A view of the general operational problems within which the VU finds itself

This text is the result of a research I started in 2010 for a course lectured by Koos Bosma. I finalized it during a masterclass led by Wouter Davidts, Alan Smart and Femke Herregraven. The masterclass was called ‘After planning’, organised by VU University, Sandberg Institute and Virtueel Museum Zuidas. The present article was previously issued in W. Davidts, M. Horn, A. Smart, Life After Planning, Amsterdam: Free Spaces Zuidas AIR 2011, pp. 5-12.

Jesse van Winden

A view of the general operational problems within which the VU finds itself. A reconstruction of an architectural development.

Before the Vrije Universiteit’s iconic main building was officially opened by Queen Juliana in 1973, the university used to have an ever-changing number of locations, always about, but sometimes far over twenty, spread all over the city of Amsterdam.[1] From the very beginning, the lack of a stable base and a steady growth of the student population caused the university a constant shortage of space.[2] When from the Second World War onwards many faculties, the hospital and the central library continuously requested larger housing, the university’s board of directors decided to meet a longstanding desire. To acquire a vast location of its own, with sufficient space for all faculties, a library, a hospital and a student campus, which was to be realized in or in the direct vicinity of Amsterdam. Many plots and locations were up for consideration, most of them in the southern part of the city where seemed to be the largest amount of unbuilt space. When the first plot–the later hospital area–on the soil of the present location along De Boelelaan was acquired in 1953, a lot of obstacles had to be passed, including a reluctant city council and financial problems. The university was, until well in the 1960’s, a privately funded institution based on Reformed Christian principles, and subsidies for new buildings where needed in addition to the donations of the members of the VU association and the church. The anticipated soils for the other buildings would be acquired later on, which clearly was the main reason for a slow start of the materialization of the ostensibly enormous university campus. What the directors did not know by that time was that even the plans most ambitious to their capacities weren’t sufficient for the upcoming tidal wave of students and societal change.

In 1953, the newly employed architects A. Rothuizen and J.H. Groenewegen (who passed away in 1959 and consequently didn’t live to see the hospital in operation) were asked to make a plan for the future campus area, even though it would take until 1959 until all anticipated plots were acquired. They were supposed to make a model, but most probably only a spatial development plan was formed (fig), in which areas were calculated for a hospital (A), the Faculty of Medicine (B) and the main building and Faculties of Exact Sciences (C).The photograph being from 1960 or 1961, the urban scheme was changed a number of times until the definitive urban development plan as shown here was conceived 1960 in cooperation with B. Merkelbach, the municipal architect in chief. Since the shortage of space was allegedly most poignant at the former hospital at Valeriusplein 9 in the Oud-Zuid district, the first building to be planned was a new hospital. The university’s board of directors and the Building Commission were only commissioning the construction of the hospital until 1957, when the conveyance of the other plots were in the offing, and after the construction of the hospital had started in 1956. This being mainly a formal issue over which many a struggle with both municipal and national governments had to be carried out, the slow planning of the complex could be partly blamed on the little visionary nature of the university’s building commission, but also on an obstructive attitude of the authorities. The reasons for the latter remain obscure, but the fact that the VU was the second university in town, next to the already established Universiteit van Amsterdam which was municipal, might have been a decisive factor.

When the construction of the sober, functionalist hospital by Rothuizen and Groenewegen had started (fig), the Directors decided that the next projects to be planned would be the Science and Chemistry faculties and the Faculty of Medicine. A commission was formed in which the architects, H.T. Zwiers and F. Dicke, some professors and one director were seated, in coexistence with the Building Commission, from 1957 presided by the influential engineer C.A. Doets. The construction of the equally austere Science and Chemistry buildings commenced in 1960. In the design of these buildings a visionary feature was accounted for, namely the anticipation of a possible raising of the buildings with two stories on the principally realized five. This topping up was executed step by step from the 1970’s onwards. The same goes for the building of the Faculty of Medicine, by the same architects, which was executed from 1964 until 1966, where a two-story raise found place in 1987.[3]

