part glazing; or resting on a solid wall and articulated into a pregnant T-shape by an axially placed window or door. As a result, the bays suggest bodily shapes of an explicit symmetry. When linked, the architraves present an equally evocative image. The anthropomorphism and its communicative potential are couched in elementary, purely geometrical forms. They simultaneously constitute the structural elements of the building, and as such they also make sense. The residential units are much like the recurring theme in a fugue, a single theme in various shapes which, linked by modulating ‘interludes’, interlock contrapuntally.
That results in a polycentric building, with an articulation of large and small, inside and outside, in a successions of units, each defined in its own right, while interlocking rhythmically. Underlying this balance is a strictly upheld architectural order, consisting of columns, load-bearing walls and architraves which combine to form a square grid of beams. The roof domes on top of the grid provide a continuous spatial articulation.
This impression is indeed produced by the roof which displays a grid of identical squares. But the conceptual sketches show clearly that this grid was by no means a basic assumption. It did not appear before the final stage of the conceptual process, when Van Eyck decided to cover the building with a structure of domes.