Hendrik Petrus Berlage: Father of Modern Dutch Architecture

Bethany Stuart

Widely acclaimed as Holland’s first Modernist and the founding father of modern Dutch architecture, Hendrik Petrus Berlage was an artist, designer and philosopher whose groundbreaking ideas drew influence from American Modernists and “practical aesthetics”. His instantly recognisable, simple designs placed emphasis on a sense of purpose and community. Culture Trip explores Berlage’s work as it developed throughout his career.

Hendrik Petrus Berlage once stated: “Is not culture the accord between a spiritual core, the result of communal aspiration, and its reflection in material form, that is to say, art?” More than an architect, he was a social commentator constantly striving in his work to create spaces that fulfilled a cultural and political purpose. His philosophy had at its heart a sense of community, a fusion of function and spirit that he coined “practical aesthetics”. His concept of style was synonymous with culture, and he described it as an “expressive vehicle for artistic thoughts”.

Born in Amsterdam in 1856, Berlage spent his early life with aspirations of being a painter. However, inspired by the “lingering ghost” of Gottfried Semper – writer of The Four Elements of Architecture (1851) and designer of the Semper Opera House – he turned his attention to architecture and enrolled in the Zurich Institute of Technology. In 1881 he returned to Holland after travelling extensively around Europe and began his career alongside Theodor Sanders at the prolific architectural firm Charles L Thompson and Associates.

Throughout the period 1886-1909, Berlage wrote a series of essays intertwining architecture within his philosophy of practical aesthetics, later compiled by Ian Boyd White in Hendrik P Berlage Thoughts on Style. This demands that we consider his work as a product of his theoretical ideals. In particular, he feared the recurrence of the rise of individualism, as found in the Renaissance period, because of the way in which it redirected focus from a sense of community to the individual. Berlage felt that society had, in some way, lost the spiritual values which tied communities together, and thus his architecture focussed on regaining this by returning to Classical Greek and Gothic European epochs for inspiration: “The first denotes an artistic height that the world can hardly hope again to attain; the second, at the very least embodies that complete artistic independence and that absolute artistic ethnicity that are basic conditions of any stylistic era.”

Berlage’s work represents a melting pot of these two eras.

One can see Berlage’s style develop through four different phases, starting from his work as a student and ending in a series of significant projects inspired by his visit to the USA in 1911. However, in all his work we can see at its heart this fusion of architectural function with social utility.The second phase of his development (1890 to the beginning of the 20th century) sees Berlage at his most innovative, fulfilling his desire to enrich function with spirit. The Beurs van Berlage, the old Amsterdam Stock Exchange (1898-1903), is arguably Berlage’s most famous work and set him up to be the undeniable leader of Dutch architecture by affirming his own unique style. With its simple striking exterior located in the centre of the city, Berlage asserts his practical aesthetics using Romanesque brickwork, drawing from the work of American architect Henry Hobson Richardson. While decoration is sparse, the main focal point is the clock face on the tower, which reads “BEID UW TYD” (“Bide Your Time”).

There are three sculptures on the corners of the building of heroic figures from Amsterdam’s literary and economic history: Gijsbrecht van Aemstel, a 13th-century lord who was later immortalised by a play of the same name by Joost van den Vondel; Jan Pieterszoon Coen, a key figure in the Dutch East India Trading Company; and Hugo de Groot, a philosopher, theologian and jurist from the Dutch Republic who wrote Mare Liberum, an important legal doctrine that refers to the “freedom of the seas”. By incorporating these figures into his design, Berlage juxtaposes trade with the very foundations of Amsterdam and adheres to his focus on communal function and productivity.

Inside, one can see evidence of Berlage’s classical Greek influence from the rows of arches on each side, contributing to the idea of “beauty in eurhythmy” – the aesthetics of clean geometric order. These surround a large functional hall that until 1997 housed traders but is now used publicly, for instance the old Corn Exchange has been renovated for use as a concert hall, epitomising Leo Simons’s description of the building as “the meeting place of the community”.

However, from its genesis the building of the Beurs van Berlage was surrounded by controversy. Berlage’s emphasis on walls – “the naked wall in its simple beauty” – dictated the building’s vast and flat design, indeed the windows were all that broke up the walls and even they were described by the architect himself as being “installed only when necessary, and then in appropriate space”. To the people of Amsterdam it was a monolithic structure, taking over the skyline and standing out harshly from the more traditional surrounding architecture. Nevertheless, while at first it largely received criticism, it is now considered as marking the starting point of the Modernist movement. Furthermore, this controversy contributed to Berlage’s growing international profile and put him firmly on the map, allowing him to progress to further achievements.

One other such achievement is the Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, built in The Hague in 1934 and thus in the final phase of the architect’s stylistic development. This is a period when Berlage was especially influenced by American technology and design, and he found particular resonance with the Larkin Building in Buffalo, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. This incorporated frame construction, flat roofs, red bricks and the ‘soberness’ found in his own work such as the Amsterdam Stock Exchange. Berlage commented: “I left convinced that I had seen a genuinely modern work, and I am filled with respect for the master who created something that to my knowledge is without equal in Europe” and sought to replicate Wright’s creation in the Gemeentemuseum. We can see this in its use of cuboid and rectangular shapes, minimalist interior, “exposed frame, modular grids and flowing plastic interiors.” The museum still houses contemporary art and is famous for its collection of Mondrianartwork.

Whilst his buildings still remain as iconic pieces of architecture, Berlage’s work also had a greater lasting impact, heavily influencing the Amsterdam School. This was an Expressionist movement led by architects of the Eduard Cuypers firm that stretched across the period 1910-1930. The movement linked architecture with socialist ideals and largely focussed on public structures such as schools and housing estates. By developing vast areas of the Dutch cityscape we can see the offshoots of Berlage’s own work and attribute the origins of this revolutionary style in his own modern philosophy.

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