The year 1960 also marked the moment when the architect for the main building was selected in the person of Chr. Nielsen. The faculties of humanities, economics, social sciences, the central library, a restaurant and the administrative offices would be installed here. Nielsen was a relatively unknown architect, but the directors agreed to invite him for a design proposal after strong recommendation of the Rijksgebouwendienst (Government Building Department) and the cognizance of his Reformed conviction, a feature that was very important to the university’s principles.[4] His proposal consisted of two high rise buildings for the faculties and the library respectively, surrounded by a lower rise structure for the restaurant and management administration offices (fig). Nielsen stressed the importance of an open space in the center of the campus, where he projected nothing less than a botanical garden with a car parking inside.[5] More subtly, the inner square was also supposed to be functional in making the various architectural styles of the different buildings less contrasting (in actuality, the aesthetical features of the first buildings on the campus would be rather well attuned).

The most extraordinary circumstance of the fundamental change of the Vrije Universiteit evolving during this period was the spectacular explosion of the student population. Just over 2000 in 1955 and almost 11.000 in 1971, the number of students was more than doubled between 1965 and 1971. In the middle of those years, the promising new main building was only just under construction. No wonder the university’s directors virtually begged the architects (Chr. Nielsen was assisted by Architectengroep 69 from 1969 onwards) to make sure the first twelve floors could be occupied well before 1973. The architects actually succeeded in this by delivering the floors gradually from 1970 onwards.[6] In 1963 however, three illustrative reasons against an accelerated development process of the main building had been formulated. First, the government’s subsidies policy would be altered, and waiting a little longer could provide a larger budget. Second, since the government’s funds were very limited, it was doubted whether it would support an accelerated development process. Third, the university allegedly couldn’t manage too many projects at the same time, thus the ongoing projects were to be finished first. Every time an updated design was finished, it had to meet the approval of the Department of Education, which could easily take six months. Since the Department was also needed for financing aid, the disapproval of plans because of excessive costs was a recurrent problem.

An apparently unaccredited proposal from 1964 shows a forward-thinking but ambitious plan: two more high rise buildings surrounded by a vast low rise body, providing the De Boelelaan boulevard with a long uninterrupted two floor façade, which would arise on a previously open area between an already projected power supply station and the main building (fig).[7] This would provide a sheer infinite amount of space, solving immediate lodging problems for upcoming studies like psychology and social sciences, with which little account was taken in the early phase of the design process. Although a lot of open space formerly projected to be used for car parking would be lost (which in any case would prove to be another obstinate space problem), the actual reason for the rejection of this plan was coincident with its level of ambition: the university’s central administration already had a lot of trouble obtaining all necessary governmental permissions and financing of the existing plans to take the risk of this–to the capacities of the university–megalomaniac but otherwise probably very adequate plan. Even without this proposal executed, the main building would on occupation be the largest building in Amsterdam in terms of floor space: 90.000 square meters. In the model, the chimney visible just right of the center was designed for a waste processing cum power supply facility, which was executed gradually from 1967 until 1977.[8]

After the hospital was occupied in 1963 and the Faculties of Exact Sciences came in use in 1964, a start was made with the building of the student housing complex, Uilenstede, in 1964. Although the original idea was to have student lodging on the campus, not enough soil could be obtained, so a relatively nearby terrain was opted for in Amstelveen, outside the present-day Zuidas. The first lodgings were completed in 1966 by architect L. De Jonge. At the same time the building for the Faculty of Medicine was executed, and was occupied in 1967. As suggested by the 1963 statement on the disadvantages of constructing the main building as early as possible, the moment when the other large scale building projects were in their final phase, marked the moment when the construction of the main building was finally initiated. In the meanwhile though, another building, this one temporary, was erected. Because of its provisory nature it was called Provisorium, and would allegedly provide space for the university’s central administration until the main building was finished. In fact, due to the ongoing shortage of space, it was only demolished in 2002, to make place for the building of the Opleidingsinstituut voor Zorg en Welzijn (healthcare education). In its protracted lifespan, the Provisorium provided lodging for a large number of faculties and services. The building however was only two stories high and contained two large inner courts (fig), and consequently was taking a lot of room while not providing so much floor space. In addition, it obstructed a rather large area which could be used much more efficiently. The Building Commission was aware of this problem already in 1965, yet the shortage of space was apparently so poignant that they did decide to construct it anyway, at the location where a needed building was projected in several plans. In a 1966 plan it was not included, however (fig). The scale of the forthcoming explosion of the student population had clearly not yet settled in the minds of the university’s directors. While the development plans initially anticipated to be completed in 1981, in 1968 the shortage of space urged the board of directors and the building committee to aim for a completion of the main building and the hospital’s Polyclinical Department within five to six years.

