The Formwork


H.P. Berlage: Main Hall and Coffee House, Stock Exchange, Amsterdam 1903

Built by Hendrik Petrus Berlage between 1896 and 1903, the Amsterdam Exchange was immediately identified as the national monument of the Netherlands. The building collects suggestion from either the semperian tradition, either from the Viollet-le-Duc structural rationalism which were the starting point of the Modern Movement. The four different fronts create a strong relation with the city, changing their composition scheme according to the conformation of the public space: the southern front overlooks a square, the western is on a main road, the northern opens onto a canal, and the eastern faces the historical part of the city, with a long and narrow street.
Starting from the distribution of an office building, Berlage saw in the egalitarian labour relations the condition for the space development. That is the reason why he was inspired by the medieval squares, where free men start equalitarian connection.
Spatial simplicity, structural truth enriched by Berlage’s amusement for the construction and symbolic representation about communitarian ethic: Berlage translates in architecture the aim of the working class movement between XIX and XX centuries, that found in the Netherlands a political reference.
The use of composition principles based on the building process moves the attention to the space usability. The use of the brick is exemplary because of its determination, the dimensions and the proportions of each element in the building: only by this material is possible to create a connection between space, structure and symbol. The brick-wall’s essence is the dialectic between construction logic and symbolic abstraction. In the different rooms the walls articulate the envelop to build a mediation element between parietal continuity and the roof’s linear steel structures, which Berlage leaves uncovered inspired by Viollet-le-Duc. The wall alludes to a kind of skeleton absorbed by the envelop continuity.

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Adding columns because of unexpected structural problems

During the construction process there were problems with the ground, so Berlage doubled the number of columns on the ground floor. To underline the nature of the adding as unexpected element, the new columns with their new arches were collocated on a plane behind the original one, maintaining memory and form of the original arch. The stronger presence of stone blocks over the column means the important structural function of the element.

Composing by a grid

The aim to reach objectivity has been developed by Berlage using a grid for the composition of the architectural elements as well as sculptures and different kinds of decorations. The grid is used to determine the position of the main elements, which consequentially determine the position of the others. Two different grids are used for the composition in plan and in section: in the first case a square with a side of 3.8 meters is used, in the second a grid based on the Egyptian triangle, whose proportion is of 5:8. Berlage shows the grids in all his drawings, to educate the observer to find an order that is not immediately evident in the drawings. Grids are also the elements which create a strong connection between interior and exterior walls.

Architecture as an art of bordering space

“[…]the prime importance falls on the wall, which in accordance with its nature should remain flat, for a too strongly modelled wall loses its intrinsic character. The architecture of the wall is therefore limited to decoration on the plane[…]” wrote Berlage in the addendum of the conference “Thought on Style in Architecture”. This approach to the decoration creates a clear and clean conjunction of elements. This criterion is applied also for the sculptures and the bas-relief, which assume the same architectonical value of columns and openings.

Taste for the construction

The variations of the structural elements in the different rooms of the building express the aesthetic joy for the construction that moves Berlage’s project conception. In particular, the choice of different kinds of steel bearing members, from the reticular beam with the diagonal elements which are differently shaped depending on the kind of load they are subjected to, to the parabolic truss that shows how the architect was interested in the most recent building technologies. The colour system is also an instrument to obtain a formal richness maintaining structural clearness.

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