Art history in the backyard – in memoriam Marjan Groot

This blog entry is part of a series of four which staf members of the VU Art & Culture team have written in memoriam of their colleague Marjan Groot, who unexpectedly passed away on June 3, 2019.

written by Katja Kwastek

While the lockdown measures are attenuated slightly these days, devoting more attention to the local still is a good way to keep your spirits up – and a nice weekend occupation for sure. Luckily, looking out of the windows of my apartment, I have a view not only on a green backyard, but also on some fascinating architectural details. I live in a housing unit of the so-called Amsterdam School. As our block will turn 100 years old within two years, I was planning to delve a bit more into its history for a while already. And a walk in the neighborhood promised a nice break from figuring out teaching plans in times of distancing measurements.

Amsterdam School Architecture

I live in the Rivierenbuurt in Amsterdam, not far from the Berlagebrug, the bridge over the Amstel built by Henrik Petrus Berlage. As is well known, the whole area is part of the so called ‘Plan Zuid’ by Berlage, approved by the city government in 1917.

H. P. Berlage, Plan Zuid, bird’s eye view, 1915, Amsterdam city archive

I just need to go for a five-minute walk to encounter architecture of the three main male pioneers of the so-called Amsterdam School. Pieter Lodewijk Kramer designed the bridge just next to my housing block and Hildo Krop contributed the sculptures and the bridge houses (I still have to figure out what they were used for – nowadays, one of them is being reused as children’s theatre).

The third,  Michel de Klerk, designed the housing complex linking the Meerhuizenplein with the Vrijheidslaan – the large axis which leads to the Berlagebrug.

However, walking from Kramer’s bridge to de Klerk’s complex, I also pass by another facade – which is no less fascinating in style. This housing complex was built by the first professional female architect of the Netherlands, Margaret Staal-Kropholler. Whatever one’s assessment of the strange mix of materials and the use of expressionist, rounded forms in a time when de Stijl started propagating functionalism and straight lines might be (I have to admit that I quite like it) – you can go on for hours to discover new astonishing details of the building, such as the curved windowsills.

Before Plan Zuid: Meerhuizen

I did not go on for hours, however, because I had another question. I have always been wondering how this area looked before Plan Zuid was realized. This is what I found out via a rather brief online research, largely thanks to the great online offer of the Amsterdam city archive. Until the early 20th century, the area of today’s Rivierenbuurt was part of a polder (the Binnendijkse Buitenveldertse Polder). There were only a few country houses at the dike of the Amstel. One of them was the so-called ‘Meerhuizen’, after which the Meerhuizenplein is named.

1897 Amsterdam city map (detail with Meerhuizen grounds) from Amsterdam city archive

Exhibition “De Vrouw 1813-1913”

While it was nice to browse through all these old photographs and images of Meerhuizen in the image base of the city archive, something else was even much more interesting to find out: In 1913, when the estate had already been expropriated to prepare for the city’s development plans, a huge exhibition took place on the grounds of Meerhuizen. Far from being restricted to the old country house, they actually built a whole new set of buildings, pavilions, entryways, and even a little canal and port, comparable to the design of world fairs ( I should include this one in my ‘exhibition machines’ course…). The topic of the exhibition was ‘the woman’ – it was entitled “De vrouw 1813-1913”.

It included work by female artists, but also documentations on the everyday life of women, including in the colonies, and an exhibition advertising woman’s suffrage. It also juxtaposed living quarters as they would have looked in 1813 with a 1913 house. The latter was actually the first commission of Margaret Staal-Kropholler, who, some ten years later, would thus build her ‘real’ housing block more or less at the same location. … and all of this, ‘in my backyard’.

an artist’ colony

If this would not be enough, I also learned that, after the exhibition, and before the ultimate demolition of Meerhuizen in 1920, an artist colony moved into the building. Amongst others, the well know Dutch artists Charley Toorop and John Rädecker both lived here for a while  …  ‘in my backyard’.

Who cares, you might think, what difference does it make that it was here and not some two kilometers further away, or even on the other side of the planet? We could start a long discussion about the pros and cons of localism versus globalism here (one of the books I am finally trying to make time to read these days is Ursula K. Heise’s “Sense of Place and Sense of Planet”), but that’s not what I am aiming for with this blog.

in memoriam Marjan Groot

I would like to end on another reason why all this feels very close to me. It is because, during this brief weekend research, at various moments I came across research of our dear colleague Marjan Groot, for whom female designers and architects of the modern period were a core research topic (it is in her book ‘Vrouwen in de vormgeving, 1880-1940, that Margaret Staal-Kropholler receives due attention, as an example). It would have been great to be able to discuss all this with her. And I am sure she would have been able to add many more aspects to the story. But sadly, this is no longer possible. Marjan passed away, unexpectedly, a year ago. This is why I decided to dedicate this blog entry to her.   

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