Also in 1968 a report on the growth and spatial development of the university was written by Doets.[9] It contains analyses of the development progress, prognoses of student numbers per faculty and indications of anticipated floor space per building, which caused an alarming situation. Decided then, was that not all Economics, Humanities and Social Sciences faculties could be lodged in the main building, and that there would be a condensing policy. This consisted of stimulating (or forcing) teachers and students to cooperate and increasingly share rooms and space. A national guideline was known to be 6 square meters per student. The space in the main building was often around or under this guideline, about four to six square meters. Compared to the contemporary situation at Leiden university this situation was not too alarming, though: Leiden humanities students had to study on 2,5 square meters on average. The scientific students needed much more space: 25 square meters per student.

Another occurrence of fundamental change during this period, were the radical changes in society that were reflected in the VU’s composition and outlook.[10] While until 1965 a vast majority of the students was of Reformed conviction, as fitted the traditionalist Reformed principles on which the university was founded in 1880, in 1970 the amount of Christian and atheist students was more or less equal, and in 1975 there were twice as many atheist students. Also striking is the fact that the amount of Reformed students not only decreased relatively, but in absolute numbers as well. The Christian character of this once very uniform university was disappearing rapidly, and to the administration probably completely unexpected. The ongoing demographic processes were of course a reflection of global societal changes, as where the radicalizing political stances a lot of students started to take. From 1969 onwards, the university’s directors’ and administration’s meetings were frequently disturbed and protested against, and several buildings were occupied a great number of times to enforce changes in the university’s political structure. Whereas the traditional grassroots support of the university was probably quite concerned about the future of ‘their’ university, in 1972 political reforms were eventually implemented. Nevertheless, it took until well into the 1970’s before members of communist parties, for example, where accepted in the university’s management.

Clearly the new university complex with the large main building (fig) was a great solution to problems sheer unsolvable if the university would still have operated from myriad old buildings in the city center. The execution of these plans came almost too late, though. When compared to the equally problematic housing situation at the other Amsterdam university, Gemeente Universiteit (the present-day Universiteit van Amsterdam), it could be said that aiming to relocate all faculties and services to the new location and giving up the old ones may have been a mistake. In the 1950’s and 1960’s, renowned functionalist architect N.J.J. Gawronski designed the new UvA complex of Roeterseiland, with buildings comparable in total size to the VU’s main building.[11] Different faculties would be lodged here, but without the rest of the university moving out of the old city centre. The created space was thus really additional space, not replacing space as the VU’s new area was meant to be. In reality many departments couldn’t be moved to the campus until the late 1970’s. The departments of Pedagogy and Social Sciences were the last parts of the university that were moved from old buildings in the city to the campus in 1988 and 1995, respectively.[12]

The Provisorium would not be the only temporary VU building. Apart of myriad barracks spread all over the area, from the temporary Polyclinical barracks next to the hospital, to the barracks for construction purposes all the way along De Boelelaan, in 1968 the Psychologicum was built. This was smaller than the Provisorium, but it used much of the space left in between the former and the buildings of the Faculties of Science. It remains unclear whether Doets and the directors thought the Psychologicum could be demolished as soon as the main building was finished, but in fact it wasn’t removed until 1990. The same goes for a third temporary building, the Dentorium, where appropriately the Faculty of Dentistry was lodged from 1974. Also this building was located in the ever more crowded core square of the campus, in between the Provisorium and the main building. The initially park-like open square as conceived by Nielsen was turned into a space packed with buildings, sheds and cars, and surrounded by relatively high buildings. The spatial consequences must have been disastrous for the psychological experience of the campus (fig).

