“Is Burgerweeshuis empty? That’s weird. You’d think: wow, I’d be glad to get in there!”, an amazed Hannie van Eyck - widow of designer architect of the Burgerweeshuis, Aldo van Eyck - exclaimed when we visited her in 2012 in the small town of Loenen aan de Vecht . The Amsterdam Burgerweeshuis, a former orphanage , was completed in 1960 and marks a switch in the building style of those years. With the living environment of orphans as a starting point, a building resembling a small town emerged, with ample room for self expression. Burgerweeshuis is a municipal monument – recently nominated as a national monument – but it needs a new function. SteenhuisMeurs carried out an assessment study in order to bring the core values as regards architecture and urban planning into focus, as well as the core values of the interior.
Old newspaper cuttings, archive research into the various renovations, an up-to-date inspection of the building and interviews with surviving relatives of Aldo van Eyck and architects Max Risselada and Jur van Stigt, resulted in a fascinating journey through this revolutionary building in which influences of the African Dogon are to be found. For Paul Meurs, it brought back memories of conversations during his journey with Aldo and Hannie through Brazil in the nineties.
In his design for the orphanage, Van Eyck concentrated on three main themes: ‘A house like a town, a town like a house’, ‘dual phenomenons’ and ‘the intervening area’. These themes, although obscured in some places, are still to be found in the building complex, for example in the inner courts and the raw materials in the corridors (so-called inner streets), the gradual transitions between inside and outside, and the ‘fordable ground plan’. Van Eyck aimed to create a ‘friendly, open home’ with a ‘proportional layout’ that would bring about a feeling of ‘home and safety’.
From 1960 to 1986, Burgerweeshuis was in use as a children’s home. New ideas on orphanages and upbringing came into vogue, and Burgerweeshuis became more and more obsolete. A number of renovations followed, and in 1986 there were even plans to partly demolish the building.
Architect Herman Hertzberger managed to stave off demolition, and part of the building was redeveloped as an office complex. As a consequence, a number of important core values in respect of the structure and the materialisation of the building became obscured. One of our recommendations, therefore, is to set up transformation guidelines for the building, on the basis of the ‘tool box’ with the most important architectural principles and interior elements of Burgerweeshuis. This will result in a directive for redevelopment, so that a variety of programmes for the building can be explored within the limits of monumental acceptability.