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The Parool Triangle

Not all too long ago Wibautstraat was, in the eyes of many Amsterdam residents, the ugliest street in the city. The broad, fraying backbone of the street, with what appears to be a hotchpotch of modern ensembles, poorly maintained 19th-century residences and urban regeneration carried out in the 20th century without any sense of scale have all contributed to a lack of appreciation for Wibautstraat as urban space. The street was never a ‘classic’ city street, which is the goal of the re-design project currently being executed, but which is nearly resulting in architectonic collateral damage. Until the beginning of the previous century Wibautstraat was a large marshalling yard smack in the middle of the city that, after relocating and reconnecting the rail network to Central Station, remained a gaping, empty hole. After the Second World War an optimistic start in the way of modernist urban planning was made with filling in and adding to the street’s borders to create what was intended to be a green, spacious entrance portal to the city, defined by rows of leisurely ensembles. But similar to so many classical master plans, this too fell victim to passing time. Only fragments were ultimately realised, one of which is the complex of buildings on the Parool Triangle, in the vicinity of the metro station. Here, on the ‘ugliest’ part of the ugliest street in Amsterdam, a technical school designed by the architectural firm De Geus & Ingwersen was erected in 1956. Ben Ingwersen’s admiration for the work of Le Corbusier is clearly distinguishable in the expressive beton-brut architecture of the technical school. Many elements of Le Corbusier’s Unité have been quoted literally: from the pilotis to the brise-soleil façade elements, and from the sculpturally designed roof landscape to the chimneys and ventilation channels incorporated into the design in concrete. The programme of the technical school lacked, through its simple uniformity of shape – the product of more or less uniform classrooms -any reason to develop the degree of variation inherent to the design of the Unité’s façade. However, Ingwersen has given it a twist all his own by transforming the grid of the brise-soleils into a purely geometric pattern. As a result, the façades form an abstract plane and the entire building an abstract volume, of which the programme cannot be ‘read’ directly. The relatively small volume thus becomes a strong ‘immeasurable’ block, which turns the building into a stand-alone element in the open urban space. This stand-alone concept is reinforced by turning the entire block a few degrees in relation to the axis of Wibautstraat. This idea is incorporated consistently into the smaller elements as well. Examples include the cladding of the exterior winding staircase on the north side, designed as a stack of concrete frames that cause the stairs to resemble an abstract cylinder that leaves the exact location of the various floors more or less hidden. Nevertheless, the technical school does not stand as a lost, solitary individual. Together with the Parool Tower and the Trouw building, both designed by Van den Broek en Bakema, the buildings form a cohesive urban architectural ensemble despite the fact that the latter two were not finished until 1969. The technical school’s neighbours were also erected at an angle of several degrees to the street’s axis. The AUP for this part of Wibautstraat made conscious use of this twist and carries the ‘solitary’ position into the modernistic urban space. The volumes have been positioned within the ensemble so as to literally give one another space. This effect was created in part by allowing the lower part of the Parool Tower to recede slightly so that the expressive head façade of the technical school would remain prominently in view. The longitudinal facades of the Trouw building echo the same line. In this way, the three buildings are closely linked to one another on the Wibautstraat side. Apart from the use of the pebble dashed concrete that was popular at that time and that matches them to the technical school with respect to material, the Parool Tower and the Trouw building each have an identity all their own within the ensemble. At first glance, the Parool tower is a compact tower with simple strip windows. However, this ‘simplicity’ is only superficial. The strip windows are interrupted on each façade at one corner, as if the façade has been ‘pulled around the corner’. The upper storeys have been moulded in such a way that the tower does not have a clearly defined roofline. The ultimate effect is that the tower is not an abstract concrete box, but a volume across which the concrete façade has been draped as if it were a piece of fabric rendered abstract. The tower, in its entirety, is placed slightly to the rear from the perspective of the technical school and is connected to Wibautstraat through a sculptural two-storey porch-like construction. Adjacent to the vertical volume of the tower, the Trouw building has a lower, stockier volume. Directly on Wibautstraat the eye is drawn to a low, elongated façade. Beneath the façade’s ink-black cladding an uninterrupted glass plinth afforded a view of the printing presses set up inside. Above this were two layers of offices incorporating several details typical of Van den Broek en Bakema, such as tiled gutters in parapet elements of pebble dashed concrete. Other aspects that will be recognisable to architecture students as designed by this firm are the plastic steel window frames with transparent and translucent strips. Next to the relative ‘exuberance’ of the technical school the Parool Tower and the Trouw building are not spectacular and, to many people, represent the apex (or nadir, as you will) of boring concrete block architecture. However, the buildings exude an understated but professional precision and present a self-conscious, concession-free materiality that will nevertheless still instil a tinge of jealousy (albeit secretly) in every architect. As if there are not enough vacant lots in Amsterdam, the municipality is now releasing Wibautstraat from its title of ‘the ugliest street’. In the plans, which were embarked on several years ago, demolition of the three concrete buildings was deemed ‘inevitable’. Collateral damage of urban improvement. The proposals for the new buildings are ready, positioned in an orderly fashion along the sewer line (newly invented). However, the three buildings still remain standing today. Despite the status of Amsterdam’s ugliest building – as judged by some of the city’s residents – the technical school was spared through its inclusion in to a list of one hundred young heritage buildings. The Parool Tower and the Trouw building are still standing, saved by the fact that construction of the new buildings planned by the plot’s owner, Stadsgenoot, proved infeasible, and will remain standing due to the current recession. Who knows, perhaps the two will also be listed – even if only because they are part of the oeuvre of one of the Netherlands’ most significant post-war architectural firms. Of course, it is difficult for us to imagine that this type of nineteen-sixties and seventies pebble dashed concrete architecture will ever achieve the status of cultural heritage, but that is, of course, just a question of time. As long as the entire ensemble can continue to play a spatial as well as social-economical role in Amsterdam, the Parool Triangle will continue to be valuable, even without this ‘status’. And it is. The urban open-heart surgery initially provided for on this site suggested that the area was in its final stages of decline. But nothing could be further from the truth. The technical school has undergone renovation works and will be taken into use next year as a grammar school. And the Parool Tower is a busy workplace where many – often young – and innovative entrepreneurs contribute to consolidating Amsterdam’s competitive position. The Trouw building now houses “De Verdieping”, an appealing and low-threshold venue for meetings and debates. What is needed here is a subtle type of ‘endoscopic’ urban development that will reinforce the qualities already embedded into the triangle through a mix of intelligent measures, renovation, re-allocation and building on various local collective and independently organised initiatives. That this will enable an ensemble of characteristic and (ultimately) aesthetically significant buildings to remain standing is an added bonus.