From 1970 onwards, when it became all the more obvious that many old buildings would remain much needed, new plans were forged about every two years (fig). Visible here is not only the recurrent fourth building for the Faculties of Social Sciences and Psychology, just as the still not realized Polyclinical Department, but also, adjacent to that, an own building for the Faculty of Dentistry. These plots, however, had been in use as sports fields for a long time and were apparently very hard to obtain. While a building for a Polyclinical Department, designed by Architectengroep 69, was completed in 1984 on the area right opposite of the hospital, it was already spoken of in 1964, and projected consequently where it would appear only after twenty years. There had been sports fields, as there are still now in front of the main building, which was one of the reasons for constant delay, the other problem being the difficult relationship with the city council. By the end of the 1970’s, a permanent building constructed on the corner of De Boelelaan and Van Boechorststraat, called Transitorium 1.[13] The follow-ups Transitorium 2 and 3, a reincarnation of the old plan for a building for the Faculty of Social Sciences, were never executed. Not only a lack of financial means and struggles with various governments, but also the obstructing physical structure of the indispensable Provisorium were reason for the fact that the necessary buildings were never constructed, even though various designs and plans were produced until well in the 1970’s. This way, the university was pretty much stuck without elbowroom, with a constant pressure of shortage of educational space and lack of financial means.[14] Or, as a report from the construction management put it in 1974: “This is not a view of a strategic construction policy, more it is a view of the general operational problems within which the VU finds itself.”[15]

When all buildings of the Scientific Faculties were raised two stories over the course of the decade, some freedom of movement was created. In 1984, the Faculty of Dentistry was merged with the same faculty of the University of Amsterdam into Academisch Centrum Tandheelkunde Amsterdam (ACTA), with a shared building at a different location. This meant that the frustrating attempts at obtaining the space opposite of the hospital was reduced: the building for the Polyclinical Department was after twenty years of anticipation successfully delivered in 1984 (fig), and the Faculty of Dentistry didn’t need a building anymore. When the building of the Faculty of Medicine was also raised two stories in 1987, in terms of space a rather workable situation was finally realized.

The two smaller temporary buildings, the Psychologicum and the Dentorium, were taken down in 1990. The expansion of the student population, although still considerable, was now much less radical and certainly less unexpected than in the 1960’s. For once, the spatial circumstances seemed to be stable and convenient, because only in 2000 new construction activity was put forward. This time, one of the main buildings inner courts, the ‘Filosofenhof’ (Philosopher’s Court) was the location of a temporary building, which is actually still there, depriving the former piazzetta of its charm and semipublic function. Also in 2000, the entrance of the main building was given an update, giving it a more contemporary look, but compromising some of the building’s original plain straightforwardness. In 2003, after the Provisorium was demolished, an Amstelveen building called Embargohal was opted for as examination location.[16] It didn’t take long before protest arose over the distance and the temperature of the hall. Then, another two temporary buildings were constructed in between the main building and the Science Faculties’ buildings, TenT and BelleVUe, for exams and offices respectively. In 2004 the construction of the remarkably styled Opleidingsinstituut voor Zorg en Welzijn had started on the site of the Provisorium, the same place where the building for Social Sciences had been planned during the 1960’s and 1970’s. It was occupied in 2006, but the two contemporary buildings were still needed and are there until now. Apparently, to have different permanent buildings for different departments is more important than having a spatially coherent and open campus, which could at this point rather easily have been realized by finally constructing an oversize building. The space now taken by the Opleidingsinstituut voor Zorg en Welzijn is juxtaposed by a lawn exactly its size. A final ironic twist to this story is the fact that the Benthem Crouwel-designed new building for ACTA (the department of Dentistry, since 1984 a VU/UvA merger), was opened in 2010 on the exact spot where the VU tried to develop a building for its own Dentistry department obstinately from 1970 until 1984. From early 2011, a new relatively low–four story–building, Initium, will lodge the overpopulated Faculty of Law. It was built at the former location of a small park at the back of the main building, next to the easternmost part of the building for the Scientific Faculties.

It seems awkward that even nowadays, with a well-informed, powerful and experienced university administration, the lessons to be learnt from the elongated building crisis in the foundational years of the VU campus aren’t immediately recognizable. Many buildings stand close to one another, some of them not very efficient in creating floor space because of their relatively low rise; temporary buildings partly obstructing the central square; the general impression that many decisions haven’t been thought over with a thorough understanding of future interests; the continuous lacking of a long-term vision, or any kind of solid, well-anticipated master plan…One could argue that the Vrije Universiteit is still an institution that honors its traditions, be they squalid and amateurish, or spontaneous and relievingly disordered.

[1] The annual students’ guides usually came with a city map where the university’s locations where marked.

[2] Unless notes otherwise, the information in this article was taken from the minutes of the meetings by the Board of Directors of the Vrije Universiteit, available for inspection at the VU Archief Bureau, Oud archief. The Building Commission and the various committees for distinct projects apparently had meetings of their own, but minutes are usually not included, and weren’t found elsewhere.

[3] A. Tervoort, M. Völlmar, P. Schneiders, D. Th. Kuiper, Wetenschap en Samenleving. Groei en ontwikkeling van de VU-familie in beeld, Dienst Communicatie, Vrije Universteit Amsterdam, 2008, p. 138.

[4] Another architect invited was Zanstra, whose proposed design (also 1961) was received with less appraisal.

[5] Chr. Nielsen, ‘Toelichting bij het voorstel voor hoofdvorm en situering van het hoofdgebouw’ [Elaboration on the proposal for main features and situation of the main building], March 1961. The text is available for inspection at VU Archiefbureau, Oud archief.

[6] Wetenschap en Samenleving, work cited (note 3), p. 141.

[7] While the model has been lost and no documentation seems to be available, the remaining picture of the model doesn’t say the name of the conceivers but only the date, July 1964. According to the directors’ minutes of October 1964 however, Doets requested Nielsen to make a new urban scheme taking into account a building for a polyclinic department. This scheme seems to have been lost. It this light though, it is possible that Nielsen also conceived the July 1964 model.

[8] Wetenschap en Samenleving, work cited (note 3), p. 139.

[9] ‘Inzake de groei en de ruimtelijke ontwikkeling van de Vrije Universiteit’. The report would have a number of follow-ups which are available for inspection at the VU Archief Bureau, Oud archief.

[10] Information in this paragraph is based on Wetenschap en Samenleving, work cited (note 3), pp. 74-75.

[11] Gemeente Amsterdam/Afdeling Ruimtelijk  Beleid, ‘Welstandscriteria Roeterseiland’, digitally published report, February 2008. http://www.bestuur.centrum.amsterdam.nl/Bestuursarchief/2008/Commissie%20BW/Stukken/BWST20080403RoeterseilandCriteria.pdf. Accessed: 12 January 2011.

[12] Wetenschap en Samenleving, work cited (note 3), p. 141. The Faculty of Social Sciences was housed in ‘Metropolitan’, a rented building next to the campus area.

[13] Wetenschap en Samenleving, work cited (note 3), pp. 142-143.

[14] In 1973 a building stop for new projects was enforced by the University’s administration, allegedly because of a lack of funds. See: ‘Inzake de groei en de ruimtelijke ontwikkeling van de Vrije Universiteit, 1974’. Available for inspection at the VU Archiefbureau, Oud archief.

[15] ‘Inzake de groei en de ruimtelijke ontwikkeling van de Vrije Universiteit, 1974’

[16] Wetenschap en Samenleving, work cited (note 3), p. 143.

2 Responses to “A view of the general operational problems within which the VU finds itself”
  1. Great post. I was checking constantly this blog and Im impressed!
    Extremely useful information specifically the
    closing phase I maintain such information much. I was seeking this certain info for a long time.
    Thank you and good luck.

    • Thank you, your’re welcome! I did this research a couple of years ago, and I’m sure there’s more to it in the first place. So if you want more information etc, I suggest you contact Koos Bosma, architecture professor at the VU whom lectured the seminar I research this for. I’m sure he knows of more publications that could be relevant to you. Kind regards, Jesse

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